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(Yonhap Feature) Food stalls become source of livelihood and bad business

All Headlines 09:00 January 24, 2013

By Curtis File
Contributing writer

SEOUL, Jan. 24 (Yonhap) -- Kim In-su laughs nervously as a crowd begins to form in front of him. It's 9 p.m., halfway through the dinner rush, and already the street food guru is in emergency mode; the rice is almost gone.

On a narrow side street in Noryangjin, a district of western Seoul, a procession of shivering students huddle impatiently beneath the yellow glow of a dusty halogen bulb hanging from his plastic tent. They're here for his "cup bap," or cup rice, a quick and cheap meal served in a cup that has become popular, and a lifeline for many in the area.

"It has to be delicious," he said, calling in more rice from a neighboring stall. "That's what keeps them coming back."

But he's not just running out of rice. Kim and the other handful of street-food chefs that occupy the streets of Noryangjin are slowly running out of welcome in the neighborhood as local restaurant owners and corporate convenience stores push back against their presence.

"The restaurants don't want us around here," said Kim. "I can understand them. They think it's unfair that we don't have to pay taxes and we serve our food so cheap. But we have to make a living, too."

The hot, ultra-cheap meals that can be served up and eaten in under 10 minutes are stiff competition for the convenience store alternatives of "kimbap," or rice rolls, and cold sandwiches. The food stalls have become so competitive that in April 2012, a group of restaurant and convenience store owners went as far as petitioning the local ward office to take action against the street vendors, demanding that they be taxed or forced out.

A short-lived crackdown ensued, forcing several stalls to shut down, change menus or change locations. But unlike other food stalls in the city, the ones in Noryangjin are vital to the community and to the survival of its residents.

The district, nicknamed "Exam Village," is packed with block after block of private academies, cram schools and cheap dormitory housing known as goshiwons. Here, young hopefuls fresh out of high school and college spend day and night cramming for government exams in hopes of obtaining civil service positions. With the number of students ever increasing and living on a shoestring budget, cheap food stalls like Kim's give them a lifeline.

On his side street location where foot traffic is light, Kim says he serves between 200 and 250 meals per day on average, not nearly as many as the stalls right next to the subway station exits, which can see more than twice that amount in a single day. At just 2,500 won (US$2.30) on average for a meal, the stalls have become a staple among students and have attracted the attention of some important people.

During his 2012 presidential campaign, main opposition Democratic United Party nominee Moon Jae-in visited the district and ate lunch at one of the street tents surrounded by students showing their support for him. His campaign promises included an increase in job opportunities and civil service positions for youth, making him a favorite among students competing for government positions in an extremely tough job market.

"Life is tough for students," said Kim Jae-gyu, CEO of Kim Jae-Gyu Police Hagwon, a private academy for police-in-training. "Many spend all day in classrooms, or studying in their small goshiwon rooms with few opportunities or variety in jobs on the horizon for them."

For these students, every penny counts. Enrollment at hagwons costs an average of 200,000-250,000 won per month. One hagwon said it charges 1.8 million won for a full seven-and-half month test preparation course. It may sound affordable, but for those studying full-time and relying financially on parents, the amount is a huge burden, and they can't spare much for food.

If they are one of the lucky few, successful graduates of the school can expect a stable job with an average starting wage of 2.5 million per month, a pension and the ability to retire at age 60. According to Kim Jae-gyu, these attractive packages are drawing in more competition than the traditionally desired professions like doctors. He now owns three hagwons that see nearly 10,000 students a year. But only 3.3 percent of male candidates and 2 percent of female candidates will ultimately see their hopes fulfilled.

For students like Kim Chung-hyeon, the stiff competition means 16-hour days. Starting at 6 a.m., he sits through at least 12 hours of lectures and cram sessions followed by a couple hours of physical training.

"I only go home for sleep," says the 25-year-old, now in his final year of the three-year program. "I hope it pays off and I can follow in the footsteps of my father." Park Ju-yeon, a 21-year-old classmate, shares the sentiments. "I study more than 100 hours a week," she says. "When you include my separate weekend courses, I don't have much free time."

With such little time on their hands, and money tied up in education, the support that Kim In-su offers through his quick, cheap meals makes life a little easier.

"I could eat quickly at the convenience store for cheap, too," said Lee Yu-jin, a 24-year-old student shivering in front of Kim In-su's tent. "But the food out here is better and cheaper than anywhere else. It may seem ridiculous to worry about, but for me, 2,000 won makes a difference."

As she quickly shovels down her meal before returning to the study hall, it's clear that the relationship between the residents and food stalls is mutually beneficial. The days of the relationship, however, may be numbered. Following the petition by eatery owners, the local ward office finalized a plan last year to refurbish and "clean up" the neighborhood and notified the food stall owners to leave "voluntarily."

The cleanup, initially scheduled to start this year, has been put on hold from lack of funds. The plan will be readdressed at some point, and that will naturally lead to discussions on what to do with the food stalls.

"We do prefer that they leave on their own volition," said an official at the ward office, declining to give his name. "But if that doesn't happen, then it may be possible that there could be forced eviction."

"Almost all of my customers are students from the area," said Kim In-su, spooning a heap of steaming chicken stew over a bowl of rice. "I get a lot of repeat business. I need them, and I guess they kind of need me."


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