Expats Look Back on Busan Then and Now

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Busan Korea
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From nightlife to the price of a subway seat, longtime expats recall how Korea’s second largest city has evolved.


While many expats here can’t imagine bars closing at midnight, coffee shops with telephones at the table and almost hour-long queues for public phones in touristy areas, there was a time those were the norm.

Busan has obviously transformed into a modern metropolis. But it wasn’t always that way.

“Living here used to be considered one stop on life’s journey,” notes Kenneth May, a Busan resident for almost 20 years. “Now, Busan is considered a destination where one can settle in for the ride.”

The Busan of 2015 looks a lot different than the Busan of old, recalls the Kyungsung University English instructor.

“I arrived here in 1996 when the [Diamond] bridge was still six years from being finished,” he says. “Starbucks didn’t have any shops here. There was no wine culture, coffee culture, beer culture, fashion culture. Only the orange subway line existed.”

Ben May (no relation to Ken), another longtimer who first arrived in Seoul in 1997, came a couple months before the Asian economic crisis halted the country’s decades-long mission to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The Pusan National University instructor says even advanced technology so ubiquitous today looked far different when he arrived.

“There was only one PC room in downtown Seoul, behind the Kyobo Building,” he says. “I went there once a week to check email. Even though we had been using the Internet for quite a while in the States, most Koreans didn’t even know what it was. In such a short time, it really took over here and changed so many things.”

Not least of which has been the number of expats who have decided to call Busan home.

According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, there were 54,994 foreign residents living in Busan as of January 1, 2014 – an uptick of 2,777 people, 5.4%, in only a year.

While expat-friendly nightlife today can be found throughout the city, it was not until the early 2000s that such a thing existed.

“The PNU area was really the only place that had foreigner-friendly bars in Busan, aside from the seriously overpriced clubs in Haeundae catering to engineers and businessmen,” Ben May says. “There was one place in KSU, called Rodeo, that was foreigner-friendly. That was it.”

Kim Dong-ha, who opened The Crossroads in PNU in 1996 and later Vinyl Underground in KSU, is widely considered the first Korean business owner to embrace the modern-era foreigner community in Busan. But, it wasn’t until several years later that the expat customer base was more widely embraced.

KSU, Haeundae and Seomyeon are among the areas now offering a greater variety of nightlife options, for both Koreans and expats. The Gwangalli Beach area has also become a destination, not just for the beach during the day but the entire evening. With more expat-owned and expat-friendly bars and restaurants opening in recent years, it’s now possible to crawl from one side of the beach to the other without ever having to hail a taxi or hop on the subway to reach another expat spot.

Back in the ‘90s that wasn’t really possible,” Kenneth May says. “To have a night out, we had to taxi throughout the night: KSU, Gwangan, Haeundae, Seomyeon, Texas Street [a once more-popular strip of commerce located across from Busan Station]. We’d take CDs and cassettes out with us for all the different taxi rides.”

Still, if one required a taxi, it was certainly a cheaper form of travel back then, among other ways to get from A to B to C. “The initial taxi fare was 1,000 won,” he says. “The standing bus was 400 won, and the bus with more seats was 700 won.”

And subways? In the 1990s, the only option was Line 1. Line 2 wasn’t at least partially ready until 1999, while Line 3 did not open until 2005. Line 4 and the Busan-Gimhae Lightrail did not begin service until 2011.

While many of Busan’s expats tend to congregate along Line 2 between Seomyeon and Haeundae (parts of which were not completed until 2002), Florida-native Chris Biggs says he also has seen changes around the Nampo area, where he lived and taught during his first tour of Korea in 2008.

“The Lotte Department Store in Nampo was still a hole in the ground,” he says. There were still Family Marts in 2008 (the Japanese convenience store giant, which branched off and was re-branded CU in South Korea in 2012),” adds Biggs, who returned to Busan in 2013.

Many might be surprised to learn that now-popular annual events, like the Busan International Film Festival, had humble beginnings. While today international cinema bigwigs can be seen at Bexco premiering their films, BIFF began as a small festival in Nampo-dong in 1995.

“Tickets were given away,” Kenneth May recalls of the then sparsely-attended event.

Change for the Good?

Kady Katona, who taught here from 2008 to 2010 and recently returned for a visit, noted by email an increase in variety and amount of western foods attainable here these days, in convenience stores and supermarkets.

“I know when I had lived in Korea there were times I felt like I would have killed for non-sugary white bread,” she says. “Whilst being back I checked the bakery in Emart and there were tons of different bread options. Plus way more variety of cheeses. I am currently living in Sydney, Australia, and was tempted to bring Aussie Tim Tams to Korea for friends when low and behold they were waiting for me on the shelf in the cookie aisle.”

Have the changes been positive? Ben May thinks so.

“It is far, far easier for everyday living – food, Internet and entertainment, much more nightlife, Koreans are not as scared of foreigners as they used to be. However, [for those coming to Korea to teach] schools now have higher expectations of qualifications, especially for university jobs. The days of getting a uni job with just a bachelor’s degree are gone,” he says.

Despite the more rigorous standards a prospective teacher must go through to land a job here today, Kenneth May also sees positive change overall.

“Most universities hired teachers in at 1.5 [million won per month] in 1996/97. The base pay is around 2 million now. If you factor in the exchange rate, wages are much higher than they were before, if you make the conversion to American dollars. The exchange rate was around 1,400 [won] to 1 [dollar] for many years during the 2000s. There does seem to be a current lid on salaries these days, but I think that lid will come off in the years ahead.

“In general, all the little policy changes and closer enforcement of pre-existing regulations are small examples of a vast movement sweeping Korea to shore up the professional environment,” he adds.

That vast movement, Kenneth May says, means people are choosing not to move out of Korea far more often these days. “It’s not the wild, wild East anymore,” he says.

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