The Chinese enclave of Daerim-dong in southern Seoul has undergone a transformation over the last few years from slum to bustling commercial district.
The 200 m stretch from exit No. 8 at Daerim subway station to exit No. 12 now bustles with ethnic Koreans from China and Chinese migrant workers every night, crowding into the Chinese restaurants and karaoke bars that line the street.
Store owners say business is booming. Kim Soon-hee (54), an ethnic Korean from China, struck gold when she opened restaurants serving Chinese hot pot and sweet-and-sour pork.
Three years after opening her first two restaurants, Kim opened another two and invited her daughters to live with her in Korea. “There are a lot of merchants in Daerim-dong who made enough money to bring their families here,” she says.
One estate agent in Daerim-dong said, “Stores in key locations here have seen the rent more than double over the last three years to rival those of Itaewon at W7-8 million per 99 sq.m (US$1=W1,108).”
The boom is mainly due to the large population of Chinese and ethnic Koreans from China. Forty percent of the 24,461 residents are Chinese, thanks in part to easier visas for professionals, who have started gentrifying the once dirt-poor neighborhood.
The number of ethnic Koreans from China who got F-4 visas, a special visa for people of Korean descent, rose from 116,988 in 2012 to 241,056 last year, and their family members are given F-1 visas, which makes it easy to invite them here.
Daerim-dong has also succeeded in shaking off its reputation for crime. Last year, police there formed a volunteer neighborhood watch of 90 Korean and 70 Chinese residents, the first of its kind in Korea. They pass out leaflets urging residents not to litter and patrol the back streets at night.
Now the neighborhood is attracting more people from elsewhere who want to experience a slice of China.
Kim Kyung-ah (53), who is learning Mandarin, says her language classmates visit Daerim-dong every three months to immerse themselves in the language. “I practice my Mandarin by eating in Chinese restaurants there and shopping in the supermarkets.”