Hong Kong’s Korean expats count their blessings

With South Koreans attracted to Hong Kong in growing numbers to work, study and gain an international perspective in a cosmopolitan city, expat community is thriving. The city’s restaurants are another draw card

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 5:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 4:11pm

As unlikely as it might seem, South Korean national Park Wanki says it was dim sum that lured him to Hong Kong. “I’ve loved dim sum since I first tasted it in Toronto’s Chinatown,” he says.

“After I left Toronto, I couldn’t find a better place for dim sum, even in Boston or London, where I did my tertiary and postgraduate studies. So I made up my mind to come to Hong Kong in search of my favourite food.”

Park, a 35-year-old barrister, recalls he arrived in the city late one night 4½ years ago, and asked his friend to take him to dim sum the next day. “It was an old tea house near Sheung Wan with dim sum trolleys being wheeled around. The dim sum was served hot in the steamers and was very delicious,” he says.

Park left South Korea at the age of 15 to study in Canada, the United States and Britain before returning home to serve as a navy officer and later manage his father’s construction business.

In 2011, he came to Hong Kong to pursue a law degree at Chinese University and obtained his professional qualification in May 2015.

In the meantime, he was joined in Hong Kong by his Korean wife Yeji, whom he had married in 2010, and their eldest son Yongho (or Joshua ), now 4½, who was born in South Korea. Like her husband, Yeji, 32, spent many years studying in the West. She works as a development analyst for a hotel group.

Despite their international exposure, the couple share a strong sense of their national identity as Koreans. Yeji even gave birth to their second son Yongsung (John), now 18 months old, in her homeland before bringing him to Hong Kong.

The family of four is among a growing number of Koreans who have chosen Hong Kong as their second home. Immigration Department records show 6,048 Koreans had become Hong Kong residents as of September. The number of Korean residents has grown rapidly, from 4,711 in December 2014. But the Korean Residents Association in Hong Kong says the Korean population in the city is closer to 13,000. A greater number of young South Koreans have also been visiting Hong Kong on year-long working holiday visas.

Raising a family in the city gives their children a more international perspective, and also the opportunity to learn English and Chinese. However, both Park and fellow Korean Ryoo Byung-hoon believe it is still important for their children to master their mother tongue.

Ryoo, who has been in Hong Kong for 16 years, opted to put his three daughters, 19, 17 and 10, through the English Schools Foundation system, while also enrolling them in a Korean class run by the Korean International School every Saturday. Here, they are taught Korean language and the country’s history, tradition and culture, Ryoo says.

Korea is an export-led economy that always deals with foreign parties. If I only stay in Korea and speak only Korean, I would confine myself to local work
Park Wanki

His eldest daughter is studying at the University of Hong Kong while the second daughter plans to return to South Korea to continue to her tertiary studies.

Ryoo, a Korean community leader and executive auditor of the Korean Residents Association, set up his own property agency in the city more than 10 years ago.

“My daughters have a multinational background, speaking English, Korean and Putonghua. But I believe learning the language alone isn’t enough for effective communication. You need to understand the culture to effectively communicate with others,” he says.

“Koreans here can communicate with most Hongkongers in English. But language is still a barrier between us because we are communicating in a second language.”

Park shares a similar parenting strategy. While he and his wife sent Joshua to a Woodland school to polish his English and to widen his international exposure, the couple tutor him in the Korean language at home.

Like Ryoo, Park is enrolling Joshua in the weekly class at Korean International School. His little brother John will join him next year.

“Korea has a strong economy. It would be a big disadvantage for a Korean unable to speak and write as well as his fellow Koreans,” Park says.

“When I was studying in the West, my father kept sending me Korean-language articles to read to keep up my proficiency in the language,” says Park, adding his written and spoken Korean are of native proficiency.

Even children raised overseas who can speak and write perfect Korean may have a cultural gap to overcome after returning to the country. Speaking correctly to people of different age groups would be one of their biggest challenges, Park says.

“Korean is one of the few languages with different ways to address people of different age groups. With people older than yourself, you speak in a very formal and polite way. If your boss is younger than you, your boss will talk to you politely,” Park says.

He says children raised overseas can easily make mistakes when talking to older Koreans, and may be accused of being rude or not having been raised well.

The hierarchical corporate culture in Korea – with an emphasis on obedience – is another hurdle for young returnees.

“Individualism is taught in the West, such as freedom of speech and personal freedom. But in Korea hierarchical corporate culture, which stems from military culture, means you must obey the order coming from above, no matter what,” Park explains.

Seo Jae-chool, the principal of the Korean section of Korean International School, says the school tries to strike a balance between giving students international exposure and instilling in them Korean tradition and culture. The Korean section teaches the country’s history and social studies, provides training in tae kwon do and runs traditional music classes.

To cater for the different needs and expectation of parents, it uses English and Korean in equal measure in the classroom, while its international section is like other international schools, using English as its major medium of instruction. The Korean section strictly follows the syllabus of the Korean government, enabling students to attend universities back in South Korea.

At present, about 180 students attend the school’s Korean section while 130 students are in its international section.

Lynne Thomson, principal of the school’s international section, says Korean parents opt for the international section to broaden their children’s outlook.

“The families may be in Hong Kong for one or two years and then they will return to Korea. That is the same as other nationalities. We have Australian families who do not send their children to Australian school but they want international experience; they want something different from what they would have at home,” Thomson says.

While some parents who want their children to have a greater command of English will enrol them in the international section, others who plan to enrol their children in universities in Korea will opt for the Korean section.

Park and Ryoo admit improving their children’s proficiency in both languages while learning their native culture does not come cheap; their children are technically studying in two different international schools. On top of that, expensive housing accounts for a big chunk of their household expenses.

I believe learning the language alone isn’t enough for effective communication. You need to understand the culture to effectively communicate with others
Ryoo Byung-hoon

Nevertheless, many Koreans still see Hong Kong as an attractive place to stay because its close proximity to their homeland enables them to return regularly, it offers international exposure and has rapidly developing ties with South Korea, Ryoo says.

“Korea is an export-led economy that always deals with foreign parties. If I only stay in Korea and speak only Korean, I would confine myself to local work rather than international litigation,” the barrister says.

His observation is shared by Ryoo. “Sixteen years ago when I arrived in Hong Kong, most Koreans who came here were on secondment by their companies. Those who did business were usually on the wholesale level re-exporting goods via Hong Kong between Korea and mainland China and the US, instead of selling goods directly to Hong Kong people,” he says.

“Now, we see more and more Koreans starting up their own businesses at the retail level, selling a wide range of goods including clothes and cosmetics directly to Hong Kong people. I’ve even seen more Korean restaurants open in recent years,” he adds, saying the number has more than doubled since he arrived.

Ryoo does not plan to leave Hong Kong any time soon. “It is so convenient to travel between Korea and Hong Kong, taking only about three hours for a flight. Even many Hong Kong people travel a lot and have homes in places outside Hong Kong,” he says.

Park and his wife already regard the city as their second home.

“We have friends here, Koreans and people of different nationalities, including local Chinese. Even though we are away from home, we go back twice a year, while my parents and my in-laws in Korea come to see us every few months. So we don’t feel we’re staying apart at all,” Park says.