For Millions of Korean-Chinese, A Pied Piper Beckons: S. Korea the South's Influence Grows in China's Northeast

By Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

For Millions of Korean-Chinese, A Pied Piper Beckons: S. Korea the South's Influence Grows in China's Northeast


Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Yanji is in many ways a clone of a South Korean metropolis: Korean blues wafting out of neon-lit karaoke parlors mix with the singsong chatter of ethnic Koreans strolling past clubs, restaurants, and saunas at the pulsating heart of the city.

Billboards feature the latest in South Korean fashions or cars, and trendy cafes lure nouveaux riches with neon lighting in Korean and English.

Yet Yanji, which resembles Seoul more than it does Beijing, is actually a world within a world, the capital of a 2-million-strong ethnic Korean community in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin. South Korea, the top investor in this swath of China known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, is launching a peaceful invasion of not only the local economy, but also its culture. Pop singers from the South are becoming Pied Pipers for many Korean Chinese youths, and films from China's onetime enemy are taking over local theaters. As old influences fade ... Although Yanji lies on the Chinese-North Korean border and is near Russian Siberia, the influence of China's former communist allies is fading as that of its newest trade partner grows, says a recent university graduate of Yanbian University. "Some elderly ethnic Koreans here are still nostalgic about the past" says the graduate, who asked not to be identified. "But most young people have been caught up in the new wave of South Korean pop culture." Socialist anthems and anticapitalist propaganda dating back to the 1950s, when China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea's war against the South, long filled Yanji's airwaves. But China's market-oriented reforms and integration with the global economy are quickly transforming Yanji. ... new ones dominate "The influx of South Korean investors and tourists, cars, and computers here since 1992 {when China forged diplomatic ties with the South} has made people in Yanji realize how much richer the South is than the North," says a local trader. "Respect for South Korea's prosperity has fostered a fascination with ... its customs and culture," says the trader, who is an ethnic Korean. Most of the Koreans who live in China are descendants of refugees who fled Japan's occupation of Korea early this century. During China's decade-long Cultural Revolution, Korean language, customs, and dress were forcibly wiped out here as Chairman Mao Zedong tried to impose a monolithic, Chinese communist culture. But Mao's death in 1976 gave way to a partial loosening of Communist Party controls over culture and over ethnic minorities that were not perceived as a threat. In sharp contrast with Tibet, which is still torn by a clash of civilizations between Chinese Communists and Tibetan Buddhists, a remarkably harmonious blend of Chinese and Korean societies has evolved. …

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