Friday, April 3, 2015

From Groceries to Gadgets

The Neighborhood of Samsung’s Birth

By Matthew Caracciolo

Mention the name ‘Samsung’ and you most likely think of the latest in smartphone technology or possibly any of the conglomerate’s subsidiaries that sell anything from insurance to ships. What many don’t know is the company’s quaint beginnings as a neighborhood grocery store and trading post.  The original building is gone, demolished in 1997 because of unsafe conditions, but visitors to Daegu can still visit the small memorial on the site where it all began.

Lee Byung-chull started Samsung Trading Company in 1938 in a stately wooden structure proud against the neighboring stalls of Seomun market. 40 employees worked the front office, made noodles, and procured goods for export. Located near the Seoul-Busan rail line, Samsung Trading Company was able to expand rapidly into new ventures and moved to Seoul after seven years of booming business in Daegu’s Ingyo-dong district. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the original site is an inspiration to the entrepreneur in all of us. The location is easy to find: just steps from the Dalseong Park bus stop and a new monorail station. An outdoor memorial includes a small replica of the building, as well as an impression of the facade carved into a large wall. 

A series of informative plaques chronicles the transformative early years of the company while headquartered at the humble location. It’s a good place to gain perspective on the company’s, and the country’s, story of meteoric rise to riches.

Samsung’s legacy in Daegu continues as the company is partnering with the city to construct the Daegu Samsung Creative Economy Cluster. Scheduled to be complete in late 2016, the cluster will serve as an incubator for small businesses in the area as well as a larger memorial for the company and its’ founder.  In addition, a statue of Lee Byung-chull was erected in front of the Daegu Opera House in 2010, which has already inspired a tradition of touching the statue for financial success.

In stark contrast to the memorial’s implications of wealth and power are the endless rows of tool shops in the immediate area to the east called Bukseongno. Within these drab corridors, however, are some absolute gems worth exploring the area for. In an old tobacco factory sits the Daegu Art Factory, a modern arts space with exhibition halls, touring art shows, and more. A kids’ space features hands-on activities and a floor piano. Admission is free for the permanent installations.

Skip the coffee shop in the museum and head a couple blocks toward Daegu Station to find the Samduk Sanghoe café. Nestled in the midst of a tool alley, this former Japanese colonial house was renovated and turned into a coffee shop. The wood framework and white walls are unmistakably Japanese, making the café relatively easy to spot. On the second floor are traditional Japanese seating arrangements, or you can sit at a typical café table if you wish. The extensive drink menu also includes tea and smoothies.

Not far from the café is the Bukseongno Tools Museum (Address: 24, Taepyeong-ro 28-gil, Jung-gu, Daegu, Korea). Visitors can step into the past and observe the antiquated tools, donated by long-time tool owners of the area. It was said that, if need be, the tool owners of the neighborhood could build a tank; such was the depth of materials and tools in Bukseongno. Luckily, this need was never exploited by the Japanese. To represent this idea, an old artillery piece is on display inside the museum.

Further down the alley, Daegu Station comes more fully into view and a series of unique murals are painted around a parking lot. This is the sign that you are coming close to Janggeo Salon. Part bike repair shop, part arts gallery, part coffee shop, this eclectic, creative space is a perfect place to learn about fixing bicycles or to catch a small, intimate concert.

Hopefully, you’ve timed your tour of the Bukseongno area so that you’ve finished by nighttime and worked up an appetite. Quickly thrown together before dinner are a handful of informal bulgogi establishments throughout the tool shops. Simple and inexpensive, these places serve some of the best bulgogi and udong in the city. Jun Ho House ( Address: 8, Dalseong-ro 26-gil, Jung-gu, Daegu, Korea 8) is especially popular for its atmosphere. You likely will have passed the site on your way to Daegu Art Factory, at the time probably a very unexciting parking lot. Look for the red tents once dinnertime rolls around.

To get to Samsung Sanghoe, take the 414-1, 300, 427, 808, 836, or 939 bus to the Dalseong Park bus stop. If taking a taxi, tell the driver “sam-seong-sang-hoe ga-ju-se-yo”, meaning “Please go to Samsung Sanghoe.” The address is 59-3, Ingyo-dong, Jung-gu, Daegu, Korea.

Far removed from the glitz and glamour of Samsung’s current headquarters in Seoul, the Bukseongno area and Samsung memorial site offer rewarding artistic, culinary, and historic surprises for those keen to do a little wandering.

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