The noodle museum dedicated to Korea's soul food - and its Chinese creator

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 16.04, 20/04/2019
The noodle museum dedicated to Korea's soul food - and its Chinese creator

A huge statue of a Chinese chef hurrying with a delivery container in hand has drawn tourists to a grey-and-red brick building in South Korea's oldest Chinatown in the port city of Incheon.

Welcome to Jjajangmyeon Museum, an unusual facility dedicated to the country's popular noodles served with brown sauce and its inventor, a Chinese immigrant.

The renovated two-storey building with green window panes used to house the once-popular Gonghhuachun Chinese restaurant, the birthplace of the ubiquitous food, which is widely eaten in homes and offices, together with fried chicken and pizza, in South Korea.

Developed seven decades ago as a low-budget food during the Korean war, jjajangmyeon has become so popular that seven million portions of the noodles are sold daily in the country, with one out of every seven South Koreans eating them every day.

"I think jjajangmyeon has become like soul food for all of us now. You eat it whenever you can and wherever you want - at home, in offices and even on the beach," Chai Young-Sun, a retired government employee, said.

"When we were students, it was the food we shared with friends and we felt close when eating it together", he said. "I still love this food, although my appetite has waned with my growing age," said the 61-year-old Chae.

Jjajangmyeon has become such an ingrained part of the national psyche that the dish often appears in Korean movies and dramas as props, and even as a symbol of a mother's love and sacrifice for her son in a famous K-pop song.

In the 1999 debut album titled To Mother by G. O. D, one of the most popular K-pop groups in the early 2000s, the five-member boy band group hailed a mother who was so poor that she was unable to order two portions of jjajangmyeon for herself and her son. So she ordered just one portion for her son, claiming she did not like the noodles.

Jjajangmyeon, in its current form, was invented by Wu Hee-guang, a Chinese immigrant from Shandong province, during the Korean war of 1950-53 when everything was in short supply and people were in need of cheap but nutritious food.

Wu opened a Chinese restaurant, Shandong Fandian, in 1905 near the Incheon port to cater to thousands of workers. They included Chinese labourers who converged on the "concession zone" which was handed to China in late 19th century in Incheon, where the country's oldest Chinatown was formed.

Shandong Fandian later changed its name to Gonghuachun in 1911 to celebrate the founding of the Republic of China, said Wu's granddaughter Wang Ai-chu.

"Wu, who is my grandfather on my mother's side, named it like that. It means the spring season of the Republic, reflecting his wish that the Republic of China be prosperous," she said.

During the Korean war and its aftermath, most Koreans suffered from poverty and deprivation, relying on American food aid, and eating out was beyond their means.

The jjajangmyeon-like precursor was composed of noodles, Chinese bean paste and chopped pork meat but its ingredients lost all their moisture while being sauteed together, thus making the noodles too dry for Koreans, who are fond of soupy food.

"During the war and afterwards, it was hard to secure meat and it was also too expensive. To keep the food price down, my father began to put in vegetables which were more readily available and added starch powder and water to make it softer and watery," Wang said.

"This recipe appealed to Koreans' taste very well. It was an instant success and its popularity was explosive," she said.

With its operation being handed down to Wu's son and grandson, Gonghuachun had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, as a popular venue in Incheon for weddings and other large gatherings.

But the restaurant had to shut down in 1983 due to falling sales as Incheon developed new commercial districts in the east, which became new centres of attraction and drove residents and customers away from the old town where Gonghuachun was located.

Wu's daughter Wu Ran-young and son-in-law, who had been operating a separate restaurant in the same Chinatown, wanted to use the famous name for their business. But Wu's widow did not allow it, since Ran-young was not a son and thus should not inherit the Wu family's business even in name.

Ran-young died 20 years ago and her daughter Wang Ai-chu inherited her parents' restaurant, Sinseung Banjeom (New Victory Restaurant), which is located near the main entrance of Incheon's Chinatown.

But no member of the Wu family had patented the Gonghuachun name, which allowed it to be picked up by a South Korean who soon opened a large Chinese restaurant using the honoured name in the same Chinatown.

"In the past, customers did not know that the current Gonghuachun had nothing to do with the old Gonghuachun. But thanks to the development of internet and online messenger services, many came to know what had happened", Wang said.

The old Gonghuachun's rectangular building built by engineers from Shandong province had been left vacant since its closure.

But in 2006, it was designated as cultural heritage as it exemplifies the architectural style of Incheon's Chinatown.

The Wu family sold the building standing on a lot of 581 square metres to the Incheon government for an unknown price after being promised that it would be turned into a jjajangmyeon museum, which would have a special corner dedicated to the memory of its developer Wu Hee-gwang.

After its opening in 2012, the building - whose development took three years and cost 6.5 billion won (US$5.7 million) - has emerged as a must-visit site in Incheon's Chinatown. Last year alone, it attracted 190,000 visitors.

The museum features a replica of the Gonghuachun kitchen during the 1960s on the 418 sq m ground floor, where visitors can take a look at the kitchen structure, utensils, ingredients and recipes for jjajangmyeon.

Exhibitions on the first floor include plaster figures representing Chinese workers eating jjajangmyeon at the dock of Incheon Port, a reception room of Gonghuachun, wax figures of Korean customers enjoying jjajangmyeon, various images of the noodles, wood and metal containers used to deliver jjajangmyeon, as well as dried and packed jjajang ramen in the 1970s.

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Aside from the museum, tourists can enjoy Chinese food in the same district, and tour the nearby Wolmido island, where stands a statue of US General Douglas MacArthur who successfully led the famous Incheon landing during the Korean war. They can also stroll through the old Incheon town which came into existence after the hermit Choseon dynasty opened its ports to foreign trade in the late 19th century.

"I hope this museum may bring some awareness to Koreans about the contributions that ethnic Chinese people have made to enriching the country's culinary culture," Wang said.

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