Out of all the cities in the world with more than 5 million people, there is only one that has no Chinatown. As you might have guessed, that city is Seoul. There used to be more Chinese in Seoul, but anti-Chinese policies during the 1960s and 1970s drove a lot of them away. The change of diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China was the final blow. When the recognition changed, the Chinese embassy was taken away from the Taipei government and given to the one in Beijing. Meanwhile, the Chinese around the embassy did not want to be associated with the communist government. Many went to Taiwan, others went to the USA.
I should note that this is the Chinese embassy in the Myeongdong section of Seoul. It is now the consular section for the PRC Embassy – other embassy matters are taken care of by the Chinese embassy in Hyoja-dong (next to the Gyeongbokgung Palace). In any case, it is all theoretical, since as of 23 August 2007, the Chinese Embassy in Seoul requires individual travellers to apply for visas through a travel agent. The travel agents are allowed to charge up to 20,000 won for this service, on top of the regular visa fees. The only people that can apply directly at the Consular section are those applying for Chinese government scholarships and certain special cases.
With a lack of any cohesive Chinese community in Seoul, I had to travel to Incheon, home of the only actual Chinatown in South Korea. The Chinatown has supposedly existed since 1884, but it really was reborn over the past few years thanks to a lot of government funding.
It was a nice break from all the Korean Thanksgiving festivities elsewhere. Random people came up and talked to me on the street. Koreans very rarely do that – Korean culture generally requires personal introductions first. Some people talked to me in English, some in Chinese (but not necessarily in a dialect I could understand well), and some in Korean (which I definitely did not understand). I did get in some Mandarin practice, and thanks to my claims I could read the newspaper, some Chinese reading practice as well. I guess it would be highly shocking that a random foreigner could come to one’s business and be able to read the Chinese newspaper out loud and explain it. But it reminds me I should put some more effort into my Chinese study when possible.
I ate a very spicy lunch, after clarifying what I meant by my being vegetarian. In case you wonder, the restaurant I happened to be at suggested a beef noodle soup directly after me telling them I was vegetarian. No meat in the dish that arrived, and at very reasonable cost. Koreans who think their food is splcy ought to try some of what I had – that Chinese food was the spiciest food I have had in Korea, period.
I didn’t have any liquor with my lunch, though I ended up buying a bottle before returning to Seoul. Normally, I don’t drink, but I found a bottle of bamboo leaf baijiu, complete with a beautiful panda painted on the bottle. The fact that it is baijiu may deter me from ever actually drinking it, but I am curious what alcoholic bamboo leaves taste like.
As far as sightseeing went, there was not much in Chinatown itself. No special Chinese Daoist temples. However, on top of the hill there was a monument commemorating 100 years of Korean-US friendship and another commemorating General MacArthur’s landing in the Korean War. I suspect the location adjacent to Chinatown is on purpose, since Chinatown would likely be open everyday. Restaurants to eat at for the police, and presumably a lot of tourists always around that leftists might not be too keen in blowing up along with the statue. As it is, the statue is under 24-hour police surveillance.
Incheon is something like 30+ stops away from Seoul station (add more stops if north/east, subtract a few if south/west of that station), but I think I will be making regular trips there for food, for language, and for well being.