[Documents menu] Documents menu

The changing face of a working-class neighborhood

By Min Seong-jae <iamfine@joongang.co.kr>, JoongAng Ilbo, 17 February 2003

On a Sunday afternoon, several Chinese on a street in Garibong-dong, southwestern Seoul, are eating grilled skewered snacks. Chinese dialects are frequently heard on the street. Signs entirely in Chinese outnumber those in hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

Nearly every big city on earth has a Chinatown, some big some small. But, Seoul, a city of more than 10 million people and a short trip from the Chinese mainland, has never had a large Chinese community.

Recently, a Chinese community, albeit with a twist, has begun to form on the southwestern edge of the city. Garibong-dong and Guro-dong, in the Guro district of Seoul, are home to more than 25,000 Chinese and hundreds of Chinese shops, restaurants and other small businesses. The twist is that these immigrants are actually ethnic Koreans from China.

Since 1999, when Korea started to import foreign workers because of labor shortages in so-called 3-D (dirty, difficult and dangerous) jobs, many ethnic Koreans from China have settled in the area, which is located near the industrial complexes where many of them work.

The area is emblematic of the history of Korea’s modernization and the bright and dark sides of the fast growth of capitalism here. The Guro Industrial Complex was a workhorse of the economic growth in the 1970s. Since the complex opened, the Guro area has been home to the minorities of Korean society.

In the ’70s underaged girls, mostly poor and uneducated, toiled in the complex’s garment factories. They came to Seoul from all over the country to work.

While they contributed a great deal to the economy, the work was hard and the conditions often brutal. Some laborers even burned themselves to death in protest of the desperate working conditions.

Though conditions at the Guro factories are better now, many, including the ethnic Koreans who work there, say the improvements have been minor.

Because of the poor conditions and Korea’s growing affluence, fewer people were willing to work in the factories in the 1990s. That’s when foreign workers stepped in. The majority are ethnic Koreans from China, and most of them stay here illegally. Korea, which used to send its workers abroad as miners, nannies, nurses and construction workers a couple of decades ago, now plays host to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.

I came to Korea to earn money, said one Korean-Chinese, who asked that his name not be used. Here I can earn much more than in China. He said Korea is a land of opportunity.

To make his Korean dream come true, he works longer hours than Korean workers and lives in a tiny room in Garibong-dong that he rents for 150,000 won ($125) a month.

But many of the old textile factories and assembly lines have recently been replaced by high-tech start-ups and other cutting-edge industries. Most of the Korean-Chinese are unskilled, which means, some say, their days of working here are likely to be numbered.

If they are forced to go, who will take their place in the Guro district?