Korea?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ethnic Chinese minority


Hardly news, but some Koreans have been wanting to artificially construct a “Chinatown” in Seoul and recent mention of the idea at the Marmot’s Discussion Group inspired me to recall to myself my knowledge of the Chinese minority and personal experience with Chinese friends in Korea. These are not organized thoughts in any way, they were almost a comment on another blog that I’ve decided to bore you with here….

South Korea had around 120,000 Chinese in the early seventies, now there are 22,000. There are many reasons as to why they’ve left though one of them is that most are from families that originate on mainland, whereas because of history (being in SK at the height of anti-Communism) they are all Taiwanese citizens, with the exception of the relatively few who managed too obtain Korean citizenship. Problem with Taiwanese citizenship is that you couldn’t go to the mainland all those years and if you obtain Korean citizenship you have to give up your previous citizenship and still would not be able to go to the mainland all those years (things have changed). So, a good option was emigrating to the US; you can obtain US citizenship without renouncing Taiwanese citizenship while still being able to travel to the family hometown on the mainland on your US passport.

(In major Californian cities it is not difficult to find a Chinese restaurant with gimchi and jajangmyeon (Chinese food particular to Korea, like fortune cookies were developed by Chinese in California) or video stores with Chinese movies that have Korean subtitles, run by Chinese who have gone to the States and still do business with Koreans. Just last week in Seoul I met a Chinese man who introduced himself as being an American from Walnut Creek, California, “back” here to acquire more videos and see his old friends. We conversed in Korean, though probably because he already saw me speaking it with someone and I’ve no reason to doubt his English as an “American.” He said he’d been in the US 20+ years. His Korean was perfect and I wouldn’t have known about him had he not told me.)

History in Korea, however, also made leaving Korea look like a very good option. The Japanese did not treat them well. There was a “massacre” of some sort against Chinese in Korea at one point in the thirties – there is an article written about it by a Westerner here at the time, though I’m still trying to get a hold of it. The late HH Underwood mentioned anti-Chinese sentiment rather matter of factly in an article in Koreana – the link for that seems to have died but I happened to quote it long ago. Specifically he says “….as we came into the 40s, Japanese controls increased and anti-Chinese sentiment was encouraged….”

Perhaps because he was a prot?ɬ©g?ɬ© of the Japanese, the dictator Park Chung Hee was very harsh with the Chinese as well. Chinese who served in the ROK army during the war as interrogators of PRC POWs were denied their benefits. Park limited the Chinese to mostly running restaurants, and then – get this – enacted price limits on how much you could charge for jajangmyeon! For a long time they were not allowed to own their own land and businesses, and many lost everything when Korean friends who acted as proxy property owners turned around and claimed assets as their own.

Korea still has the remnants of a Chinatown or two. One part of Myeongdong used to be a Chinatown, and you can still see a little of it if you know where to look. One “dumpling house” has been in Myeongdong since the twenties, or “maybe earlier than that” says one of the owning family’s daughters, an aquaintance. As late as the eighties I remember going with a Chinese friend to the neighborhood behind the Seoul Plaza Hotel early one morning to a very small morning Chinese food market. There are still a few Chinese groceries in an alley in the neighborhood across from Namdaemun market on the Bank of Korea side of the street. You can still see signs of Seoul’s other Chinese section, in Yeonhui-dong to the west of Sinchon & Yonsei. Seoul’s Chinese middle and high school is there, and if you look hard enough off of the side streets connected to the road that extends from Yeonhui-dong all the way to Mapo’s Seogyo-dong there are a lot of Chinese shops and “genuine” Chinese restaurants in the area. Many Chinese restaurants run by Chinese have ‘?®¬è¬Ø?•‚Ä¢‚Ć’ written on the front – “Chinese business” written in Chinese. Most of the Chinese I have known from Seoul live in Yeonhui-dong. Also, there is a Chinese Christian church in Jeong-dong founded in I’m not sure when but at least before 1920, right across the street from where Seoul Foreign School used to be before it got flattened in the war and moved (and, btw, where HH Underwood went to school as a boy so he would’ve been aware of the Chinese church during the “anti-Chinese” years).

What little is left of Incheon’s Chinatown is especially nice because some of the buildings are good ole Chinese style, the type built in the 19th century you can see in San Francisco and old Westerns (movies) with the balcony on the second floor. Some of the newer housing seems Chinese too; if you go in summer you will see houses with their front doors open and some sort of mosquito net hanging in its place, but there is no lobby or hyeongwan “remove-the-shoes area” like in Korean homes – you walk by and people are sitting around the table watching TV right there inside their front door looking back out at you.

Most of Korea’s Chinese came to Korea after Mao’s revolution, and subsequently have not been here long, so to speak, in the sense that the older ones remember living in China. Incheon’s Chinese are different in that the larger percentage of them came in the 19th century. When I was in university I had an excruciatingly painful infatuation with a Chinese woman from Incheon….

