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In 1882, the Imo Military Revolt broke out, and the Qing dynasty dispatched an army to repress it. Chinese merchants seized this opportunity to supply the army with necessary goods and materials, and some of them eventually settled in Myeong-dong, where they set up shops selling silk and other goods. During Korea’s period of modernization, it was the hwagyo (overseas Chinese of Korea), or ethnic Chinese people in Korea, who dominated this area and made lives for themselves here.
This was when modern commerce fully matured in Myeong-dong.
Today, Myeong-dong boasts the highest real estate prices in Korea, and has become Korea’s commercial center and a major tourist destination in Seoul, favored among many visitors to the city. These days, a large proportion of the tourists that come to Seoul are from China (youke).
Before today’s Chinese tourists discovered modern Myeong-dong, it was the merchants of the Qing dynasty that put down roots here in 1882. For this reason, it is a particularly nostalgic place for the Chinese people.
The headquarters of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO opened in 1967, but its surrounding area looks much like Wangfujing, a shopping district in Beijing. Countless clothes and cosmetics shops have signboards written in Chinese, and stores display images of Hallyu stars that are popular in China to attract passersby.
Most of the sales staff working at these stores is fluent in both Chinese and Japanese.
A grand and elegant cathedral stands tall over the Myeong-dong area. It is a symbol of the Catholic faith in Korea as well as one of Myeong-dong’s main tourist attractions. A gothic building similar to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Myeongdong Cathedral features spiraling steeples, red-brick walls, and arched, stained glass windows.
The building itself was constructed by Chinese laborers, called “coolies.” Koreans at the time had no experience constructing western-style buildings, but the Chinese did. Therefore, they played a major part in the construction of not only Myeongdong Cathedral but also the buildings of the Bank of Korea and the Overseas Chinese Primary School.
Making this site even more historically significant is the fact that many protestors sought asylum here during Korea’s period of democratization.
The entire neighborhood of Myeong-dong is like a huge shopping mall, overflowing with shops selling all kinds of clothes, from formal suits to sportswear, as well as shoes, bags, accessories, and cosmetics. Myeong-dong is always alive and open for business at all hours.
But how did Myeong-dong become such a shopping hub?
From the 1880s to early 1890s, the silk shops operated by Chinese merchants in the area were a huge sensation. The western-style tailor and barber shops run by skilled Chinese merchants were also very popular.
As a result, Myeong-dong became a place that offered Koreans easy access to the fashion and beauty cultures of the West. And this legacy remains to this day, making Myeong-dong the hub of fashion and shopping in Seoul.
The Overseas Chinese Primary School, which was founded in 1909, holds a place of great significance in the history of the hwagyo. The school was founded for the ethnic Chinese community and adheres to the education curricula of Taiwan, rather than that of Korea. Even today, the students of this school are the descendants the hwagyo who settled down in this area.
Brimming with Chinese restaurants, Chinese Food Street is one of Myeong-dong’s most popular culinary streets. Famous for its rich and diverse cuisine, China has created dishes using numerous ingredients and spices, mesmerizing not only the taste buds of Asians but of westerners as well.
Including jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce), Shandong-style chaotzu dumplings, and moon cakes, all of the food here is cooked by ethnic Chinese, who are keeping the taste of the motherland alive.
Opened in 1975, Jungjeong Library derives its name from the pen-name of Chiang Kai-shek, former leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party. As the building enshrines the history, culture, and customs of China, the Chinese Resident’s Association renovated the former library in 2013.
In one corner of Myeong-dong, there is one distinctively Chinese building that will catch your eye. It is the building of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, and it was built in 2014.
Yuan Shikai, known as one of the most powerful men in China’s history, lived in Myeong-dong for almost ten years from 1885. The Chinese Embassy is the largest of all foreign diplomatic missions in Korea, and compared to China’s embassies around the world, it is second only to that of the United States. This shows how strong China’s connection to Korea is, in terms of politics, economy, and culture.
With its busy shopping streets and stores selling the latest fashions, Myeong-dong is alive and thriving, having grown upon the foundation of the hwagyo spirit and culture.