Daerim-dong: A bit of China in Seoul

This street in Daerim-dong (above) is lined with Chinese restaurants offering all kinds of food, from spicy soup to street snacks like smelly toufu.
This street in Daerim-dong (above) is lined with Chinese restaurants offering all kinds of food, from spicy soup to street snacks like smelly toufu. PHOTO: KIM JINHA
Eateries selling dog meat can also be found here.
Eateries selling dog meat can also be found here.PHOTO: KIM JINHA
Mr Piao Guang Xuan (above), who hails from Heilongjiang, owns a string of businesses – such as restaurants, travel, cosmetics and property – in Seoul’s Daerim-dong area.
Mr Piao Guang Xuan (above), who hails from Heilongjiang, owns a string of businesses – such as restaurants, travel, cosmetics and property – in Seoul’s Daerim-dong area. PHOTO: KIM JINHA
Ms Zhang Ling, who is from Yanbian, does a good trade selling ma hua, a Chinese snack.
Ms Zhang Ling, who is from Yanbian, does a good trade selling ma hua, a Chinese snack. PHOTO: KIM JINHA
A notice board for foreign residents outside the Daerim subway station.
A notice board for foreign residents outside the Daerim subway station.PHOTO: KIM JINHA
 (Above) A mixture of Chinese hotpot restaurants and karaoke clubs along Daerim-ro, or Daerim Road.
(Above) A mixture of Chinese hotpot restaurants and karaoke clubs along Daerim-ro, or Daerim Road. PHOTO: KIM JINHA

The city's Daerim-dong area has turned into an unofficial Chinatown, with many Chinese migrants setting up shop

The streets of Daerim-dong in south-western Seoul are filled with the fragrance of a freshly fried snack called ma hua.

These dough twists are popular with Chinese nationals who live and work here, one of the largest Chinese-dominated areas in the South Korean capital. "Chinese people love ma hua because it's the taste of home," said Yanbian native Zhang Ling, 29, whose shop can sell up to 500 pieces a day, at 1,000 won (S$1.20) each.

Daerim-dong is Seoul's unofficial Chinatown, although there is only one official Chinatown in South Korea - in the port city of Incheon, where the first Chinese neighbourhood dates back to 1884.

In recent times, however, Chinese migrants seeking higher wages and a better life have settled in Daerim-dong, Garibong-dong and Guro-dong, all located in south-western Seoul.

They make up 72 per cent of the 457,806 foreigners living in the capital city, according to the Seoul Metropolitan City government. Among them are 262,545 Chinese Koreans and 67,340 from China.

NEED TO GO DEEPER

Building a Chinese archway and hanging up a row of lanterns does not make it a Chinatown.

MR PIAO GUANG XUAN, a Heilongjiang native, on the new Chinatown

Once a quiet residential area, Daerim-dong has sprung to life with hundreds of Chinese restaurants and shops catering to its growing Chinese population of more than 20,000 people.

Signs are written in Chinese, traditional red lanterns decorate the walls, and restaurants serve authentic Chinese food, from yang rou chuan (lamb skewers) to ma la xiang guo (fragrant hotpot) and guo qiao mi xian ("crossing the bridge" noodles). Dog meat, considered a delicacy in some parts of China, is also easily available.

A mixture of Korean and Mandarin is spoken in the streets, as the people here come mainly from the north-eastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning, which share borders with North Korea.

CHANGE OF LIFESTYLE

We live in big houses in China, but when we come here, we have to stay in cheap basement apartments instead... Life in China was good, but wages were too low.

MS ZHANG LING, a Yanbian native, on moving to Seoul

Chinese pop music can be heard blaring from some of the shops.

Almost 40 per cent of the stalls in the main market are run by Chinese, and two out of five children attending elementary school are Chinese, according to official data.

Chinatown plans scrapped

Seeing the increased Chinese activity in Daerim-dong, the city government announced plans in January to build a Chinatown here - "a destination of culture, tourism and exchanges", local reports said.

On the cards were a Chinese cultural centre, a performance hall and a language centre.

Four months later, the plans were dropped because of protests from Korean residents. This marked the third failed attempt by the city government to build a Chinatown in Seoul, after similar plans for Yeonnam-dong in 2002 and Mapo-gu in 2007.

Every time the government tries to designate a second Chinatown, local Korean residents complain that an influx of foreigners will dampen property prices due to increased crime rates and negative perceptions of Chinese nationals.

"Koreans look at us differently, they don't like us because they think we are loud and not cultured," said a 41-year-old Chinese Korean waitress who would only give her surname - Yin. "I admit that we are more hot-tempered and outspoken. But we have toned down over the years and learnt to put up a pretence just like them."

Ms Zhang remembers being asked if she had ever eaten ice cream when she first moved to Seoul six years ago. She was surprised that people in South Korea knew so little about the development and living standards in China.

"We live in big houses in China, but when we come here, we have to stay in cheap basement apartments instead," she added. "Life in China was good, but wages were too low."

The Straits Times understands that the plans for Seoul's Chinatown were born out of concern that Chinese-dominated neighbourhoods would develop into slums. Daerim-dong, for instance, is often labelled a ghetto by Korean media and deemed rowdy and uncouth.

When this reporter visited, middle-aged men could be seen drinking alcohol with friends and chattering loudly in the middle of the day.

This is apparently a common practice in China, but is thought of as inappropriate in South Korea.

Xenophobia has also grown since the high-profile coverage of at least three cases of Korean-Chinese men killing and dismembering their victims - the latest in April this year.

It sparked alarm among local residents and raised questions about the management and screening of migrant workers. Efforts to address those fears have included increased security surveillance and volunteer safety patrols.

Heilongjiang native Piao Guang Xuan, 43, who owns several businesses within Daerim-dong - from an IT store to an e-commerce firm and a fusion restaurant - offers a different take on why the Chinatown project failed.

He said the government should have engaged younger Chinese business owners to discuss overhauling the image of Daerim-dong, instead of listening to older-generation Chinese Koreans, who he feels are out of touch with the reality on the ground.

"Building a Chinese archway and hanging up a row of lanterns does not make it a Chinatown," he said.

Instead, he wants the narrow main street widened, the old buildings upgraded, and the variety of shops diversified.

Most are restaurants catering to Chinese workers and shops selling imported foodstuffs from China.

None sell souvenirs, handicrafts or the traditional Chinese qipao.

Ms Zhang is not complaining, however, as she makes good money from selling ma hua and steamed sweetcorn.

"I hope to save enough money to buy land in China, so my child can have a more comfortable life," said the mother of a four-year-old boy.

She said her husband used to help run the shop, but is now studying to get a tour guide licence, as Mandarin-speaking guides are sought after for Chinese tour groups.

But there are few tourists roaming the streets of Daerim-dong.

Most Chinese people go there only to satisfy their growling stomachs, or relieve homesickness by eating a familiar snack.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'A bit of China in Seoul'. Print Edition | Subscribe