YEONGJU, North Gyeongsang Province — Chuseok, or Korean-style Thanksgiving, which falls on Sept. 22 this year, is one of the nation’s biggest holidays and traditional markets are probably one of the busiest places, bustling with shoppers and bargainers at this time.
Although the old markets have waned in recent years due to the mushrooming of Internet shopping malls and supermarkets, the “scruffy and down-at-heel” stores are being given a face-lift to present a more modern look.
In Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the Punggi Ginseng Market is nestled in a tidy and clean, modernized building accommodating 45 shops.
Ahead of the upcoming peak season, Lee Hyung-sook, 50, is engrossed in placing her ginseng products decoratively on display. “Autumn is the best season for ginseng since it ripens and becomes firm. Customers can buy the best products around this season,” Lee told The Korea Times.
She seems to be filled with pride in her ginseng grown in the Punggi area that is renowned for its geographical and climate conditions suitable for cultivating the plant. Punggi ginseng has a shorter body compared to that grown in other regions, and contains a higher portion of saponin, known for its health benefits such as cancer prevention and fat reduction, she said.
“It tastes more bitter than other ginseng but it’s very healthy.” Lee has sold products here for 20 years and continues to try to provide good quality ginseng to customers. “In fact, the number of customers has decreased recently. But if they visit here and see our ginseng which is really fresh, just harvested from our farms, they choose to buy. I am expecting Chuseok to help boost our sales.”
The market was first established in 1965 as a regular outdoor site for selling ginseng, apples, peppers, sesame seeds and vegetables cultivated in the area. It moved into a new building in front of the railway station in 1990 as a ginseng specialty market.
Jeon Ok-hee, 59, another stallholder, has run her shop since 1985 before the market was modernized. “I am satisfied with the building because both shoppers and stallowners can avoid the hustle-and-bustle, and weather influences we suffered in the outdoor stalls of the past,” she said.
Besides the Punggi Ginseng Market, Andong Market also offers a folksy but modern place for selling fish, vegetables and particularly “jjimdak,” a steamed chicken dish which originated in the region.
The market is the oldest in Andong, which developed during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) as a place for trading grain, fish and wood.
The inland region is famous for its salted marine products — a preservation method used because it took a long time to transport them from the sea to the area. In the market, some 700 stallowners sell products alongside some 50 street vendors.
Made up of covered arcades, the huge and vaulted structures offer convenience to customers. The market has alleys in four directions — north, south, east and west.
In the eastern alley, shops sell vegetables and clothes, while the southern alley is lined with butchers’ shops and fish stores.
In the northern alley, clothes and vegetables shops are mixed with street vendors selling hand-picked wild herbs.
The western alley features Andong’s indigenous “jjimdak” and other chicken restaurants. Among the chicken restaurants, some have been operating for more than 30 years.
The central alley sells salted mackerel, octopus and corvine, which are mostly used in ancestral rituals in Andong. The place is crowded with many descendants of the ancient “yangban” or noble class and retains a rich Confucian legacy.
The market is also close to the bus terminal and other facilities such as hospitals, schools and government offices.
Meing Cheol-young, director of the department of support for advanced market management at the Agency for Traditional Market Administration, said that it is high time to change the concept of the markets.
“Until 2007, the main function of traditional markets was providing a platform for distribution. But due to the decreasing population in provincial areas as young people move to cities, rural markets have been suffering from a decline in customers. So we had to come up with measures to attract urbanites through diverse channels,” he said.
The government-supported agency has operated various programs to boost sales at the markets and save them from the brink of extinction.
In 2005, the agency launched a “market tour” program that provides shopping and sightseeing packages, linking traditional markets with nearby tourist attractions.
For example, near Punggi Ginseng Market, there are tourist spots such as the Angdong Hahoe Village (UNESCO World Heritage site) and Mungyeong Saejae (mountain pass).
The program offers a good opportunity for outsiders to buy quality local specialties. Under the government subsidies, participants can take part for 10,000 to 28,000 won.
A bus tour includes 16 stops such as the Jagalchi Fish Market, Incheon Fish Market and Yangpyeong Market, and the agency is going to add more markets to the tour route.
Since its inception, some 50,000 visitors have taken part in the program. According to the agency, young people in their 20s and 30s account for 74.9 percent of the total.
“Just visiting traditional markets cannot consistently draw visitors. So we’ve introduced the concept of cultural tours. They are smartening them up by renovating both exterior and internal systems. And it is now working out,” he said.
Also, the products are well packaged and many stores are adopting a coupon system to renovate their old and seemingly inconvenient practices.
In addition, the agency has launched a “culture-tourism markets” project targeting 18 venues across the nation to boost regional economies.
While the “market tour” program is simply featuring the facilities and nearby tourist attractions, the new project focuses on developing new content, and establishing facilities related to the markets’ history and traditions. “But the two projects have basically the same motivation — to reinvigorate their function as tourism resources,” Park Min-sook, manager of the agency, said.
“Traditional markets distribute products on the one hand. But on the other hand, they also display regional characteristics, alongside the history and lifestyles of the local population. So we want to emphasize the aspects of cultural tourism sources at the markets,” Park said.
The agency has set aside some two billion won for each of the 18 “culture-tourism markets” nationwide.
For instance, the agency has selected two markets in Incheon and Busan as “international merchants’ markets,” providing them with convenient facilities for international traders.
Sinpo Market in Incheon, which is home to a myriad of Chinese merchants, will be equipped with a guesthouse and diverse cultural facilities such as a Korea-China Cultural Center and a modern art street linked to the China Town there.
The Jagalchi Fish Market inBusan will be transformed into a specialized center for foreign traders, particularly Japanese merchants. A theater will also be constructed for cultural events and performances to attract tourists who attend the Pusan (Busan) International Film Festival (PIFF).
“We will expand to target tourists from locals to foreigners in the long-term to help them better experience the essence of Korean folk culture and tradition,” said Park.