Ansan, South Korea (2012)

Chulhyo Kim

Ansan is an industrial city in South Korea, located 31 km southwest from central Seoul. It has been through a dramatic transformation over the last three decades, from a fishing village with salt fields to a national industrial complex zone, and finally to a ‘Multicultural village special zone’. The industrial complex was established in the 1970s for the relocation of polluting industries and working class populations in Seoul. The city saw a rapid growth in economy and population throughout the 1980s. The majority of the population became internal migrants who came from rural areas seeking factory jobs. However, Ansan’s economy faced a sudden downturn during the mid-1990s and especially after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. While big businesses relocated their factories to less developed countries seeking cheaper labour cost, smaller companies  did not have such resources. Local workers rapidly left the 3D industries, but migrant workers filled the workplaces. In 2013, international migrants made 9 per cent of Ansan’s population which is almost 5 times more than the national average. Among other districts of Ansan city, Wongok-dong shows the highest rate of migrant populations (44 per cent). Local government designated Wongok-dong as ‘Multicultural village special zone’ in 2007 with the hope of promoting the ethnic tourism, but at the same time tightened the security measures in the name of preventing foreign crimes. There is a complex combination of tension and solidarity between migrants and local people.

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Photo 01

The entry of ‘Multicultural Food Street’

If you cross the motorway in front of Ansan Station, you can find the entry of ‘Multicultural Food Street’. This main street of Wongok-dong district of Ansan City is filled with ethnic shops and mobile phone shops. Migrant workers from all over the country come to this area to spend weekends, meet friends, and buy food and goods from their home countries and mobile phones.

Photo 02

‘Multicultural Street’

The main street was officially named as ‘Damunwha-1-gil’ (‘Multicultural Street 1’). South Korean version of ‘multiculturalism’ is often criticised of disguising the top-down assimilation policy for marriage migrants and the exclusion of temporary labour migrants.

Photo 03

Street market

Throughout the ‘multicultural street’, you can find many street vendors. Many of them are an extension of the shops in the buildings behind the vendors. Local government prohibits the street vendor, and sometimes enforces the regulations.

Photo 04

‘Ethnic shop’

The majority of migrants come from Asian countries as temporary workers. Wongok-dong is a multi-ethnic district rather than an enclave of a single ethnic group. The ownerships of ‘ethnic shops’ have gradually transferred from local to migrant owners.

Photo 05

Evening dance party at ‘Multicultural square’

Local government demolished a playground and constructed a ‘multicultural square’ in the center of the district. The square is used for ‘multicultural events’ that is organised by the local government or community organisations. In the evening, the square is filled with Chinese migrants dancing with loud music or playing traditional games. During Ramadan period, this square is filled with Muslim migrant praying from early morning. Sometimes, these cultural activities cause tensions between ethnic groups.

Photo 06

Local government poster ‘No urinating’

Public etiquette, such as rubbish, urination on street, is one of the most often discussed issues in the district. Local people often complain about migrants’ neglect of the public orders. Local government and community organisations organise joint campaigns on this issue.

Photo 07

‘Multicultural Promotion and Education Center’

As a part of ‘multicultural village special zone’ project, local government set up the ‘Multicultural promotion and education center’.  The contents are rather limited to exhibiting clothes, accessories, musical instruments and toys from some Asian countries.

Photo 08

‘Multicultural Area Police Service Center’

Several crimes that were nationally reported stigmatised Ansan as ‘the city of foreign crime’ without factual ground. The police set up ‘Multicultural Area Police Service Center’ in the center of the district, although many civil society groups opposed it. Some people argue the more presence and visibility of the police helps security and, as a result, business in the area, others argue it actually reinforce the stigma. In fact, the term ‘multicultural area police service’ itself generates groundless and prejudiced links between ‘multicultural’ and ‘police service’.

Photo 09

Migrant workers accommodation

The three or four story buildings with several apartments are typical working class accommodation. These are mostly built in 1980s, but landlords often extend the building with top-roof rooms. Six or more households live in the building, and the number of electricity meter boxes usually indicates the number of households. Each household usually consists of a few single migrant workers.

Photo 10

Container box accommodation

Migrant workers at their early stage often stay at the container boxes annexed to the factory that are offered by employers. The living conditions are usually very bad, but workers want to stay at such accommodation because they can save living costs.

Photo 11


Ansan’s major industry is manufacture such as machinery, chemistry, leather, and plating, of which businesses mostly rely on low wages. Employers are often dissatisfied with the low-skills of migrant workers, although they offer only low wages and poor working conditions.

Photo 12


A small usual building at a corner of the ‘multicutural street’ is used for mosque. Ansan Islmaic Center was established by Bangladeshi migrants in 2001 and recognised as an official masjid by Korea Muslim Federation. This masjid has shelters of migrant workers. Another Muslim chapel, organised by Indonesian migrants, is also in this area.

Photo 13

Ansan Migrant Center

Ansan Migrant Center was established in 1994 by a Presbyterian church to provide shelters and services to migrant workers in need. This Center played a central role in advocating migrant rights in 2000s in Ansan as well as nation-wide. After local government set up a government-run service facility for migrants in 2008 as a part of the ‘multicultural village special zone’ project, this organisation became less influential in the area.

Photo 14

Pro-bono legal service at Ansan Station

A few lawyers provide pro-bono legal services at Ansan Station in the weekends. Migrants usually seek consultations on visa, working conditions, delay in wage payment, and marriage.

Photo 15

‘Immigration agency’

The number of ‘immigration agencies’ is increasing in Ansan. There is no official licensing system of immigration agent in South Korea as such, although licensed administrative agent may provide services on immigration.

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