Foreigners transform neighborhoods

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Foreigners transform neighborhoods

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The streets of Wongok-dong in Ansan, Gyeonggi, resemble a foreign country as two-thirds of the city’s 87,000 population are foreigners. The large foreign community has changed the neighborhood’s businesses. By Kim Jung-yoon

ANSAN, GYEONGGI - There’s an area in Wongok-dong, Ansan, Gyeonggi, in which you can barely tell you’re in Korea.

Exotic signs beckon outside stores on Ansan’s most multicultural street. The vibrant marketplace is filled with foreign workers buying things from abroad or just hanging out.

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“Most of the stores here are owned by foreigners, and the foreign workers from around 60-something countries created the market over the past 20 years,” said a real-estate agent in the Ansan Multicultural Village Special Zone. “Without them, there would not be a market created. Almost no Koreans live here.”

Two-thirds of Ansan’s 87,000 populations is non-Korean and a quarter of almost 1,400 stores are owned by foreigners.

The foreign community in this Gyeonggi neighborhood has been swollen by newcomers from emerging Asian economies ranging from India and Pakistan to Indonesia and Vietnam, seeking their fortunes while working on local factory lines. So has the number of businesses they established such as supermarkets and restaurants.

Ansan is just one Korean community where foreigners have moved into what was once a totally homogenous society.

The number of foreigners living in Ansan has risen from 30,784 from 55 countries in 2007 to 41,179 from 56 countries in 2010 and 58,100 from 67 countries as of June 2013, according to Ansan City Hall. Around 70 percent of all residents in the multicultural special village in Wongok-dong in Danwon-gu, Ansan, are foreigners.

According to research conducted on economic trends in the commercial area of the multicultural village between July 4 and Aug. 20 by the Ansan Migrant Community Service Center, 11,996 foreigners accounted for 70 percent of the economically active population while 5,146 Koreans accounted for the remaining 30 percent.

The number of businesses in the multicultural village are 1,368, and 349 are foreign establishments. As foreigners flocked to the town, monthly rents and jeonse, or two-year housing contracts, have also been rising.

The foreign residents and workers have also expanded to nearby Siheung-si, Gyeonggi.

The business landscape of other areas has been changing as well, particularly in Seoul.

As of the end of August 2013, the number of foreign residents in Korea was estimated to have reached nearly 1.54 million, according to the Ministry of Justice.

As a result, in areas where foreigners live, commercial establishments are targeted at them.

This has long been the case in Itaewon, Korea’s leading foreign town; Seorae Village, a small French enclave in Banpo-dong; Dongbu-Ichon-dong, home to many Japanese residents; Hannam-dong, where a large German community lives; and Garibong-dong, where ethnic Koreans from China have created Yanbian Village.

“We started as a small international grocery store in Itaewon, but a lot of Koreans visit the store as well,” said a shop owner at the Foreign Food Mart in Itaewon. “Now that our sales have grown, we’re even considering making it a franchise, and many Koreans have shown interests.”

The market opened in 1993 and became known through word of mouth. Consumers can find sauces and spices from many countries.

American burger shops, pubs, Thai restaurants and exotic cafes line the lanes of Haebangchon-gil in Yongsan-dong, central Seoul, around the corner from Itaewon’s main street. With a relatively quiet atmosphere, they are attracting not only foreigners but also young Koreans.

“Specialized restaurants have opened in the area and young people tend to enjoy visiting exotic places, so the demand for commercial buildings and commercial houses here have increased,” said a real-estate agent in Haebangchon.

Store rents and key money are also rising. According to FR Investment, the average rent for Commercial stores, which was around 1.7 million won ($1,600) to 2.6 million won in 2011, has gone up to 2.2 million won to 3.7 million won.

Gyeongridan Road, just across the street from Haebanchon, which runs up to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, is also emerging commercially as a center of restaurants and bars for foreigners and their Korean friends.

The multicultural retail industry is not only confined to offline stores in exotic streets, but is also online.

Asia-mart.co.kr and yum.co.kr import and retail various sauces, spices, snacks and drinks from Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Pmangshop.com retails Southeast Asian, Japanese and Italian spices and foods through its online mall. Wellcook.com sells all kinds of quality ingredients such as cheeses, sauces, salami, bacon and caviar imported from various countries.

These online shopping malls are growing in popularity not only for foreign residents in Korea but also for Koreans who wish to experience the foods they encountered while traveling abroad, or to cook dishes for special occasions.

According to the online Asia Mart, the number of its members has been growing steadily every year since it opened in 2003.

“Young housewives in their 20s to 30s, as well as housewives from overseas, tend to visit a lot as multicultural families expand. We directly import some of the 1,400 food products from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Japan, or through import wholesalers,” said a spokesman for Asia Mart.

“Compared to several years ago, the number of these online shopping malls is increasing in Korea as a new type of business.”

The financial industry is also catering to the growing foreign communities.

In recent years, banks have been ramping up their services for foreign workers. Previously those services were targeted at expats from Western economies. Now they are targeting expats from emerging economies.

The financial industry estimates the number of foreign customers at Korean banks have grown from roughly 3.4 million at the end of last year to 3.7 million as of the third quarter this year.

KB Kookmin Bank is believed to have the largest number of foreign customers at over 1 million, while Korea Exchange Bank follows closely with nearly 830,000.

Korean banks are enhancing their services, which include increasing the number of branches in foreign-dominated neighborhood and keeping them open until late in the evening.

KEB has branches in 12 foreigner-heavy communities, including one in Ansan, while Hana Bank and Shinhan Bank are operating branches that open even on weekends.

Foreign employees work late at night and often can’t take breaks from their jobs to visit the bank.

“In a situation where banks’ profitability has been shrinking due to the saturated market and low interest rates, the growing foreign community is a new revenue resource,” said an official in the industry.

“To attract more foreign clients they have stepped up their services both online and via mobile by not only offering English or Japanese services on their Web sites but also Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese as well as stepping up smartphone-based services.”

BY KIM JUNG-YOON [kjy@joongang.co.kr]

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