Immigrants forced out as Guro moves upscale

July 23,2007
Shin Mi-kyung, an ethnic Korean immigrant from China, will lose her grocery store in Garibong-dong, western Seoul, in 2009, when the city builds a new center there for information technology. By Kim Soe-jung
Shin Mi-kyung says her left arm is still useless from the beating she took from Chinese police a decade ago, when she tried to come to Korea, her mother’s homeland, without a visa.
The night before her ship was set to depart, she heard banging on the door to her hotel room in Shenyang, China.
“Open the door,” came the shout. Dozens of Chinese police rushed into the room, beat people and yanked their arms back.
Shin said she passed out from the pain as her left arm was twisted behind her.
Instead of the homeland she’d dreamed about, Shin woke up in a small jail cell with about 30 other inmates, charged with trying to leave the country illegally.
“I did not know it was such a serious crime. I just wanted to go to my mother’s country,” she said.
Seven years later, in 2004, Shin finally landed in South Korea.
The 58-year-old is a Joseonjok, which refers to Chinese citizens who are ethnic Koreans. She was able to get a visa proving her Korean nationality after tracking down her mother’s family registration.
A DNA sample proved that she was related to her mother’s sister, who lives here.
Shin said she shed tears of joy the day she became a Korean citizen. Today, however, she’s tearful for a different reason.
Her second home, Joseonjok Town in Garibong-dong, Guro District, western Seoul, where she runs a Chinese grocery store, is scheduled to be destroyed in 2009 as part of a city redevelopment project.
Under the plan, the Garibong area will be transformed into business and residential centers to support 859 information technology start-up firms operating in the district.
“The area is designed to provide convenience to information technology businesses in the district. There will be hotels, convention centers and shopping malls, as well as a residential area,” said Jeong Woo-seok, an official at the Korea National Housing Corporation in charge of the redevelopment project.
On July 9, Guro’s district government announced that a city committee had approved its plans to change the name of the road in Guro 3-dong from Gongdan-ro to Digital Danji-ro, wiping away the name that evokes an industrial complex and replacing it with one that suggests shiny new technology. The subway station in the district was given a new name in 2005.
Today, you can call it Guro Digital Complex Station. Its old name, Guro Industrial Complex Station, will be wiped off the map.
The district seems dedicated to covering up its unflattering past as the home of manual workers at textile, wig-making and printing plants from the 1960s to the 1990s.
After the blue-collar workers and democratization protesters who initiated the country’s labor movement in the area left to pursue better jobs, jjokbang, cage-like rooms built for the factory workers, became filled with migrant workers, mostly from China, looking for cheap rent and daily manual work. As of December last year, about 15,000 ethnic Koreans from China had registered at the district office, followed by 637 Chinese, 232 Taiwanese, 208 Malaysians and 153 Filipinos, according to district office data. If illegal aliens are added, the office said, there are about 20,000 foreigners in the area.
The redevelopment project, which aims to be completed by 2012, targets 279,110 square meters (3 million square feet) of areas in Garibong that now contain cramped residential buildings, Chinese restaurants, bars, grocery stores, tour agencies and street markets. The area is also Shin’s home.
After Chinese police arrested her that night in 1997, she went on a hunger strike for five days. Eventually, she was allowed to leave prison on bail. She walked out of jail with nothing, she said. The Chinese police had taken all of the cash she had to pay the broker who arranged her failed exit.
“I did not know it would take so long, about seven years, to finally come to Korea,” she said. What made her endlessly pursue the flight was not money, she said, but discrimination against ethnic Koreans in China. “Even small kids on the street despised us, calling us names,” she said.
The first generation of Joseonjok left the country to find food or to fight in exile for the country’s independence from the late 1800s through the Japanese colonial period. Because Korea was divided after World War II, most ethnic Koreans remained in China as one of the 55 ethnic minorities there. As of 2000, there were 1.92 million Joseonjok, according to Chinese government statistics. About half lived in Jilin, and the rest in Heilongjiang and Liaoning in northeast China.
Shin is from Heilongjiang. Her mother crossed the border to China in the 1940s from Yeongdeok, North Gyeongsang, to find food for her children. “When I was running my store there, I had to pay more taxes and buy goods at higher prices because I was Joseonjok,” she said. She came here by the invitation of her daughter’s Korean husband. Like many other Joseonjok, she started working as a housekeeper for a Korean family and then as a waitress at a restaurant. The hard work paid off and she opened her own store, named “Hanjung Mart” or “Korea-China Mart,” in 2005.
Most customers at her store are Joseonjok, buying international phone cards, cigarettes, Chinese alcohol and more. The store sells less than 2 million won ($2,180) worth of products per month.
A 55-year-old woman who declined to be named stopped by Shin’s store on Wednesday. “I did not get a job today,” said the woman, a Joseonjok whose husband, like Shin’s husband, works as a manual worker at a construction site. “I am working as a housekeeper and go to a temporary staffing agency everyday to find out whether there is a job for me.”
The woman said she goes back and forth to China to try to earn money. “Because I gave up my Chinese nationality, I cannot go back to China like them,” Shin said. “Life here is not like what I expected. Although I am ‘officially’ Korean, Koreans call me Chinese.”
Earlier this year, a man in his 30s even refused to pay for his cigarettes, which he’d already opened, after he learned she was from China. “He said he felt dirty buying cigarettes from a ‘Chinese’ store,” she said. The argument ended when Shin called police.
Shin is now looking for a place to reopen the store. According to the redevelopment plan, residents and stores in the area will be cleared out through the end of 2009. “But I don’t know where Chinese migrant workers will go after this town is dissolved,” she said.
She will be given some compensation from the corporation for the relocation, according to the district office. It won’t be as much as many others, because she’s only been in her spot for two years. But Shin didn’t even know she was getting any money until this reporter told her about it.
Some of her neighbors who run Chinese restaurants say they are going to use the money to go back to China.
Shin is not sure what she will do.
“Now I am not sure whether I made the right decision [to become a Korean citizen],” she said.

By Kim Soe-jung Staff Writer [soejung@joongang.co.kr]

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