The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - BY HATTY LIU

AChi­nese trav­eler’s re­view of Chi­na­town in In­cheon, South Korea, on travel web­site Mafengwo reads, “In Chi­na­town, you will see a lot of lo­cals and [non-chi­nese] for­eign­ers.” It’s terse, but ac­cu­rate. “Be­fore there was a Chi­na­town, this was the spe­cial area where Chi­nese peo­ple lived.” This was the log­icde­fy­ing ex­pla­na­tion that Gok Myeon­shin, owner of a Chi­nese im­ports shop, gave for the neigh­bor­hood. Born in Korea, to Chi­nese par­ents who im­mi­grated to In­cheon, Gok was just the sec­ond Chi­nese-speaker I’d come across af­ter 30 min­utes in the area. Still, these were better odds than I’d been given by the Turk­ish ice cream seller nearby, who be­lieved there’d be no­body at all. Cer­tainly, I found no Chi­nese-speak­ers that day at the Chi­nese bun shop be­hind him, the Korean-chi­nese Cul­tural Cen­ter, and the Ja­jangmyeon Mu­seum, which com­mem­o­rates black soy­bean-sauce noo­dles from China.

Con­tra­dic­tions piled on as Gok con­tin­ued to talk. “What was here be­fore? There were home­town as­so­ci­a­tions, ev­ery­thing the Chi­nese needed to live, it was a ‘China vil­lage’; I went to school around the cor­ner.” Fol­lowed by, “I’ve been in Chi­na­town since it started, about 12 years ago,” which turned out to be how long ago she’d set up her shop. Though we con­versed in Man­darin, she al­ways said “Chi­na­town” in English, and you in­stinc­tively wanted to cap­i­tal­ize the words like a trade­marked term or an ex­otic va­ca­tion spot: “China Town,” Korea’s of­fi­cial des­ti­na­tion for re­dis­cov­er­ing China.

If In­cheon Chi­na­town felt ar­ti­fi­cial, and Gok’s time­line con­vo­luted, there was good rea­son. While it’s not un­usual for tourism and com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion to dom­i­nate any Chi­na­town in the world to­day, In­cheon’s Chi­na­town was built with this ex­act pur­pose in mind: it is an of­fi­cial tourist zone des­ig­nated by the In­cheon gov­ern­ment, built in the early 2000s to cap­i­tal­ize on boom­ing trade re­la­tions be­tween China and South Korea. The city raised 18 mil­lion USD from Chi­nese in­vestors to cre­ate the cul­tural cen­ter, tra­di­tional signs, and lamp­posts. Build­ings in the neigh­bor­hood, which was then run­down, were re­stored and equipped with his­tor­i­cal Chi­nese fa­cades. The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment of Shan­dong, China, con­trib­uted a Con­fu­cius statue and three tra­di­tional arched gates ( pailou, or paeru), one of which is un­for­tu­nately rainbow-hued and -bulbed like a car­ni­val ride. Like a theme park, you can beat a path from Chi­na­town to a re­stored Ja­pan­town,

Korea’s only Chi­na­town gets the theme park treat­ment 曾经上万华人聚居,如今却乡音难觅, 跨越三个世纪的仁川中华街究竟经历了多少变迁?

and end up some­place called Fairy Tale Vil­lage.

To be fair, In­cheon Chi­na­town is not with­out his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tions. The Korean tourism board’s of­fi­cial his­tory of Chi­na­town starts in 1884, the year this neigh­bor­hood be­came a leased ter­ri­tory to China’s Qing Dy­nasty (1616 – 1911). In the decades that fol­lowed, mi­grants mostly from Shan­dong Prov­ince traded in In­cheon’s port and worked at the docks and the restau­rants to es­cape poverty at home. As lit­er­ary critic Lee Chang-guy, a first-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese im­mi­grant to Korea, has writ­ten, the growth of the early Chi­nese com­mu­nity in Korea was in­versely re­lated to the Korea’s own na­tional strength. Hav­ing started un­der the semi-colo­nial re­la­tion­ship with the Qing, Korea’s Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion reached its peak in num­bers and pros­per­ity in the 1920s when Ja­pan’s colo­nial gov­ern­ment in Korea (1910 – 1945) al­lowed free trade by the Chi­nese as well as West­ern pow­ers. At that time, the Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion in In­cheon was es­ti­mated to be 10,000.

