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January 21, 2011

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Searching for Seoul in Koreatown

MORE than 30,000 Koreans live in Koreatown in Shanghai's Minhang District - about 60 percent of the city's total. Fei Lai takes a stroll along Hongquan Road to smell the barbecue and catch the vibe.

The aromas of barbecue and kimchi, the sounds of spoken Korean and Korean language signs make one forget this is Shanghai. But this is Little Seoul or Koreatown on Hongquan Road in Minhang District of the city's west.

This is the heart of Shanghai's Korean community and home to around 30,000 Koreans, more than half of the city's Korean population of 50,000.

It's filled with restaurants, shops and shopping centers, small vendors, supermarkets, banks, cinemas, night clubs, karaoke, apartments - everything that a little town needs. Almost everything is labeled "Made in Korea."

"Koreans overseas like to live together for easy communication and support," says resident Kim Heewon, who has lived in the town for six years.

"We feel comfortable and happy here. It's more like a Korean village and it feels like home," says Kim who runs a trading business and manages the second floor of Jingting Seoul Plaza shopping center.

The second floor features fashionable Korean brand clothes for women and chldren, as well as traditional Korean dresses, called Hanbok.

But though Kim is glad to chat, many Koreans are reluctant to speak with strangers. The community tends to be rather insular.

The Chinese community is also enjoying the convenience of Korean restaurants, food stands, fashion stores, beauty spas and supermarkets.

Zhu Yunfeng, who lives nearby, has witnessed the growth of Koreatown and is a frequent visitor for dining or shopping.

"It looks very foreign and posh," he says.

"Chic apartments, supermarkets with imported food, diversified entertainment, rich Korean dining experiences - all these are major attractions to the local Chinese," he says.

But Zhu says that the closer he gets to the Korean community, the more he realizes there's little interaction between it and the local Chinese community.

But back to Ms Kim and the Jingting Seoul Plaza shopping center, a landmark, magnet and community center.

On its first floor is Galleria Discount Mart, where 80 percent of the products are Korean; the second floor targets women and children; the third to ninth floors house entertainment venues, such as golf, KTV, a gym, traditional art and music schools.

At Dynasty Golf Club on the third floor, teachers help everyone and students range in age from 6 to 80 years. Next to the club is a yoga center.

On the same floor, a very popular KTV with 15 rooms may well have more Korean songs than any other KTV in the city, according to members of the staff. It's equipped with a Korean song order system.

It uses a floor heating system adapted from the traditional Korean ondol heating that used heat from cooking fires.

Nowadays, the plaza are filled with customers. But when it opened in 2007 the area was "horrible" and "run down," Kim says. It was hard to do business.

There were few customers and outside at night it was quiet and dark. There were no street lamps.

"The community has slowly grown and now the plaza has become a community hub through many years of efforts," says Kim.

Just take the Metro Line 10 and you're in South Korea.

Korean market

A five-minute walk from Jingting Seoul Plaza leads to 1004 Mart on Jinhui Road S. It's filled with shops selling food and fresh produce.

Pleasant shop assistants call out "Anyohaseyo!" (Hello) to shoppers.

One visit to the mart is all it takes to shop for a complete meal. Almost all products are Korean and labeled in Korean - no Chinese or English.

In the Koreatown, it seems that every 10 steps there's a Korean barbecue restaurant to suit every taste.

The choices seem endless and there are many specialities.

Some are known for fermented soybean paste soup; some offer big platters of raw vegetables; some serve monkfish in spicy sauce with bean sprouts.

There's octopus prepared in every imaginable way.

From boneless short ribs to bean paste pot stew, from scorched rice to noodles, the offerings are tantalizing and satisfying - as crowds of Koreans, Chinese and foreigners can attest.

Most menus are in Korean, so it's a good idea to take along a Korean friend.


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