By Claire Lee, Korea Herald correspondent
BEIJING ― The city is booming, huge, commercial and industrial. Its gigantic roads are filled with countless vehicles, high-rise buildings and almost unbearably polluted air.
It is lunch time in Dongcheng District, an urban district in Beijing covering the eastern half of the city’s urban core. And what’s located on the ground floor of Park Plaza Mall, one of the biggest malls in the city, is Bibigo, Korea’s Bibimbap chain restaurant owned by CJ Corporation.
The place is packed with people, the smell of fresh steamed rice and Korean barbeque. As it is located in the middle of Beijing’s urban hot spot, one can easily spot a few foreigners as well as young locals speaking in foreign languages.
“Our menu here is exactly the same with the ones in Korea,” says Kim Kyung-jung, vice general manager of restaurant department of CJ Beijing Bakery Co. Ltd.
“We try to serve the taste of genuine bibimbap just the way people have it in Korea. The rule is not to localize.”
Bibigo’s Beijing branch was only opened in August of last year, along with other international branches in Los Angeles and Singapore. The price isn’t cheap, but it goes well with how Bibimbap is universally promoted: healthy and organic, hence worth your money.
“Most of our customers are the people who work in this mall,” says Kim. “And because we are located in the mall, we don’t get a lot of visitors during dinner time. Yet I think we’ve been doing fairly well, without compromising genuine Korean taste.”
Kim points out that Korean food was largely introduced in Beijing through Chinese people of Korean descent.
“Yet the food Chinese people of Korean descent serve as Korean is often not really Korean,” Kim says.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is also important to promote Korean cuisine as how it is served in Korea so people in Beijing ― both the locals and foreigners ― can get an opportunity to taste the bibimbap of its original kind.”
The crowd gets heavier and people are starting to line up to choose their favorite Korean sauce for their bibimbap. They get four choices: hot pepper paste; sesame sauce; soybean paste; and citron soy sauce. But just a few decades ago, such a scene would have been unthinkable in Beijing.
It has only been 19 years since South Korea and China established diplomatic ties. Korean Cultural Service, China, was only opened in Beijing in 2006.
Yet such a short history is what gives Kim Ik-kyum, director of Korean Cultural Service in Beijing, China, more confidence in doing his job.
“It is very rare for two separate countries to establish a diplomatic relationship in such a short period of time,” Kim told The Korea Herald during an interview in his office in Beijing.
What one can almost instantly feel stepping into Beijing is not its present but its future ― with even more changes to come. Those changes will include cultural ones, says Kim.
“It is natural for any country to turn to foreign culture once it reaches a certain economic level,” Kim says.“China wasn’t an exception. It’s gone through a major industrialization and has started to see other cultures in the world. And Korean culture, I think, was more approachable for ordinary Chinese citizens to enjoy than the ones of the West.”
According to Kim, hallyu ― mainly TV dramas and K-pop ― first arrived in China through its coastal areas of Shanghai, Shandong and Guangdong provinces in 1995. “In the beginning, most of the people who were attracted to hallyu were teenagers and housewives,” Kim says.
“After about 15 years or so, hallyu has become something more than popular music and TV shows. It includes Korean cuisine, fashion, travel and even plastic surgery.”
And as Kim’s confidence shows, the culture center in Beijing has been doing fairly well. Last year, it welcomed more than 71,000 visitors while providing free courses in the Korean language, taekwondo, calligraphy, Korean pop culture and cuisine. Among the courses, the center’s taekwondo program is highly popular, throwing a huge annual competition every December.
“We select about 20 to 30 people and send them to Korea for special training for free,” Kim says. “A lot of Chinese people still think of taekwondo as a medal sport, and don’t know much about its charm as an everyday exercise. We’ve tried to promote it in local schools and military bases last year but the whole plan got cancelled because of the bombardment of Yeonpyeong.”
Unlike other Korean cultural centers around the globe, the center in Beijing is easily influenced by current politics and history.
While the two countries’ long shared history makes Korean culture a familiar one to the Chinese, it is what also gives them the common perception that Korean culture is only a slightly different version of Chinese culture, Kim says.
An example would be the case of Dano, one of the shared holidays of China and Korea. When Korea’s Gangneung Danoje Festival, ― a traditional celebration of the holiday in Gangneung, Gangwon Province ― was designated as UNESCO intangible heritage back in 2005, it infuriated many Chinese.
“A lot of them said Korea ‘stole’ China’s holiday and received the UNESCO designation as if it had always been a Korean one,” says Kim. “But it wasn’t the Dano holiday that was designated. It was Gangneung’s regional celebration that has been kept for hundreds of years.”
Kim stressed that it takes a patient and cautious approach to promote Korea’s traditional culture in a country where national pride is so strong.
“China has gone through a lot in the recent past and their pride was at its peek during the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” says Kim. “And there has been some anti-Korean sentiment among the people here during the Olympic Games, as they wanted to express their sense of national pride and superiority.”
Kim’s “patient and cautious” approach is what CJ Corporation, which just opened its CGV branch in Beijing Olympic Park last year, along with its chain restaurant, Bibigo, is also taking.
CGV Beijing is the only movie venue in China that has a 4-D Plex, which has vibrating seats along with water and wind effects on top of being fully 3-D capable.
While the theater is located in the center of what is so symbolic to the people of Beijing, Son Ji-hui, PR manager at CJ China Headquarters’ Business Management Division, says the corporation does not want to “stress its nationality” in the Olympic Park.
“We try not to make it too obvious that we are a Korean corporation,” says Son. “The message we try to give is that we are a Korean company that tries to ‘grow along’ with China.”
China’s strong national pride also affects CJ’s promotion strategies.
“Though Twitter and Facebook are still banned in China, there are local SNS such as Weibo,” says Son. “These are extremely powerful tools when promoting one’s products. But we’ve decided not to use them as it was too risky. Once anti-Korean sentiment arises online, it would become uncontrollable.”
Director Kim said this is why academic research on the history of Korea and China is important, as it can provide scientific evidence to counter such anti-Korean sentiment.
“International recognition, such as UNESCO designations, is also helpful,” Kim says. “These designations make it easier for us to market our heritage to the broader audience. It is also useful when we explain the difference between Korean culture and Chinese culture.”
In spite of on-going challenges ahead of him, Kim stays positive.
“Korea has established both democratization and industrialization in a remarkably short period of time,” he says.
“What’s more amazing is we managed to preserve our cultural heritage while going through such rapid changes and developments. I think the struggles and conflicts we’ve had through the modernization process are also a huge part of Korea’s modern culture and history. And I think that can be inspiring to modern China, where a period of rapid change is on its way ― just like the way Korea once was.”