Jina E. Kim


Smith College

Consuming Seoul: Department Stores and Competing Modernities in Colonial Korea

The early twentieth century department stores in Seoul were probably not much different from department stores of the present day—a phantasmagoria, a term Walter Benjamin used to describe the Parisian arcades during the late 19th century. Akin to the French arcades, everything required looking, from the department store's grandiose architecture and glass pane display cases to new commodities, technologies, and people engaged in new forms of labor.

The department store became one of the focal points of urban life whether one was there to shop, to stroll through the maze-like halls, to experience riding the elevator, or to promenade down the grand stairway. In this way, the department store represented the quintessential space for commodity consumption where not only could material goods be consumed but every aspect of its internal and external structure also accounted for the commodification process.

Many critical writings, including literary works, on the department store situate the department store as the ultimate symbol of capitalism or evils of modern consumer culture where new material objects showcase the encroaching modernity, where the anxieties of social and class distinctions break down, and where everything involves exchange through desire. While the above criticisms might indeed articulate certain attitudes, in this presentation, however, I would like to examine two department stores—Hwashin and Mitsukoshi—in colonial Korea to explore their relationships to the making of a colonial capital city and Seoul's relationship to its metropole—Tokyo. In short, I will show how the competition that was spurred between Hwashin and Mitsukoshi department stores incited narratives of competing modernities in creating Kyŏngsŏng modernism and Tokyo Modernism.