Doing business in London's Little Korea
Ever heard of New Malden? A lot of Koreans have.
The unobtrusive south-west London suburb contains the biggest population in Europe of natives of this East Asian country.
Around 20,000 Koreans by some counts.
It is also this reporter's home of the last 25 years - which means I arrived there about the same time the first Koreans were opening shop on the town's High Street.
Yet for many non-Korean New Maldenites - myself included - our particular splash of London ethnic colour has remained enigmatic, a community seen far more than it is heard.
So I decided it was time to go out and meet the neighbours.
First up is the Park Jun Beauty Lab.
Like Brick Lane and Chinatown, New Malden has its restaurants. But it is also home to numerous Korean coiffeurs.
"Korean hairdressers are very precise," says the Beauty Lab proprietor, Mr Yong Hoon Kim.
"Maybe at colouring the English are better. But the cutting itself - the Koreans are very good at it."
Like nearly all of the town's hairdressers, Mr Kim's customers are predominately Korean.
The eponymous Park Jun, he assures me, is the most famous hairdresser in Korea, and has lent his name to a chain of 91 outlets worldwide, of which the New Malden branch is the first in Europe.
Mr Kim says his countrymen come from all over London to have their hair cut the New Malden way, although lately new hairdressers have set up in London's West End, meeting the demand from students there.
But it seems he has become a victim of his own success. Mr Kim tells me that when he opened the salon in 1999, he only had one local competitor.
But as he brought over and trained up young stylists from the home country, one by one they left to set up their own rival businesses further down the High Street.
Hairdressers are not the only Korean businesses built on their own community.
Just off the A3 dual carriageway is the hub of one of the town's most successful firms - Korea Foods.
The 10-year-old company operates a clutch of warehouses packed full of noodles, tofu, kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), and meat cut just the right Korean way.
These days, the wholesaler also runs a chain of six mini-markets across the UK, as well as a full-scale supermarket housed in part of its depot.
"Before this, our boss ran restaurants," says the supermarket manager, Ms Young A Hong.
"He realised that, for the important distinctiveness of Korean food, many shops and restaurants were unable to get key ingredients."
So he began importing these key items and delivering them in HGVs all across the UK.
As the years went by, Ms Hong says the firm found itself delivering more and more food to Japanese and Chinese customers, thanks to the overlap in cuisine and the popularity of Korean food among its geographic neighbours.
The wholesaler was outgrowing its original Korean customer-base. So in 2009, in the middle of the recession, the boss decided to expand into delivering Chinese foods as well.
"It was not planned - we just followed the needs of Chinese customers," says Ms Hong. "But it had the effect that we did not experience a recession."
And what of British customers? "Now the business is becoming famous for English people too. They bring recipe books to the store, and want special tips on what ingredients to buy."
She says schools also arrange visits to see their tofu and ricecake plants. But the fact is that British buyers are far from becoming a mainstay of their demand.
(Made in) China
One of the town's oldest Korean retailers is Mace, which - like a surprising number of shops - is not obviously foreign until you step inside and look more closely.
The 22-year-old store sells high quality consumer goods - garments, trinkets and above all porcelain - from the UK and Europe.
But the shopkeeper - like most of her clients - is very much from Korea.
"Customers like to buy branded goods," she explains, rolling off names such as Wedgewood, Ainsley, Royal Copenhagen and Limoges.
But apparently they only like authentic goods, genuinely made in the home country.
"It is becoming a common problem that a lot of production is being moved to China," she says.
Her clients, it transpires, are typically executives of the big Korean banks and industrial firms.
Sent to the UK for a business trip, or on secondment for a few years, they come to her shop to pile up on gifts for friends and family for when they return home.
She says that Japanese and Chinese people also come, as well as a smattering of loyal British customers from Coombe - the wealthy end of town.
But business of late has been tough. "The Korean economy is very bad, as well as in England," she says.
That means fewer business trips, which has hurt her, as well as the many restaurants that play host to business dinners.
The exchange rate does not help either. The Korean won was one of the few currencies to underperform the pound during the recession, although it has since recovered.
"When the pound is expensive, people send money home," she explains. "They don't buy here."
