Songdo can be 'dead' after dark

As media folk rush to meet deadlines late into the night at this Asian Games, they at least do not fight a lonely battle as they are usually accompanied by scores of volunteers at the media centres.

Most of them just sit around and wait for the last sports journalist to reach their own finish line in filing stories.

None of them was complaining of tedium though.

"I have my friends together with me so it's not too boring here," said Lee Soo Young, a 21-year-old undergraduate.

"Anyway, there's not much of a nightlife scene in Incheon.

"Some places almost seem deserted at night."

It may seem puzzling that a city with a population of 2.8 million - the third-largest in South Korea behind Seoul and Busan - can feel deserted.

Yet, Incheon is at heart a historical port town whose quiet suburbs are also home to workers from nearby Seoul, which is getting increasingly overcrowded with nearly 10 million residents.

For much of its history, Incheon has stayed in the shadow of the Korean capital, even though it boasts some unique features such as having the country's only official Chinatown.

But, at the turn of this century, it is game for change and harbouring high ambitions to expand its global reach via its already renowned airport and a US$40 billion (S$51 billion) project to turn one of its suburban areas into a high-tech, self-sustainable commercial and residential district.

That district is the Songdo International Business District, a meticulously planned "Free Economic Zone" which the government has actively marketed to multinational corporations to set up shop there since 2009.

Skyscrapers are the norm in Songdo, and city planners have included a Central Park and waterways to beautify the area.

Tour pamphlets conveniently placed around the Asian Games media centres suggest that this is clearly the side of Incheon that organisers are eager to portray to their Asian neighbours.

But Songdo is also a place which gets deserted after dark.

While commercial firms have taken root in the district, residents have not been forthcoming - leaving the area quiet when the sun sets.

"The Songdo district won't be completed until next year but it could take more time for people to move in from places like Seoul or even the old part of Incheon to this new district," said Lee.

While the city planners have built schools and universities to encourage families to move to Songdo, they are also hoping the Asian Games will bring a fresh surge of interest to the district.

The main media and broadcast centres, for example, are housed in Songdo Convensia, a Sydney Opera House look-alike convention centre which was the district's first completed project back in 2008.

Asiad competitions such as triathlon, beach volleyball, softball and cycling are also held around the attractive parks and waterways, guaranteeing Songdo some media exposure across Asia.

"We hope the competition will serve as a means to change the perception people all over the world have towards history," Lee Yun Taek, president of the Incheon Asian Games Organising Committee had said.

Yet, the crowds of tourists that continue to mill around Incheon's 130-year-old Chinatown in spite of minimal publicity at the Asian Games go to show that it takes lots of patience for cultures and habits to change.

The Incheon Asian Games have been praised for being efficient and budget-conscious, yet there was still criticism that one could barely feel the excitement - pretty much like how empty the new business district feels at night.

"I'm sure things will change for the better," said Soh Myung Jung, a 40-year-old owner of a noodle shop in the district.

"This is a special city; some places very traditional, some places very new.

"But the people feel the same: All of us are happy to be part of the Asian Games."

This article was first published on October 02, 2014.
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