Did you know that there is an unofficial Chinatown in Seoul, with many Chinese migrants mingling in Korean society? That is Daerim-dong in Yeongdeungpo District, Seoul. However, there is still room for debate over the existence of the area because of the mounting tensions between Korea and China caused by the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Concerns regarding North Korean nuclear threats are also a big part of that. Marking the 25th year of diplomatic ties with China this year, The Argus visited Daerim-dong, which was given the name of “Little China in Seoul.”
What is Daerim-dong?
Daerim-dong is Seoul’s unofficial Chinatown, along with one official Chinatown in the port city of Incheon, Korea, where the first Chinese neighborhood dates back to 1884. Recently, however, Chinese migrants seeking higher wages and a better life have settled in Daerim-dong. Korean-Chinese residents named Daerim-dong “Chinese Dongpo Town,” with “dongpo” implying Korean ethnicity.
How Daerim-dong came to be
Chinese-dominated neighborhoods were originally in Garibong-dong and Guro-dong. There used to be huge factories in these two areas back in the 1960s-1990s, and slums filled with poor people and laborers who worked at the Guro industrial complex were not a rare sight.
Garibong-dong and Guro-dong became areas with dense populations of mainland Chinese immigrants at the end of the 1990s after China and South Korea opened diplomatic relations. They were mainly Korean-Chinese, who are known as Joseon-jok in Korea. Returning to the land of their ancestors was something they took into account, but potential economic opportunity was the main point of attraction that kept them living in this area.
As redevelopment was undertaken in those two areas, migrant Chinese residents moved to Daerim-dong. Once a quiet residential area, Daerim-dong sprang to life with the influx of Chinese migrants. Convenient transportation also played an important role for them to choose Daerim-dong as their home.
The very first step to Daerim-dong
The Argus arrived at Daerim Station at nine in the morning. Heading out of exit number 12 of Daerim Station along subway lines number two and seven, the reporter encountered an endless line of restaurants and stores with signboards all in Chinese characters; some of them were written both in Korean and Chinese. With the simplified Chinese letterings, a row of traditional red lanterns was seen, making the reporter feel as if she were strolling down a street in China. The streets were filled with the fragrance of Chinese spices. Everything in Daerim-dong was created in a way that was close to what would typically be seen in China.
People who were busy getting ready for the day to start could be spotted with ease on the street ? a mixture of vendors, residents, and outsiders who came to visit Daerim-dong. Among the vendors who were busy opening their stores, The Argus met Mr. Zhao, a Yanbian native, who runs a mom-and-pop store. He came to Korea in 2003 for a job and has a special bond with Daerim-dong for about 14 years. “In the past, college graduates and people with good jobs were willing to give up their careers to come to South Korea for jobs, and I was one of them. staying in cheap basement apartments while receiving comparatively higher wages than those of China, allowed me to open up a store of my own here at last,” said Zhao. According to him, almost every Chinese and Korean-Chinese tried their best to find their spot in Korea.
Nearly 40 percent of the commercial stores in Daerim-dong are run by ethnic Korean-Chinese or Chinese, and two out of five children attending elementary school are from such families, according to Daerim 2-dong Office. Currency exchange offices, employment agencies, and travel agencies were everywhere. The reporter moved onto Daerim Jungang Market to go deeper and find out the real appeal of Daerim-dong.
Glimpse of the Daerim Jungang Market
The strongest Chinese vibes resonated at the Daerim Jungang Market. The market really was a slice of “China in Seoul,” as the streets were lined with restaurants and stores all with simplified Chinese signboards. Most are restaurants catering to Chinese workers and shops selling imported foodstuffs from China. Most of the passersby here spoke Mandarin, and hearing someone speak in Korean came as a brief moment of serendipity. “This is my first time to come here in Daerim-dong and I was surprised about the fact that this place mirrors the real market in China. I never thought I would find a place like this in Korea,” said a Korean visitor who lives in Seoul.
A slew of outdoor vendors were selling various kinds of Chinese snacks and dishes. “In China, we usually eat bread for breakfast, or just make it simple by buying something in the market,” said Ms. Jin, a Korean-Chinese vendor. In the stalls were a lightly salted fried doughnut stick youtiao, twisted bread stick mahwa, traditional Chinese bread baozi, Chinese crepes jianbing, and Chinese dumplings xianbing. Tea eggs bubbling in soy sauce in rice cookers were sold next to some stalls with them. They are popular with Chinese nationals who live and work here, one of the largest Chinese-dominated areas in the South Korean capital. Not only are they easily accessible, but they are also a taste of home.
