Talk to Canadians about Asian culture and both Japan and China immediately come to mind. A lesser known country is Korea.
Ask someone in South Korea about Canadian culture, however, and they will tell you a lot.
“For Korea, Canada is a well-known country, says Paul Hwang, who owns the Sunset Motel on Redford Street in Port Alberni.
There are 50 million people living in South Korea, and although it is a small country its economy is the 15th most powerful in the world.
Hwang is doing his part to spread the word about Port Alberni from the heart of the city.
Hwang immigrated to Calgary and then Medicine Hat, Alta. in the summer of 2006, where a friend owned a motel. “I stayed and looked for a motel business,” Hwang said. “2006 was a bad year for someone like me to look for a business. Everything was booming.
“My friend and his wife said when they make money and when they get older they want to move to either Vancouver or Vancouver Island, because they think it’s a nice place to live. So myself and my wife discussed why do we have to stay here (in Alberta) and move later; we might go now and see…if it’s a good place to live.”
They drove from Medicine Hat to Victoria, where his wife’s friend owned a motel. “We stayed for a month and looked for a motel for sale. There weren’t many for sale at the time; there was one in Port Alberni.”
Their friends asked, how could they survive in a community with no ethnic grocery store or Korean community. Hwang said they worried about it, but “came here and decided to purchase the motel.”
Hwang’s background is in engineering. He worked in the shipbuilding industry and then with Lego, which built a factory near his home in Bundang, 30 or 40 minutes south of Seoul. When he was younger, he worked for two years at the Korean embassy in Washington, DC as an attaché.
He decided to buy a motel because an immigration specialist recommended it.
“When I started the procedure in Korea to immigrate I was 55 years old. They thought it would be a good idea to do a motel or mobile home park or an RV park,” he said.
He had already visited the Sunshine Coast as well as Merritt, B.C. the year before immigrating before choosing Port Alberni.
Hwang’s is not the only Korean family living in Port Alberni, he says. Another family purchased the Timberlodge and Seh-mi Japanese Restaurant several months before he arrived. Now there are more than 20 people living here who immigrated from Korea.
“Twenty years ago there were two towns in Canada where no Koreans were living, and Port Alberni was one of them,” Hwang said.
Now, Hwang is getting the word out to other people in his homeland that Port Alberni is a great place to both visit and do business.
In October 2013 Hwang hosted a Korean film crew filming for a nature program. Their arrival was quite by chance: an acquaintance in Tofino who owns a motel needed a place for the film crew to stay for one night on their way back to Vancouver.
“They were here at 11 p.m. and didn’t care about Port Alberni, they were just going to stay the night. I talked to them and focused on Tofino is a nice place to see but Port Alberni is also something to see.”
The film crew departed the next morning, but called two days later asking to come back and film around Port Alberni.
“This area, they think it would be a good idea to show people the nature around the Pacific Coast,” Hwang said.
“What they really wanted was bears,” said David Hooper, a family friend of Hwang’s and the person who played tour guide for the film crew.
He accompanied the film crew to Victoria and Harbour quays, Robertson Creek Fish Hatchery—where they saw the tail end of a bear—and Stamp Falls.
Once the program, called Travel By Theme, aired in Korea, half of the 30-minute show featured Port Alberni.
“It was an unexpected tourist plug for Port Alberni,” Hooper said.
Hwang continues to tell visitors and friends alike about the virtues of Port Alberni. He said he would like to see the Seven Wonder of Port Alberni updated, and more First Nations culture.
“This is a good time to think about how to lure or get more people to town. To show salmon and bears is not enough.”