Settle down there

by Dean Crawford
Groove Korea (

While you may know Jeonju for hosting one of Asia’s leading film festivals, what you might not be aware of is that beyond the cinemas and delectable cuisine, several close-knit communities make Jeonju a great place for expats. Sure, it doesn’t have as many bright lights as Seoul or a beach on its doorstep, but not to be outdone, Jeonju has a booming arts scene with musicians, painters and theater groups, one of which is gearing up for a series of one-act plays that will be on stage throughout December. It’s the sort of place that is home to  people who like to give up their time to help others. It has a successful soccer team. And it has someone who wants to do their part for the city by simply making a good burger.

Former Jeonju resident and British expat Chris Pearce sums up Jeonju perfectly: “Where I am now, there aren’t a lot of things to do apart from drink. But within a month of living in Jeonju I was a part of the local football team, heading down to parks for picnics and heading out to band nights. There’s a lot to do in Jeonju and I certainly took it for granted.”

Hotbed for music
For a small city, Jeonju has a thriving music scene. One venue that gets its fair share of expat customers is Radiostar, owned by Park In-yeol. In the few years it has been open, the watering hole has become a hub for people to drink, play music and generally have a good time. You don’t need to have a band, as the Jeonju Rock Lottery demonstrates: On those nights, the venue offers free license to use the stage and accompanying instruments, with bands created and bonds formed in the process.

“One thing (Jeonju) has more than any other city I’ve played in is diversity. No two bands here are alike, and they’re all full of talented and passionate musicians,” says Spencer LoSchiavo, lead singer of local band Asleep Without Dreaming. “Recently, we’ve also had an explosion of new bands coming out, like Harder Than Walking, an awesome new foreigner band. I feel lucky to be in a city where I can go to the same place every weekend and see a completely different show every time.”

AWD, formed in 2010, is one of the more successful groups to come out of the city. The band has toured all over Korea and LoSchiavo points to the Jarasum Jazz Festival as a particular highlight: “It was a great moment for me. We played in front of a crowd of at least a thousand people going absolutely crazy for us. I felt a lot of love from that moment and I’ll never forget it.”

While AWD tours all over Korea, their music never strays too far from home. “Jeonju reminds us of our humble beginnings. Our music is quite simple and any time we’ve tried to venture away from that style, it’s never quite worked.”

They may well have had humble beginnings, but the rest of their story is anything but. In addition to a regular tour schedule, they have appeared on KBS and JTV and released their debut CD, “Forever Endeavor.” Work on the follow-up is underway.

Good neighbors
A big part of the Jeonju community is Neighbourly, Neighborly, an organization that seeks to raise money for local orphanages and organizes regular visits to give the staff a much-needed break.

The group was established in 2009 by Christina Murphy, who was inspired to get involved after her first visit to Hosung orphanage on Christmas Day in 2008. “The kids were lovely and I saw that they needed people to spend time with them,” she says. “At first the orphanages were welcoming, but they were worried — not that we were dirty foreigners, but that the kids would get attached and we’d leave.”

They visit one of the city’s four orphanages every month and volunteers spend two hours with the kids. The visits aren’t just beneficial for the children; they’re good for the volunteers, too.

“I’d say Jeonju benefits from Neighbourly because it’s a rewarding way to spend time,” Murphy says. “It’s also a good way to meet people outside of the bars. I’ve made great friends and watched the community really come together.”

This was evident during the last Neighbourly fundraiser. Local artist Derek Finn contributed several pieces of his artwork to an auction that helped raise over 3 million won for the cause.

Winners at heart
One thing that becomes apparent the more time you spend in Jeonju is how close-knit the different pockets of each community are. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Jeonju soccer team.

You see, in most parts of England on a Saturday afternoon, it’s not uncommon to find yourself sitting amongst 40,000 of your new best friends. That’s because supporting a team is more than a pastime in the U.K. The team is a focal point for the community and a way of bringing people together. It’s the same situation in Jeonju — win, lose or draw.

