Rooted in the Community: Min-jae Kwak found a second home in Vancouver
October 12, 2023
Vancouver FC winger Min-jae Kwak left his home country of Korea when he was only 12 years old and has been playing football abroad ever since. Kwak lived most of his life in Orange County, California with a couple of brief spells in Croatia and Syracuse, NY, before playing for VFC this year. Luckily for him, in Vancouver, he found a Korean hub like no other place he lived before.
“The Korean community [in Vancouver] is very tight. Where I’m from, Orange County, CA, there’s a lot of Korean people but it’s so big that we don’t even really know each other,” recalls Kwak. “But here, my friend knows my other friend. They’re all connected. The Vancouver community is really good.”
This community is connected through local places such as Hanin Village and Korea Town Centre, a Korean hub in the Greater Vancouver area. Hanin Village and Korea Town Centre, located on both sides of North Road near the Lougheed Highway intersection, are two malls home to many Korean businesses from restaurants and beauty parlours to lawyers and doctors. It’s here that Kwak spends most of his free time off the pitch which has helped him to settle into his new home of Vancouver more easily.
“When I’m abroad I miss home and having Korea Town Centre and Hanin Village here greatly helps. I come here a lot with my friends to the Korean restaurants and Korean cafes,” shares Kwak.
The beginning of these iconic malls goes back to 1998 when a couple of Korean businessmen noticed the increased population of Koreans in Burnaby and Coquitlam. They decided that a communal space to feel respected and familiar would go a long way for their community and they created Korea Town Centre.
The pulls of the mall being a Korean-led initiative plus affordable real estate motivated more Korean-owned businesses to relocate to Korea Town Centre. The space became so popular that the community expanded into the lot across the street to replicate the formula and create Hanin Village.
For Coquitlam City Councillor Steve Kim and his family, the creation of the malls were signs of hope for Korean visibility and encouragement to share their culture. Councillor Kim can remember what life was like for him prior to the opening of the malls and very few people outside of the community knew anything about Korea or Korean culture.
“People would ask me when I moved [to Coquitlam] in grade three, what a Korean was,” said Councillor Kim. “No one had any idea [about the culture or people]…
“So for me to see where Korea Town is today, is amazing,” says Councillor Kim.
For the last twenty-plus years, these two malls have become the hub for Koreans but also a vibrant and iconic place in the “Burquitlam” area. Currently, Michelle Kim is the manager of both properties and it’s her responsibility to keep these iconic places alive.
“I know the building more than anything because I’ve spent almost my entire Canadian life in the Korean Town Centre,” says Kim. “I’m just proud to have so many Korean businesses in Korea Town Center.
“Most of the people stay in the building for longer than 10 years, which means they love and enjoy being there.”
Kim’s commitment is to not only keep the properties on point but also to promote Korean culture. She was recently part of the group who lobbied to officially designate the name Korea Town Centre for the mall located on the West Side of North Road after years of trying to get the Korean community in the area acknowledged. In addition, Kim created Korean Community Day in 2014 which is an annual event hosted in conjunction with Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok) to create awareness and celebrate this important holiday.
While Korea Town Centre and Hanin Village have done a lot for Korean awareness in Vancouver, Councillor Kim hopes people in the community with a platform, such as Kwak, can become a beacon for representation, especially in football. “Min-jae is the type of role model that [youth] need to see what is possible on the pitch so that they can emulate that as well,” said Councillor Kim. “I think it’s really important, especially growing up in the Tri-Cities region [because we] have a really proud long soccer history.”
As an anecdote to how close the Korean community is in Vancouver, word about Kwak’s arrival at Vancouver FC spread almost instantaneously. The result has been uplifting support for Kwak, with Korean flags at the games, kids asking him for autographs, and fans flooding his social media channels after the games. “It’s really inspiring for me to play better and be an example for the kids,” assures Kwak. “I just want to be a good example for them so they could work hard and maybe someday they play for Vancouver FC.”
Minjae Kwak and Vancouver FC thank all the fans for the support in the inaugural season. We can wait to have you back in 2024 and keep making history. 2024 season memberships deposits are live and you could secure your seat for next year with just $20. Click this link for more information.