Korean community pushes boundaries

A traditional Korean dance that dates to the early days of Korean agriculture | Photo courtesy of the Korean Cultural Heritage Society

A traditional Korean dance that dates to the early days of Korean agriculture | Photo courtesy of the Korean Cultural Heritage Society

The Korean population is now one of the most dynamic and visible communities in Greater Vancouver. The vast majority retain their own language and often have close ties with their homeland. 

From Burnaby to Port Coquitlam, Korean supermarkets, offices, churches and restaurants are evident by their Korean-language signs and distinctive contributions to local industry. Through close attachment to their heritage, the retention of their language and assertion of their identity, Korean Canadians have made a substantial contribution to the cultural landscape of Vancouver.

The growth of the community

The Vancouver Korean community has made great strides in the past forty years. Before the 1960s, Korean immigration to Canada was minimal, with both the geopolitical situation in Korea and discriminatory immigration policies in Canada placing strong barriers on movement between the two countries.

Things began to change during the 1980s with the meteoric rise of South Korea in the world economy and the establishment of multiculturalism as official policy in Canada. The period from 1986 to now has seen a steady influx of skilled workers and social entrepreneurs from Korea setting up businesses and other community investments in Vancouver, attracted by the city’s proximity to Korea across the Pacific and the accessibility of its natural environment.

This new period of migration reached its peak from 1996 to 2001 when the Korean population of Vancouver rose by 69 per cent to 28,850 people. The population has been steady ever since, rising by more than 20,000 permanent residents ten years after 2001.

Many new Korean immigrants established themselves in Vancouver’s suburbs, including Burnaby where the Korean Cultural Heritage Festival is to be held this August.

That is not even taking into account the large population of international students from Korea attending schools in B.C. In 2005, almost 38 per cent of those entering Canada with student visas came from South Korea, and today’s Korean student population may number almost 20,000 people.

A distinct cultural voice

The Korean community in Vancouver offers a distinct voice within the city’s cultural landscape. Korean Canadians participate in local cultural associations, university campus and alumni associations, seniors’ groups, language schools, and business associations that together assert a collective cultural identity. This collective identity is assisted by the population’s retention of its original language, with 98 per cent of the Vancouver Korean community reporting in the 2011 Canadian census that they speak Korean.

The majority of the Korean population is Christian and through their own distinctly Korean practise of Christianity, they have influenced the religious landscape of B.C. Korean culture has persisted for almost 2000 years of independent history, developing traditions ranging from martial arts to cuisine and education.

Many Korean Canadians, however, experience the balancing act of participating in Canadian culture while being strongly attached to their original identity. Recent migrants and long-standing residents alike continue to try to reconcile the Korean and Canadian aspects of themselves while getting involved in their communities.

Celebrating a vibrant heritage

The Korean Cultural Heritage Festival, running now for its 15th year, is happening on August 6 this year. One of the largest ethnic festivals in Canada, the Korean Cultural Heritage Festival is planning to host a wide range of activities celebrating Korean culture.

Two cornerstone events will be a demonstration of black belt taekwondo and a K-Pop competition concert showcasing talent from both South Korea and Metro Vancouver.

Over the years, the Cultural Festival has increasingly broadened its audience, reaching out to people from numerous cultural backgrounds to create a space of connection for Vancouver’s multicultural community.

For more information on the Korean Cultural Heritage Festival, please visit www.koreanfestival.ca.