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From demise to reemergence

Almost seven decades after its first heyday, South Korea's Chinatown is expecting a renaissance, not so much as an ethnic enclave, but more as a booster for the local economy.

Like most other Chinatowns around the world, two Chinese-style gates stand at the two entrances to the Chinatown in Incheon, a South Korean port city that faces East China's Shandong Province across the Yellow Sea. The gates at South Korea's largest and only official Chinatown were built in the early 2000s with donation from Weihai, Shandong, where 90 percent of initial overseas Chinese in Korea come from.

And from the early 2000s, the China­town began to see some vitality.

One Sunday afternoon in late August, South Korean college student Lee Sun-mi visited the Incheon Chinatown for the third time with three other friends.

"I come here to eat jajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodle) once in a while," Lee told the Global Times.  

The noodle dish has Chinese origins, and 7 million bowls are believed to be sold a day across South Korea.

The Chinese restaurants attract tourists like Lee, whose frequent custom has made the town busier than ever before.

Such a buoyant mood on the street, however, is relatively new considering the 130-year-old history of the precinct and the 70 years of its near demise.

The owner of a Chinese restaurant specializing in jajangmyeon and also a granddaughter of the owner of the very first jajangmyeon restaurant Gonghwachun, Wang Ae-joo, saw the changes occur about seven years ago when new Chinese restaurants began opening up.

"In the 80s and 90s, there were only three Chinese restaurants like us, but now there are about 25 restaurants, 15 of which are run by Chinese residents," 42-year old Wang, whose grandparents are also from Shandong,  told the Global Times.

The booming business opportunities have brought some Chinese people to the Chinatown, but many of Wang's classmates or erstwhile neighbors have already left in search of better opportunities.

Instead of original residents, more new Chinese immigrants from the Chinese mainland have poured into the Chinatown seeking economic opportunities as investors and restaurant workers.

Rise and Fall

When Chinese first came to the then Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) through Incheon port in 1882, they lived not only in Incheon but also in Seoul.   

Even Seoul, one of the few cities with a population of more than 5 million without a Chinatown, had the potential to prosper when a Chinese man named Tan Jiesheng was the biggest tax contributor in the capital city.

However, it all ended with the establishment of South Korea and the Korean War (1950-53) and the following South Korean governments, which introduced a slew of discriminatory policies against foreigners.

Such policies included banning entrance into the country, restricting foreigners from owning land in 1961, higher taxes and two rounds of currency revaluation in 1962 which had a negative impact on the Chinese population, who preferred holding cash.

Combined with the severing of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China until its normalization in 1992, such policies deprived people of economic opportunities and led to an exodus of overseas Chinese to countries such as the US, Australia and Canada.

The Incheon Chinatown used to be crowded, with its peak population at thousands of people, but the number continually declined to as little as 625 people as of 2010.

Since the early 2000s, the Incheon municipal government has been pushing for a revival of the 114,000-square-meter Chinatown by designating the town as a special district for international tourism and has allocated as much as $17.6 million to the project.

Backed by the government's efforts, the number of tourists visiting the Chinatown has hit at least 2 million a year since 2008, up from 1.3 million in 2006, according to the Incheon government.
 

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