While not as large as the Chinese and South Asian communities, the Korean community is one of the top five visible-minority groups in B.C. A significant number of the over 50,000 British Columbians of Korean descent live in the Metro Vancouver suburbs of Burnaby and Coquitlam, within a 20-minute drive of two large Korean supermarkets: Hanahreum (100–329 North Road, Coquitlam; part of the U.S.–based H-Mart chain) and Hannam Supermarket (106–4501 North Road, Burnaby). The pair are located on either side of North Road, which forms the border between the two municipalities and runs through the heart of what can be considered a Koreatown.
In addition to Korean food staples, the supermarkets have Korean bakeries and video stores where you can rent the latest Korean drama series or movie. Korean household appliances are also sold there, from rice cookers that play a tune when the rice is ready to kimchi fridges, which are designed to store the spicy pickled cabbage that’s reputed to prevent cancer and provide protection from SARS.
Outside each supermarket, you can pick up one of the half a dozen or so free Korean-language newspapers, including the Vancouver Korean Press (often referred to as “Vanchosun”), the Korea Daily (Joong Ang Ilbo), and the Korea Times, all of which offer a mix of local news and news from Korea. You can also scan the bulletin boards to find ESL tutors, apartments for rent, and local Korean cultural events. Many of the businesses along North Road cater to Korean-speaking customers with bilingual employees and signage.
More recently, there’s been a growing Korean presence on Robson Street in Vancouver’s West End. A location of H-Mart opened at the corner of Robson and Seymour streets a few years back, and a number of Korean restaurants and services now populate the area.
With the Canadian government opening up its immigration policies in the 1960s, the first wave of Korean immigrants arrived in the 1970s, followed by a larger wave in the 1990s. An influx of English students from Korea starting in the late 1990s has also helped infuse Vancouver with modern Korean culture. It was around this time that Korean pop culture began gaining a global following—a cultural phenomenon known as the hallyu, or “Korean wave”.
The children of the 1970s immigrants grew up immersed in western culture, and many of them find it easier to communicate in English than in Korean. By contrast, the kids of immigrants who arrived in the 1990s have an easier time moving back and forth between Korean and Canadian culture.
Suzie Kim is a 24-year-old Korean Canadian who immigrated with her family at the age of six. A recent graduate of SFU, she is fluent in English, French, and Korean. Kim says there is now much more awareness of Korean culture than when she and her family arrived.
“Korean barbecue, more specifically,” she says, laughing. “And kimchi.”
A historical first for Korean Canadians, one that was particularly exciting for those in B.C., occurred when Yonah Martin became the first Korean Canadian to hold public office at the federal level. After more than 20 years as a teacher and active community volunteer, Martin ran as the Conservative candidate for New Westminster–Coquitlam in the 2008 federal election, but lost her bid to win a seat. In December of that year, the Korean-born Vancouverite was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I think it’s a very dynamic community,” Martin says of the Korean Canadian community. “There’s been growth in all sectors, whether it’s businesses, community groups, cultural heritage artists—contemporary as well as traditional—and so you sort of feel the presence in various sectors across Metro Vancouver.”
Best places for walking away with kimchi breath
If you want to sample authentic Korean food, ask Korean friends if you can tag along the next time they go to their parents’ house for dinner. If that fails, try Madangcoul Korean Restaurant (847 Denman Street), a home-style eatery that serves hot pots and kimchi chigae (kimchi stew).
Half a dozen Korean restaurants have popped up along Robson Street, several catering to the late-night crowd by offering different types of anju (snacks or side dishes) served with soju (traditional Korean rice or potato liquor) or beer.
Inside Pojang Macha (595 East Broadway), the walls are covered with orange tarps that are reminiscent of the makeshift tents used by street vendors in Korea. Menus are written on the outside of pot lids, and customers sit on plastic stools while they wait for skewers of fish cake and plates of dukboki (spicy rice cake).
Members of the Korean community often head to Insadong (403 North Road, Coquitlam) when they crave Korean barbecue. Huge platters of sliced beef, beef short ribs, chicken, spicy pork, vegetables, and seafood are brought to the table, where customers grill the meat themselves on a portable burner or built-in grill. Pants with a bit of stretch around the middle are recommended attire for this endeavour.
Most recognizable locals of Korean descent
Born in Chuncheon, South Korea, Mi-Jung Lee started her broadcasting career as a reporter and part-time anchor at CHEK-TV in Victoria. Since 2001, she has been the anchor and producer of CTV News at 11:30. Recently, she travelled to Brazil on a CTV/World Vision campaign. She has had cameos in several movies, including Snakes on a Plane, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Watchmen.
Gina Oh is a Vancouver-born opera singer. After graduating from UBC with a Bachelor of Music degree, she completed a master’s at the New England Conservatory in Boston and doctoral studies at the Université de Montréal. She was a member of the Vancouver Opera ensemble that performed Naomi’s Road around the province and now sits on the board of the Vancouver Opera’s Pacific Rim Initiative. She has been profiled by Canadian and Korean television shows.
Comedian Paul Bae taps into his Korean heritage and former occupation as a high-school English teacher to get material for his standup routines. He’s performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival and is one of four comedians who host the CityNews List, an alternative current-events show that airs weeknights on Citytv.
Best spots for performing K-pop
The fan base for K-pop (Korean pop music) is growing both globally and in the Lower Mainland. Popular groups include Epik High, Girls’ Generation, and Super Junior, and solo artists like Rain (also known as Bi) and BoA also have a following. In 2007, K-pop fans had an opportunity to see Ivy, DJ DOC, and Tei perform at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
In the North Road area, the best K-pop karaoke selection can be found at Silver Music Box (104–403 North Road, Coquitlam), while downtown denizens who want to belt out a few Korean ballads can try Fantacity (745 Thurlow Street) or Book Kyung Ban Jeom Korean Restaurant (1638 Robson Street), a Korean/Chinese restaurant that has noraebang (literally “song rooms”).
Best ways to experience Korean culture
C3 Society’s Camp Korea, for children aged 7 to 12, takes place every year in late August in Belcarra, B.C. At the camp, children are exposed to Korean language lessons, food, and cultural activities.
The Korean Heritage Day Festival is held annually in mid August in Coquitlam. It features performances of traditional Korean dance and drumming, as well as art exhibits of traditional Korean pottery, textiles, and calligraphy.