Stitching the 24-Hour City
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Stitching the 24-Hour City

Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul

Seo Young Park

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Stitching the 24-Hour City

Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul

Seo Young Park

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About This Book

Stitching the 24-Hour City reveals the intense speed of garment production and everyday life in Dongdaemun, a lively market in Seoul, South Korea. Once the site of uprisings against oppressive working conditions in the 1970s and 1980s, Dongdaemun has now become iconic for its creative economy, nightlife, fast-fashion factories, and shopping plazas. Seo Young Park follows the work of people who witnessed and experienced the rapidly changing marketplace from the inside. Through this approach, Park examines the meanings and politics of work in one of the world's most vibrant and dynamic global urban marketplaces.

Park brings readers into close contact with the garment designers, workers, and traders who sustain the extraordinary speed of fast-fashion production and circulation, as well as the labor activists who challenge it. Attending to their narratives and practices of work, Park argues that speed, rather than being a singular drive of acceleration, is an entanglement of uneven paces of life, labor, the market, and the city itself.

Stitching the 24-Hour City exposes the under-studied experiences with Dongdaemun fast fashion, peeling back layers of temporal politics of labor and urban space to record the human source of the speed that characterizes the never-ending movement of the 24-hour city.

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Part 1




At around 9 or 10 p.m., all the roads surrounding Dongdaemun market start to jam. Quick-service motorbikes and minivans with big packages, lines of tourist buses with Chinese and Japanese characters on their exteriors, and commuter buses and cars fill the streets. The packages contain freshly made clothes from stitching factories and finishing factories in adjacent neighborhoods. Motorbikes enter the district, a dense cluster of glaring and flamboyant neon signs in the dark. The whole area, full of light, noise, music, and busy movement of people has been repeatedly covered in tour guides and foreign media. Several major wholesale buildings typically operate from 8 or 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., while the retail buildings typically operate from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. the following day. With all fifteen wholesale and retail buildings utilizing different, overlapping business hours for twelve to eighteen hours, the area is running twenty-four hours a day.
The wholesale market reaches peak activity from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., and the streets in front of the buildings and stores are packed with cars and motorbikes from everywhere in Korea—wholesale buyers rush to get necessary items at night, so they can sell the items immediately the following day. Along the dense grids of narrow hallways, hundreds of stores line the floors, where wholesalers talk and haggle with their buyers, sometimes yelling at each other. The retail malls across the street replicate this style of wholesaling—myriads of commodities and stores, informal communications and haggling, and the excitement of unusual shopping hours. Besides the relatively cheap price of clothes in various styles, the urban experience at Dongdaemun market has become a source of excitement for consumers and tourists, who enjoy shopping and music events in front of the shopping plazas (figure 1.1) and float to the wholesale buildings, weaving through street vendors, snacking, and navigating the messy and dynamic landscape that the nearby manufacturing and distribution processes create (figure 1.2).
FIGURE 1.1. Crowds gather for a nighttime performance in front of the retail shopping plaza at around 9 p.m.
Photo by the author.
This is the nighttime scene, the counterpart to the typical daytime routine that I followed with Jiyoung at the beginning of the introduction. Dongdaemun’s ceaseless production and circulation have become an iconic symbol of the dense energy and people of the nightscape of Seoul. It is the spectacle of goods, people, and their sped-up movement in the space. The packages are rarely organized in boxes or containers; rather, they arrive in chunks of plastic wrap and duct tape piled up in the shop fronts (figure 1.3). Each store, a small cubicle of about 3.3–5.0 m2 (often pejoratively called “chicken cage shops,” dakjang maejang in Korean), and the narrow corridors soon become cluttered with these bundles. They are usually carried on bodies—of the quick-service bikers or porters who can navigate the narrow alleys, corridors, and stairs within and around the buildings. After a while, clothes are repackaged and piled in shop fronts and corridors again—now in even smaller bundles, typically in what the workers call daebong (large plastic shopping bags), with jangkki (receipt) taped to them and names of the store scribbled on the bags. As retailers and buyers move fast from one store to the other, instead of carrying them all, they have the wholesalers make the package. The packages, in a couple hours, are handpicked by a quick-service person, who delivers them to their stores, or by jigekkun (a courier using a jige) to the bus station. On the side of the bus station, there are Korean Post Office booths and other private courier companies who accommodate same-day shipping directly from the marketplace.
FIGURE 1.2. Nighttime Dongdaemun, around the wholesale marketplace buildings at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Photo by Euirock Lee.
