Busan's Chinatown, actually Russiatown, and Hwagyo

Chinatown? Oh really? Why isn't the sign in Chinese?

In almost every major city the world over (or at least near it), there is a Chinatown.  Chinatowns usually have gigantic Chinese style ornamental gates, and all of the businesses inside it are owned and run by Chinese.  Some cities I’ve been to with great Chinatowns are New York, Boston, and Shanghai.  (Okay I know, Shanghai is actually in China, but how much more authentic can you get than that?)  There are of course other cities which had a Chinatown, but most of the Chinese people moved away, making the name of the town anachronistic.  Washington DC’s Chinatown at this point is nothing of the sort.  Sure it has a big Chinese gate and a smattering of Chinese restaurants, but the MCI Center (or whatever it’s called now) is also there, and most of the people who live and work there aren’t Chinese.  Most of DC’s Chinese people have moved to the suburbs, specifically Rockville, MD, I think a few streets of Rockville should be classified as Chinatown.  Seoul itself used to have a thriving Chinese community in the area next to Yonsei University, Yonhee-dong.  There’s still a school for overseas Chinese there and lots of Korean style Chinese restaurants, but these are largely remnants of a time long past.  Everyone in Seoul knows that the real Chinatown is in Inchon now.

My trip to Busan earlier this month wasn’t my first, so this information about Busan’s Chinatown isn’t anything new that I discovered, but I thought it would be interesting to my readers.  Chinatown is located across the street from the Busan Train Station.  It has a huge gate showing that it is Chinatown.  Click the picture and look.

A pharmacy in Chinatown. I don't read Russian, so I don't know what that says, but I'm pretty sure the Chinese at the top doesn't say anything about medicine.

Notice something funny?  It’s clearly labeled as Chinatown, but there isn’t any Chinese writing to be seen!  I don’t know the history about Busan’s Chinatown, but somehow between the 1980’s and 2000’s it ceased to be Chinatown and turned into Russiatown.

I’ll have to go onto a speculative aside here, because I don’t really know what happened to Busan’s Chinatown, but here goes.
About Chinatowns in general:

Chinatowns usually became Chinatowns because they were in a part of the city where recent immigrants tend to live.  As recent immigrants don’t tend to have lots of money, Chinatown is usually in an economically depressed area, where rents are cheap.  Over time, because there are lots of Chinese in the area, new Chinese immigrants decide to live there out of convenience.

More of an aside about Korea’s Chinese Population:

Korea began diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1992, so this and all other historic Korean Chinatowns were actually full of Citizens of the Republic of China (which now only controls Taiwan), and received very few Chinese immigrants.  Most of the Chinese in Korea before 1992 were either former citizens of Manchukuo (the Chinese puppet state controlled by imperial Japan) who had settled in Korea during the Japanese colonial era and didn’t repatriate for one reason or another, refugees who fled the Chinese Civil War (1946-1950), or former prisoners of war of the U.N. who fought for the Chinese army in the Korean war and were captured, but refused to be repatriated to either Taiwan or Mainland China at the end of the war.  The rest of the Chinese in Korea before 1992 were the offspring of the above groups.  These Chinese in Korea are collectively referred to as Hwagyo (화교, 華僑, Huáqiáo), which means Overseas Chinese.  In English, terms such as Korean-Chinese or Chinese – Koreans have been used, but I don’t like either term as it makes me think of people who have ancestry in one country, but are citizens of another, (Chinese-Americans for example).  Adding to this confusion is that there are many citizens of China who have Korean descent, so using either term might confuse us as to which group we are talking about.  The Hwagyo aren’t Korean citizens.  Most are citizens of the Republic of China.  More on Hwagyo later.

What happened to all the Hwagyo in Chinatown?

I'm illiterate in Russian, so this store's name looks like CAXAJINH to me. Special points to anyone who can help me pronounce it.

Multiple generations of Hwagyo probably lived there and despite not being citizens and being victims of unequal protection under laws, did well enough for themselves so that they could move out of Chinatown.  In addition, many of these people emigrated to Taiwan over the years (as they were technically Taiwanese citizens).  Third, many of the Hwagyo married with Koreans, who’s offspring would legally be Korean.  In addition to all of that, Taiwan has been comparatively well off economically, so there’s not really an impetus for Taiwanese to immigrate to Korea, especially in the period that it was a developing country.  For all of these reasons, the economically depressed Hwagyo population has been declining.  With fewer people, in the community, Busan’s Chinatown had pretty much dried up by the 1990’s.