…aaaah yes. I’d forgotten about that…


Anyway, I probably liked her because she was smart and beautiful, but she was unique compared to other Chinese women I knew in other ways too. To begin with her parents had given her a name that worked in Korean as well as Chinese, whereas most Chinese had names that clearly sounded alien even when pronounced in Korean. Her family hung a Korean flag outside on Liberation Day because “we were here at LIberation, too.” She spoke Korean perfectly and majored in English, whereas it was not at all uncommon for some Chinese, especially women, to have been born and raised in Korea and yet still have a problem with Korean pronunciation and especially with writing academic Korean and then go to a Korean university and major in Chinese. Go figure. She was fiercely proud of being Chinese (“educated Koreans know about China and don’t disrepect us”) but you would not know she was not Korean unless she told you. Once she went on a blind date with some Korean guy – probably to spite me at that point – and then the Korean guy got angry, accused her and the friend who set her up of fraud for not telling him she was Chinese, something he figured out only at the end of the date (in the sense that the discovery, when she called home and spoke with her mother, ended the date). She was 5th generation, and all the Chinese from places other than Incheon and Seoul are 2nd and 3rd, so I’ve always estimated that one reason Incheon has retained more of a Chinatown than anywhere else is because the Chinese in Incheon feel more of an attachment & historical identity to/with Korea. Most do talk more of Korea as home than others I’ve met. If your family did not have history here, however, and Park Chung Hee was using economic repression to try to get you to leave there would’ve been little reason to stay.

(A friend from Busan who married a Canadian man and has never come back says she doesn’t know anyone from her Chinese high school in Busan who still lives in Korea. All the fellow Chinese she grew up with are gone, gone to immigrant countries like the US, Canada, and Australia as well as Chinese enclaves such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and of course Taiwan. Her 1st generation father wanted to go to the mainland so much he renounced his Taiwanese citizenship and defected to the PRC, even though her Korean mother renounced Korean citizenship and acquired Taiwanese citizenship when they married and has lived as an alien in her own land. Not uncommon in Busan it seems, that sense of just being here temporarily.)

I’ve seen relatively reasonable Koreans actually tell me that Park did a good thing by making Seoul virtually the only capital in the world without a full fledged Chinatown, “otherwise the Chinese would’ve taken over the Korean economy like they did in Southeast Asia” or something similar, believe it or not. Dictatorship has its advantages when someone else suffers, eh?

At the university I attended in Seoul there was a small club of Chinese students. I was delighted to find them because I was the only obvious non-Korean attending the full undergraduate program in a uni of 18,000 Korean students, I would propose to them we campaign for our rights – small things regarding school administration or big things like immigration law, and none of them were ever the slightest bit interested. I went to their meetings on occasion but that usually only consisted of drinking in establishments that were too loud for conversation. They really didn’t like it when I suggested we try to do something about certain parts of immigration law, and once the head of the group even told me why: “Because if we speak up there could be another massacre like happened when people spoke up in Gwangju only no one would care because we’re Chinese.” Yikes! I’ll never forget the expression on his face because he seemd to believe what he was saying. Most of them wanted to hang low and get on with their lives either here or elsewhere and avoid confrontation of any kind. The same guy told me that if anyone has a problem with discriminatory laws they can always find another country, like the one I came from so who am I to complain when I left that one to come and face discrimination in Korea. Some of the kids from Incheon were different on that, but most of the others did not want to invest any time and effort in improving their status here, and though obviously many were from families came to Korea because it was the only available land route available while escaping Mao, clearly another reason was the many decades of discrimination.

So now Korea wants to bulldoze a whole neighborhood and build a Chinatown to attract investment and tourism, a “development project” largely initiated by Koreans? Maybe the idea looks impressive to Chinese investors from other countries but for those who’ve always been here it looks to me like something close to an insult and it comes way too late. Some Chinese might come and they might call it a “Chinatown” (‘?¨¬?¬®?¨¬ù¬¥?´‚ÄöÀú???í‚Ǩ?¨?°¬¥,’ the loan word from English, like they do now for the one in Incheon) but that’s not what it will be in the traditional sense of the word in English as it will lack culture and history, and because Korea will only take “investors” and not the “immigrants” that would create a community in the area. But what kind of developer really wants that anyway?

Published @13:10 GMT +9 in Korea – Society. 5 comments technorati
http://blog.marmot.cc/ (131)

One response to “Korea?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ethnic Chinese minority”

  1. Hi,

    I stumbled upon your blog because I have been interested in doing research on the ethnic Chinese minority from Korea. I am still working on refining my research framework and proposals but I am very interested in the everyday struggles and experiences of the Chinese minority who lived in Korea post 1945 until the normalization with the PRC in 1992. I’m wondering if you would have any additional insight to offer? Your mention of Underwood’s anti-Chinese sentiment is very fascinating, were you ever able to recall where you found this source?

    Thank you very much!

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