In the past week or so there's been discussion about the use of blackface on Korean television (again), with Eat Your Kimchi, Roboseyo (twice), the Unlikely Expat, Kushibo and Expat Hell discussing it. [Update: Gord Sellar has as well.] It's been reported in the Korean language media and in the Korea Times as well, which have focused especially on youtube videos which have been posted in response.
Other clips, however, are continuously being uploaded. Black men, women and even Caucasians have joined in the attack. Some expats living in Korea have also written about it recently on their blogs.Ah, yes. When foreigners criticize something about Korea, they are 'attacking' it. Much as when the Donga Ilbo interviewed Anti-English Spectrum leader Lee Eun-ung about negative foreign media reports about his group and asked "Why are you receiving such attacks?"
I've done some searching and found references to blackface in a play in 1978, where an actor or two made themselves up to look like two black convicts (one may be pictured in blackface at that link, but it's a rather dark photo). Actors were most certainly made up to look black in a 1982 musical version of 'Roots' (based on Alex Haley's novel and the TV series), which featured African music and jazz. The article about it includes these photos:
In this February 1981 Joongang Ilbo article, titled "Fraudulent black makeup - hands were white," which collected readers' opinions of recent TV shows, there is a complaint that a KBS detective show with an episode titled 'Nigerian dream' was done with too little effort, because the actor only had black on his face on not on his hands, which were white. I think that may give some insight into what was expected of actors portraying black people (as above in Roots) - that in order to appear authentic, the actor had to be in (full!) black makeup.
This February 1985 Joongang Ilbo article describes the efforts two actors went to to attract people in Myeongdong to a performance of the South African play 'Woza Albert!' This included an actor in blackface on the street handing out playbills and another dressed as a clown. The play is said to "deal with the problem of racism in South Africa" and also that it could be seen on Broadway. If I had to guess, I would imagine the actors performed in blackface.
It doesn't seem to have been until 1986 that blackface became associated with comedy. As stories by Yonhap and E Daily explain, on an August 25, 2010 MBC show, comedian Lee Bong-won explained the circumstances surrounding the creation of and sudden disappearance of the popular 'sikeomeonseu' performances he did with Jang Du-seok at that time.
Lee Bong -won performed in blackface doing the "Sikeomeonseu' routine for more than a year in 1986 and 1987 on the KBS program "Show Video Jockey". He described the impact the program had, saying that when 'sikeomeonseu' was broadcast, it was so popular that children who couldn't paint their faces black instead found another way - and drove sales of coal briquettes up. This performance stopped at the end of 1987, he explained, because during the 1988 Olympics there would be people coming from Africa, and they decided then that "We don't want to denigrate black people" and "It would be better not to do it." [Note: Wikipedia says their performance went from 1987 to 1988.]
This sketch was helped out by a Chuseok comedy song festival which showed the 'black eagles,' which was the first time he'd heard rap, and the gag was presented due to curiosity with 'music that was like talking.' Apparently, rap was used in the 'sikeomeonseu' performances.
As this (via the Marmot) explains, 'sikeomeonseu' comes from 시커멓다 ('black as coal,' 'jet black'). Nothing more is said, but I would guess '시커먼스' is a portmanteau of 시커멓다 and 퍼포먼스 ('performance' hangeulized) ('퍼포먼스' does show up in articles at that time). As this article notes, Lee would dance on stage in a rasta wig in blackface and shout to the music, "시커먼스, 시커먼스. 망했다, 망했어" (the latter meaning 'ruined' or 'doomed').
Lee Bong-won and Jang Du-seok (from here)
Netizens who saw the show in 2010 discussing the history of 'sikeomeonseu' had various opinions: "'Sikeomeonseu' was really fun, but that it was discontinued due to the Olympics is too bad, and surprising." "Comedy in those days was really fun, and I want to see it again." "I hope to see the resurrection of authentic comedy." Elsewhere netizens said the program was where they heard rap music for the first time.
I was pointed to this 2010 interview by a commenter at Roboseyo who said, "Apparently, the Korean media companies knew enough to knock that shit off in 88." Interestingly enough, that very interview with Lee Bong-won in 2010 also included an appearance by this guest...
...who then danced together with Lee and others.
With the Olympics long over, I guess there's no need to worry now?
I don't know how popular blackface was in the 1990s, but it really got attention again in 2003, as the KT explains:
Some even claim that the incident can be seen as a second round of the “Bubble Sisters controversy” which occurred back in 2003. Bubble Sisters, a Korean female band, made their debut by performing blackfaced. It drew controversy when the reason behind their makeup was known to be their lack of confidence in their appearance. People claimed it was racially discriminating to depict black people as “ugly and fat.”Talk about missing the point completely. I'm not sure if it was Korean netizens saying that, but foreigners were most certainly appalled by the use of blackface in and of itself, not to mention all of the other accessories (pajamas? curlers?). See the Metropolitician's post about them here (from which this photo was taken):
They later stopped using blackface (and have recorded several albums). It would seem that their first cd (see the cover art and booklet here) was re-issued without photos of them in blackface.
In December 2006, an incident occurred on the program Minyeodeului suda (a better title for which might have been 'In a room salon with attractive foreign women') when two women - one of them black - were singing the song 'Oppa' on stage while a panel of Korean men hooted along. As the song was ending, one of the men, singer Cheon Myeong-hun, put on a rasta wig and started jumping to the music and shouting.
He was in fact shouting "시커먼스, 시커먼스. 망했다, 망했어" - just like in Lee Bong-won's 'sikeomeonseu' routine.
