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THE SPICES OF LIFE: Traders make deals to make a living.
In a sleepy Chinese outpost, spice traders have created a little bit of
By HANNAH BEECH Weihai
Wine Goes Down Slowly:
The pungent smell of kimchee and barbecued beef wafting out of the Woo
Lae Oak restaurant promises all good things Korean. So do similar fragrances
emanating from the Taihe Inn, which caters to South Korean businessmen
and offers cut-rate Asiana Airlines tickets to Seoul. And it's hard to
miss the Daewoo and Samsung factories on the outskirts of town. Yet despite
the quintessential Korean flavor of Weihai, the flag that flies over this
coastal trading town is, in fact, Chinese.
Weihai has long been accommodating to foreigners. The first outsiders
to drop anchor in this sleepy haven in eastern Shandong province were
British merchants, who wangled a treaty port out of a war-weakened China
in 1898. Korean traders in search of cheap spices arrived nearly a century
later, when Weihai became one of the first maritime towns to open up during
China's economic reforms. Today, all traces of the Union Jack have been
replaced by icons from the Land of the Morning Calm. Korean merchants
swarm the markets, in search of the choicest goods to take back home.
Hangul, the Korean script, announces everything from a Korean supermarket
to a Korean toilet-bowl store. The head of Hyundai, one of Korea's top
conglomerates, is the honorary president of a local teachers' college.
Three times a week, 600 Korean traders board the slow boat from Inchon
to Weihai, amusing themselves during the 18-hour journey with strobe-lit
karaoke, OB beer and Dance Dance Revolution videogame machines. On the
return trip, their sacks bulge with chili, garlic and sesame oil. Yoon
Sung Il, 51, has crossed the Yellow Sea twice a week for the past three
years. By selling his bags of spices to Korean restaurateurs, he pockets
a profit of $200 per trip, even when he brings his wife and 18-year-old
son along for the ride. "There are worse ways to make a living," he says,
lounging on deck in Hawaiian shorts and wraparound sunglasses. "It's better
than sitting in an office with a calculator."
When the Asian financial crisis hit South Korea, small-time merchants
were among the first to feel the pain. Two thousand of the most enterprising
hopped the boat to Chinamostly to Weihai, but also to Dalian and
other Shandong portsto buy cheap Chinese goods and sell them back
home at markups as high as 350%. Now, even kids on summer break from Korea's
top universities engage in a little spice arbitrage. "I don't know why
more people don't do this," says Chung Ju Yop, 21. "I can make money and
get a look at the rest of the world."
Such opportunities may be narrowing. Last year, the influx of cheap Chinese
food products so inflamed Korea's farmers that Seoul decreased the amount
a trader could import from 120 kg to 70 kg. In October, the load will
be lightened to 50 kg. The trade spat heightened in June when Seoul raised
tariffs on Chinese garlic from 30% to a whopping 315%. Beijing retaliated
by banning South Korean mobile phones and polyethylene, a key component
in making plastics. Although government officials have resolved the tariff
dispute, some traders are worried. "On the surface, the two countries
say that trade is good for both sides," says Lee Jung Il, a former fish
breeder who now imports Chinese food and liquor to Inchon. "But underneath,
neither wants to accept the other's goods."
Still, the trade tiff hasn't stopped the Korean merchants who flood into
Weihai every week. The port has also drawn hundreds of China's ethnic
Koreans, most of whom hail from Manchuria. With the industrialized northeast
facing the brunt of layoffs at state-owned companies, many ethnic Koreans
have left home for better opportunities in the south. Cui Mianzhen's entire
family moved from icy Heilongjiang province to Weihai last year. Now she
works at a hotel for Korean traders, while her parents run a company that
supplies Seoul jewelers with raw pearls. Jobs for Korean speakers are
plentiful, she says, and Cui has convinced several high-school friends
to join her in Weihai to work as translators, secretaries and sales clerks.
"Here, we can be proud to be ethnically Korean," she says. "It's not something
we feel the need to hide, as we did back in Heilongjiang."
Not all the 130 stores that cater to Weihai's visiting traders are run
by ethnic Koreans. Shopkeeper Hou Jianling, 24, packages wine from China's
southwest Yunnan province for Koreans to take home as gifts. The Koreans,
she says, drive a hard bargain. Some day she hopes to use the business
tips she has picked up from her overseas clients by working as an exporter-importer.
"Culture used to go from China to Korea," says Hou, who studied Korean
at a local college. "Now we Chinese are learning how to do business more
efficiently from the Koreans." Despite Weihai's welcoming ways, trader
Lee has one complaint: "The Chinese can't make kimchee correctly." Even
if the spices are Chinese, he maintains, the preparation must be done
by a real Korean. Some things, it seems, just can't transcend borders.
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