From annual K-pop contests to academies that teach Hanku Muyong, the Korean national dance, Chennai is no stranger to Korean culture. The bustling capital of Tamil Nadu is home to over 6,000 Korean expats, more than any other Indian city.
Cordial relationships between South Korea and India extend back to the middle of the first century AD – millions of Koreans trace their origins to Suriratna, a princess from Ayodhya who had married the Korean king Kim Suro in 48 AD. However, the Korean tryst with modern Tamil Nadu started in 1996 when auto major Hyundai decided to set up its plant in Sriperumbudur.
For the next decade, the manufacturing hub of Chennai became home to several Korean conglomerates, such as Samsung, LG, Kotra, Lotte and Hyundai as well several small enterprises, such as Doowon, Hwashin and Dong-Sung, that support these big firms. The Korean employees of these companies brought their wives and children along when they came to Chennai.
Inevitably, this led to the development of a distinctive Indo-Korean relationship that has gradually spilled from commerce to culture.
Tamil signboards in Chennai, especially near the village of Thandalam in Sriperumbudur, are often interspersed with Korean ones, pointing to book shops, hardware stores, eateries, serviced apartments and brightly lit Korean food markets. Step into one of these markets and you can spot Korean families browsing through racks stocked with kimchi (pickled cabbage), fermented pastes, lemongrass seasonings, pre-cooked sticky rice, a dozen varieties of noodles, a whole range of sauces and Lotte biscuits.
Tapping the expat market, Korean restaurants have also mushroomed across the city, along with independent businesses such as beauty parlours, restaurants, bakeries and even dance schools. One of the oldest Korean restaurants and bakeries in Chennai, InSeoul, is hugely popular with the city’s Korean community.
Since most of the Korean employees live with their families, they draw a lot of support from organisations such as InKo, which works to bring about a cultural connect between Koreans and Indians, and Global Adjustments, which provides relocation advice and support to expatriates.
A not-for-profit culture and information centre, InKo also organises English language classes for Koreans and Korean classes for Indians to help bridge the communication gap. Heritage walks, cooking workshops and classes in theatre, yoga, fine arts, ceramics, taekwondo etc. are also conducted.
A few years ago, the tightly-knit group of Korean expats would have probably preferred being on their own. But today, thanks to InKo’s efforts, they now want to absorb the myriad cultural and culinary experiences that Chennai has to offer. From digging into idli-sambar and playing golf at Guindy to spending Sundays at Dakshina Chitra (a heritage centre that preserves and promotes South Indian arts), Koreans are clearly striving hard to feel at home. When not mall-hopping, they spend much of their leisure time at Chennai’s beautiful beaches.
While this inter-cultural dialogue has helped Koreans adapt to their new home, it has also helped Indians understand Koreans and Korean culture better. Korean pop music, TV series, video games, and fashion are making inroads in Chennai, with dedicated fan clubs springing up across the city.
For instance, Dorama Club was started by Sanjay Ramjhi in 2007 with a focus on Korean culture. Today, it has more than 200 active members, who collectively organise regular fan meet-ups and one big-scale event every three months.
A number of Korean bands and cultural troupes also visit the city regularly, performing to packed halls of both locals and expats. BTS, Exo and Girls’ Generation are Korean bands that have found die-hard fans in the city.
University students from Korea also visit Chennai to actively participate in community volunteering movements such as Happy Move Volunteers. Working with Indian students in small batches, they participate in various social and cultural activities such as teaching in government schools, clean-up drives, building toilets, and much more.
Under this initiative, over 4,000 Korean students have visited and volunteered in India in the last seven years. Over 200 schools and 1,00,000 students in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district have benefited from their assistance.
Interestingly, the University of Korea, which used to earlier have a certificate programme in Hindi, has now introduced a course in Tamil while in Chennai, Thirukkural’s classical Tamil literary work is currently being translated into Korean.