Out on the main street by Chilseong subway station sits an elegant marble fountain, where the light reflects gently off the water, playing off the clean marble surrounding it. Yet this piece of architecture is in complete contrast with the dirt-under-your-fingernails reality of the market that lies on the streets just a stones throw away.
A maze of tiny alleyways, boiling caldrons exploding with steam, all the smells you could ever want to experience and some you could probably do without, the engines of the mopeds’ whine as they weave through the gauntlet of people that shuffle beneath the patchwork of tarpaulin roofs, while the pig heads smile smugly at all that pass them by.
An old woman sits on a mat placed upon a wooden floor under the same tarpaulin that shields her fish stall from the sun light that only appeared a few hours previously. The fluorescent light bulbs, however, have been burning away for hours already, lit when the unpacking happened and crates were carried over warped and uneven asphalt, so that row after row of tables could be filled with squid, octopus, flowers, meat, candy, fireworks and a myriad of other items.
Tightly permed black hair sits on top of her drooping face, her gaze is cast downwards at the bowl of kimchi and rice that she is tending to with a pair of wooden chopsticks. Occasionally, she glances upwards at the passers by and prospective customers who weave in between the stalls. After a while, she ceases her investigation of the bowl and it’s contents and instead surveys the scene before her for a little longer. She does so with eyes that have seen decades of change around the market. Eyes that looked upon on the city when there were no highways, when there were no Home Plus or K Marts, when there was instead only the markets like Chilseong. Eyes that surveyed the Korea that existed before the Seoul Olympics of 1988, before the tower blocks and sky scrapers shot up to the heavens, turning the city into a glistening metropolis. Eyes that saw the downtown before it became a flock of neck ties down up ever so tightly and a sea of designer heels with places to be, a time when things seemed more relaxed and simple. Yet these eyes still see some of that old Daegu under this tarpaulin patchwork and the labyrinth of alley ways that lie behind.
To give any accurate directions to such a place is no small undertaking and it is certainly not worth trying to ask elderly female fish merchants unless a blank stare is desired in response. Instead, maybe the best advice that can be given is to simply jump in head first and completely submerge oneself. Buy the ticket, take the ride and see what you can find under the patchwork labyrinth and among those narrow back streets, noodle houses, fish markets, rack upon racks of jackets, scarves, belts, flowers, chickens, hand bags, toys, dogs, cats and just about everything else you could ever wish to purchase.
It has been known for foreigners visiting Seoul to remark that they did not feel like they were really in Korea at all, rather visiting just another big city. Chilseong Market is the converse of this sentiment: it is one of the corners of Daegu that is about as Korean as it gets, maybe how things were before the hyper-modernisation that has kicked in since 88’ , the old Korea. Furthermore, it is brutally honest about itself and consequently maybe not intended for the faint hearted. It is, however, intended those who wish to look through the eyes of the old Korea, which is not forgotten, instead only slightly hidden from view under the patchwork of tarpaulin and the maze of alley ways.
Written and photographed by Dann Gaymer