Chennai’s weather is what surprises Sungyeon Choi the most. “It rained the other day. And I still went for a swim,” she says, perplexity writ large on her face. “In South Korea, when it rains, it’s freezing. The summers are much hotter there, but winters get as cold as -2° Celsius.”
It’s been barely two months since the 24-year-old moved to this city, and swimming provides her with a familiar relaxation amid all the changes. It’s the same kind of comfort that her boss, Jae-Hyun Kim, derives from cooking Korean food at home.
Jae-Hyun has been living in Chennai with her husband for over ten years now at her Alwarpet guest house. “I opened this guest house in 2008, for Koreans who are new to the city,” she says. Her guests are also treated to Korean breakfasts during their stay.
“When I first moved here, I would just make food to kill time, or sometimes go to Indian restaurants like Copper Chimney. There wasn’t much to do back then: fewer restaurants, only two malls — City Mall and Spencer — and very few cars on the roads. Traffic was so less that you could drive from Alwarpet to Sriperumbudur in less than 50 minutes.”
Today, the same distance takes an hour and a half at least, she says. Which is why she handed over the reins of her Sriperumbudur guest house within three years of it’s opening in 2011. Her heart lies in Alwarpet: it was here that she made her first friend in this city. “Veera was working with this guest house even before I bought it from the previous owner,” she says, “She has been with me from the start, and we still work together.”
Another friend, the 60-year-old remembers fondly, is the one who taught her English. “Arun must be 28 or 29 now. I had met him in 2011, when I was in Sriperumbudur. He was a good teacher, he treated me the same as the schoolchildren he was also tutoring,” she recalls with a laugh.
A large portion of the Korean community in Chennai resides around Sriperumbudur, owing mainly to the presence of companies like Hyundai and Samsung in that part of town. “Many live in Indira Nagar too, because it’s not far from OMR — where the industries are — and is also close to the American International School. There are so many Koreans in that school, that if they were to leave, the school would shut down,” laughs 70-year-old Sunny Jun, aka Seong Eon Jun.
Sunny came to Chennai in 1986, to open a toy factory. “I came through Delhi and Mumbai, looking for the perfect place, and finally decided on Chennai. My business partner was from Andhra Pradesh, and he thought Chennai’s port would be an advantage.”
In retrospect, Sunny says they moved too soon. “The doors for foreign businessmen had just been opened; details hadn’t been shaped yet,” he says. Their industrial dreams lasted only for three years, but his partner, whom Sunny refers to as Mr Mangaraj, turned into a trusted friend. They have lost touch over the decades, but Sunny still terms him “a gentleman”.
So Sunny gave up his own factory and took a job at another. But his mind soon turned to other things. Cooking at home, for instance, was a hassle. Unlike today, when general stores specialise in Korean needs, selling everything from packaged seaweed to buckweat noodles, back then, sticky rice had to be brought in from Delhi and essential vegetables like Chinese cabbage from Kodaikanal. So Sunny turned his attention to food production. And though he struggles to remember the dates, his voice is tinged with pride as he looks back.
“Sometime in 1995-96, I started growing crops in Kodaikanal. By 1996-97, I had opened this city’s first Korean restaurant. I called it Korea House.” Korea House no longer exists, but his land in Kodaikanal is now a sprawling coffee estate.
And then there’s golf: a passion Sunny and his wife share with the Korean community in the city. He points to the two sets of golf clubs standing by the sofa, and lists out the courses, clubs and tournaments he’s a part of. He has his golf buddies, and church friends: he is particularly proud of the pastor of a church in Perungudi. “Pastor Arul Arasu puts all his earnings into helping the poor people there,” says Sunny, who also makes time to help out.
A freelancer with a TV channel back in South Korea, he sends over human-interest, expatriate stories as often as he can. “My next story will be broadcasted in September. It is part of a series in which people here write letters to their loved ones back home.”
That isn’t his only brush with the camera. He had also done a cameo in a Suriya-starrer film. “They cast me as a Chinese thug, even though I am Korean,” he says. The thought still makes him laugh.
This year, for Madras Week, we meet a cross section of people and communities that have found a home in Chennai.