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Seoul’s invisible Chinese rise up

By Louise do Rosario, Seoul, The Straits Times, 22 October 2000

Unwelcome Guests

The Chinatown in Seoul used to be bigger, say local residents. But hostile government policies and migration have reduced the local Chinese community from its peak of 60,000 people in the 1950s to the current 15,000. The strikingly small number of Chinese in this 40-million country show how uninhabitable the social environment is for them, even though many have lived on the Korean peninsula for generations.

IN A narrow street in downtown Seoul near the Chinese embassy lies one of the smallest Chinatowns in Asia. Here is a Chinese school, a two-storey block housing Taiwan’s government agencies and a few shops selling Chinese food, books and gifts.

The area could easily pass for just another crowded back street in this clogged city except for the heavily guarded Chinese embassy. Near the embassy are shop placards with Chinese characters like Chung Wah (China) and Dai Han (Big Han) Culture, which stand out distinctly amid a sea of Korean letters.

The Chinatown used to be bigger, say local residents, but hostile government policies and migration have reduced the Chinese community from its peak of 60,000 people in the 1950s to the current 15,000.

Most of them work in the embassy, Taiwan-related official outfits and Chinese-related businesses.

The strikingly small number of Chinese in this 40-million country show how uninhabitable the social environment is for them, even though many have lived on the Korean peninsula for generations.

Discrimination is rife, resident Chinese say, in employment, doing business and acquiring nationality.

Even in everyday life, our Korean neighbours are unfriendly, finding excuses to quarrel with us, says a middle-aged Chinese who, except for a few years studying in Taiwan, has lived in South Korea since birth.

Whenever there was a change of political wind in Korea, Chinese, the biggest minority group, were among the first to suffer, local Chinese say.

With each attack or tighter control thousands of Chinese left, mostly for Taiwan, Brazil and North America. Those who remain think of retiring elsewhere. Mr Wang Ching-hao, 47, editor of a local Chinese-language newspaper, said: I plan to retire in my father’s hometown in Shandong where I have relatives. Mr Wang, whose father came to Korea in 1940s as a trader, was born and raised in Korea but does not feel at home. He has never worked in a Korean company.

Mr Wang believes the number of Chinese in Korea will shrink further, especially if China opens up more.

Chinese came to the Korean peninsula a century ago. The earliest settlers, mainly from the port city of Yantai in Shandong, were running away from famine and political unrest in the late Qing dynasty.

Most were labourers and traders in Chinese products such as silk, medicine and rice.

So popular were Chinese goods they grew to account for 40 per cent of Korea’s total imports in 1891, up from 19 per cent in 1885.

The Chinese community grew, from around 200 in 1883 to 12,000 in 1910. Chinese made good money running rice mills, credit cooperatives and distilleries and became major taxpayers.

Political persecution came under Japanese colonial rule of 1910-1945. Tight social controls included restrictions on the number of Chinese workers a building project could employ.

From 1923, it imposed heavy taxes on Chinese imports and eventually banned the import of Chinese silk.

Japan adopted a divide-and-rule policy, encouraging mistrust between the Koreans and Chinese.

Resentment came to a head in July 1931, when Koreans attacked Chinese in revenge for the alleged killing of Korean settlers in Jilin, in north-east China.

In what was the first racial riot in Korean history, 142 Chinese died and 546 were seriously injured.

With the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1945, the Chinese did not have an easy time either. During the iron-fisted rule of President Park Chung Hee between 1961-79, Chinese were restricted from doing business and owning land. Currency reforms further depleted their savings.

Beijing’s support of Pyongyang, the arch-rival of Seoul, made Chinese politically unreliable in the anti-communist South Korea.

Life for resident Chinese has improved in recent years, thanks to Beijing’s new relations with Seoul and the more liberal government policies under president Kim Dae Jung.

For example, the restriction on property ownership, imposed to prevent Chinese and other foreigners from becoming powerful landlords, has been lifted.

In the past, Chinese could own only one property, either a residential unit not bigger than 66 sq m or a commercial unit of 16.5 sq m or less.

Property buying also has become simpler, requiring fewer documents to complete a transaction.

One Chinese recalls: We used to have to produce a massive volume of paper for officials before we could get the lease. Koreans needed few documents.

The new property policy has been welcomed but Wang notes that resident Chinese want urgent reform in three other areas as well:

All such discrimination continues to alienate even the younger Korean Chinese, who, except for their ethnic origins, are no different from local Koreans. A young Korea-born Chinese girl working in a Chinese bookshop says she is not certain where she will put her roots down in future.

I might stay in Korea or I might not. It all depends on how things go, she says.

With a shrinking community, Chinese schools in Korea suffer from a shortage of funds and students. At the primary Chinese school next to the Chinese embassy in Myongdong, the number of students has fallen from the peak of 2,300 to the current 623, says Chin Si-yi, the school’s headmaster. Fees are 240,000 won (S$341) for a three-month term. Half of the students’ mothers are Koreans, he says.

The school, like other long-time Chinese institutions in Korea, has strong links with Taiwan. Calligraphy of former Taiwan president Chiang Ching-kuo and the Taiwan flag adorned Chin’s office. The Taiwan government provides some funding to the school, though not on a regular basis, says Chin.

Local Chinese associations too help to pay for the school’s amenities, he says, pointing to the grass in the playground as one such recent contribution.

While long-time Chinese are leaving Korea, another group of Chinese is flocking into the country: ethnic Koreans from north-east China. They came, with the help of snakeheads, from the north-eastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang by boat and found low-income manual jobs in restaurants, construction sites and small factories.

When South Korea was short of labour, the authorities turned a blind eye to such cheap labour.

But with a slow-growing economy, Seoul is getting tough with such unwelcome guests, expelling overstayers and sharply reducing the number of visas it used to issue so generously.