Around the same time, the Soviet Union collapsed.  Russians and citizens of former Soviet Republics were now the people who sought better lives outside of their home countries for economic reasons.  Those who found their way to Busan found that it was cheapest to live or open a business in Busan’s Chinatown.

So are there a lot of Russians there?

I suppose that depends on what you mean by Russians.  Usually when people think about Russians they think of white Russians, as whites are predominant in western Russia.  And Yes, you can see a lot of white people who speak Russian there.  But far more of the people who live there are actually Koryo-saram 고려사람 (Koryo people… Koryons?).

Koryo-Saram?  What’s that?

This map shows what some people claim is territory controlled by Gojoseon, an ancient Kingdom of Korea. While this has very little relevance to the topic, I think the map itself can at least be used to show areas where Koreans have settled historically. Note that the Korean peninsula is less than half of the territory.

This will require another aside to explain.  All recent Korean states have controlled the territory that is currently held by North and South Korea.  However, simply because that is the area which the government controlled doesn’t mean that’s the only place where people of Korean descent lived.  Korea borders China and Russia in the north.   For this reason, there were huge Korean communities in northeastern China and in Vladivostok.  An older kingdom of Korea called Koryo (from which we get the name Korea) used to actually control territory north of North Korea, which is in present day Russia and China.  The map on the right is a map of Gojoseon, which is actually an earlier kingdom than Koryo, but it shows the extent that Korean governments may have controlled in ages past, undoubtedly with Koreans settling there.  So, since these people were living in Russia, they are referred to as people of Koryo.

Leading up toward WWII, Japan controlled the Korean peninsula and Manchuria.  Josef Stalin, who was the leader of the Soviet Union at the time became concerned that the Koreans living in Vladivostok might somehow be inclined to help Japan in a bid for control over Vladivostok.  He basically saw the Koreans there as Japanese, and decided to forcibly move them to central Asia, mostly in Kazakhstan,  Uzbekistan, and central Russia,  even though Vladivostok was actually a hotbed for Korean revolutionaries who wanted Korean independence from Japan and were willing to fight and die for it.  (Talk about a wasted opportunity there.)

So, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these Koryo-Saram formed the majority of the people seeking to come to Korea from former Soviet Republics.  Most of the whites went to either Europe or the U.S.  But some in fact came to Korea.

So, Russiatown probably isn’t the best term for it, unless you’re talking about the language that the people there speak, in which case it would be Russiantown.

What else can you tell me about Hwagyo?

As I said earlier, most of the Hwagyo are legally citizens of the Republic of China.  This is the government that controls Taiwan.  The Hwagyo are kind of similar to the Zainichi in Japan in that they are an invisible minority group that settled in the host country under circumstances of the political climate, and no real “home country”.  Hwagyo, like Zainichi, have also been legally discriminated against because although they may look more or less like the majority (in this case, Korean), and speak the host country’s language (Korean) flawlessly, their status as foreign citizens limits their rights.  For example, sometime in the 1960’s a law was passed that forbade foreign citizens from owning land.  This obviously affected the Hwagyo negatively.

Why don’t they just go back to Taiwan?

That’s assuming that they or their ancestors have ever been to Taiwan.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of them have no traceable roots to Taiwan, and that most of their ancestral homes are somewhere in northeast China.  Remember, the Republic of China used to be the government on the Chinese mainland before Mao Tze Tung’s communists defeated them and established the People’s Republic of China.  So, for Hwagyo to “go back”, it would have meant agreeing to live in a communist country with a cult of personality surrounding Chairman Mao.  Going to Taiwan, they might have had to start life all over again, perhaps after somewhat establishing themselves in Korea.  The further one is removed from the immigrant generation, the less impetus there is to return to any ancestral homeland, so why should these people have any reason to permanently move to Taiwan, China, or anywhere else?

Are Hwagyo still discriminated against?

