Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Once Shunned, Chinese in Korea Courted Again ; Proponents of a Project to Build a Chinatown from the Ground Up Seek Investment from Overseas Chinese

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Once Shunned, Chinese in Korea Courted Again ; Proponents of a Project to Build a Chinatown from the Ground Up Seek Investment from Overseas Chinese

Article excerpt

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. …

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