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[Weekender] Incheon’s 100 years of Chinese diaspora

Checkered history of residents conflicts with Chinatown’s artificial landscape

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Published : 2014-08-01 21:34
Updated : 2014-08-01 21:34

On the busy streets of Korea’s biggest Chinatown in Incheon stands Gonghwachun, one of the most popular Chinese restaurants among tourists to the area. “We hold pride in our 100-year history,” its sign reads.

Not many are aware that the large, four-story restaurant ― inauthentically decorated with red panels and paintings of dragons ― is in fact owned by a Korean, and has no direct link to the original Gongwhachun (1912-1983), the legendary restaurant considered to be the first in Korea to offer jajangmyeon, the beloved localized Chinese noodle dish.

If she and her mother had known more about Korean law, Wang Ae-joo, the granddaughter of the Chinese founder of the original Gonghwachun, would have owned the right to the name of her family business, which lasted for three generations. The Korean owner of the new Gonghwachun bought the restaurant’s trademark in 2001, 18 years after the original closed down. 
Tourists fill the streets of Korea’s biggest Chinatown in Incheon. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Wang, with her husband, owns a small Chinese restaurant named Shinsheungbanjeom, about a five- minute walk from the new Gonghwachun. The property, currently under renovation, is about one-fifth the size of the new Gonghwachun, and relatively ― and ironically ― unknown to tourists and visitors.

“I’ve tried (to regain the name),” the 43-year-old told The Korea Herald. “My mother opened the restaurant that I run now back in 1980, as a second branch of Gonghwachun. At the time, we didn’t know not using the same name would bring such consequences. We’ve had lawsuits (over the name) but it was no use.”

Wang is one of some 10,000 remaining Chinese residents in Incheon’s Chinatown area, where the first Chinese settlers arrived in the late 19th century. Most of them, including Wang, are descendants of farmers and laborers from today’s Shandong province in China, who moved to the port city of Incheon for job opportunities. Wang’s grandfather, Woo Hee-gwang, worked as a laborer in Incheon before founding his own restaurant.

For more than a century, Chinese residents in Incheon were heavily affected by China’s turbulent modern history, as well as South Korea’s discriminatory policies against the Chinese ― especially during Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian regime in the 1960s.

In 1949, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. After the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the only Chinese government, due to its anticommunist political agenda.

While few Chinese residents in Incheon had even visited Taiwan ― most were from Shandong ― they had to obtain Taiwanese citizenship in order to be granted residency status in Korea. “They are from the mainland, but they live in Incheon with Taiwanese citizenship,” a researcher from the National Folk Museum explained.

In 1961, President Park Chung-hee implemented discriminatory policies against the Chinese, including currency reforms and property restrictions, in an attempt to control their economic activities.

“I was told we weren’t allowed have much cash, we couldn’t invest in properties, and we were restricted from engaging in banking activities,” Wang told The Korea Herald. “Many left for other countries at the time, including the U.S. Those who had money left, and those who didn’t have much to lose remained.”

Today, Incheon’s Chinatown is one of the most popular tourist sites in the port city, attracting visitors worldwide. The area is filled with Chinese-style buildings, most of them red, along with historical sites including the property of the original Gongwhachun, which is now a museum on the restaurant’s history and its famous specialty jajangmyeon.

But Incheon’s long-time residents recall the area being far from what one would call “Chinese” before 2002, when the city’s municipal government invested 6.5 billion won ($6.3 million) in a project to revive its Chinatown ― mainly to attract large numbers of visitors from mainland China. They in fact recall there being a lot of Japanese-style buildings ― both residential and historical ― that were built during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea.

“I moved to Incheon from my hometown Gimpo to attend high school in the late 1970s,” said Jang Mi-hee, a tour guide and long-time Incheon resident.

“I just remember the area being ordinary and a little bit shabby, with a lot of Japanese-style buildings. When I was attending high school, I wasn’t too conscious of the Chinese population here. This landscape of Chinatown we see now was practically created artificially in 2002.”

Still, there is evidence of the Chinese residents’ history in the area, including the Joongsan Overseas Chinese School, founded in 1934. The Chinese-language emersion school, which only accepts Chinese residents’ children and a small number of Korean students under special conditions, is named after the pseudonym of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China.

The school, which offers classes from grades 1 to 13, is Wang’s alma mater, as well as the school her daughter is attending. Financed by the Taiwanese government, the school is not legally recognized as an educational institution by the Korean government. The graduates either have to pursue higher education in Taiwan, or apply as foreign students if they wish to attend universities in Korea.

“There were about 60 students in my class, and 30 went to universities in Taiwan. I also moved to Taiwan to attend a Taiwanese university,” said Wang, who spent 10 years in Taiwan and returned to Korea to carry on her family’s restaurant business in Incheon.

“Among the 30, only about 10 came back to Korea. At the time, many of us thought it was best to go to Taiwan and settle down there, as the restrictive policies made it hard for us live in Korea. But things are different now, and it is much easier to do things here. I will let my daughter make her own decisions.”

Wang said many of the Chinese residents make their children attend Korean schools, but it was important for her that her child learn China’s history and language. “I think it’s great to be out there and explore the unknown, and have the freedom to decide where you want to be,” said Wang. “But before making that decision, I think you have to know who you are first. It’s very important. When the city government was turning the original property of Gonghwachun into a museum, they offered to let us use the property’s small space as a restaurant. But we asked them to use that space as a special exhibition section about our grandfather instead. It wasn’t about making profits, but about remembering our past and the tradition.”

The diplomatic relations between South Korea and Taiwan were terminated in 1992, the same year South Korea established diplomatic ties with People’s Republic of China.

Incheon’s Chinatown is now the home for migrants from mainland China, as well as the descendants of the early settlers.

A Chinese woman surnamed Sun has run a small store in Chinatown for about seven years. Among the things in her store are traditional Chinese garments, jewelry made of Chinese jade and jasmin tea. “I am from Shandong, and I know my ancestors moved here before the formation of People’s Republic of China,” she said. “But I want to close the store now. Most of the products I sell now are available at Dongdaemun Market. This area is dominated by Chinese restaurants targeting tourists.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

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