[FOUNTAIN]New presence for an old part of Korean lifeThe modern history of Chinese immigration to Korea began in 1882, when the merchants of the Ching Dynasty followed the army of the Chinese empire that occupied the Korean Peninsula during the military revolt in 1882.
They settled in Myeong-dong, Sogong-dong and Gwansu-dong in Seoul and Seonlin-dong in Incheon. In fact, Myeong-dong, one of the busiest districts in Seoul, was developed by the Chinese merchants. They considered Myeong-dong the stepping-stone for their penetration into the Korean market, and built an expansive commercial quarter. In the 1930s, the heyday of the Chinese merchants, nearly 120,000 ethnic Chinese resided in Korea.
But after independence from Japan, new regulations and discriminative treatment discouraged the local Chinese community, and it dwindled to about 22,000 people. Currently, the only Chinatown in the country is in Incheon, but the number or residents there has decreased from several thousand to a mere 300 or so.
The fall of Chinatown is an exhibition of the exclusive structure of Korean society. The Chinatown in Sogong-dong, Seoul, disappeared in the early 1970s during a project to rebuild the central area. The Seoul city government had promised that it would build a new 18-story Chinese community center in return for clearing a Chinese business center in front of City Hall. But the promise was not kept, and the frustrated Chinese merchants sold off their remaining land and left the country, recalls Son Jeong-mog, a professor emeritus of the University of Seoul who was a city official at the time.
Another crisis hit the Chinese community in 1992 when Seoul began diplomatic relations with Beijing. Many Chinese here with Taiwan citizenship left the country after the change.
But the Chinese are coming back, and the recent boom owes to Koreans’ increased interest in China. The Korea Chinese Business Association has signed an agreement with the city of Incheon to build a Chinatown named “Rich Valley” on Yeongjong Island. The government is eager to attract capital from the 30 million overseas Chinese.
The Chinatown will be a sign of Korean globalization, but it might also be a prelude to Chinese influence in Korea, where the United States has been the dominant foreign influence.
by Lee Se-jung
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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