Myeong-dong thriving on fake goods, touting
By Bahk Eun-ji, Jung Min-ho, Kim Bo-eun
Myeong-dong is enjoying a renaissance ― the streets flanked by fancy shops are crowded with tourists and shoppers. It feels literally alive.
The popular shopping district in central Seoul is thriving on increasing numbers of tourists from China, Japan and other countries, emerging as one of the top tour sites.
No other shopping district in Korea is so lively and so popular with tourists, where all kinds of shops from luxury brands to street vendors beckon shoppers.
The country’s landmark shopping district, however, has its dark side ― copycats and illegal touting to solicit customers. These illegalities, seemingly acquiesced to by the district authorities, could make tourists uncomfortable.
Of course, they are elements making the streets livelier ― that may be one reason why the authorities don’t harshly crack down on them.
When people walk through Myeong-dong to go shopping or meet friends, it usually involves dodging a lot of street vendors standing with the carts full of fake brand bags, accessories or various fried food.
Sales assistants, mostly hired by cosmetics shops, keep yelling and handing out free samples to solicit customers into their shops.
In one street, cosmetics brand stores were lined up right next to each other. Each had a woman in front, yelling in Japanese and Chinese to passing tourists. Sales assistants’ voices sounded hoarse apparently due to all the yelling.
“We’re not allowed to use microphones,” said one female sales promoter at a cosmetics shop. “We’d get into trouble if inspectors launch a sudden crackdown. I think standing here, talking and handing out free stuff helps lure more customers.”
It certainly did seem to be working as tourists continued to stream inside.
With the number of foreign tourists expected to reach 10 million this year, tourism is certainly becoming a big business. Although there are dozens of reasons to visit Korea, many say without the slightest hesitation that Korea is a decent place for shopping.
“Myeong-dong by far is my favorite place in Korea. It is such a perfect place for shopping since there are cosmetics, clothes, and everything that I possibly want to buy,” a 24-year-old college student from France said showing off her shiny bags filled with purchases. “I think this is the most well-known place to foreign tourists like me through magazines, commercials, and, of course, word-of-mouth.”
Being one of the hottest spots especially for Japanese and Chinese visitors, Myeong-dong has played a vital role in impressing the K-pop star-struck tourists with fancy and exotic items found on every corner of the streets.
However, it is not only the stores inside buildings that catch their eye. Between the arrays of the shops on the street, there are many vendors that keep the area vibrant and dynamic, selling local delicacies and copies of designer handbags.
As Myeong-dong has become a must-go-to place for foreign tourists, some have raised concerns over the fake items that street vendors sell as well as loud touting.
Some said those acts might tarnish the image of Korea among the 10 million tourists, while others point out that it has actually boosted the number of visitors to the area.
“I don’t see it very strange because selling fake handbags is pretty common in many other countries as well, even in the U.S., although it is somewhat surprising that people here are doing it openly,” Lena Ovcharov said. “I don’t think tourists would come here just to buy fake bags and clothes, though, because there is a high chance that they will be seized by customs officials at the airport anyway. So, I don’t really think it is a big deal.”
Many sales assistants tout in front of the shops in fluent Japanese and Chinese to lure the cash-rich customers. While some tourists looked uncomfortable dealing with the touts who are trying to pull them inside the store, sometimes with physical force, others were looking at them curiously.
“It was interesting to see people touting in front of the stores at the beginning until someone came up to me and grabbed my arm to pull me inside,” Yumi Sato, a 20-year-old college student from Japan, said. “Nonetheless, I thought it was quite entertaining in some ways and it could be an interesting part of traveling to Korea unless they go overboard.”
Full of fake luxury items
Another typical scene in Myeong-dong is street vendors, selling everything from snacks and accessories to fake luxury goods.
“The bags I sell are almost identical to the real ones,” said one of the vendors. “People come and ask if these are real. Even the logo is exactly the same; the only difference is the material these bags are made of.”
Naturally, many tourists come and purchase the bags, which are less than a fifth of the price the originals, the vendor said.
Another vendor was selling fake luxury belts. The brands included Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana, Armani and Bally. All the belts made of leather were selling at 20,000 won.
Some Japanese tourists were at the vendor, carefully looking at the belts to choose which one they would buy. The vendors spoke Japanese and were at ease with the tourists.
While the vendors provide a spectacle as well as various products at affordable prices, they also create many problems.
Regardless of what they sell or how they attract tourists, street vendors themselves are illegal.
Then how is it that these vendors and touts are on the streets of Myeong-dong every day?
“We are doing our best to regulate the illegal commercial activities in the area,” said an official of the Jung-gu Office to which Myeongdong belongs.
“However, it is virtually impossible to get rid of all the vendors, so we are aiming to take a gradual approach to the problem, dealing with the most urgent issues first.”
The official said the division is responding to civil complaints, patrols the area everyday and when necessary, makes the vendors pack up and leave.
However, vendors continue to occupy the streets.
Unavoidable or shut the eyes?
Aside from blocking roads and creating noise pollution and evading tax, selling fake goods is also a huge problem.
In a crackdown by the local office early last year, one out of 10 vendors, or 12 percent of 210 were selling fake products. Although the office has long pledged that they would take action against their illegal practices, it seems that not much has been done since then.
The uneasiness of the local office when asked about the matter, and police who refrained to comment on the issue, it looks like Myeong-dong will continue to have vendors, touts and fake goods as long as there are tourists.
“I don’t know if it’s allowed or not, there are some people who are more aggressive than others. Someone almost jumped into me and speaking to my face,” said Richard, a recent arrival to Seoul from Canada.
“I’m not used to someone else invading my personal space. It is a little different from where I came from. It’s not really bad but it’s something that I can never get used to.” He added.
Johan from Sweden usually avoids the people touting.
“It’s too aggressive,” he says. “I usually go on the other side of the road to avoid getting pestered. Foreigners don’t like to be grabbed and yelled at.”
Richard also pointed out the fake goods found easily on the street.
“I understand why people do it, I just wish they wouldn’t. Fake goods make Korea look bad, because it makes it seem like legitimates stuff is fake too,”
Fake goods street vendors sell with no hesitation undermine Korea’s credibility as people can have a prejudice that other products are fake too, even if they are original, many tourists said.
Richard said that when he walks around the street and sees fake merchandise it makes him wonder if the Koreans walking down the street with designer’s bags are carrying fakes too.
“Because I can very easily see many designer bags street vendors are selling and those are, you know, obviously not original,” he said.
One thing he liked the most about the area, however, was that it had a really different feel compared to other parts of the Seoul that he has been to. Myeong-dong is much more diverse and has a different energy.
He doesn’t usually like bustling areas but it’s fun because he knew what he is getting into.
“If I go shopping, however, I honestly don’t want to come here,” he said. “I think it really depends on what to shop for, but this area is more for the experience. I come here to walk around and might pick something, but wouldn’t come if I had to actually buy things.”