From humble beginnings playing on dirt fields, Jeonju United has gone on to play in some of the biggest league and cup competitions all over the country, winning the coveted Ulsan Cup in 2010 and, most notably, the Korean Foreigner Football League title and cup double in 2013.

“Nothing will beat that,” says joint manager Steven O’Hara. “It went down to the wire in the final against our big rivals, FC Daegu, with our striker Andy Gray bagging a last minute equalizer, taking the game, which we won, to penalties. Having the same core of players over the past few years has allowed us to learn how each other plays. There are other teams in the league that are more talented, but none of them have the heart and desire that our team has.” 

But it’s not all victories: There’s no payment; it’s time consuming; players can be unreliable and there’s administrative work. So why does he do it? “For the love of the team,” he says. This pride and passion for the team where you’re from transcends into the stands.

“The team likes to involve the community as much as possible by providing free bus trips out to the fields we play in,” O’Hara says. “Last summer a lot of our fans came with us on a bus to Yongsan stadium for the final against Busan United. They also saw us win the league in December. It was an amazing moment for the players and fans alike.”

At one early Ulsan tournament, the team lost but the fans won an award for best supporters of the tournament. It really is a group effort.

With players representing at least 12 countries, JUFC is a hub of the community and it doesn’t matter if you play like Lionel Messi or Lionel Richie; you’ll be welcomed with open arms and find yourself a part of the second family you never knew you had.

Extra service
Jeonju United’s main sponsor is the Jeonju Diner, a restaurant that owner David Van Minnen describes as a “reasonable facsimile” of a diner he used to frequent in Canada.

He’s been here for over a decade, and it was his idea — no, passion — to bring a decent burger to the city. But it’s not just serving burgers in a down-home environment that he seeks. He wants to help the community in as many ways as possible. “People come to the diner for more than just food,” he says. “Sometimes it’s job search assistance, purchasing bulk products, having things shipped to this place as a kind of post office, even ordering things with the diner’s credit.”

Since its opening, the diner has become a hub for foreigners. Whether it’s hosting Jeonju’s trivia night or giving up its kitchen for the day so local charities can raise money for their causes, Van Minnen strives to be an asset to the expat community.

“This town is getting better, but it’s still not really that easy for foreigners to navigate and get what they want and need. I’ve always done whatever I could to ease that sense of isolation and frustration.” A Jeonju Diner burger and beer on his patio on a sunny day certainly does just that.

Something for everyone
Places like the Jeonju Diner are just one of the things that makes Jeonju so appealing to expats and why they stay so long. If you find yourself in Korea lost and unsure of what it is you want from your time here, Jeonju is unique because it can be whatever the hell you want it to be. You want to party? You got it. You want nature? They’ve got that too. Adventure sports? Yep. A little slice of Seoul in the countryside? New Hyoja-dong is just that. Jeonju actually has something for everyone, which makes it such a great community to live in. But a community is nothing without the people to make it what it is.

Walk into Mad Hungry, the current hot spot for drinks, and most nights of the week you’ll find the loquacious Stuart Scott willing to share a story or two. Find Bart Messina, who can show you the best trails for mountain bikers. Look for Lyndon Capon, a 12-year veteran who will take you flying at one of the best paragliding sites in Korea. Do yoga on a Sunday morning with Shelly Apsden. Or you could just drink a lot of soju and eat to your heart’s content with some of the people who have been here for years as they tell you why Jeonju is such a great place to live. Just make sure you don’t have any other plans for the foreseeable future; you could be here for a while. It’s not uncommon to find expats on their third, fourth and even fifth contracts.

“Walking the streets in Seoul or Busan, you can go for months without seeing the same expat twice,” says Leon Rose, a resident of Jeonju for over 13 years. “Not in Jeonju. It’s a smallish, close expat community. If you don’t know a person, you can be sure one of your friends does. Jeonju has been good to me. People like each other in Jeonju, people help each other in Jeonju and, as a result, expats stay in Jeonju.”

More info
Jeonju Players present “Comic Sans”
When: Dec. 6 & 7 @ 7:30 p.m.
Where: Johnny B. Studio in Jeonju (link is external)

Groove Korea website

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