Saturday, 4 June 2011

Seoul less Asian?

Korea Times had drawn my attention recently to the street stalls ever present in Seoul's landscape. 
They sell everything starting from shoes for women through souvenirs, candies, street food snacks and so on. 

People who earn money this way are usually those who had no other choice but to go on this way of living after they had received just one financial installment on leaving their jobs in the age of 55- 60 which in many cases was not enough to make retirement on installments. Having no other choice these people went on forever Asian tradition- street vending of all sorts. 

It is of course present in all parts of the world, but Europe seems to surpress it due to aesthetical reasons. 

In Seoul street vendor must have municipal permition to have a stand on a certain location. Recently people who had been making their living on these activities had been moved to the dark corners from the main streets. Hidden away they start to suffer losses in their income, some say up to 50%. 

Previously they also did not have to pay any taxes, now the situation changed.

“It’s not just about the drop in sales. I have to pay 100,000 won in tax every month and with material costs rising, I have no way to make ends meet,” said the veteran street vendor who didn’t want his full name used.

Relocation of street stalls had infuriated street vendors. One of the ideas of the local ward office is to move street stalls from the main street in Insa Dong to the back alleys which are obviously less visible. They had organized ongoing 40 day protest in aim to change municipal decisions.

Since it is obvious that the ward office isn’t willing to reconsider its plan, the Insa-dong vendors appear to have no other choice but to continue their fight against demolition workers.

In 2009, Seoul City announced the relocation of around 600 street vendors in Jongno, central Seoul, to seven different specialized alleys connected to the main streets to make the downtown area more pedestrian-friendly.

From my observation it would be more pedestrian friendly if cars or motorbikes had been banned from getting into apparently more pedestrian streets like Insa-Dong alleys. 

There is an aurgument that young people prefer department stores or convenience stores to street vendors, but it is not quite true from my observation. Of course if a department store makes huge action on sales, it attracts customers, but otherwise I had seen several floors near Ewha University simply empty and street vendors and other small shops flourishing. 

Young women also prefer to save some cash and go to underground shopping centers, just like the one which was at Gangnam, but is now closed due to renovation of the station (which wasn't that old by the way). If compared luxury shops at Samsung Street where simply empty with their prices reaching 500 000 KRW for a coat or 200 000 KRW for a pair of shoes. 

When I go down the streets of Warsaw I very often see how the municipal police bans people from selling on the street what they had grown in their small garden somewhere away from the city, or some other people who had no other choice but to try to make ends meet this way. 

Warsaw is a city for rich people only without any offer for middle budget pocket which makes it one of the more expensive cities in Europe. With even 200 000 top richest people out of 3 mln inhabitants who can afford really high prices all the shops in the city can operate, and the invisible hand of the market seems not to work at all. 

Seoul used to be a city with an idea behind it that there has to be space of living for everyone in it. Also the prices of goods had been always adjusted to the average local pocket which I had personally experienced wondering through different corners of the city. 

Also...street vendoring and price negotiations are very old traditions. They should not vanish just because the government wants to make the city look more European. It is not Europe, it is Asia, however modernized, digitalized and developed, it is Asia and it's very core charm is in street vendoring.

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