2017-12-07 16:27
Lessons from the world's biggest Koreatown
By Lee Jun-Youb


As a Korean American, I’ve been curious about the Korean Chinese. I’ve been pondering what happens to my Korean identity when I cross the Pacific, and what happens to Koreans who crossed the Tumen River demarcating China and Korea, only five meters wide in some places? Unlike Koreans who became Americans fresh off a boat or an airplane, Koreans walked and waded to become Chinese.

The first wave of Korean immigrants arrived as slaves to the marauding Manchus in the 17th century. The second wave, including the poet Yun Dong-ju’s grandparents, was because of a refugee crisis in the late 19th century when famine struck northern Korea. The turn of the century saw the influx of Korean independence activists and my great grandfather who drove trucks for his Japanese overlords in the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Many Koreans including my grandmother returned to Korea after Japan surrendered, but the majority of them stayed put as Manchuria had become their new home. As most Korean Chinese were peasants, they unwittingly sided with the communists during the Chinese Civil War and were granted autonomy in the early 1950s. Today, about a third of some two million residents of the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture are ethnically Korean.

To my dismay, Korean culture was confined to cuisine and Korean signs in the prefectural capital of Yanji. I’ve traversed the Silk Road and the Tea Horse Road, and despite Beijing’s efforts to maintain its empire through ethnic erasure, Uyghur mosques and Tibetan temples stood proudly as reservoirs of culture. I didn’t spot any Korean temples in Yanji.
So I visited the Yanbian Museum, and it was surreal to see Korean culture preserved in wax figures wearing Korean garb. The museum felt like a state sponsored compensation for the lack of Korean culture in everyday life, but I also learned a few factoids about my motherland. A museum sign stated bluntly that “Koreans like to sing and dance,” and it was not just talking about K-pop.

Korean Chinese reached the stratosphere of Chinese arts that Korean Americans can only envy. The composer of the anthem of the People’s Liberation Army is the late Korean Chinese Zheng Lucheng. China’s father of rock Cui Jian whose songs became anthems of the student protestors in that tragic summer of 1989 is Korean Chinese. China’s premier choreographer who turned into the first transgender celebrity Jin Xing is also Sino Korean.

Koreans are the 14th largest among the 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, and one of the most highly educated and wealthiest minorities as they are in America. Koreans first landed in America as sugar cane workers in Hawaii, and then as students, independence activists, then laundry and restaurant owners in continental America. Just as North Korea’s founding father spent his formative years in northeastern China, South Korea’s founding father spent his formative years in northeastern America. Given the current stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, perhaps the Korean Diaspora in the two superpowers can help broker a detente.

Lee Jun-Youb is a freelance writer and translator based in Seoul. Write to junyoub.lee9041@gmail.com