No 'real' Chinatown in S. Korea, the result of xenophobic attitudes

Posted on : 2006-08-29 11:24 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

With the name "Chinatown" written in both Korean and English on it, a colorful arch spans a narrow street in western Incheon, indicating that the area is a Chinese community -- but it's not a Chinatown in the true sense.

The Chinatown in this bustling port city west of Seoul, with a population of 2.6 million people, is South Korea's largest, but probably also one of the world's smallest. It is a tiny neighborhood with only 40 or so Chinese-style restaurants and other stores run mostly by Koreans. Only a third of the restaurant and shop owners here are Chinese.

"As a matter of fact, it's not a Chinatown. How can a town without Chinese people be called a Chinatown?" said Yuan So-chin, 48, an ethnic Chinese merchant who runs a Chinese general store in the area.

If the area can be called a Chinatown, it should be much bigger, with a distinctive Chinese culture like those in New York, San Francisco, Yokohama, Paris and London, said Yuan, who works as vice chief of an association of merchants in the district, once inhabited predominantly by Chinese nationals.

Chinatown is a universal component of Chinese culture and business found in most major cities around the globe and has worked as a channel to draw Chinese investment, but there is nothing like this in South Korea.

Critics blame the absence of real Chinatowns in Seoul and other South Korean cities on the discriminative policies of past South Korean governments, coupled with the xenophobic attitude of Koreans toward Chinese people living on their soil.

Historical records show that the ethnic Chinese settlement of Korea dates back to the early 1880s, when China dispatched 3,000 troops to help put down a military revolt here. About 40 Chinese merchants came with them, followed by more later.

The Chinatown in Incheon was once a major Chinese community in South Korea because of the port city's geographical proximity to China across the Yellow Sea. Many came over to work in the restaurant business.

The number of Chinese residents in Korea reached 65,000 in 1937.

The Japanese colonial rulers of the time were reportedly uneasy about the expanding Chinese community and began to crack down on them. They imposed heavier taxes on Chinese merchants and orchestrated anti-Chinese riots among Koreans.

The ordeal of ethnic Chinese in Korea continued even after the country was liberated from Japan's colonialism in 1945. Most past South Korean leaders, especially Park Chung-hee, harbored a negative view of them, reportedly out of concern that they could take away national wealth.

Park, who came to power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979, restricted foreign ownership of land and other property and implemented a currency reform that excluded Chinese savings. He barred Chinese restaurants from selling food made with rice, a major staple in South Korea, and often froze the prices of their dishes made of flour for a long time.

The Park government also virtually denied Chinese nationals the right to live in South Korea permanently, requiring them to renew their residential permits every three years.

"Some say Park is the father of South Korea's modernization, but for us, he was evil," said Wang Wen-jung, vice president of the Chinese Residents' Association in Seoul, adding that he had to drop out of a high school in Seoul after his father's Chinese restaurant went bankrupt in 1967.

Amid the hostile Korean government policies, fledgling Chinatowns in South Korea, including the one in Incheon, slowly withered or were drastically downsized.

"I remember there used to be many Chinese living in this area who were running restaurants and other stores. The area was much bigger than now," said Yuan at Incheon's Chinatown, disclosing that his father ran a Chinese restaurant there.

The Chinese community in South Korea has shrunk drastically.

About 10,000 Chinese emigrated to the United States, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries between 1972 and 1992, Yuan said.

Now, about 26,700 ethnic Chinese live in South Korea.

"I myself came back to South Korea only four years ago after living for nearly 20 years in Taiwan, Japan and mainland China," Yuan said. "At 20, I left the South Koreans who turned their backs on me. But as I got older, I felt like coming back here, where I was born and my old friends live."

It was only recently that South Koreans began to show genuine friendship and generosity toward their Chinese neighbors, largely thanks to their country's diplomatic normalization with Beijing in 1992.

Most ethnic Chinese here retain Taiwanese citizenship, but the number of those who have shifted loyalty to China is increasing.

It's still difficult to become a South Korean citizen, as they have to prove their financial ability, be endorsed by high-level South Korean officials and complete complicated paperwork.

There has been a rising call recently to help support the Chinese community in the country.

"We should be very ashamed of ourselves, particularly because we've been clamoring for globalization," said Yang Pil-seung, a Chinese studies professor at Seoul's Kunkuk University.

Discrimination against ethnic Chinese in South Korea, albeit eased in recent years, is still rife in their everyday lives. For example, they cannot sign onto South Korean Internet sites and are even denied e-mail accounts, as their alien registration card numbers don't work at most of these Web sites.

In May's mayoral and gubernatorial elections, foreign residents of more than three years in South Korea were given suffrage for the first time. But foreign residents, including ethnic Chinese, no matter how long they have lived here, are barred from voting in parliamentary and presidential elections.

"I know things have improved, compared with the past, but South Koreans still don't regard us as real members of their society," said Yin Chia-ching, 36, who works as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Incheon.

Disclosing that he recently broke up with his Korean girlfriend, partly due to his ethnic background, Yin complained that most of the Chinese residents in South Korea can't get "decent" office jobs and end up running or working at restaurants at best.

"South Koreans should know we have been living with them for more than 100 years and do all major national duties as they do, such as tax payment," he said.

Yang of Kunkuk University said that allowing ethnic Chinese to freely engage in business will benefit South Korea.

"We should allow them to make use of their status as 'hwakyo,' as 'kwansi' is important to do businesses," he said. Hwakyo refers to overseas Chinese residents and kwansi roughly translates as "connections" or "links" in business.

The professor quoted a recent report by the Federation of Korean Industries, a major business lobby group, as claiming that a Chinatown in big cites such as Seoul can attract foreign investments and generate consumption worth 23.9 trillion won (US$24.9 billion), produce 12.1 trillion won in value added and create 920,000 new jobs.

The creation of Chinatowns in South Korea is also urgent given the increasing number of "new hwakyo" from mainland China, who numbered 356,790 earlier this year, including 219,000 ethnic Koreans, he said.

Wang of the Chinese Residents' Association called for a "more open-minded, warm-hearted" attitude by the Korean people toward their Chinese neighbors.

"If you ask us why we don't leave here or become naturalized South Korean citizens and stop complaining, we have nothing to say.

But I would say this is the country where we were born, have lived and will live until we die," he said. "You can easily understand our difficulties if you think about ethnic Koreans in Japan." About 700,000 Koreans live in Japan, a legacy of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. They complain that they are being discriminated against by the Japanese government and its people.

By Kim Hyung-jin INCHEON, South Korea, Aug. 29 (Yonhap)