While not readily apparent in this wholesale and retail landscape, the production labor—including the work of seamstresses and designers—of the garment manufacturing networks has a strong presence, instead of being merely contained within a factory, shopping mall, or plaza or restricted to daytime hours. The intense and swift cumulation of goods and the mobility of people who trade them evidence the sped-up production and circulation throughout the whole day and physically, materially, and affectively tie the nighttime space into the 24-hour cycle. This feature makes Dongdaemun particular and challenges the generalization of the nighttime city by framing it as place of transition from industrial to postindustrial urban processes, often characterized by the entertainment districts in a city, such as the clusters of nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, or galleries that symbolize post-Fordist leisure and a consumer economy catering to the urban creative class.1 The unconventional time-space of shopping and loitering in Dongdaemun became attractive to buyers and tourists precisely because the marketplace merges with the time and space of manufacturing and distribution.
FIGURE 1.3. Nighttime Dongdaemun, by the wholesale marketplace buildings at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Photo by the author.
The marketplace is an open, public space where vendors, customers, tourists, and garment workers merge in urban crowds twenty-four hours a day. The crowd does not merely reflect the number of individual nighttime activities: the presence of these people itself can attract more people to join. Sinhye, a seamstress working in her own home-factory2 in a nearby neighborhood, occasionally walked across the street to the shopping mall areas after the long hours of stitching on the sewing machine all day. Sinhye recalled her past experience selling clothes to retail customers in the nighttime wholesale market, saying, “I felt like I am alive, that I am working for something, being part of these busy people working really hard in the glittering and colorful lights. I am not alone, working hard and struggling for life.” Walking along the allies of Dongdaemun Sinhye tires feel the excitement and energy of the marketplace. Dongsu Go, an officer of the Information Center for Foreign Buyers, described his fascination with the market in the following way: “Whenever I feel lazy, or I find my wife and children are complaining about life, I take them to the market to refresh our minds by seeing the dynamic scene of people working at night.”
This “dynamic scene of people working at night” or the light and energy that Sinhye pursued was common in the descriptions of Dongdaemun that I frequently encountered during my fieldwork: casual chatting with others, reading on social networks and blog posts, and viewing in media representations. Sometimes people recommend you go to Dongdaemun during the peak wholesale time to experience this vibrancy, even though it is a bad time for individual retail customers, who get ignored or rejected for shopping. This vibrancy and excitement over the dynamic movement of people attract increasing consumer and tourist interest and intensify the commodity value of the place itself. This chapter further delves into the varied aspirations and practices in the marketplace to understand how this energy expands and affects other working bodies, as well as the spatial and temporal relationship they maintain with the marketplace.
The atmosphere of the market’s brightness and energy comes from people’s affective reactions and interactions: the immediate sense of the presence of other people working and moving at a fast pace during the time when other parts of the city are dormant. One’s own movement and capacity to come out and be part of the people form a circulation and a motion that creates “public feelings” or ordinary affect (Stewart 2007). The geographer Mike Crang (2001) has argued that being-in-the-world itself is a performative production of temporalized space. The lines and motion, which people inscribe and chart daily or even hourly, create the sense of rhythm and repetition that connects with ideas of routinization in space (Crang 2001, 200). The ones who occupy the city space are not merely human bodies, but also a particular “atmosphere” emerges from these bodies and their interactions. It is this kind of affective atmosphere, not just a structural pattern, that constructs the urban night (Gandy 2017; Hatfield 201; Shaw 2014).3 In a similar vein, I see the work of my interlocutors in this chapter not just as merely an activity of buying, trading, and selling commodities; but rather, in their own practice, interactions, and mobility, they are acting on and shaping the particular time-space of the night in Dongdaemun. Throughout this chapter, I focus on how working people not only conduct their work in this period, but how their presence materially and affectively transforms this market at night (or dawn) into a new sort of time-space of aspiration: their imagined and physical presence is recognized, publicized, and “felt” as a sign of vibrancy, energy, and a mode of being “productive” for people. The value the people produce in this space is much larger than the shift work during extended business hours, and it is a value that is difficult to count within the frame of defined job descriptions and work hours. The overwhelming presence of the excessive amounts of commodities constantly being packed and unpacked, along with the value of the clothes themselves, frames the spectacle of the human bodies in motion.
The work of those people participating in this wholesale night market often involves performances in and of time, as their interactions with other traders and customers change over the course of the day. I explore, in turn, how the knowledge and energy of these interactive performances gets conveyed to and picked up by other people in the space, especially those who learn about clothes and business and turn their desire and excitement toward an entrepreneurial aspiration for their work and life. I argue that workers’ close interactions, dense trajectories of mobility, and aspirations result in animating the city at dark, both for others and themselves. Their fast paces of daily work and life are not merely extended into the night; instead, they transmit these paces to others, inspiring them to participate in and expand the animated nighttime space. The chapter describes microentrepreneurs who connect the marketplace to overseas and online markets, evangelical churches that articulates commercial and religious aspirations, and the state’s desire to brand the city’s nightscape. Despite their different trajectories and tempos of work, people in the market intentionally and unintentionally embody the “hard-work” ethics, affect, and spectacle for others in the 24-hour city.

