Celebrating 100 years of jajangmyeonJUNG District, Incheon ― Once a bleak, poverty-stricken alley where a dozen or so Chinese eateries were scattered around the block, the place looked very different from the Chinatown that many immigrants from Shandong province, northeastern China, might have imagined when they started settling here in 1884.
The streets of this western city, the closest to China’s mainland, are now cleaner, decorated with flying banners and stylish street lamps and its buildings revamped. Behold the power of noodles.
The town, backed by the provincial government, is promoting the 100th anniversary of its famous noodle dish, jajangmyeon, a Koreanized version of the Chinese dark noodles in bean sauce. The dish is one of the most popular take-out orders in Korea, so much so that the words “Chinese food” are now synonymous with noodles dripping in soy sauce.
Yet many don’t know that jajangmyeon isn’t from China and that the dish is a creation of nostalgic Chinese harbor workers in Incheon. The dish is derived from a Chinese noodle called zhajiangmin, which is much saltier, with a thicker sauce with minced meat and potatoes. The Korean version is sweeter, more watery and has plenty of onions.
The town was bustling with people browsing through shops selling Chinese moon cakes and CDs of Mao A Min, a popular Chinese singer. The main entrance to the Chinatown was newly painted in brilliant red ― the color of good fortune in China.
“This is how it should have been a long time ago,” said Ho Chuan Kuei, 48-year-old Chinese cook who was born and raised here. His father, also a cook, was drafted by the communists to fight in the Korean war in 1950. “We are just a group of hard-working people in a foreign country, but Korea did not seem to like us very much.”
Some would joke that Korea would be the only place Chinese immigrants couldn’t settle, mainly because past Korean governments banned foreigners from buying land. In addition, the administrations of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee clamped down on the Chinese community by pushing laws restricting their ability to trade, reside and exchange currency. Most of the regulations were in place until 1998.
Mr. Ho’s family was one of few who decided to stay in Korea. Despite the prejudice, he calls Incheon his home, because he was born there.
The port in Incheon, or Jemulpo, as it was known before the war, was crowded with Chinese workers when it opened in the late 19th century. The workers used bean sauces and vegetables to create a recipe similar to zhajiangmin. Korean workers liked it, saying the Chinese dish was good, “despite the strange black color.” The Koreans called it jajangmyeon.
In 1905, the first jajangmyeon restaraunt, Gong Hwa Chun, opened here. Because no one knows who first invented jajangmyeon, Gong Hwa Chun’s birth is considered the founding date for the black noodle dish. This year, the city is planning a massive festival to celebrate the dish’s anniversary. The Chinese here welcome the event. So does Mr. Ho, whose career began as a young cuisine chef at Gong Hwa Chun.
“I remember the fame, the grand building the restaurant was known for back then,” he said. “It was the gathering place for elegant weddings and birthday parties.”
It was luck that allowed Mr. Ho to get a job there, he said. Growing up as a poor Chinese kid who got picked on and was called names because he was a son of a poor cook ― as were most of the town’s Chinese residents ― he said that at Gong Hwa Chun he learned how to cook real northern Chinese food like that in Beijing and Shandong.
He started out as a waiter in 1974 and became a chef three years later. He was the restaurant’s last chef when it shut down in 1981.
La Yong-gu, an official helping the city promote the jajangmyeon festival, said the number of jajangmyeon restaurants in Korea has now reached 20,000. It still has a rather unpretentious image, though, for its low cost. (A bowl of jajangmyeon these days still costs about 3,000 won, roughly $3.)
Mr. La said Gong Hwa Chun’s demise in the 1970s probably reflects the overall decline in the Chinese community at that time, which progressively got poorer at a time when the country overall was getting richer.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the town of former harbor workers started to catch up with the rest of the country. After South Korea and China broke diplomatic ground in 1992, the provincial government designated the town as a special tourism zone and welcomed more Chinese to Korea for work and school. The alleys in Mr. Ho’s neighborhood were soon paved, and bigger and cleaner diners filled the empty spots left by past restaurants like Gong Hwa Chun. A Chinese food chef with Korean nationality even moved into the town to build a three-story building recently. He named it Gong Hwa Chun.
Mr. Ho recently opened a Chinese restaurant of his own near the main entrance of Chinatown. Asked if he missed working for the old Gong Hwa Chun, he said he was proud of what he is now, which is one reason he kept his Chinese nationality despite living all his life in Korea.
“It is our dream to own a restaurant, to become your own chef,” he said. The secret of making good jajangmyeon is to make a really good dough, he said. Nowadays, the noodles are made from a mechanical noodle-maker, but in the past, a jajangmyeon chef was judged on how thin and chewy he could make the noodles.
During the jajangmyeon festival this weekend, Mr. Ho will compete with chefs from China to see who can make the thinnest and strongest noodles.
He had already met a chef from China named Zhang Bo. Mr. Zhang is 27 years old, but has been making the noodle dough for 10 years. He mentioned that many dough-makers in China were young these days, due to the hard labor involved ― the heavy dough has to be flipped up in the air for several hours.
by Lee Min-a
The Jajangmyeong festival starts today and runs throughout the weekend at Incheon’s Chinatown. It can be reached from Incheon station, the last station on subway line No. 1.
About 20 jajangmyeon restaurants will participate in the festival and be offering 1,000 won discounts on the dish.
Also included in the event will be dragon and lion parades from China, Singapore and Taiwan at Incheon station across from Chinatown.