Koreatown restaurant survives wobbles in the K-wave
Lee Seung-woong didn't have an auspicious start when he first came to Shanghai from South Korea in 2005 and worked in an Italian restaurant.
The eatery went bust and Lee, then 27, was forced to become a street vendor selling Korean snacks late at night. He took in 6,000 yuan (US$883) a day for three days before his stand was closed for violating local regulations.
He then planned to open an Italian takeout venue, but his pizza machine was stolen just before opening day. He had to buy a new one.
"How could anyone steal it?" Lee told Shanghai Daily. "It was huge and very heavy."
Lee is now operating a seafood BBQ restaurant called Tongyeong Auntie, and he manages to laugh at all his early misfortune.
"I've had so many failures over the years, but I never thought of leaving Shanghai," he said. "I can't explain why. It just never occurred to me."
When the first Italian restaurant shuttered, Lee thought a return to South Korea would ruin an overseas work experience. And the experience was so short-lived that it wasn't much to put on a resume for a better job.
He still regards Shanghai as a "place full of opportunities and potential," though subsequent events were to demonstrate how fragile the wave of Korean cultural popularity can sometimes be.
Lee is among many Koreans who have found a welcoming second home in Shanghai and ridden the wave of popularity for all things Korean.
According to the Consulate General of South Korea in Shanghai, there were 32,000 South Koreans in the city – including about 7,000 students – as of December 2018.
Nearly half of them live in Hongqiao Town in Minhang District – more specifically, in Longbai, an area that has come to be known as Shanghai's Koreatown.
Lee's first Tongyeong Auntie outlet, which opened seven years ago, sits on Hongquan Road – also called the Korea Street – in the heart of Koreatown, an area where he has been living shortly after his arrival in the city.
But Lee said he had never heard of the phrase "Koreatown" until about two years ago, when it was suddenly appeared on tourist blogs.
When COVID-19 sharply reduced overseas travel, including to popular destinations like South Korea, many Chinese young people satisfied their quest for the exotic by visiting Koreatown, an area celebrated for authentic South Korean culture, cuisine, street markets and groceries.
The area became a magnet for Korean expats dating back to the early years of China's economic reform, starting in 1978.
The Hongqiao Economic Development Zone was established in 1983. It was one of China's first 14 national development zones.
The area is close to Hongqiao airport, the city's only airport for years before the Pudong airport was completed in 1999. Foreign companies, particularly Japanese and Korean, flooded into Hongqiao and many Koreans settled in Longbai.
The moniker Koreatown can be found in Minhang District yearbooks as early as in 2007, but the iconic nature of the area didn't enter general public consciousness until 2013. Now one can search Korean Street on mapping apps when looking for Hongquan Road.
Lee, who has tried his hands at various restaurants there, experienced the ups and downs of the area first-hand.
"Before 2010, customers at restaurants in this area were mostly Korean or Chinese-Korean," he recalled.
Then the "Korea wave" swept Shanghai, especially in 2013 with the Korean TV drama "My Love from the Star."
"A lot of Chinese people subsequently heard about this area and flooded in," Lee said. "The influx was very sudden and very obvious."
The so-called "K-wave" of South Korean pop culture has become a worldwide phenomenon, amplified by films like "Squid Game." The drama became Netflix's most popular show four weeks into its release in 2021.
The wave has largely been generated by social media. Platforms like Weibo show selfies of people holding shot glasses of Korean soju in Koreatown eateries.
Lee said the wave swept through Shanghai long before it gained global attention.
"Chinese customers wanted a taste of the Korean food shown in TV dramas, especially the fried chicken and BBQ," he said.
"Now almost 90 percent of our customers are Chinese," Lee said. "Many of them have traveled to South Korea, some more than once, so they know authentic taste."
But culture at times can be subordinate to politics.
The K-wave boom took a sudden U-turn in 2016, shortly after South Korea announced it would deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense shield system. A tension in bilateral relations quickly affected revenue in Koreatown.
"People didn't want to come here after seeing the news," Lee recalled. "I'm just a normal guy, not that interested in politics or geopolitics, but I follow events closely now because I see how they can affect my business."
Bilateral tensions have notably eased in the past few years, and Chinese customers are back in Koreatown. Lee said he hopes cordial relations between the two countries continue.
To get to Koreatown from downtown Shanghai, take Metro Line 10 and get off at Longbai Xincun Station.