The Genealogy of the Night

In the early 2000s, a new term emerged to describe the lifestyle that breaks down the division between day and night, the Korean neologism Homo naitekus, often written with the English alphabet as Homo nightcus. Registered as the new vocabulary word of the year in 2003 by the National Research Council of Korea, Homo nightcus suggests a category of people working and playing without a division between day and night.4 Newspaper and magazine articles, as well as posts on blogs and internet bulletin boards, have actively used the word to describe the new constructions of urban life in which nighttime activities are becoming a norm in contemporary South Korea. The term is interesting because its usage varies slightly from that of night owl (olppaemi jok) in that Homo nightcus does not clearly divide day from night.5 Rather than being out of sync with the rest of the world, Homo nightcus are nighttime dwellers who are a part of their own integrated ecosystem in which they are a species with a particular life pattern that fits the environment. In a way, it insinuates the prevalent habitat of 24-hour operating Seoul and its inhabitants together rather than referring to an individual lifestyle and biorhythm.
Yet the term tends to naturalize the structural process through which people have come to work without the division of day and night. The nighttime scene in Dongdaemun is based on the specific history of the garmet industry and urban governance in South Korea. And this local history challenges a dominant and monochronic framing of 24-hour cities (Smith 2003, 567–68), that often focus only on 24-hour financial markets, the leisure industry, and extended business hours. Studies have generally been divided into those that focus on “modern” urban economies that revitalized old industrial city centers such as Manchester (Bianchini 1995; Holland and Chatterton 2003) and those that focus on “informal” nighttime marketplaces in Asia, such as Taipei or Bangkok (Hsieh and Chang 2006). Dongdaemun shows both aspects in its historical trajectory.
The rise of the nighttime wholesale market and the liberating notion of “opening the night” inherent in the nighttime market are associated with the public curfew that used to be a form of social control implemented by authoritarian military regimes. The public nighttime curfew in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. was initially implemented by the US Army in residence in 1945. This surveillance was maintained and extended nationwide in the name of national security in the Cold War context, especially under the authoritarian dictatorship of President Chung-hee Park (1961–1979). Further, in 1973, the government prohibited the usage of neon signs at night as part of its energy-saving policy.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Dongdaemun’s wholesale market competed with other Korean markets, such as Daegu or Ulsan, to become the center of the garment industry in South Korea. To attract more retail storeowners from different regions, it started opening for business at 5:00 a.m., immediately after the nighttime curfew was lifted.6 The new military regime that terminated the dictatorship of Chung-hee Park finally removed the curfew in 1982 to appease the general public. Accordingly, stores in Dongdaemun competed with other markets by opening earlier and earlier. Retail sellers came to the wholesale market at night and then were able to get back to their hometowns early enough to start their businesses in the morning. After the curfew was lifted and other social surveillance was loosened, the market began to open at around nine o’clock in the evening and run until the early morning. In 1987 and 1988, the restrictions on the neon-sign usage and late-night business operation were subsequently ended. In 1988, the first 24-hour convenience store (24sigan pyeonuijeom), an indispensable component of urban life in contemporary East Asia, opened in Songpa-gu, Seoul. As Laura Nelson (2000, 102–3) notes, the rise in consumption itself aroused fantasies that Korean society had become an “advanced nation,” and public discourse touted Dongdaemun as an example of the nation’s historical leap forward into a new industrial phase and liberal social space.
The flexibilization of labor hours in the 2000s accompanied the nighttime extension of consumption sites. The transition from a six-day work week to a five-day work week began in the context of structural adjustment and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout of South Korea. Labor activists led campaigns for flexible and reduced work hours as a way to enhance labor conditions and quality of life in general.7 In 2000, public schools and state institutions initiated the five-day work week, and gradually the corporate sector followed. More service industries joined extended nighttime operations. The newly emerging multiplex movie theaters successfully held matinees at 7:00 a.m. (while remaining open until 2:00 a.m.), franchise coffee shops and fast food chains started staying open for twenty-four hours, and one could even find 24-hour hair salons. Private education industries, such as foreign language classes and exercise programs, became popular in the early morning or late afternoons, with fierce competition for customers in the precarious labor market.8
The emergence of the 24-hour city became emblematic of a trendy, youthful “lifestyle” for people who wanted to take control over their daily schedules without the constraint of traditional workday hours, as suggested in the term Homo nightcus. However, the perspective on nigh...

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