Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Something I love about Seoul.

In Canada, if you see a steakhouse restaurant on a street, and YOU want to open a steakhouse, you think "Oh. There's already a steakhouse here. I should open a steakhouse somewhere else, where there's a need."

In Korea, instead of thinking "Oh. I should find a neighbourhood with NO steakhouses, and open a steakhouse there", entrepreneurs think, "Oh. I guess this must be a good place to open a steakhouse. Maybe I should open one here, too."

It has been explained to me that the hope is that later, another steakhouse will open there, and another, and soon, that neighbourhood will become known as "steakhouse town" or "the steakhouse district", and people will come from far and wide to sample the amazing steaks on Steak Street, and that the competition will keep prices down, and keep each individual steakhouseiere honest and committed to quality, while the area's new reputation as Steaktown will draw enough extra traffic that you'll make up in volume what you lose in cutthroat price/service competition.

Because of this tendency for Korean shops to cluster, you get neigbourhoods all around Seoul known as "potted plant district", "bulk fabric district," and pretty much any other service or product you can think of, will have one area somewhere in Seoul known as a hot spot.

Another funny thing is the random, TOTALLY random combinations that will converge on a particular neighbourhood -- an area won't have ONLY steakhouses. It'll have steak, cellphones, cosmetics and antiques, all concentrated in a small area, so that within a ten minute walk, you'll pass eight antique shops, four cellphone sales or service centers, five cosmetics shops, and three steakhouses.

My neighbourhood is known for tuna sashimi restaurants and a spicy seafood stew, and there's one little alley with about a dozen barbequed pork restaurants. Also, hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, for good measure.

Here are some other odd combinations I saw walking around today, shopping for a new chair. It's like that old sesame street segment, "One of these things is not like the others", except it's "all of these things are not like the others"

chairs, shelves, home safes, and printshops

(around the corner: textiles, lighters/engraved items, linens, and dried fish)

one block over: sewing machines, (from industrial to home-use sized) wood latticeworks and detailing, electric circuitry

(around THAT corner: more electronics components, power-tools, and porcelain bathroom fixtures, and flooring supplies, light fixtures)

across the street (approaching my house)
trophies, fresh seafood (restaurants), Buddhist icons and paraphernalia (statues, robes, shoes), traditional musical instruments, and sign-makers

(around the corner from that: a neighbourhood with about a hundred fifty shops selling jewelry, jewelry packaging (ring boxes, etc.), gems, and literally NOTHING else. I have NO idea how these places can stay afloat, except that there are just THAT many people living in Seoul, and they ALL go there to buy jewelry.)

(there's even a block near my house that carries specialized doctor's office and laboratory equipment, along with pirated DVDs, watch repair (with electric alarm clocks too), and street food)

The nice thing is that within a forty-minute walk of my house I can find literally ANYTHING I want to buy, for prices that only cutthroat competition could create, but the drawback is that I have to know which direction to walk, or I'll never find it. It's like a Walmart exploded, and then grew copies of each of its parts, kind of like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice section of Disney's Fantasia.

A former coworker swears she once stumbled upon an alley of nothing but prosthetic limb shops. Just imagine. There are enough amputees in Seoul to support an entire block of prosthetics shops, and (the kicker is), instead of planting prosthetics shops in spaced-out locations, so that there's one conveniently close, no matter where you live in or around Seoul, they've all bunched together onto this one little street, to steal each other's customers.

Makes me shake my head.

I love this city! I guess I understand the logic, but it still surprises me sometimes. How many printing presses does one neighbourhood need?



bradj said...

That's a great little insight Rob. I can't even imagine the combined misfortune of having to walk across town to obtain a prosthetic leg!

I've seen that happen with McD's and BK here. They'll gang together to cause micro-pockets of fast food. And big box stores cluster together too, come to think of it. That's like a mini-Seoul on a macro scale!

Roboseyo said...

Yes, I've seen the big box pockets myself -- however, they're usually at least sensible enough to package different types of big box stores together. You'll see a petsmart, a michael's, a future shop and a chapter's in one place, but they're all selling different types of wares. You don't often see a future shop, an a&b sound, and a (was that new electronics warehouse chain called Sense?), or a Links and a Staples, or a Save-on, a Supervalu, an Overwaitea and an IGA sharing a parking lot, which would be more equivalent to what you have here in downtown Seoul.

Personally I hate those big-box bonanza things. They negate any local character a neighbourhood might have had. I feel like that's my biggest complaint about areas like (sorry to you and dan) Langley and Red Deer: the regions expanded so quickly that instead of having time go grow some local colour, they just installed a bunch of cookie-cutter big-box franchises instead. Easier and cheaper than encouraging local businesses to grow. (Some neighbourhoods in Seoul, especially suburbs and areas south of the Han River, are like that too.)

tamie said...

i like this post. it makes me laugh and it is insightful. thanks.

bradj said...

Don't forget the casino. If you're going to bang on Langley for ugly stuff, you gotta include the casino! :-)

Roboseyo said...

Well, (colossus) I (colossus) didn't (colossus) want (colossus) to (colossus) sound (colossus) like (colossus)I (colossus) was (colossus) piling (colossus) on (colossus) Langley (colossus) too (colossus) much. (colossus)(colossus)(colossus)

Alyssa said...

but if you've lived in langley long enough, you know where to go to escape the overly commercial areas and find the colour (this doesn't only apply to langley, but i'm sure any city). however, it's sad that you need to find these hidden gems. it i could count the number of times i would take someone somewhere great and they would say "wow...I never knew this was even here"

it seems though that it is a trend. not just with the big box stores, but with real estate in general. when was a kid, we use to spend our days on this beach in osoyoos we had called "turtle bay." it was like a fairy tale to me cause it had the best sandy beaches and the calmest warmest water and from time to time a turtle would pop up out of nowhere. and i've been skiing and swimming there for the past 20 years. last summer the land was bought, with the plan to develop. this summer i showed up and there was 50-2000s.f. homes on the peninsula (another 75 are being build next year, and a 5 star golf course). they are high end homes going for a minimum of 800K us each, with a strata of over 1000$ a month....they have also taken out a corner of the beach for an 80 slip marina and gas station, meaning that the bay can't be skied in anymore, and excess fuel will now be seeping into the bay. It just another beautiful beach turned sour in the light of real estate development and, of course, the bottom dollar. it's no different than any unique store replaced with a bigger "better" chain brand. it seems like BC (in my experience) is losing is character more and more each day - and it makes me very very sad.