The faces of Korea’s ChinatownRed pillars soaring to the sky, a grand gate as an entrance to another world, a stone lion statue with bulging eyes, red paper lanterns and women in tight traditional dresses are familiar images of Chinatowns in films and novels. Yet such a Chinatown doesn’t exist in Korea, even though there are 20,000 Chinese living here.
The Chinese came to Korea for the first time in 1882, when the Qing Dynasty army came to quell the riot by the Joseon Dynasty army. Later, a large number of Chinese merchants settled in Incheon, which had a direct sea route to Shandong province, China. They created a Chinatown and expanded their business clout, but a series of measures by the Korean government, such as restrictions on foreign ownership of land and currency reform, prompted an exodus of Chinese from Korea. Bukseong district in Incheon, where Chinatown once existed, turned into a slum.
Now Chinatown is about to be restored under a redevelopment plan, and the local Chinese, who are used to eating kimchi and speak fluent Korean, say they no longer have hard feelings.
Our two-part series will take a closer look at the reviving Chinatown in Incheon.
Feet carried shop owner to Incheon
As he braced himself for a new life in a country on a small peninsula, a foot massage shop owner in China got on board a ferry bound for Incheon’s harbor. He was leaving all his family back home while bringing several masseurs along with him.
Yu Hyo-young, 50, is the owner of the foot massage shop Huaharyangze. Unlike other Chinese-Koreans, whose ancestors entered Korea 100 years ago, Mr. Yu arrived within the past year. His business is rather unfamiliar to people here, even to other Chinese-Koreans.
Mr. Yu managed foot massage and souvenir shops in China and has a traditional Chinese tea factory in Shandong province. He came to Korea because of an invitation by the Jung district office Mayor Kim Hong-sub. The mayor once enjoyed a foot massage at Mr. Yu’s shop in China that was popular with Korean tourists. The experience was so good that Mr. Kim suggested that Mr. Yu open a business in Incheon.
Mr. Yu opened a massage parlor in July in Incheon’s Chinatown. He said he charges less than he did in China for a one-hour massage (20,000 won, or $18).
However, business did not go as smoothly as he hoped. The seven employees accompanying him were deported back to China because they were working on tourist visas, and Mr. Yu had to pay a fine of several million won as well.
Mr. Yu brought in other workers on work visas, but the recent government crackdown on prostitution continued to affect his business because many massage shops were fronts for prostitution.
It was also difficult to receive a business license for foot massage as a foreigner. Mr. Yu had to re-register his business as a Chinese tea store that also offered foot massages.
Despite the bureaucratic hassles Mr. Yu has had to face, more Chinese business people are coming to Incheon to explore their prospects here.
“When explanatory sessions are held in China to invite more Chinese businessmen to Incheon, the halls where the events are held are full,” said Choi Jin-gyu, an official of the Jung district tourism office. “When it becomes easier for Chinese to receive visas, Chinatown will benefit from it.”
His massage shop’s sales have been disappointing, but Mr. Yu said he has no plan to pack up and move out. Instead, he plans to diversify the types of teas he sells and open a Chinese tea cafe.
Tastes of two nations mingling
You cannot say you’ve been to Chinatown without enjoying gourmet restaurants there. From the Koreanized Chinese food to stylish fusion Chinese cuisine, Incheon’s Chinatown boasts more than 20 restaurants.
The food here also tells the history of both the glory and grudges of the Korean-Chinese in one of the few countries in the world where overseas Chinese could not make it big.
One of the most well-received Koreanized Chinese dishes, jjajangmyeon, was born in Incheon’s Chinatown. When the Incheon port was opened in 1883 to foreign powers, an influx of Chinese immigrants caused houses to sprout up in Bukseong-dong and Seonrin-dong in Incheon, which is the site of today’s Chinatown.
This naturally led to the establishment of Chinese restaurants. Workmen at the wharf, the restaurants’ regular customers, especially liked the noodles with black bean sauce in a style served in Shantung, northeastern China. The spicy black bean sauce attracted not only Chinese residents but also Korean locals, which gave birth to today’s jjajangmyeon.
Another popular Koreanized Chinese dish, jjamppong, noodles with soup and seafood, also finds its origin here. Up until the 1960s, chefs at such restaurants served the soup without hot pepper spices, which did not please Korean customers, who ended up adding hot pepper powder. In the 1960s, however, the price for hot pepper skyrocketed, and restaurateurs decided to serve the soup with hot pepper oil rather than powder.
Chinatown saw its heyday during the Japanese colonial rule in Korea, when Incheon was a base for trade between Korea and China. High-end restaurants were always busy with customers, holding parties for high-ranking government officials every weekend. The happy days disappeared, however, after the Korean War and the following military regimes in the 1970s.
Korea and China cut diplomatic ties after the war and the military regime passed a law that limited foreigners’ ownership of land, which severely hurt Chinese residents, 95 percent of whom left Korea. A restaurateur says, “I had to give up my business here and move to Osaka, where I spent 11 years before coming back.”
In the 1990s, however, Chinatown had its renaissance. Korea normalized diplomatic ties with China and discrimination against foreigners lessened. Now Chinatown welcomes all visitors who seek out good food.
Chinese master of kung fu
A small, sad-looking building in Chinatown houses the only Chinese kung fu master in Korea.
At Ching Mu Mun, one can visit Bi Shu Xin, 45, an expert in a style of kung fu that branched out from South Shaolin.
His school has seen better days. “In the 1980s, there were more than 100 students,” he said. “But in the 1990’s, the number dramatically declined. Now I have only about 20 students.”
For Mr. Bi, the “spring time” was in the 1980s. When he opened a kung fu center in Gimpo, there were several other kung fu centers in the area, which were hostile toward this new kung fu master.
“When I was about to close my center, kung fu teachers from other centers wanted to have a match with me. To continue the business, I had to say yes. And there were some dangerous matches, too,” he recalled.
However, Mr. Bi defeated those challengers. At that time, the loser of the fight couldn’t continue his business. After the match, the loser would come to him with the ownership papers and ask Mr. Bi to take over his center.
“So I once owned three centers. But I couldn’t handle more than that,” he said.
Mr. Bi first learned Hong style kung fu from Yu Sun-hwa, 60, who currently owns a Chinese restaurant in Incheon’s Chinatown. Mr. Yu was a judge for the Chinese kung fu competition held in Taiwan in 1977, and his student Mr. Bi joined his teacher on the trip. There, Mr. Bi was stunned by the different types of kung fu on display. Mr. Yu, seeing Mr. Bi’s passion for learning the kung fu styles, told him, “Go and learn them.”
“My master (Mr. Yu) really was amazing. At that time, letting your student go to learn different styles of kung fu was not even to be imagined,” said Mr. Bi.
In 1983, when Mr. Bi came back to the town and opened his own center, Mr. Yu closed his center and opened up a Chinese restaurant, partly because he thought that his teaching style had become too old-fashioned for the younger generation, but mostly because he wanted to help his student to be successful.
In 2000, Mr. Bi moved his kung fu center to Incheon’s Chinatown after the district office began promoting the development of the area. Unfortunately, he said, the number of students he has now is too small. But he remains optimistic.
“The future is not that dark. Chinatown is just waking up now. Ching Mu Mun will be crowded with students one day,” he said.
by Kim Pil-kyu, Choi Min-woo, Lee Hoon-beom