BAGUIO CITY -- Who?s afraid of Koreans?
If you ask businessmen or the local civic groups in the summer capital, their response will always be a resounding ?Not us.?
But since March this year, the city government has been receiving complaints of some illegal business transactions and practices involving Koreans that have worried officials.
The Bureau of Immigration places the average number of Korean tourists who visit the city at between 3,000 and 4,000 each week during the peak travel season.
The city?s grade schools and universities have at least 2,000 Koreans, said Antonio Prieto, Baguio immigration officer.
Prieto said their records showed only 10 Koreans with valid working visas and who may have set up businesses here.
Koreans dominate the 67,000 foreigners who have made Baguio their second home, or as their frequent halfway destination, BI records showed.
Students alone spend P10,000 monthly on lodging and food so they can complete a degree or three-month crash courses in conversational English, according to Kyeong Geun Sin, a language student.
The Department of Tourism describes this increased foreign traffic to Baguio as an economic boon because many Koreans prefer its cold climate. This city is second to Metro Manila as the preferred destination of Koreans in the country.
But some residents are unhappy.
A few neighborhoods have alerted the police about ?Koreans who party all night in their apartment buildings, and who disturb [their] sleep.?
Letters sent to the city government questioned the legality of business transactions allegedly made by people fronting for Korean investors.
Residents of a village here filed a formal protest against a building project inside an exclusive neighborhood, which they claimed was owned by a Korean businessman.
The village?s counsel said the Korean?s involvement violated constitutional restrictions that allowed foreigners to own only 40 percent of any enterprise or property in the country.
The National Labor Relations Commission and the National Conciliation and Mediation Board are addressing several complaints from Filipino language instructors, who were allegedly underpaid by a language school catering to Korean students.
Some teachers claimed that they were paid less than P150 for a day?s session.
The Korean presence in the city also became a topic for five mayoral candidates who faced a televised election debate last month.
Mayor Reinaldo Bautista Jr. says the bad business image as well as illegal real estate transactions involving Koreans are real, ?but these transactions have been corrected and the issues they spawned are not enough [for us] to feel threatened.?
Even the local Chinese-Filipino community has cautioned critics from denouncing Korean presence in Baguio.
Historically, the local Chinese community points out, the Baguio economy grew because of foreign capital.
Chinese migrants who helped build Kennon Road in the early 1900s set up small trading shops here, which are precursors of the business establishments that now line downtown Session Road, says Ronald Wong, a third-generation Chinese-Filipino who belongs to an old Baguio family.
The summer capital was designed and built by the American colonial government.
Historian Eufronio Pungayan says many of the road crew imported from China, India and Japan profited from American businessmen, who settled here to develop Benguet mines during that period.
What became downtown Session Road used to be a strip of Chinese and Japanese merchandise stores, as well as the public market, which resembled a typical American Midwest town at the turn of the 20th century, he says.
By 1992, downtown Baguio was dominated completely by Chinese enterprises, easing out two thriving merchandise shops owned by prominent Indian families.
?If we have to estimate, the Chinese [community] can say we are worth P1 billion if we count the investments we all put in [downtown Baguio] for all those years,? a Chinese-Filipino businessman says.
But that perceived economic dominance has passed, says Wong, who owns a family restaurant here.
The downtown area now hosts a restaurant owned by a Swiss, several Australian-managed pubs and two buildings owned by Japanese migrants.
?Today, many Filipinos already own their share of the downtown trade, but you will not find one businessman here?whether Chinese, Filipino or American who will turn back investments, even if it came from Koreans,? Wong says.
?So what if some of them used dummies to set up business? It?s their loss. They have nothing to hold on to in the end because the property will never be registered in their name anyway, so who fooled who?? he says.
Wong says no friction exists between local businessmen and Korean entrepreneurs, and he does not foresee problems cropping up any time soon.
?They cater to their own people, so they don?t take anything away from our business. They are not like the giant malls [which are] real threats to [Baguio businessmen],? Wong says.
The Inquirer learned that most Baguio-based Koreans are oblivious to the controversy their presence has generated.
The oldest Korean migrants documented by the BI settled here in 1996.
Several other ?old Korean families? have done good business through restaurants and small groceries, which draw fellow Koreans.
The city licensing office estimates that 40 enterprises operating in Baguio this year are directly or indirectly tied to the local Korean population.
But the city government classifies most of these establishments as language schools.
James Kim set up a small language institution two years ago, and invests P30,000 monthly to keep this business running.
Kim says he chose to work in the city because the weather draws Koreans here.
He found doing business with Baguio residents enriching because he found the community?s character more tolerant than some Filipino neighborhoods.