Central Asians find a favorite street in Seoul, Korea

A customer picking up a Mongolian newspaper from a store on the second floor of Mongolian Town, located in the front of the entrance to Gwanghui-dong’s Central Asia Street in downtown Seoul. By Jeon Min-gyu

Sitting in the back alleys of the bustling fashion cluster of Dongdaemun in central Seoul is Central Asia Street in Gwanghui-dong. The small neighborhood across the street from Doota Tower is easy to miss at first glance because it is not much different than any other alley area in Seoul. But on closer inspection, it’s clear this is no ordinary street.In fact, there are more signs in the Cyrillic alphabet here than there are in Korean or English. Likewise, shoppers are often a mixture of Russians, Uzbeks and Mongols speaking their native languages. “Just 10 years ago, all of these shops were leather stores,” said Cho Cha-gwan, 56. Cho, who used to be in the leather business, has worked in Gwanghui-dong for more than two decades. He’s run the Central Asian restaurant, “My Friends,” for 10 years. He also runs a small bakery selling Russian bread. “Russians and Mongolians started to flow into these streets around eight years ago,” Cho recalled. “A huge community of Russian and Uzbeks was established because many of them were working in the leather, fashion and textile trades. Dongdaemun served as their main business center,” Cho added.He noted that there are several nearby motels that the Russians patronize, like the Sinah Motel. The restaurant owner said the street has taken on its distinct form as the center for Central Asians in the past four or five years. “On weekends, Russians and Central Asians who are working in factories outside of Seoul swamp the neighborhood,” said Cho. “This neighborhood turns into a true Central Asian meeting ground where friends gather and pass around vodka.” The ground level of the street is mostly covered with Central Asian restaurants and bars selling delicacies made of lamb and vodka. There are also numerous travel agencies featuring destinations in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. There are some clothing stores that exclusively serve customers from Central Asia. Unbeknownst to many first-time visitors, along the main entrance is a 10-story building more commonly known as Mongolian Town. Mongolian Town could easily be overlooked. The building sports few distinctive features. And the first floor has a Korean beer hof that is no longer in business.Other than the signs written in Mongolian, the place looks pretty much like any other office building in Seoul. Like the surrounding streets, the building seems to try hard to hide in plain view. However, within a few short steps into the building, a whole new world materializes - one that is unique in Seoul. The walls are plastered with Cyrillic signs advertising the latest mobile phones and other goods. There are posters touting Mongolian heavy metal bands. The clientele are mostly Mongols. Businesses here are diversified. On the second floor is a huge Mongolian restaurant with a small grocery shop that sells various items, including, naturally, vodka. Assorted floors hold small mom-and-pop stores crammed into tight spaces. “Many of the Mongols here are seeking their fortune,” said B. Byarmaa, a former doctor from Mongolia who runs a small shop in the building. She has been in Korea since 1997 and has been running the store since 2001. Byarmaa’s store has a large supply of Mongolian products including vodka, candies and souvenir goods like leather decorations displaying Genghis Khan’s likeness. Across the hallway is another store similar to Byarmaa’s. The owner, who wished not to be named and spoke little Korean, said Mongolians have little choice but to flock to Mongolian Town because that is where they have access to native goods and services, including food. “Without our Mongolian brothers and sisters we wouldn’t have a business,” the woman said. Areana Young, a woman from Uzbekistan, is a frequent customer of a beauty salon on the fifth floor of Mongolian Town. “I first came to Korea a year ago,” Young said in slightly awkward Korean. “I travel back and forth between Seoul and Uzbekistan.” She said she loves Seoul, which is very bustling compared to her hometown. She said she likes to visit Mongolian Town because it reminds her of her cultural roots. Young said she visits the beauty parlor once a week and chats with her Mongolian friends who hardly speak Korean. She said without the people and the neighborhood, she would be homesick. However, finding bargains in the area is not an easy task. “The price of services and products here are just the same as Korean consumer prices,” said Han Seung-soo, who runs an international calling card shop on the fourth floor of Mongolian Town. “Getting a haircut is 6,000 won ($5.00) and the food costs 5,000 won a dish, just like at a Korean restaurant,” Han said. “[Mongolian shop owners] have to pay their rent just like anyone else, and that’s why products aren’t all that cheap.” One big business impediment is the Korean government’s crackdown on illegal aliens, the anonymous shop-owner said. “Every time there’s a government inspection, sales take a dive,” she complained. This view was shared by Central Asian restaurant owner Cho.“The government came around without any warning, and I saw several customers running away in the middle of their dinner,” Cho said. People on the street and in Mongolian Town appear cautious and aware of newcomers. And they seem to take particular note of people hauling around large digital cameras. By Lee Ho-jeong, reporter of Joonangdaily.com [ojlee82@joongang.co.kr]
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