Stars twinkling in the sky above all night long / Leaves falling layer over layer and piling up / The spinning sewing machine keeps running. The lyrics are autumn parts of “Four Seasons,” a protest song released in Korea in 1989. As the lyrics show, there were many people who did not know that four seasons were passing and who made a living by working in the sewing or garment industries of Korea in the 1960s~1980s, which brought a boost to the Korean economy at that time. However, as heavy and high-tech industries have developed since the 1990s, the importance of light industries in manufacturing has decreased. Nevertheless, there is an area around us that preserves its existence. This area is Changsin-dong, a district of Jongno, Seoul, located near Dongdaemun Station. The Argus walks through Changsin-dong where the sewing industry is breathing and tells the story of its own.
A link between Changsin-dong and sewing
* The backdrop against which the sewing industry could be located in Changsin-dong was the Korean War. After the war, the refugees formed shantytowns around the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which is a long modern stream that runs through downtown Seoul, and they resewed American soldier’s clothes and made clothes with sewing machines on the streets to live from hand to mouth.
* In the 1960s, Korea, which drove its economic development plan in earnest, grew the garment industry among its light industries. As a result, many sewing factories and the wholesale clothing market, “Pyeonghwa Market” was formed around the Cheonggyecheon Stream. However, many sewing factories relocated to surrounding areas because the government’s crackdown on workers was strict in the wake of self-immolating of patriotic martyr Jeon Tae―il*. Changsin-dong was not only adjacent to the stream but also had relatively cheap rent and became the center of Korean sewing manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s.
* Jeon Tae-il: He protested the poor working conditions of the sewing factories in the 1970s
Welcome to Changsin-dong!
Coming out of exit one of Dongdaemun Station, Heunginjimun Gate, Dongdaemun Fashion Town, and skyscrapers were situated around the exit. Also, many people were busy moving around. The reporter turned to the right alley near exit one and could see quite different scenery, which is opposite of the splendid scenery around the exit. Some motorbikes were busily heading places with bolts of fabrics. Also, the old shops with the signs “Sewing” or “Apparel” began to appear one by one. The town, showing these views here, was named Changsin-dong. The reporter entered this area with gusto, starting at an intersection that appears to be the entrance to the town.
The reporter took her first step to learn about sewing
Sewing Street Museum
As the reporter entered the alley on the way to the Sewing History Center, a notice greeted the reporter. The notice introduced the street as the “Sewing Street Museum.” The sewing machine’s sound and the blinding fluorescent light leaked from the windows on the buildings that did not have signs but looked like houses. The motorbikes went back and forth between the narrow alley and left large plastic bags that appeared to be fabric at the entrance to each building. Although the exterior was not a common manufacturing plant consisting of large signboards and steel frames as we know, these clearly were the sewing factories. All those things served as a museum for visitors to Changsin-dong under the theme of sewing. Going straight about 500 meters, the reporter arrived in the Iumpium Sewing History Center.
Iumpium Sewing History Center
As the reporter stepped in the entrance through the basement, children gathered in twos and threes while their mothers drew jeans and miniskirts on papers and cut them. Leaving the sewing experience zone, the reporter went up to the sewing history hall on the second floor. There were numerous frames about Changsin-dong and sewing surrounding the four sides on the walls, and above them were railed garments moving along the rails. When the eyes were overwhelmed by the novel exhibition, Lee Min-ja, a 64-year-old docent, came up and provided an explanation about the exhibition. After her explanation, the reporter asked her how many sewing factories were left here. She said, “In the past, there were more than 3,000 factories here, so Changsin-dong could boast the highest concentration of sewing factories around the country. But now, as far as I know, there are only about 1,000 factories left because garment manufacturers started to relocate their production bases to other Asian countries in search of cheap labor since the mid-1990s.”
Moving sideways, another exhibition hall also displayed frames, and they included information needed to understand sewing, including the history of sewing and how to make clothes. One of writings described unfamiliar sewing words. She said, “There are still many Japanese words for sewing and subsidiary materials that are commonly used in the garment industry. In the early days of industrialization, Korea lacked sewing skills, so it was greatly influenced by Japan, which was quick to industrialize and was adjacent to Korea. Therefore, Korea’s garment industry sites were led by the Japanese in the past.”
The reporter asked her about the charm of Changsin-dong. She said, “This is different from other garment manufacturing areas in that clothes can be made and supplied in one day. All processes that big manufacturing businesses had worked on in the past are distributed to subcontractors now, running a small scale in a cottage industry like here. Thus, it is one of only a handful of areas in the world where a garment manufacturing firm can make more than 1,000 items of clothing a day. That is why I think Changsin-dong is a very important area because it is the behind-the-scenes player in Dongdaemun’s rise as the country’s fashion hub.”
As the reporter came out of the center after hearing the explanation, the sewing street looked more familiar. The factories filled with unfamiliar sewing machine sounds and what looked like smoke from a fire, which on closer inspection was actually steam rising from the drainage, seemed to show that the street was full of energy.
Garment workers’ lives were sewing itself
Sewing machine repair and garment delivery
As the reporter passed the sewing street again and entered the intersection, a store filled with an unusually large number of sewing machines caught the reporter’s attention. There, where a sign hung saying, “Korea Sewing Machine,” a man was working hard to repair an old sewing machine with a screwdriver. The reporter approached him and asked him what he was doing.
