Old Chinatown, new ChinatownINCHEON
A 10-year-old boy, jumping up and down with excitement, shouted, “Look! A dragon!” No, it wasn’t a scene from a Godzilla movie ― it was a long, golden Chinese dragon, swirling and twirling through the streets of Chinatown here.
Two white lions pranced around the mystic reptiles, mesmerizing viewers. Passersby rushed to get a glimpse, and digital cameras flashed from every direction. “I’ve only got the tail on my camera because it’s moving too fast!” a bystander grumbled.
Men in ancient military uniforms followed the dragon, portraying characters from the famous Chinese novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” though their costumes fell far short of resembling a Chinese general’s uniform. Characters from the Chinese novel “Travel to the West” were more recognizable, since they were a monkey and a pig goblin. The dragon and the soldiers were followed by a Korean folk band equipped with gongs and drums.
The parade celebrated last weekend’s annual Incheon-China Festival ― a three-day event commemmorating the relationship between Korea and China, and promoting the only Chinatown in Korea.
In years past, Korea had a reputation as the only country where Chinese immigrants did not flourish. For years, they were discriminated against severely, especially under the governments of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. They were denied the right to own property, and were restricted in their business activities; because of those business restrictions, even Chinese immigrants with college degrees usually ran Chinese restaurants. In the 1940s, Chinese immigrants in Korea numbered more than 80,000; there are now believed to be about 20,000.
Until last year, Chinese immigrants weren’t allowed to become permanent residents of Korea. Even those who’d lived here since early childhood had to periodically renew their visas.
So it may not be surprising that Incheon’s Chinatown is the only such neighborhood in the country. Some Koreans don’t even know it exists, and many of those who do know have never visited. For Koreans who attended, the weekend’s festival was a chance to be exposed to a culture they knew little about.
The festival also featured a kung fu demonstration by martial artists from an academy in Shandong, China. Two seven-year-old Chinese girls made lightning moves like Jet Li. About 20 men also demonstrated their kung fu prowess. At one point, one of them was lifted upon half a dozen sharp spears, much to the spectators’ awe.
Along the park where the festival took place were booths where visitors could experience aspects of Chinese culture. People gathered around one booth to try on traditional Chinese attire, including a robe similar to one that an emperor wore. At another booth, a group of people were learning Chinese, with great difficulty.
At a food area, people sampled Chinese finger foods. Several older men and women were drinking and singing at the top of their lungs.
Craftsmen from mainland China presented their work. There was an artist who drew pictures inside a miniature bottle, and another who drew Chinese characters and pictures on a stone that was smaller than the nail of a pinky finger. People used a magnifying glass to look at them.
The most popular craftsman may have been the one who made dragons, butterflies and horses out of sweet rice jelly. “How can anybody eat such a beautiful piece of work?” asked Lee Min-seon, a mother of two. People waited for hours for a piece, then struggled over whether to take a bite or just keep it.
The festival was a learning experience for Koreans ― and not just the ones who live too far away from Incheon to experience Chinatown.
“In all these years, I really haven’t visited Chinatown,” said Park Kyung-min, a resident of Incheon. “I just came here to see what Chinatown is like, but I realize I’ve been missing out on a lot.
“I wish there would be more festivals like this so we would understand more about the Chinese immigrants, who are really a part of our history and our people.”
He did say he wished the festival were bigger. “China is a large country. There’s bound to be more than what I’ve seen today. I hope it gets better every year.”
Incheon is home to Korea’s only Chinatown. Phil S. Yang believes the second can be built from scratch.
Mr. Yang, 46, a professor of Chinese studies at Konkuk University, is co-chairman of the Seoul Chinatown Development Committee, which intends to develop a new Chinatown in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Seoul.
This 76,000-square-meter (19-acre) site is intended as a center for business exchange between Korea and China, as well as cultural exchange and education.
Mr. Yang says this will be the world’s first “iChinatown” ― the “i” standing for “Ilsan” and “innovation.” And he wants it to be known for more than Chinese restaurants and oriental medicine shops.
“There’s an old Chinatown and a new Chinatown everywhere else in the world,” says Mr. Yang. The “old Chinatowns,” he says, are the ones founded by 19th-century immigrants; the new ones were founded by Chinese studying abroad who didn’t return to their home country.
“These new Chinese immigrants are very well educated and they are experts in the information and technology fields,” Mr. Yang says. “They have exceptional knowledge of software.” Mr. Yang hopes to create a business district with the talents of Chinese students in Korea.
“People say the 21st century is the era of North Asian countries, but really it is the era of China,” Mr. Yang asserts.
Chinese investment groups, including Tsinghua University Enterprise Group and Shenyinxin Investment Group, are backing the project.
The most important feature of the planned Chinatown, says Mr. Yang, is Tsinghua University New Technology Park, a research and development center. Also planned for the new Chinatown are hotels, parks, a performance hall that would expose visitors to the tales of the famous “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” and a garden presenting representative Chinese architecture in miniature.
One question that may come to mind is, “Why Ilsan when there’s a Chinatown in Incheon?”
Mr. Yang sites several reasons. One is that Incheon’s developmet potential is limited: it’s too far from Seoul, the center of Korean business, and it has geographic limits to its expansion, since it’s on the coast.
“Moreover, there are a lot more Chinese immigrants living in Seoul than in Chinatown in Incheon,” Mr. Yang added. “The best Chinese school is even located within Seoul.” Ilsan, he noted, is conveniently located between Seoul and the Incheon International Airport.
Mr. Yang says the Korean government is interested in the project, but that bureaucratic red tape has blocked its progress. “There’s a lot of talk and action, but there’s no decision,” he said with frustration. He hopes construction will begin before the end of this year.
The new Chinatown could be a tourism bonanza, he said. “The visitors to Tokyo Disneyland amount to 16 million a year, but 18 million people visit Chinatown in Yokohama,” Mr. Yang notes. “Considering the number, Chinatown is a vital tourism resource.”
Mr. Yang stresses that “iChinatown” would be beneficial not just for the Chinese people in Korea but for Koreans.
“Koreans stress globalization, but we should really try to change ourselves within,” says Mr. Yang. “Koreans are very reclusive and xenophobic by nature. We need to change and start our inner globalization with the new Chinatown.”
by Lee Ho-jeong