It’s a Friday afternoon, perhaps approaching 4pm. Next to me, crowded around a small, white table, five Korean teenage boys are sharing kebabs, across from them several Korean girls, also clad in school uniform, are making short work of their smoothies. Mall shoppers are gliding back and forth in and around the tables; white noise fills the air, wrestling with the smells of various ethnic snacks for the attention of potential customers. This could be any mall in South Korea, these could be any students in South Korea, taking a break between English hagwon and Taekwondo lessons. Except, I realise as I come to my senses, this is Australia. To be more precise, this is Strathfield, a small inner-West suburb of Sydney.
It has been almost a year since I was in Yanji, Northeast China, a place which left a deep impression on me because of the overwhelming Korean influence in the foods served in the restaurants, the music played in the bars and the neon signs flashing Hangul script that lit up the evenings. I hadn’t expected to find such an equally impressive display of Korean cultural expression in Australasia.
The history of Strathfield goes back to the late 18th century, when the land was claimed by English settlers, no doubt much to the surprise of the Aboriginals who had occupied the Sydney basin area for a long time prior. Perhaps the most fascinating period emerged following the end of ‘White Australia’ Immigration policies and the gradual movement of migrants from various Asian countries to the area. The 2006 census of Strathfield reported that out of a total population of just over 20,400 persons, over 50% were born overseas, making this one of the most culturally diverse suburbs of Sydney. Of particular interest to me, as I order a second cup of green tea and tried my best not to eavesdrop on the conversation of the five Korean ajumma who had occupied several tables without making even a conciliatory attempt to order anything, is the fact that migrants born in South Korea make up the largest contingent of ‘outsider’s on the inside’. The fact that 8.6% of the population of the ‘Strass’ (스트라스), as it is known by Koreans, is South Korean born, that the streets are lined with beauty parlours (미용실), nail care shops (네일 케어숍) and BBQ houses (삼겹살집) makes me wonder, what kind of Korean community exists in Australia?
Without falling into derivative essentialisms of an ethnic group, and taking care to avoid such problematic theories as the ‘Model minority’ used to describe Koreans in the US., it is worth considering how such an area came to earn the unofficial epithet of ‘Korea Town’ and what kind of relationship Koreans in Australia have with the wider community?
The numbers of Koreans in Australia has continued to grow since the 1970s when a census recorded less than 500 Koreans nationwide. The mid-1970s saw the first ‘waves’ of Korean migration, primarily concentrated in Sydney. A majority of migrants in these cases were either ‘Amnesty migrants’– over-stayers who were granted residency and stayed in Australia working a variety of ‘3-D jobs’, or so-called ‘Container migrants’, who arrived with skills and quickly started businesses in the Sydney area.[i]
Following on the heels of the recovery of the Korean economy at the beginning of the new millennium, Australia has proven a desirable destination for young Koreans taking advantage of the one year working visa and/or the study visa offered by the Australian government. Migration theorists may argue that the contemporary character of the Korean community in Sydney is far more transient than it used to be, with Australia viewed as a one to two year English language experience rather than a place to settle long term. Yet the ubiquitousness of the Korean-owned Japanese sushi house or the prevalence of K-pop in the air in several of Sydney’s inner suburbs speaks to the stability of this migrant community.
Christianity, as with Korean migrant communities all over the world, has played an important role in both encouraging migrants to come to Australia and permitting a smoother settlement for those unwilling or unable to ‘go-native.’ Recent estimates put the number of Korean Protestant churches in Sydney at over 150.[ii] Acting as a bridge between the sending community, Korea, and the receiving country, Australia, these organisations provide theological training, material and emotional support, and loans and scholarships to members of the Korean community in Sydney.
The Korean community, as with any minority that begins to move out of the shadows, has attracted both sunshine and storms; several reports in the Australian media threw light on the ‘growing number of Korean prostitutes’ working in Sydney,[iii] while other stories have highlighted the success of Koreans in small businesses.[iv] Certainly, as Koreans continue to make a deeper footprint in Australian society, more attention, good and bad, will come the way of this community.
Several waves of migration from Korea to Sydney, facilitated by a liberalising of Australian immigration laws for ‘Amnesty seeker’s and ‘Entrepreneurial immigrants’ and the effects of ongoing chain migration have undoubtedly contributed to the scene I described at the beginning of this article. For better or worse, the Korean community in Sydney appears to be both vibrant and growing. Critics may argue that the ‘Strass’ is evidence Koreans are not assimilating/integrating with the wider community, and perhaps that is true. Given the contribution of Koreans in Sydney to the fields of commerce, food and culture, and religion, however, one has to wonder if it really matters if Mr. Kim from Strathfield doesn’t yet know the words to Waltzing Matilda, and struggles to recall how many snags are needed for the perfect barbeque.
[i] Joy Han and Gil-Soo Han. The Koreans in Sydney. Sydney Journal. 2(2)2010 ISSN 1835—0151 p.2
[ii] Ibid p.7.
[iii] ABC News February 6th 2012.
The Telegraph February 6th 2012.
[iv] University of Technology report 24th May 2012.