The Two Gates

Hundreds of years ago, eight gates were built to surround and protect the city of Seoul, each of them representing a point on the cardinal and intermediate compass. The ones placed on the cardinal directions were deemed the “Great Gates”.

I visited the nearby sites of two of the most famous of the “Four Great Gates” of Seoul, Namdaemun (the south gate) and Dongdaemun (the east gate). Going along with the theme quite well, both gates are situated in the middle of a bustling city.

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Namdaemun Gate right by a busy road and surrounded by tall buildings

On top of being historical landmarks, however, they are well known today for their bustling markets and street vendors. With this idea in mind, rather than seeking out only the gates themselves, I decided to look in another direction. I wanted to see if there was anything that could be found that reflected tradition and modernity within this idea of the marketplace.

Something that we must remember is that Korea cannot be neatly divided into two historical time periods (as with any country with a long history, of course). There are the ‘ancient’ times and the ‘current’ times, but there is also the time period that got us to where we are– the times where dynasties turned into democracy and  we began to grab a foothold as a ‘developed’ country.

Traces of that recent past still linger as we continue to develop into a technologically booming society, and those traces can be seen in the Namdaemun Market. Typically middle to older aged vendors sell items from their tiny stores that most often spill out on to the street.

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It’s definitely a sight to behold, and these street markets are good locations to hit up if you want a good bargain or have good bartering skills. It’s also a stark contrast from the atmosphere of the ‘market’ that is in Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The DDP itself is described as a neofuturistic “architectural landmark” and supposedly features a lot of modern design related exhibitions, shows, venues, etc.


The space is definitely futuristic, sleek, and modern. When we visited, the most accessible space had been turned into a showcase for designers and, essentially, a shopping area.

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The cool, gray color scheme throughout the interior definitely contrasts with the vivid, bright colors of the outside market and the target audiences seem to differ quite a bit, with the DDP having more millennial consumers in mind.

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It was like Ikea on steroids and admittedly, an aesthetics heaven for me, but I couldn’t help think back to the men and women sweating out there in the streets, trying to make a living selling cheap goods. In comparison, the Design Plaza seemed almost too upscale and… sheltered. Bourgeoisie.

This conflict inevitably comes into play when newer, more exciting things are produced, and the old fade away. And it’s something I’m still reflecting on how to feel. Is modernization stripping away our culture or is it an inevitable and necessary part of growth? I mean, there were some really cool and innovative things on display at the Plaza too, like 3d printing and virtual reality, which are the hot issues in the technology world right now.

My hope is that we continue to evolve as a country but not lose the root of where we came from and how we got to where we are today. Here’s to both the Namdaemun Market and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.


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