Not by me.  Haha, okay I know that’s not what you were asking.  I can’t answer it with any authority because I honestly don’t know very well.  Like I said, after 1992, lots of Chinese from the PRC came to Korea to find their “Korean Dream”, so whenever people talk about Chinese immigrants and Chinese in Korea, they are referring to these post 1992 immigrants.  Hwagyo are largely disappearing.  I reported before that Korea will allow dual citizenship starting next year, so it is quite possible that any remaining Hwagyo might just opt to naturalize.

(Edit: wow, the Korean government actually left Chinese off the list of countries who’s citizens are eligible for dual nationality.  I guess the Hwagyo that don’t want to give up their ROC nationality won’t be able to naturalize then.)

At any rate, I think the Hwagyo population will continue to dwindle and the dominant Chinese immigrant community will be PRC citizens, who already make up more than 50% of all foreigners in Korea.

27 Responses to “Busan's Chinatown, actually Russiatown, and Hwagyo”

  1. Thnx for this interesting info!
    ‘CAXAJINH’ is pronounce as Sakhalin (Russian island)

  2. I’ve never been there even if I used to live in Busan for a long time. I saw only the gate several times.There were usually diffrent color of people. The Chinatown for me was too scary place to go when I was young. The era I lived it was hardly to meet foreigner(so I felt fear with just a fact they are foreigner), but, more important thing was,as you post, the region was so depressed economically. Even they look so dangerous like criminals! I had lots of negative prejudice for them.. (now I regret so much living oversea.. lol)

    Anyway, as a korean, I didn’t know about the information above.. How did you get the info? It’s amazing!! THANKS!! 🙂

  3. If you want to see the real china town, you’d better visit vancouver. There is the huge chinatown. And I heard vancouver chinatown has a long history. Also the scale of Chinatown in Vancouver is pretty big in north america. Your article is so specific. I didn’t know there is chinatown in Busan.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      I heard that Vancouver has no Chinatown. There are only pockets of Vancouver that are “Canadatown”, because the whole city might as well be Chinese.

      • Haha You’re right!
        As a person who has lived in Vancouver for about 1 year, I really agree with you!
        “Canadatown”.. that’s a good expression.. haha 🙂

  4. I never expected Korea to have a china town =S Actually I never known anybody who would talk about China town in Korea. While in other countries, a lot of people would talk about China town

  5. Wow, I think it’s great that Dual citizen has been approved in Korea…
    I (just like wchung8) had never heard of a China Town in Korea… O_o maybe because it has been transforming into RussiaTown (??)
    I wonder if there is a MexicanTown or something like that…is there something like that??

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      There isn’t a large Latino population in Korea. The closest thing we will find to any kind of Mexico town are Mexican restaurants, which are almost always run by Koreans. If I am not mistaken, there are quite a few Koreans who are citizens of Latin-American countries or Spain, who might form a sort of expat/returnee community here, but I’ve only met one or two people who fit that mold.

      • :O
        It would be great to start a MexicanTown in Korea lol
        maybe one day…. looks like the relations between Mexico and Korea are getting stronger 😀

        • The Seoul Searcher Says:

          You want to START a Mexican town? That’s interesting. I wonder which district in Seoul would become Mexicotown?

          • Lol maybe not ME but it would be really cool 😀
            I actually would like to go live there for a while so i’m thinking on how to do it ….. :/

  6. Ps… If you wanna know a lil bit more about KoreaTown in Mexico here’s a post i wrote 🙂

  7. I knew that there area lot of Russians in Korea but I didn’t think about “Russiatowns”! I’ve heard that a lot of Koreans practice the russian martial arts. Is it true?
    Also in Milan there’s a biig chinatown and there are a lot of problems exactly in these days due to crimes…

  8. […] Chinese was behind it. When word came out that it had been a Korean, the media said he was a hwagyo and that he was surnamed Wang. This falsehood was widely circulated until seconds before the police […]

  9. correction- hwagyo arent allowed to be naturalized. Not because they “choose” to have their taiwanese passports. I know this first hand coz im a hwagyo who immigrated to australia when i was a baby and have hwagyo family in korea who are still discriminated against at this time in age.

  10. very informative blog, but dude, what about all the Filipinos in Busan’s “Chinatown?” Fully half of the businesses there are Filipino and the rest are Russian with maybe a couple of Chinese mixed in.

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