Though one country, China has allowed for many different types of Chinese cuisine to develop. Grocery stores had a wide but rare range of Chinese items stacked on their shelves, such as spices, snacks, liquor and instant noodles. The market was filled with scallions, and cilantro that cannot be easily found in the markets in Korea. Chinese-style sausages ssangchang, and dog meat, considered a delicacy in some parts of China were also available.
Mooncakes, often eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival, were on one side of a stall. From almond to strawberry and pineapple, they varied in flavor. There was “chapssal soondae” in the back, Korean sausage stuffed with sticky rice. “You should try this,” said a Korean-Chinese vendor who runs a business here. Chapssal soondae was slightly different from that of the traditional Korean version. The pig blood and sticky rice inside were substitutes for the more commonly found cellophane noodles. The vendor said this kind of sundae reminds her of a certain memory she had in mainland China.
Restaurants in the market sold authentic Chinese food. Even though some of the signs were written in Korean, there was no Korean food. It was lunch time when The Argus finished wandering around the market, and the streets started to become packed with people who came to grab a bite to eat. After leaving the market, there was a small hair salon in which both the hairdresser and customers seemed to enjoy their time together on the weekend ? their laughter filled the air.
Into the lives of Chinese-Koreans
Residents from China created their own community ever since they came to Korea, which caused an emotional clash between Koreans and Chinese. Middle-aged men were drinking alcohol with friends and chattering loudly in the middle of the day. This is apparently a common practice in China, but is not commonly seen here in South Korea.
Some foreigner-dominant places are often seen as a place where crime occurs on a frequent basis. Daerim-dong, in particular, was labelled a ghetto by Korean media and deemed rowdy and uncouth. Xenophobia has also grown since the high-profile coverage of at least three cases of Korean-Chinese men killing and dismembering their victims. Therefore, Daerim-dong and its people have been the first to suffer whenever something happens related to China.
Recently, Chinese living in Korea asked for a public apology over the movie, “Midnight Runners (2017),” which they claim mischaracterized them as “poor, vicious criminals.” “I felt discomfort about the way the Chinese were depicted in the film,” said a 28-year-old Chinese visitor who would only give his surname, Quan. The story is about two police trainees who witness a Chinese gang kidnapping children for organ trafficking. In the film, the Daerim District, a neighborhood predominately populated by Chinese, is portrayed as a dangerous area where even police have lost control. The criminal is a Korean-Chinese man who works at a sheep BBQ restaurant, and skewers are changed into weapons out of nowhere. “Chinese have been unfairly treated even though we have contributed much to Korea’s economy and culture. I remember once being asked if I had ever taken a shower when I first moved to Seoul three years ago.” He was surprised that people in South Korea know so little about the developments and living standards in China.
A 50-year-old Korean-Chinese vendor, surnamed Chen, who has experienced both cultures, admitted that there exists a fair amount of difference between the two cultures. “The thing is, Koreans look at us differently. They think we are hot-tempered and not cultured. It is such a pity that the Korean media, who needs to work harder to promote a multicultural society, exaggerates the reality of the situation,” said Chen.
Chinese and Korean-Chinese citizens are trying their hardest to improve the area’s image as a safe and lively one. According to the Daerim-dong precinct station, the crime rate had dropped 22 percent compared to the latter half of the last year. Efforts to promote the Daerim-dong area are made by residents through security surveillance and volunteer safety patrols. “I am sure that residents are currently working on revitalizing the neighborhood streets in Daerim-dong so everyone can live together harmoniously. Most people believe the misconception that Daerim-dong has higher crime rates than any other area,” said a policeman handling foreign residents.
Daerim-dong is a place where ‘people’ live. South Korea is the country they have chosen to live in, and will live until they die. People here start the morning and call it a day just like everybody else. The only difference with other areas is that it is the place where Chinese people live on their soil.
Korean residents often complain that an influx of foreigners will dampen property prices due to increased crime rates and negative perceptions of Chinese nationals. With a xenophobic attitude toward people, however, real multicultural society cannot be possible. Chinese neighbors are calling for a more open-minded, warm-hearted attitude from the Korean people. Understanding their situation may help us to create a harmonious society to live in.
Reporter of National Section