He said, “I’m Park Dong-ha, a 58-year-old man. My job is to repair sewing machines and sell new and secondhand sewing machines. I have worked with clothing in the district of Jongno for 38 years since I was 19 years old. It’s been almost 20 years since I settled down in Changsin-dong.”
The reporter was surprised by his long career and asked why he had got this job.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, almost everyone entered the garment business. I also started with cutting out clothes at a sewing factory. I had a lot of work to do, and I struggled with needles every day and night. My colleague worked for 15 hours, scooping up barely a spoon every meal. I fixed my sewing machine while sewing, then came out to the factory and opened my shop.”
He put the screwdriver on the desk and began checking the mended machine. The machine seemed to operate well, and he tapped the machine, smiling delightedly and humming. He further remarked, “I had a hard time fixing this machine. It usually takes about three to four days to fix a sewing machine, but this machine took about six days. Almost all sewing machines like this machine are from China, so they usually work poorly and break easily. Korea no longer produces sewing machines and now imports machines from China that meet the unit price. It means that the sewing industry in Korea has been declining.”
His face darkened for that moment while finishing his words but soon turned into a smile. He continued, “But I can’t abandon what I’ve been doing for a long time just because the sewing industry has started dying. I want to do it until I’m very old.”
When he finished his sentence, a motorbike stopped in front of the store. He said to the garment deliveryman, Kim Min-soo, “Hey big boy, got it? Have an interview in here!” The deliveryman introduced himself and said he had done deliveries for 15 years. He asked the reporter where she was going and said, “I can give you a ride on the way.”
While driving the motorbike, he continued. “I have carried textiles, samples, and fabrics from some factories to the nearby Dongdaemun Fashion Town and another sewing factory town in Malli-dong. The requirement of this job is to punctually deliver goods to each client. Loading a lot of things on time and crisscrossing the slopes and the alleys is not as easy as it looks. While driving here and there through the alleys, I’ve gotten ticketed for illegal parking or speeding, and there are a lot of minor collisions because many motorbikes pass through this narrow alley.”
After going straight north for four streets, he dropped the reporter off at a place called “Juyeong Apparel.” He set out on a busy road again toward the steep slope, carrying fabrics that looked about twice his height.
The reporter entered a side street that extended around “Juyeong Apparel.” On the side road, two women put buttons on piles of suit pants in an old space that looked about five square feet, opening the door. They each introduced themselves as Lee Seong-sim and Lee Kyung-ae, both 70 years old. Lee Seong-sim said, “We do hand tacking, which is the finishing touch needed to sew clothes on by hand from button attachment to thread out. We commonly called the job “Madomae” in Japanese. We’ve been doing this for 10 years.” Lee Kyung-ae said, “The clothes we work on in one day go to the ironing factories and then go to our wholesalers.”
They were working at a high speed while talking. They joked that they could do it with their eyes closed. The reporter asked them what made them decide on this career.
Lee Seong-sim said, “I had moved to Seoul from Gwangju to earn a living. I had worked in a sewing factory in 1968, and came over here and opened this shop.” She continued, “The only way a woman could earn money at that time because of being uneducated was making clothes. I worked at a sewing factory near the Cheonggyecheon Stream for about three years, and the labor environment was horrendous. There were about 200 people in the factory, and the factory owner ordered us to work from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. and gave us only two meals a day. Moreover, we only bathed twice a month because there was no bathroom, and so we went to a public bath on two days off. Those without family and homes in Seoul, like us, cuddled together in the factory attic that was less than 10 square feet.” She spoke in a heavy voice, remembering the circumstances. “There was no labor union at the time. There was no use in trying to protest. All workers endured it together, so it felt less dismal. But as Jeon Tae-il burned himself to death, people formed the first labor union and the labor environment improved little by little.”
The reporter looked at an old consumer list on the wall and asked how the business was. Lee Kyung-ae sighed deeply and explained, “They used to be our clients. Now we only deal with two or three of those on the list. The rest of the clients shut down their shops. This is why foreign fashion brands like Zara and H&M made been able to make inroads into the Korean market. It’s also a matter of label work, which means changing clothes imported from China into domestic clothes by attaching the label “Made in Korea.” In addition, it is just sad that young people in Korea are reluctant to do sewing and the country also doesn’t put importance on our industry anymore. If many young people were interested in this job, Korea also could have grown its fashion industry like Paris and Milan.”
After saying goodbye and coming out, every alley seemed to be permeated with the life and anguish of garment workers. The reporter headed up the hill aware of the precious life contained in the alley.
To see the panorama of Changsin-dong requires going through an alley that boasts a curved and high slope. People here, who have worked here over the years, must have passed a rough slope like this in their lives, after jumping into the sewing industry. However, the fact that workers and Changsin-dong are the main characters who led the industrial growth of Korea one time, will remain unchanged. Now, how should we remember Changsin-dong and sewing? And can the ideal of Jeon Tae-il, which was making where workers can work with a carefree smile, be realized here?
At the summit where nobody was present, the lonesome wind hummed a tune. But the sound of the motorbikes passing by the alley, of the sewing machines, of leaking steam from the irons, and the voices of garment workers also rumbled on there. Those sounds gathered together and hung around the top of this hill.
By Oh Ju-yeong
Associate Editor of Global & National Section