Once shunned, Chinese in Korea courted again

Proponents of a project to build a Chinatown from the ground up seek investment from overseas Chinese.

Chef Dan Yong Bal is successful enough to be expanding his business by building a new function hall down the street from his Chinese restaurant. But in this typical Korean neighborhood, you have to look closely to spot other Chinese shops, or the little kiosks down the street that Mr. Dan cheerfully says sell dumplings "just like the ones in China."

A vibrant Chinese community is conspicuously absent here, despite centuries of Chinese influence on Korean culture. And while the Chinese have long had high profiles in commerce across Asia, years of institutional discrimination have kept ethnic Chinese an unempowered and shrinking minority in Korea.

Now local organizers have a $1.1 billion plan to attract more Chinese-owned businesses: They want to build a Chinatown from scratch. The proposed complex of hotels, shopping malls, apartments, offices, a public garden - and yes, Chinese restaurants - is intended to lure back a missing population.

When South Korea was formed in 1948, about 60 percent of Korean trade was conducted by ethnic Chinese. For a new government of a poor country, "it was only natural to want more Koreans in business," says Park Eun Kyong, a Korean researcher at Yonsei University in Seoul, who has studied the ethnic Chinese.

South Korea restricted land ownership and instituted discriminatory laws against foreigners in the 1960s; the Chinese were the only group sizably represented. Since they could not own businesses on their own, foreigners had no recourse if their Korean business partners cheated them. Many ethnic Chinese left for Taiwan or the US. The number of Chinese in South Korea has shrunk from 150,000 then to less than 20,000 today.

In 1998, Asia's economic crisis forced the government to rethink its rules and to begin actively courting overseas Chinese capital. New voting rights allow Chinese and other long-term foreign residents to vote in local elections. Foreigners can now own land, but obtaining Korean citizenship still requires a personal guarantee from a high-level government official.

Phil Yang, a professor of Chinese studies at Konkook University in Seoul, became part of the government's drive to woo Chinese investment after the Chinatown idea he hatched in 1997 started to catch on. "In the long run, we need strong ties with the Chinese people ... but there is no gateway for Chinese in Seoul," says Mr. Yang.

The 67-acre project is sited on one of the last open pieces of land in the capital. Near central Seoul, the neighborhood used to be home to a racetrack. Decades ago, Chinese markets sold vegetables and coal briquettes there.

A new Chinatown is expected to stimulate the local economy and build bridges to overseas Chinese. And Yang hopes it could open Koreans to other cultures. Koreans may go abroad to work and study, but "we need some kind of internal globalization. We must learn how to live with people who are different from us," he says.

Some Chinese are skeptical that people will come to live in Seoul's ready-made Chinatown. While Yang says he's "very positive" and has hired more staff to lobby the government and look for investors, Seoul City Hall would not comment on the project's feasibility. Yang himself admits to frustrations with uniting a Chinese community with personal economic interests and divided loyalties to governments in Taiwan and mainland China.

Nevertheless, Chinese-Koreans welcome the changes that are increasing their rights.

"From the time Korea established its independent government, the [one] thing we have wished for was to receive equal treatment [like] the other Korean people," says Liu Kuo Hsing, president of the Seoul Chinese Residents' Association.

Others like restaurateur Dan are more upbeat. "I think we already have a Chinatown here," says Dan, who talks about the neighboring karaoke bars that play Chinese songs. It doesn't bother him that he was born in Korea but isn't a citizen. He finds Koreans quite sympathetic. As Yang's plan generates more media interest in the Chinese-Korean community, newspaper articles about the Chinese-Koreans' plight are prompting Dan's customers to wonder "whether it's true and ask, 'is there anything we can do?' " Dan says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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