Strathfield should find its Seoul

Two academics have uncovered a major opportunity to put Strathfield on the tourist map and present Australia with a bold new international image of the municipality. According to Professor Jock Collins and Dr Joon Shin of the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School, Strathfield could become the “little Korea” of Sydney, reaping benefits in tourism, employment and investment.

We already outrank our closest rival, Eastwood in the city of Ryde, with 49 Korean restaurants and food outlets against their 33. Their  plan, however, includes changing street signs and iconography – a move which may make some in our community uncomfortable.

“With support from Strathfield or Ryde councils to draw up local area plans to fund a ‘Korean makeover’ of the streetscape, either Strathfield or Eastwood could be Sydney’s ‘Little Korea’,” say the researchers, who’ve just completed the report Korean Immigrant Entrepreneurs in the Sydney Restaurant Industry.

“This would assist in the public promotion of Korean culture in Sydney in the same way that Chinatown promotes Chinese culture and tourism in Sydney,” the report continues. “This not only would have economic benefits, but would also help build the social capital between Sydney’s Korean community and other parts of Sydney’s cosmopolitan community.”

The academics claim this would also encourage Sydneysiders to get a “taste of Korea” – enlarging the non-Korean and non-Chinese customer base of restaurants and food outlets owned by Korean entrepreneurs.

Cr Keith Kwon, a prominent Korean-Australian and the first ever Korean mayor in Australia when he helmed Strathfield council, presented the research to Council with a recommendation that they carry out a feasibility study as soon as possible. Kwon, who is expected to stand down from council at September’s elections, has agreed to advise council on projects like a Korean Garden.

The researchers point out Sydney already has a Chinatown, Little Italy and other ethnic precincts that attract locals and tourists. But this could open up more than simple economics.

For years, Strathfield’s multicultural community has struggled to reach out to its Korean residents. Their dominant presence in Raw Square has been seen as a blessing since it creates a lively hub, but also a curse because the number of Korean businesses and lack of new building investment has shut out others.

There is no doubt this proposal  will create debate. When it was raised at Council, Deputy Mayor Helen McLucas was quick to point out that consultation should include the whole community, not just Korean businesses. But for a municipality seeking city status and a differentiator in a multicultural haven like the inner west, it appears  to offer attraction.

The two researchers interviewed 65 prominent Korean business people and their research underscores the important economic contribution of Korean immigrants. Dr Shin told the Scene: “I think Strathfield is more a base because nearly 90 per cent of businesses in Strathfield  (not including North Strathfield) have been owned by Koreans. Some of the business people we interviewed say Strathfield is already Little Korea.”

But the report also shows how little is known about our Korean population.

“Korean immigrants are the most entrepreneurial group in Australia. They have the highest rate of entrepreneurship in Australia – twice the Australian average,” the UTS report finds. “Despite this, the experience of Korean immigrant entrepreneurs in Australia remains largely unexplored.”

So what does the research tell us about our Korean fellow citizens?

“One very pleasing finding was that only one of the 64 Korean immigrant restaurant owners surveyed reported any problem of racism.

“The overwhelming majority of the Korean immigrant entrepreneurs surveyed (75 per cent) plan to spend their life in Australia. This is a strong affirmation of their experience in Australia as entrepreneurs and in Sydney as Korean immigrants.”

But they do have problems. Their main one – immigration rules make it difficult for them to recruit employees.

They also found banks less than welcoming. “The Korean immigrant entrepreneurs surveyed reported that it was very difficult to get finance from banks, particularly for those starting up their first business. They relied on some combination of personal savings supplemented by capital from family and friends. “

The researchers concluded: “The Korean community in Sydney makes an important economic, social and cultural contribution to life in Sydney, but more effort needs to be made to promote an understanding of the Korean community in Sydney among the broader Sydney cosmopolitan community. One way to assist in the process of building greater links to, and understanding of, Sydney’s Korean community is to commission more research into the economic, social and cultural aspects of Korean immigrant life in Australia.

“There are many other business sectors in Australia where Korean immigrant entrepreneurs make very significant contributions, yet there has been no research conducted to build a broader understanding among the Australian public of these contributions,” says the report, advocating more research.

They add: “We know very little about the economic, social, cultural, religious and political dimensions of Korean immigrant life in Australia.”

The message for Strathfield is clear: “There is a strong case for promoting a ‘Little Korea’ in Sydney. There are concentrations of Korean immigrants and clusters of Korean entrepreneurs, particularly those engaged with restaurants and food outlets.”

This would not only have economic benefits, but would also help build the social capital between Sydney’s Korean community and other parts of  Sydney’s community.


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