Seoul’s largest and oldest seafood market, Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, is an extraordinary place. Amongst its avenues and stalls it’s possible to find a barely imaginable range of seafood: giant crabs are dwarfed by enormous squid, huge mounds of prawns sit alongside sea cucumbers. Rays, lobster, giant mussels, clams, snails, scallops, sea urchins and an array of fish varieties beyond my knowledge, spread out as far as the eye can see.
The market opened in 1927 and moved to its current location at Noryangjin in 1971. Earlier this year a brand new version of the market was opened next door to the old market amidst controversy and protests, and not just because it cost $455 million to build. Six months after the new building opened, hundreds of the original stall holders are still holding out in the old building amongst accusations of harassment.
Sadly, the writing is on the wall. The remaining stall holders are under pressure to move, and the restaurants that once cooked fish fresh from the market for visitors have all gone. The old building has far more character, the new facilities are better appointed and more hygienic, with rents to match. A redevelopment of the old market is planned, which will forever change the culture of the area.
Until the inevitable steam roller of modernity extinguishes the history of the old market, the main problem for tourists is knowing which Noryangjin to visit, and whether it’s worth going to both.
I arrived at the old market first and, after spending an entertaining hour or so wandering around the stalls, decided I’d probably seen enough fish for one day. Defying the reality of modern life, I skipped the new building. Stall holders in the old building were very friendly and, when asked, were more than happy for me to take photos. Several proudly posed with their fishy friends. It was a fun atmosphere.
In a city that is moving at a breakneck pace towards the future, it seems a shame that one of the connections to its past will be lost. It also means the end of a truly working class area of the city, the future of which is likely to be expensive apartments, boutique shops and over-priced coffee houses. Maybe, like in the Steve Earle song, Down Here Below, the stench of fish will remain:
“I saw Joe Mitchell’s ghost on a downtown ‘A’ train
He just rides on forever now that the Fulton fish market’s shut down
He said ‘they ain’t never gonna get that smell out of the water
I don’t give a damn how much of that new money they burn’.”