The Ja­panese later cracked down on Chi­nese silk and hemp im­ports. In 1950, the for­mer Chi­nese con­ces­sion was lev­elled by shelling when UN forces landed in In­cheon. But it was dur­ing the mil­i­tary rule of Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 70s, which many South Kore­ans credit with shap­ing the strong eco­nomic foun­da­tions of the coun­try to­day, that the strug­gle be­tween Chi­nese suc­cess and Korean na­tional power came to a head. Leg­is­la­tion in 1961 pro­hib­ited for­eign­ers from own­ing prop­erty in Korea; un­til 1998, the af­ter­math of the Asian Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis, for­eign­ers could not own prop­erty ex­cept un­der a Korean name. Chi­nese im­mi­grants also could not be­come per­ma­nent res­i­dents of Korea un­til 2002—those born and raised there still had to re­new visas ev­ery year.

Ac­cord­ing to Gok, many in her com­mu­nity had their busi­nesses and other prop­erty con­fis­cated in the Park era, in­clud­ing 4,000 square me­ters of land owned by her fam­ily. This was the cat­a­lyst for many to go to other coun­tries or back to China—in this case mainly Tai­wan, where fam­i­lies of early im­mi­grants still had cit­i­zen­ship. “There was a lot of op­po­si­tion to the Chi­nese—they thought we made a lot of money, but took it all to our own coun­try,” Gok said. In 1984, the fa­bled Gonghwachun res­tau­rant, where ja­jangmyeon was said to have been in­vented, closed due to fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and the build­ing fell to ruin. An area res­i­dent, in­ter­viewed by The New York Times in 2007, de­scribed the for­mer Chi­nese con­ces­sion be­fore its facelift as the “most im­pov­er­ished area in Korea be­cause all the Chi­nese had left.”

In the new mil­len­nium, with both coun­tries’ economies soar­ing, the Chi­nese and their his­tor­i­cal connections to In­cheon are being courted again to en­hance the in­ter­na­tional sta­tus of both coun­tries. The in­au­gu­ra­tion of the mod­ern In­cheon Chi­na­town took place in tan­dem with the open­ing of the In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port and the In­cheon Free Eco­nomic Zone, part of the Korean gov­ern­ment’s plan to cre­ate North­east Asia’s premier busi­ness hub by at­tract­ing busi­ness­peo­ple and in­vestors from world­wide. This in­cluded po­ten­tial re­turnees to the for­mer Chi­nese con­ces­sion as well as new en­trepreneurs who might see op­por­tu­nity to set up China-themed busi­nesses. On the Chi­nese side, in­sti­tu­tions like the Korean-chi­nese Cul­tural Cen­ter are an­other av­enue for spread­ing Chi­nese lan­guage, cul­ture, and soft power abroad.

It’s un­clear how Chi­na­town has per­formed as an eco­nomic zone; media out­side Korea crit­i­cize its lack of au­then­tic­ity, and the area still only has a few hun­dred Chi­nese res­i­dents. But as a tourist site, Chi­na­town is flour­ish­ing. Even on a Mon­day morn­ing it thronged with crowds try­ing on Manchu-style hats and strolling as they snacked on gon­gal bread, a dessert that’s not seem­ingly re­lated to any Chi­nese pas­try though it is de­scribed as a “Chi­nese pan­cake” and sold every­where in Chi­na­town.

There is also the area’s sig­na­ture at­trac­tion, ja­jangmyeon, which cap­tures like noth­ing else the unique po­si­tion of the Chi­nese di­as­pora in Korea. A noo­dle dish with soy bean paste ( zha­jiang­mian) that mi­grated from Shan­dong and ac­quired both Korean en­hance­ments (seafood top­ping) and in­ter­na­tional twists (caramel fla­vor­ing), it is the sin­gle-minded goal of din­ers lined up out­side ev­ery res­tau­rant in Chi­na­town, in­clud­ing the re­stored and re­opened Gonghwachun. In Korea, ja­jangmyeon’s Chi­nese ori­gin is ac­knowl­edged, but what’s em­pha­sized is the new life it has taken on in Korea; an es­ti­mated seven mil­lion serv­ings are eaten daily at 24,000 Chi­nese restau­rants na­tion­wide. It is a na­tional sym­bol, the go-to com­fort food for char­ac­ters in tele­vi­sion dra­mas, and sup­posed to be eaten ev­ery April 14 by sin­gle peo­ple to soothe their lonely hearts.

“The res­i­dents of In­cheon…are some­what un­com­fort­able with the seem­ingly con­trived for­eign­ness of places like San Fran­cisco’s Chi­na­town,” Lee has writ­ten. For Gok also, the prospect of being as­sim­i­lated into Korean so­ci­ety given their fraught his­tory brings up more am­biva­lence. “I wouldn’t go back in China, I wouldn’t fit in; many of us be­came nat­u­ral­ized Kore­ans but I haven’t, I’m kind of un­will­ing to let go and be ex­actly like [Kore­ans].” But day-to-day? “We do all the same things they do, and in our chil­dren’s gen­er­a­tion they al­ready can’t tell the dif­fer­ence,” she said.

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