12 in Number, Big in Spirit

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12 in Number, Big in Spirit

Portugal built its fame on its great maritime tradition. Explorers like Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral roamed the globe from the Cape of Good Hope to India, Brazil, China and Japan, blazing a trail of discoveries. Luis de Camoes immortalized these sons of Portugal in an epic poem "Os Lusadas." Portugal in turn immortalized the poet by honoring him with Portugal's National Day, which is Sunday.

In Portugal, the day would be celebrated like many holidays - a gathering of friends and family, and in larger cities, extra fanfare such as fireworks. In Korea, where there are few Portuguese, the holiday is an intimate occasion. "We get together for dinner. That's usually pretty much it," said cultural assistant Pedro de Moura.

This year, the cultural center and the embassy have taken another step to celebrate Portugal's national day. The center has organized an exhibition by artist Jose de Guimaraes of handmade paper sculptures. The exhibition opened Friday at the Seoul Hilton hotel and continues through June 30.

The embassy is "celebrating gastronomically," according to Guilherme Faria, the trade manager at the trade and tourism board. Since there are no Portuguese restaurants in Korea, ("Not yet at least," Mr. Faria quipped,) the embassy flew in two chefs from Macau. Macau was under Portuguese rule during the heyday of Portuguese exploration and until 1999.

The chefs are creating a special menu at Cilantro, the California-style restaurant at the Hilton. The menu is available through Wednesday. A buffet lunch costs 30,000 won ($23); dinner is 32,000 won.

To speak of a Portuguese "community" in Korea is difficult. As one Portuguese expatriate put it, "We are about 12 people of different ages with different jobs; we don't hang out. You cannot talk about the Portuguese community with 12 people."

The numbers are small partially because there is no major trade between Korea and Portugal. The Korean community in Portugal numbers about 200; the bulk of them work for LG or Samsung or are studying abroad.

Tourism exchanges between Portugal and Korea are also minor. Last year, about 5,000 Korean tourists visited Portugal, primarily during the peak tourist season from mid-June to September. The vast distance between Portugal and Korea is one limiting factor for travel. There are no direct flights to Portugal, which borders Spain on the western edge of Europe. Korean tourism to Europe begins in larger European countries like France, Germany and England. From there, tourists can easily hop over to Portugal.

Mr. Faria is anticipating major changes next year. "We're expecting a lot of Portuguese in Korea because of the World Cup," said Mr. Faria. With the surge in interest between the two countries, Mr. Faria hopes to see growth in business and tourism exchange.


"This is an important year for us," Mr. de Moura explained. Not only has the national day brought about several summer events to introduce Portuguese culture to Korea, but 2001 is also the 40th anniversary of official relations between Korea and Portugal." In honor of the anniversary, the cultural center in the Wonseo building in Jongno-gu invited several Korean scholars for a seminar on Portuguese-Korean historical studies last April. One topic of academic debate is the exact date of the first Portuguese-Korean encounter; one scholar, Pyon Hong-ki, dates it to the 1550s.

The center hopes to continue the seminars and establish closer ties between the two countries. Portugal, with its very early Asian exploration, was the first cultural bridge between Korea and Europe. A bronze statue of Korean priest Kim Dae-keon from the 16th century stands in the Camose Garden in Macau, a testament to the long history of Asian-Portuguese exchanges.

The cultural center and Seoul Cinematheque have also organized a Portuguese film festival at Art Sonje. The festival is tentatively scheduled to begin next Friday. A retrospective of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who film critic Stuart Klawans once called a "cinematic Olympian," will be included. All the movies will be subtitled in Korean, and some in English.

The cultural center has a library with Portuguese newspapers, magazines, language-education books and music. A language course is offered; it costs 40,000 won per semester. Classes meet Mondays through Thursdays, from 7 to 9 p.m. The next course begins in the fall.


Of the dozen Portuguese citizens in Korea, two are priests, one is nun, one is in the business sector and the rest either work at the embassy or are students.

Phone numbers

Embassy: 02-3675-2251 (English available)

Cultural center: 02-3675-2282 (English available)

Commerce and Tourism: 02-747-2290 (English available)

Seoul Cinematheque: 02-3272-8707 (Korean only)

Seoul Hilton hotel: 02-317-3114 (English available)

by Joe Yong-hee

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