Returning at the rush-hour-end of the average working day for those outside, a herd of people shuffle through Noryangjin metro station. Nothing unusual for a rush hour it seems, until you see much of the traffic is being directed away from the metro station. A bridge above directs a migrating stream of business men and youthful couples towards an evening meal at the market. I had returned with a local friend who helped to bridge a few of the unanswered questions and to clarify some assumptions before we sat down to eat. The first aisle that greets you is really a highway of activity. It serves as a shop window for the less initiated tourist who dares not get lost in the depths and stay on the well trodden path. But here is also where the most commercial sellers are, the most sociable, the seasoned pros. Here people have the time to interact away from maintaining their stall, also with one eye on what is here now being gone later. Many faces are familiar to the daytime. Clocking up to 12 hours or more with no sign of leaving is par for the course here.
A lady who approached, looking to sell me some enormous crabs she was holding asked if I spoke Chinese as I never responded to Korean. I asked why the assumption and in basic ignorance I asked “Why not English?”. She explained to my friend in Korean that many Chinese who live in Seoul regularly come to the market for their food. So it is more important to speak comfortably with regular visitors and have a rapport with them. She added “Most foreign tourists tend to come to the market as a guest with locals or just for curiosity. We accommodate the less adventurous people by preparing sashimi plates, but to experience the variety of seafood and know what it is, a tourist is more likely to need a guide”. The smart business ideals come out of practical sense. Even more logically you’d have to ask “Where one would find the time to learn?”
After purchasing a dozen or so grand sized shrimps she said we were welcome to come back when we finished looking around and we could go to her restaurant. I asked “Who works there?” which she replied “my son” with genuine pride. To conclude I asked if I could take a photograph to which she answered “Yes but I want to with handsome boy”. Ever susceptible to flattery she got her wish and I posed with her.
Further into the market we came across two stalls with a pair of women conversing. Again I asked out of naivety if they don’t mind competing for customers with the same produce? “We get along because we are sisters!” Came the response. Amongst the laughter I quipped “Where are the men to help you?”. Again the reply was short and witty; “Playing homemaker”. It turned out that the stalls belonged to the women and had been in the family for nearly 40 years. Another lady on the aisle pointed out that her husband tended to come and help set up in the mornings for several hours before going to the office for his own job. Men also ran stalls but they were less extrovert, one man-after long discussion and from whom we bought our sashimi from at “friends prices”-passingly mentioned that he would do more of his business over the phone, suggesting the stall was more his office and face in the market.
Returning with our catch we were ushered into the back room where a modest table set up and a shoebox kitchen served some 40 seats. We handed over our bags to be cooked and prepped. After a short time a spread of flavoursome seafood was placed in front of us. It is undeniable the feeling of having a closer connection to food. Over dinner my friend noted that a family friend has some distant link to Noryangjin and occasionally brings by some fresh fish for group dinners. “A lot of people have a loose connection through family and friends. Its handy to know someone, even indirectly, because when you go for a dinner you’re going to eat the fresh fishes” she added. We find it good to know a plumber, or in business terms: accountants and lawyers. Here it seems the priority lies a little closer to the stomach and not administration.
Afterwards your coat may smell of barbecue smoke, your fingers may be covered in lemon juice but it brings into focus how disconnected we are with where our food comes from, what its characteristics are and ultimately demonstrates how disassociated we are with one of the basic functions of human life. Quite simply: to eat is to live. As a microcosm of urban life, Noryangjin manages to combine the human, commercial and social needs of modern lifestyle without resorting to the soulless and sanitised realities we live in today.
In contrast to the recently opened Markthal in Rotterdam, Noryangjin faces the challenge of migrating this history and culture, much of which is progressive into a modern facade. It can take confidence that it has been done before and has the possibility to succeed again, but there are risks of losing more intangible to the human eye. The acclaimed Markthal (at the time of writing is on the shortlist of Design of the Year 2015) has both the opportunity of a fresh start but also the challenge of building the relationships and trust that have carried Noryangjin through the decades and kept people in closer contact with an essential component of life. Time will tell if new ventures such as Markthal will improve our association with food at its source like Noryangjin does in Seoul.
There are no frills in Noryangjin, no landmarks or idillic facades, just a common appreciation that for one to live is to be aware of the simple pleasures of life. A more modernised concept of both ownership and responsibility than is first visible brings people of all generations together to work and eat in a more communal way.
It is an example of how east and west face similar challenges from different starting points. Can Noryangjin aesthetically modernise without affecting its culture and do we have the desire to reconnect with an increasingly distant respect for what will always be one of the main sources of life.
All images are copyright of Byrn Davies.