Comings and goings
Business executives are only a small part of the Korean community.
To get a better idea of who the rest are, and why they chose to live in New Malden of all places, I go to Jin's, one of a half-dozen Korean estate agents.
The owner is the wry-humoured Jin Hardy - "Mrs Hardy" and not "Ms Jin" she corrects me, because her late and beloved husband was "a bloody Yorkshireman".
Having arrived in the UK in 1975, she has seen the community develop from scratch.
In the late-80s there were just a few families and a couple of stores in the town. But over the next 10 years immigration boomed.
"In 1991 I set up the estate agents," she explains. "Friends said I should do it, because so many Koreans speak no English.
"In 1996-97 it was really mad, spreading really fast," she says. Some 250 big companies had set up in the UK, bringing people over.
Why did they choose New Malden? Neither Mrs Hardy nor salon-owner Mr Kim - another long-time resident - gives a specific reason.
Both mention the railway line into central London that originally spawned the town, as well as houses that had at one time seemed relatively cheap.
In any case, the boom did not last long. In 1997 a financial crisis struck Korea, and Mrs Hardy guesstimates that 60% of the population went home. It has taken many years for the numbers to recover.
And things have become tough again lately, not so much because of the recession, but rather thanks to stricter visa requirements. Yet the Koreans still come.
"Koreans are strong-headed, hard-working people," says Mrs Hardy. "There are a million jobs out there," she claims, suggesting that some English people do not want to take low paying jobs such as cleaning or building work.
Education is also a big plus for New Malden, according to Mrs Hardy, and not only because Korean parents eagerly send their children to the borough's state schools.
Surprising as it may be to English ears, many Koreans come to the UK in the first place not only to learn the language, but specifically to get themselves - or their children - into the British education system.
That is what Jieun Park of the tuition support company Unimaster tells me: "The curriculum is viewed as strong. There is more sports, more art and drama."
And she says Koreans value the less prescriptive British approach to teaching. "Koreans typically know the answers. But they do not understand the theories behind them."
Sitting above a Chinese restaurant, the little college is one of a handful in New Malden that provides supplemental teaching across the entire school syllabus for students from as young as six, to help them overcome their language shortcomings.
A large chunk of their business is helping children as young as 13, who have been sent - alone! - to study at British schools.
While many are boarders at public schools, some are even sent to day schools, in which case the college provides a guardian in their parents' absence.
She tells me that another attraction is the UK's universities, the best of which rank much more highly than Korea's.
The college provides coaching - for British students too - for university applications as well as for the 11+.
The language barrier that Unimaster helps to bridge should not be underestimated, one shopkeeper tells me.
"The first and the last problem is the language," he says, because Korean and English are so utterly different.
Unusually for a Korean retailer, almost none of the customers at his corner shop are of his own nationality.
But despite this, he still struggles slightly to maintain conversation and apologises for his limited language skills.
"All people in Korea are interested in learning English," he says. "They pour money into education fees. However, my English is above the average!"
This, he says, is why local Koreans have their slightly unfair reputation for being aloof, and it is why Koreans rely on their own community for everything from dental work to accountancy.
It brings to mind the possibly apocryphal tale of a restaurant that put up a controversial "No English" sign, only for it later to transpire that the owners merely meant that they did not speak the language.
"If we can overcome this, then Koreans are very friendly," says the shopkeeper. "We want to participate in everything, but we cannot."
Yet cultural issues may also play a part in making the Korean community somewhat insular.
Mrs Hardy at Jin's says that most Koreans are not very direct people.
"They are quite innocent. Very nice," she says.
Indeed, her own unusual straight-talking has earned her the epithet "the Godmother", she says.
And perhaps many Koreans feel the English are unfriendly and not worth getting to know.
Ms Park, who grew up through British schools herself, says bullying by locals is common, and Korean children typically make friends with other international students instead.
The shopkeeper says that back home, England is viewed as a "gentleman's country".
But for him the illusion was shattered when he came face-to-face with a 14-year-old who demanded alcohol and cigarettes, only to swear at him when he was firmly declined.
In Korea, he says, people are more respectful of their elders.