[Visual History of Korea] Jjajangmyeon, Korean Chinese dish invented in Incheon by Chinese migrant workers

[Visual History of Korea] Jjajangmyeon, Korean Chinese dish invented in Incheon by Chinese migrant workers

Incheon’s New Chinatown has many descendants of overseas Chinese from Shandong Province, China, located directly across the West Sea from Incheon. The Korean city was the birthplace of the Chinese noodle dish jjajangmyeon. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Western missionaries introduced brick buildings to Korea. Most of the construction work was done by overseas Chinese workers.

Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral was built with bricks by Qing Dynasty “Hwagyo” (Overseas Chinese) workers in the late 1800s. The brick building of Ehwa Women’s University was also built by Hwagyo workers of the Qing Dynasty.

According to Yi Jung-hee, a professor at the National University of Incheon, the Qing dynasty workers were tall and cheap wage laborers who were hired by the Japanese to build the Supung Dam, a dam of 900 meters long along the Amnok River (Yalu River). and the Changjinho Dam, better known as the Chosin Reservoir, where American troops suffered heavy casualties from advancing Communist Chinese forces before retreating during the Korean War.

Incheon, the birthplace of Korea’s most famous Chinese noodle dish, jjajangmyeon, has always been the gateway to Korea’s Western Sea, also known as the Yellow Sea.

During the period of the Joseon Kingdom, foreigners in Korea were restricted to living in exclusive foreigner settlement neighborhoods, known as “jogye”, in Incheon. By law, foreigners were not allowed to travel more than 4 kilometers from their respective enclaves.

Seo Hak-bo, 62, is a second-generation Korean Chinese restaurateur, descended from an immigrant from Shandong Province, China. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Seo Hak-bo, 62, is a second-generation Korean Chinese restaurateur, descended from an immigrant from Shandong Province, China. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The Japanese jogye was first established in 1883, linking banking and commerce to the city of Nagasaki, which had the closest trade relations with Korea.

The Qing Dynasty Jogye followed in 1884 as neighboring nations vied for their interests in Korea. Citizens of countries such as the United States, Germany, England, France, and the excess Japanese population in Korea shared an area called “joint settlement districts”.

The Qing jogye in Incheon overlooked the waters of the West Sea, where overseas Chinese grew their own vegetables and began doing business in Korea.

Jjajangmyeon, the original Korean Chinese dish, was invented in Incheon by Qing dynasty migrant workers in Korea in the early 1900s, when Qing and Japanese companies were competing to establish themselves in Korea.

“Chunjang, the black sauce for jjajangmyeon doesn’t exist in Chinese cuisine outside of Korea,” said Seo Hak-bo, a restaurateur and second-generation Chinese Korean whose father was born in Shandong Province, China. , west of West. Korea Sea, also known as the Yellow Sea.

Korean Chinese restaurant's Marquis menu item, jjajangmyeon (right), is a Korean-only dish.  It has been reimagined as “White Jjajangmyeon” on the left, by restaurateur Seo Hak-bo. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Korean Chinese restaurant’s Marquis menu item, jjajangmyeon (right), is a Korean-only dish. It has been reimagined as “White Jjajangmyeon” on the left, by restaurateur Seo Hak-bo. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

“I have visited all over China in search of Chinese food and I can say that Shandong, Balhae Bay, Korea and all the surrounding lands around the West Sea cook with green onion and garlic, while the rest of China cooks with ginger,” SEO said.

Generations of Hwagyo from the Qing dynasty settled in Korea, but their nationality is as citizens of the Republic of China, Taiwan.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 on the mainland, Qing dynasty nationals were stuck in Korea. Overseas Chinese people in Korea were forced to side with Taiwan since Korea had no diplomatic relations with Communist China, the People’s Republic of China until 1992.

In the United States, as Qing dynasty migrant workers built the western half of the transcontinental railroads in the United States in the 1800s, kitchens were set up in labor camps along the way of the construction of the railroad, becoming the first American Chinese restaurants. where Chinese dishes were prepared with locally available ingredients.

American Chinese food is different from traditional Chinese food available in China. American Chinese cuisine, which restaurateur Seo describes as “too sweet”, is immensely popular everywhere. Today there are more Chinese food restaurants in America than there are all other fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s combined.

Jjajangmyeon, a typical Korean dish, has been reinvented as

Jjajangmyeon, a typical Korean dish, has been reinvented as “White Jjajangmyeon” by restaurateur Seo Hak-bo. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

In the 20th century, Qing laborers were mobilized in Korea to build railways by Japanese colonizers who needed railways to transport soldiers and weapons to wage war in Manchuria.

A tragic massacre of overseas Chinese took place in Pyongyang and other cities in Korea in 1931 during the Japanese occupation.

“Some 200 Chinese workers were killed as a result of bogus Extra News printed in July 1931 by Chosun Ilbo falsely reporting the killing of Korean farmers in Jilin Province, northeast Manchuria, by the Chinese”, said Yi from Incheon National University.

Hwagyo’s unique story leaves them with questions about who they are.

“In my twenties, I struggled with my identity. ‘Who am I?’ is an endless duty for all of us hwagyo. I thought I was Chinese in my 20s. So I went to college in Taiwan with the intention of not going back to Korea, but quickly realized that Taiwan was not my home,” Seo said.

Peking Gourmet Korean Chinese Restaurant in Garden Grove, California is run by second-generation Korean Chinese sisters who serve jjajangmyeon alongside American Chinese food.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Peking Gourmet Korean Chinese Restaurant in Garden Grove, California is run by second-generation Korean Chinese sisters who serve jjajangmyeon alongside American Chinese food. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

“My blood is Qing Chinese, but my flesh and bones are Korean rice, kimchi, and makgeolli, Korea’s rice wine.” Said Seo.

While Seo’s father, Seo Yoo-gong, lived most of his life in Korea as a first-generation immigrant, he never learned to speak Korean fluently. Korean law prevented Elder Seo and other overseas Chinese from owning farmland beyond their residences and required them to renew their temporary residence in Korea every three years.

But when the elder Seo was dying in Orange County, California, while visiting his daughters who had immigrated to the United States, one of the last words he spoke was, “I want to go home to Korea”.

The Seo siblings had their father’s body transported to Korea and buried their father next to their mother in a cemetery in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Briana R. Cross