ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE © Duncan Graham 2006
Kim Soo Yong is anxiously waiting for the South Korean government to open a consulate in Surabaya.
It will happen sometime soon, he says. Maybe this year.
Then all the personal and business hassles encountered by fellow Koreans living in East Java will no longer find their way to his door.
Like the man who overstayed his visa by two years and is now in jail in Surabaya. In the absence of consular staff Kim, chairman of the Korean Association of East Java, has had to find the cash for a one-way ticket so the alien can be deported.
Then there’s the matter of the fine, usually reckoned at US$ 25 (Rp 230,000) a day. That comes out at US $18,000 (Rp 170 million), which is a mite more difficult to conjure up than an airfare.
So Kim’s easy demeanour and his experience of living in Indonesia for 15 years will also have to be employed to negotiate an arrangement.
“We’ve been asking for a consulate in Surabaya for a long time,” he said. “I’m a businessman. There are 1,200 Koreans in the province, with most living in Surabaya. That warrants an official representative and the government has now agreed.”
Kim said that unlike many Western countries South Korea doesn’t use honorary consuls who are usually prominent business people and sometimes Indonesian nationals. Instead it staffs overseas offices with professional diplomats.
The Koreans tend to live close to their fellow countryfolk in the Darmo satellite town south west of central Surabaya.
Here modern luxury housing set in wide streets has created some exclusive estates. These are close to the Surabaya International School, a golf course and an upmarket mall with a regiment of security guards.
It’s an area also favored by other expats who seem to like the artificial European ambience with classical statues and lavish street furniture. It’s ancient Rome plus palm trees with lots of blue uniforms operating boom gates
But you’re unlikely to find too many Koreans drinking in Darmo’s Jatim Club. This is the Caucasians’ favorite pub, fortuitously in the East Java Chamber of Commerce and Industry building.
Pale skins and red faces are becoming a rare sight in Surabaya. Australians can occasionally be found breasting the bar. Germans, Dutch and other Europeans will be lapping up the lager, but few Asians apart from the cosmopolitan local Chinese.
This has led many to the belief that foreigners have fled East Java. Few bule remain, but plenty of overseas Asians - unfazed by travel warnings and enthused by the investment opportunities.
Koreans are the second biggest overseas community in East Java with more than 800 KITAS (long stay work visa) holders, ahead of the Japanese with 600 and the Taiwanese with 500. The Chinese top the list with 3,000.
“Koreans tend to keep to themselves,” said Kim. “It’s partly a matter of language – few speak Indonesian and have to use English. Not all are competent in English so tend to be shy. (See sidebar.)
“It’s very rare to find Koreans marrying Indonesians, whereas this is not unusual among Westerners. Although attitudes are changing, traditionally we’re expected to find a Korean bride. Any other nationality would be viewed unfavourably.”
The two biggest South Korean companies in East Java are the electronic and optical goods company Samsung and food additive manufacturer Miwon.
“Again unlike Westerners who tend to be employed as technical advisors with local or international companies, most Koreans are working in their own businesses,” he said.
“South Korea has invested more than US$ 1,000 million (Rp 10 billion) in East Java in around 80 projects, topped by the chemical industry and contracting.” Indonesia is reportedly the third largest destination for Korean overseas investment.
Before starting his chemical plant business in Surabaya Kim was a naval architect in Singapore where he learned English.
Kim said that although he believed there were investment opportunities in East Java, particularly in food processing, he never made recommendations.
He was happy to show people around and help them make contacts, but in the end what they did with their money was their decision.
“I go back home once a year and find that attitudes towards Indonesia are not good,” he said. “Many imagine this is a poor country. But I’m very well here. It’s good, and will be better when there’s a consulate.”
Linguists argue about the Korean language’s origins and kinship with other tongues. But most reckon it’s an isolate, different from Japanese and Chinese.
The script is non-Latin, the alphabet unique. This makes finding common ground difficult, as anyone knows who’s tried to decode the instructions for a Korean-made electronic gizmo.
About 78 million people speak Korean in North and South Korea and parts of China. The language is little known in Indonesia.
In the past few years there’s been a surge in demand for native speakers of English to teach in South Korea as the nation seeks to catch up in a world dominated by English.
The Korean Association in East Java is a social club not a business group. However president Kim Soo Yong says he’d like closer links with Indonesian commerce, like those created by the Indonesia-Australia Business Council. But the IABC meetings are held in English.
Korean Association members meet monthly for golf and occasionally play against the Japanese on the course and at basketball and baseball. There’s a handful of Korean restaurants and the association has its own newspaper. There’s also a South East Asian regional paper with an Indonesian insert and a local glossy magazine.
The Koreans not only play together, in Surabaya they also pray together. Last year they opened a stunning new church with cascading pools of goldfish, soaring angular walls and smooth timber features.
It’s a dazzlingly piece of minimalist design and sober architecture with not a crucifix in sight. Culturally from another universe. The denomination is Pentecostal.
At the main Bethany Church in another Surabayan suburb, services are simultaneously translated into Korean. This opulent building was also constructed with money from South Korea where Christianity has a strong hold and is closely linked to the nation’s economic success.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 March 2006)