Long history of Chinese moving to Korea

Mr Piao Guangxuan moved from Heilongjiang in north-eastern China to Seoul in 2004 in search of his Korean roots.

He said his Korean grandfather and Chinese grandmother were separated because of the 1950-53 Korean War and his father was born in China while his grandfather was in South Korea.

"Korea was in my blood but I didn't understand anything about this country. I started by learning the Korean language and then started my own business," said the 43-year-old businessman.

Mr Piao, who is married with a seven-year-old son, is among the 262,545 Chinese Koreans living in Seoul, alongside 67,340 Chinese nationals. The two groups make up 72 per cent of the 457,806 foreigners living in the capital city, according to the Seoul Metropolitan City government.

Migration from China can be traced back to the early 1880s, when China sent 3,000 troops to help Korea fight a military revolt, according to historical records.


"Korea was in my blood but I didn't understand anything about this country. I started by learning the Korean language and then started my own business."

MR PIAO GUANG XUAN, a Heilongjiang native who moved to Korea to connect with his Korean roots. His grandfather is Korean.

Some 40 traders joined the entourage, and more came later. Some of them settled in the port city Incheon, where the first Chinese neighbourhood came to be formed in 1884.

By 1937, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, the Chinese population had swelled to 65,000. But the Japanese rulers were uneasy about the growing Chinese presence and began to suppress them by introducing heavier taxes on Chinese merchants and even inciting anti-Chinese riots, according to Yonhap news agency.

A negative impression of Chinese migrants remained after South Korea achieved independence in 1945, with former president Park Chung Hee introducing discriminatory policies such as barring Chinese restaurants from selling food made with their staple rice and excluding Chinese savings from currency reform.

South Korea began opening up to the Chinese only after Seoul and Beijing normalised diplomatic relations in 1992, and more work visas were offered to Chinese workers from 2007.

Latest official figures show that there are now more than 951,000 Chinese people living in South Korea, comprising 54.7 per cent of the country's 1.74 million foreign residents. Most live in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi province.

Many Chinese visa holders - nearly 42 per cent - work in blue-collar jobs, according to Chosun Ilbo. Student visas make up about 6 per cent, while 10 per cent are spouse visas.

In Seoul, Chinese students tend to live in Jayang-dong in Gwangjin district, near Konkuk University, while the blue-collar workers preferred Daerim-dong in Yeongdeungpo district.

Yeonam-dong in Mapo district is popular with second- and third-generation Chinese.

The Chinese-Korean group is best able to assimilate into Korean society, as most of them already speak the Korean language, albeit with a distinct accent that sets them apart from Koreans.

They are mostly descendents of Koreans who migrated to north-eastern China in the late 17th century and settled in places like Yanbian, an autonomous prefecture just across the river from North Korea.

Like Mr Piao, whose Korean name is Pyo Gwang Hyun, many of them have come in search of their Korean roots and, at the same time, a better life.

Chang May Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'Long history of Chinese moving to Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe