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One Chinese family's remarkable Jeju storyA look at the history of the enterprising Yang clan
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승인 2011.04.10  20:13:16
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▲ Left, the refugee ship Hai Xianghao, which brought the Yangs to Jeju. Right, the family's Youil restaurant in Jeju City circa the 1970s. Photos courtesy the Yang family

The number of Chinese tourists visiting Jeju Island is steadily increasing, and more and more people are curious as to China’s role in its early history. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has been lost or obscured by the passage of time. Arguably the first Chinese family to dwell on the island following the establishment of South Korea was the Yang family, and fortunately some of its descendants still live in Jeju City, where they operate some of the oldest Chinese restaurants on the island.

Yang De-ki (likes to be called Ken), who runs the Buk Gyeong Ban Jom, and Yang Ping Yun, who operates the Yu Il Ban Jom, recently sat down and talked about how their family came to live on Jeju.

In the 1940s the Yang family owned a large trading company, the Yong Sheng Xing, which had offices in multiple Chinese ports and operated nine ships of various sizes. These ships traded goods like clothing, silk and gold in Chinese ports as well as in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. Times were good, and business was brisk, making the Yang family rather affluent. However this age of prosperity was short-lived.

Following World War II, China erupted into a violent civil war between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC promised the starving Chinese peasants that they would be able to confiscate the lands and wealth of the rich and distribute it amongst themselves. It was partially through these promises that the CPC rapidly gained control of the northeastern part of China.

In 1947, part of the Yang family lived on Shi Cheng Island – located off China’s northeastern coast. In the fall of that year, Yang Shu-cheng, the elderly patriarch, alarmed at the growing strength of the CPC and fearing for the lives of his family, declared that they would move to their offices in Yantai City, where they would be safe from the growing number of CPC supporters.

About 54 members of the Yang family boarded one of their largest boats, the Hae Sang Ho (Fortune of the Sea), and sailed to the relative safety of Yantai. According to Ken, his grandmother’s older sister and a younger aunt did not believe the CPC would take everything, so they stayed behind to watch over the family’s property. While they were not killed by mobs, they were nonetheless stripped of all their valuables and were unable to rejoin the family.

For several months the Yang family stayed in Yantai, but as the CPC’s forces continued to emerge victorious in their battles with the KMT and more and more of northern China fell under CPC control, it became clear to the Yang family that even Yantai was no longer safe. Gathering up as much money and family treasures as they could, nearly 100 people (the Yang family and their employees) sailed from Yantai in the summer of 1948 aboard the Hae Sang Ho and two smaller boats – their destination was the Korean port of Kunsan.

Kunsan and Incheon 1948-1950

According to Ken, Korea was chosen as their destination because it was the closest safe country. This doesn’t explain why the Yang family decided to go to Kunsan. Perhaps, as circumstantial evidence seems to indicate, they had had previous business dealings with the Korean merchants in that city. However, because they had entered the port not as merchants but rather as refugees, the Korean authorities did not allow them to land. They were ordered to proceed to Incheon, where they were granted entry.

The Yang family had previously done business with the merchants in Incheon and had a good relationship with some of them. In the past, when the company’s representatives visited the port, they were often entertained by the merchants and even stayed in their homes as guests. There may have also been an office or some other building that was used by the company.

The patriarch’s son, Yang Ping-yu, had been sent to Incheon earlier that year on business, and it was the hope of the family that he would be there to greet them. But when the refugee fleet arrived he was nowhere to be found. According to his grandson, Ken, it was rumored that Ping-yu had returned to China in an effort to find his second wife and bring her back to Korea. He was never heard from again.

Over the next two years the Yang family and their employees stayed in Incheon while waiting for the civil war in China to end so that they could return home. Many of the older Chinese stayed aboard the ship but some of the younger ones were able to find employment ashore and stayed with friends. Ping-yun notes that some of them sold black market items from the American military bases.

The youngest were also involved. They were sent to a one-room school house where they studied Chinese as well as Korean.

They would have probably remained there and become an integrated part of the foreign community except for on June 25, 1950, the Yang family found themselves once again in the middle of conflict – The Korean War.

Although the Yang family had brought with them a good deal of money and jewelry from China, the expenses of maintaining such a large group of refugees was prohibitive. By June 1950, most of the money and treasure was gone, and the family was forced to turn over the smaller boats to their employees. The younger Yangs recall being told that the employees returned to China with the two boats; convinced that they would be safe, but others have suggested that at least one ship was sold while in Korea.

Once again the Hae Sang Ho set out to sea – this time bound for Jeju Island. The ship slowly made its way down the west coast through the myriads of small islands, stopping occasionally for food and water. It was near Jeong San Island (South Jeolla Province), that tragedy struck. Needing provisions, they sailed toward the island and were promptly hailed by South Korean coastal forces demanding that they show their flag (they were not flying a flag at the time). Unfortunately for the family aboard the Hae Sang Ho, they did not have a flag, and the military forces mistook them for an enemy craft.

According to Ping-yun, an American jet strafed them, killing his aunt and another relative and badly damaging the ship. Later, a South Korean vessel came and towed them to Jeju Island where, after their temporary residence cards were examined, they were allowed to fend for themselves.

According to Ping-yun, the Jeju Islanders were extremely poor and had very little to eat. In fact, they were eating little more than potatoes. He went on to say that, despite the war on the peninsula and the role Chinese forces played in the war, the Yangs were treated very well and they in turn helped their Korean neighbors by showing them different farming techniques and food preparations.

They lived much as they had done in Incheon. The oldest and youngest members lived on the boat while they those who were able went ashore looking for any type of work. In 1952 or 1953, the family received monetary compensation from the American government for the attack on their boat. They used this money and the money they had managed to scrape together to build their first restaurant, the Yu Il Ban Jom. Even an elementary school was established in 1953 – a fact that Ken, who is the present principal of the Chinese elementary school, likes to point out.

By 1954 there were members of the Yang family spread all around the island. Their restaurants were much as they are now – not only a fusion of Korean and Chinese food but a fusion of culture as well.
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