Rooting for Little Manila
By Oh Young-jin
A couple of years ago, I first came to know of "Little Manila" in the heart of Seoul.
One Sunday, my second son told me an exciting story about a market held on a small strip at the mouth of Taehangno in Hyehwa-dong, where Filipinos gathered in their hundreds, spoke an exotic language and outlandish products were sold.
Soon afterwards, I myself made a field trip and, with a degree of hyperbole, I would say that I experienced more about people of the Philippines than I did during my five-day honeymoon to the capital of the Philippines 20 years earlier.
But, above all, that trip to Little Manila convinced me that Korean society was overcoming its straightjacket of racial homogeneity and learning tolerance toward other people. It gave me a snapshot of Korea's globalization at the grassroots level.
That conviction, however, was put to a severe test last week when the Jongno District Office, whose jurisdiction covers Taehangno, told the Filipino community to stop holding a Sunday market, citing complaints from residents.
The district office's order came a decade ago after Little Manila in Seoul started to emerge with a few vendors catering to a small group of Filipinos after their Sunday mass. Now, it is estimated that over 1,000 Filipinos gather on any given Sunday, serving as an important meeting place for the community that has grown to be 45,000, the fifth-largest foreign community by nationality.
Jongno's notice is taken as a veiled threat. The Filipinos will be subject to crackdowns, with the cooperation of immigration officers, if they continue to hold their weekly gathering in March.
The Filipino community is asking for an alternative site but it is a tossup whether they can get a new site in time. Dongsung High School, located near Little Manila, already rejected their plea to move their marketplace to its campus. Now, they are conducting a signature-collection drive for a petition, asking Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon to intervene.
Why is Jongno trying to close down Little Manila?
Besides their official reason for the decision, Jongno officials may think that the Filipino community has grown to be too big to control or it may be scared of a resurgence of its centuries-old xenophobia, the district being the power center of the Joseon Kingdom. Or it is trying to remove Filipino vendors of the streets under the name of equality following its forced closure of Korean street vendors.
Whatever the reasons may be, Jongno may end up undoing the investments Korea has made to improve its image of an open and multicultural society.
The foreign community in general would say, "I told you so," by using the Little Manila closure to amplify doubts they have about Korea's globalization efforts. It may sound a logical stretch but, as a result, Korea's efforts to rebrand itself as an international destination, which is focused on its friendliness toward foreigners, may have to be restarted from scratch.
This immediate damage may pale in comparison when considering the daunting task the Little Manila case presents in terms of Korea's general immigration policy.
Whether by choice or through necessity, Korea has a sizable immigrant community, thanks to its importation of foreign manpower.
It is no longer unusual for Korean men to have foreign brides. By official estimates, the number of foreigners here exceeds 1 million and is growing.
In this social structure, the Little Manila case reminds Korea of an issue that has been long pigeonholed ― how to handle a large influx of foreigners from a bigger perspective.
Korea has two choices. First, it can round foreigners up and keep them in ghettos. Or it can integrate them into society.
The first choice obviously won't work, considering recent riots by immigrants in France. The European nation, by and large, has employed a laissez faire policy toward immigrants. It is now seen as a benign form of negligence.
As the immigrant community has grown, it resented the inattention from the French government, causing it to harbor animosity toward mainstream French society, and then took to the streets to get their demands heard. Unfortunately, no definite solution appears to be in sight.
Despite differences in historical backgrounds, Korea can learn a lesson or two from the French debacle.
Above all, the immigration issue should be a priority that needs an immediate and holistic approach. This new approach can only be made through consultations between the local and central governments, and foreign communities. Dialogue and interaction at grassroots levels are indispensable.
To give this new approach a chance for success, Jongno officials should keep an open mind and initiate an earnest dialogue with the Filipino community. Right now, the Jongno District Office is pushing the Filipinos toward a take-it-or-leave-it choice but Little Manila has become too big to be resolved by this typical bureaucratic approach.
If Jongno fails to find a solution, it should bring in Seoul City Hall and the central government to resolve the situation.
At the end of the day, all efforts to resolve the Little Manila case may turn out to be a blessing disguised as a curse. That is, if all parties involved can find a solution to the immediate issue that will lay the groundwork for a bigger and more comprehensive solution to Korea's immigration issues to come.