A taste of Britain throughout SeoulKorea in the 1800s was notoriously unwelcoming to foreigners, living up to its “hermit kingdom” moniker. But when some British citizens arrived in 1816 under the command of Captain Basil Hall on the Lyra, his personal log reveals that the crew actually shared a few friendly laughs with the Koreans over alcohol. It probably helped that their stay was brief.
Since then, the ties between the two countries have not always been so chummy, but these days Korea and Britain share a strong diplomatic relationship. Many British citizens have made their home here, some of them briefly, others permanently.
Today, there are approximately 1,800 British citizens residing in Korea, according to the British Embassy, many of whom happen to be English teachers.
The National Statistical Office also reported that in December 2003, more than 4,000 British passport holders, including tourists, visited Korea, which is roughly the monthly average throughout the year.
Unlike some of the other expatriate groups, the British do not have their own specific neighborhood in Seoul. Instead, they are spread out mainly in Itaewon, Hannam-dong, Seongbuk-dong and Pyeongchang-dong, but the community has several organizations in Seoul to bring expatriates together.
Korea’s potential as an export market brings many British businesses and their employees to Seoul. “Korea is a growing market, now being the world’s 12th-largest economy,” said Colin R. McClune, 57, of Shell Pacific Enterprises and the chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, in an e-mail interview.
“In 2003, over 300 British companies visited Korea, and British exports showed a 10 percent increase in the second half of 2003. However, Korea is only the 26th-largest export market from the U.K., and there must be potential to increase British exports significantly. Korea is hungry for what the U.K. has to offer: high technology, quality and high value-added products,” he said.
The biggest British businesses here now, according to Dr. McClune, are food retailer Samsung-Tesco Co. Ltd., energy companies BP and Shell, and banking giant HSBC.
The British Chamber of Commerce, which was founded by seven businessmen in 1977 and now has 250 members, offers support and counsel for those wanting to do business here. It also serves as a social center with various events, such as a monthly luncheon at the Hyatt Hotel.
Additionally, there is an informal networking evening on the last Wednesday of every month at the Westin Chosun or the Millennium Hilton, where members and guest can discuss business issues and other affairs or play the British bar game of darts.
Recreational meetings such as mountain hiking and white-water rafting are common. Theme evenings, such as wine or whisky tastings, are planned this year as well.
Certain members of the business community are also known for making out-of-towners feel more at home.
Gavin Mackay, president of Gavin’s Sausages & Deli and a member of the British Chamber of Commerce, is one such popular figure. Mr. Mackay hardly speaks any Korean, but the Scottish-born businessman has been living in Seoul since September 1985 and has participated and organized some of the recreational events for the British community here.
Mr. Mackay, who was the vice president of Unico Search, started his sausage factory up in Pyeongchang-dong in 2001 after his favorite sausage supplier in Hong Kong closed. Mr. Mackay, who craved a good English-style sausage, went on to make his own, a business that expanded into a small restaurant where many British expatriates hold events or stop by for a few sips of British liquor.
He not only provides a taste of home for the British community but holds various social gatherings, such as a treasure hunt and Christmas parties.
Mr. Mackay and a few friends founded the Seoul British Sausage Society, where they hold sausage competitions and tastings. He is also responsible for some of the galas, including the St. Andrews Ball and Burn’s night. The most famous one is Muckleshunter, an informal cocktail party with Scottish dancing that Mr. Mackay started in 1989, and the Reel of Seoul, which he used to personally choreograph.
His fondness for dancing also has him teaching it to students at the British School within the Seoul Foreign School in Yeonhui-dong, northwestern Seoul, where he had been on the board of directors for eight years.
The British School has 260 students from ages 4 to 13, and it recently opened up its first year of middle school.
Usually students of the British School move on to higher education at the Seoul Foreign School. Mr. Mackay’s son, Ranald, is attending his last year at the Seoul Foreign School.
Mr. Mackay’s wife, Maria, also actively participates in the community. She is a member of the British Association of Seoul (BASS), which is chaired by Brigitte Robbins.
BASS, founded in 1977, is a British organization that does charity work as well as holding cultural and recreational activities for British citizens in Korea. The organization has donated 100 million won ($85,000) to charity.
BASS also organizes the annual ball to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, which is June 5.
The members of BASS gather the last Tuesday of every month at the Hyatt Hotel to discuss various issues. The group also holds tea ceremonies and other cultural experiences and provides information for newcomers as well.
British Embassy employees have a social center at Broughton’s Club in the embassy building. The bar, which stocks Guinness and English ale, is open only on Friday evenings between 5:30 and 10 and only club members and their guests are admitted.
The bar is cozy, with less than enough seats to go around so most people have to stand, but that’s part of its charm.
“I like the pub feeling here,” says Dai Billington, 40, an embassy staff member who has lived in Korea for eight months. “Closer to a British pub.”
So what’s the difference between a British pub compared to a local one? “It’s much darker,” Mr. Billington explains. “The last thing we want is a bright light.”
Mr. Billington volunteered to come to Seoul as he wanted to experience something completely new, something foreign and very different from London. This is his longest stay in Asia.
“Love it here,” he said. “The people are friendly, and food is wonderful, especially kimchi.” He had good things to say about the convenient public transportation, and he praised Seoul as the cleanest city he’s visited.
It’s not just adults who make a niche for themselves here.
Eric Childs, 18, and Katie Childs, 15, have found Seoul to be interesting during their two years here, as does their friend Trevor Howard, 16, who has lived here for six years. Because their parents are British Embassy employees, all three have lived in other countries such as India and Japan.
“On a bigger scale, the people are the same all over the world, but Korea is very different from Britain,” Katie said.
“Korea, although modernized, still holds its oriental values, like having bulgogi burgers at McDonald’s and visiting temples,” Mr. Childs added.
And there’s other entertainment that is hard to find in Britain. Trevor specifically mentioned PC rooms and noraebangs, or karaoke rooms.
“In a lot of ways, things are the same, but Korean teenagers are more family oriented,” Katie said.
Eric, Katie and Trevor have no problems with the language, but sometimes they wish they could blend in more. “This is not home and everyone knows you’re a foreigner here,” Mr. Childs said.
However, it’s not all bad being conspicuous. “Here we stand out, and for that I even modeled and danced as a backup for BoA,” he said.
by Lee Ho-jeong