What happened next, no one could have predicted. Korean netizens reacted negatively to what he did, particularly because he was doing it in front of a black woman, which they thought was racist. Oranckay, whose blog is no longer with us, said at the time that he thought it was the most hopeful thing he'd ever seen in regard to racism in Korea. The incident was covered at the Marmot's Hole and Metropolitician.
Less than a year later, in September 2007, the two sikeomeonseu actors reunited on Gag Concert's Chuseok special and performed with Kikeosseumyeon, a Gag Concert feature they influenced which was a part of the show from late 2007 to early 2008 (I don't know if that influence extended to blackface, however).
2007 also brought us what might be the most bizarre use of blackface (or body, in this case) I've seen: Topless Raelians painted black to promote clitoraid to help African women who have suffered female circumcision (photos from here and here).
This 2009 article about a model getting into trouble in the US for blackface would suggest that there is some awareness of how offensive the practice is considered to be.
In May 2010, Muhandojeon (Unlimited Challenge) comedians HaHa and No Hong-cheol decided to cheer viewers up after being 7 weeks off the air due to the Cheonan sinking and an MBC strike by dressing up as African natives. (More photos are here).
Two months later saw another use of blackface on TV:
In November 2011 this photo was posted on Twitter as part of a teaser for a cosmetics ad with the title "aren't we pretty?"
In December 2011, Saturday Night Live Korea featured women in blackface performing as dream girls.
Which brings us up to the present incident. On January 21, the Lunar New Year special of MBC’s 'Quiz that Changes the World' featured comedians Lee Gyeong-sil and Kim Ji-seon in blackface wearing basketball jerseys and singing, trying (and failing) to keep straight faces.
It might have passed unnoticed had MBC not uploaded the video to their Youtube account, which led to some rather angry comments and video responses. The video has since been removed, but if you'd like to see it, email the person I got it from at Slomo1919 at gmail dot com (there was no file extension on the one I downloaded, but it's likely an MP4 file - I just dragged it into my media player).
As allkpop posted,
Some netizens commented, "They weren’t ridiculing African Americans; they were simply parodying the Korean cartoon character from 'Dooly'."So it's all a misunderstanding. They were supposed to be dressed as Maikol, (Micheal), a character from Dooly based on Michael Jackson. What could be wrong with that?
The production team also released an official apology on their homepage, stating,
"On the Lunar New Year special broadcast on January 21st, the cast parodied a cartoon character during the ‘Family Karoke’ segment of the show. However, there were viewers from abroad who felt uncomfortable while watching the show, so we would like to offer our sincere apology.
A Korean cartoon character was being parodied, so while viewers within Korea knew that the parody was of the cartoon character, international viewers were not offered a sufficient explanation – causing a misunderstanding. This is something that occurred because we did not think carefully at the time about the fact that many international viewers also have gained a high interest in the show with the spread of the Hallyu wave. In the future, we will think through the selection of the material, no matter how small it is, so that we will not cause any discomfort to our viewers.
Now, it could be argued that this is typical of depictions of foreigners in Korea which highlight certain racial characteristics:
Look at the size of that thumb. (From here)
Needless to say, both images below, of blackface and the cartoon character with gigantic lips, are rather representative of American historical depictions of blackface and black cartoon characters or caricatures.
Korean commenters on Eat You Kimchi's original post, however, have twisted themselves into contorted shapes saying that foreigners simply don't understand, it's just a parody, Maikol is actually Korean, because he speaks Korean, you know, and is not black. One commenter pointed out that he has been portrayed in 'real life' as a Korean before:
Another commenter, however, pointed out other depictions of him such as this one on Gag Concert:
As it turns out, on this show from 2010, it was also Maikol who was either supposed to be portrayed, or who was referred to:
Two of the other photos at that link show one of the actresses from the most recent incident, who had previously done herself up in blackface to portray Maikol. The commenter also adds that "So if you look at this point of view, all of them have black paint - to the level where you can misunderstand for a black person[.]"
Silly me. How could anyone have mistaken Maikol for a black person?
(From the video clip here [since removed].)
And why is it that Maikol looks so similar to these people, who one assumes are supposed to be Africans (despite the fact they all speak Korean)? (From this Dooly episode, via the Unlikely Expat.)
Bones in the nose are a not-uncommon way of depicting Africans in Korea. For example, here is an entry from an early 1990s English dictionary, one of many compiled and posted by the Metropolitician:
One cartoon which took me awhile to find was this one (via Joi Ito), published by the Hankyoreh in the aftermath of Roh Moo-hyun's impeachment in March 2004, which looks at the reaction of foreign bloggers to the impeachment:
Comments by white or Chinese bloggers about how it's a right wing coup d'état, impeachment with no reason, only the citizens will be hurt, and calling conservatives 'idiots' are juxtaposed with an ignorant African savage who has no idea what's going on. This from the 'progressive' Hankyoreh. No, tell us how you really feel.
There's more to tease from the most recent incident, however. Note below the song 'Maikol' is singing.
The Korea Times explains it by saying "The title of the song means products grown within one’s own land are the best." The song became popular in early 1993, and its lyrics, by Bae Il-ho, can be found here. The song begins by asking 'Who are you, who am I? In the land where we were born, sintoburi' and then names different places around the country, and describes 'show window mannequins dancing with foreign products.' After naming several Korean food products (rice, barley, beans, red beans, gochujang, doenjang, kimchi, ggakdugi), he asks why one would look for other people's things, and says, 'Don't forget, you and I are Korean,' answering the question asked in the first line.
But as for what 'sintoburi' means, a comic distributed by Nonghyup (hat tip to seouldout) to elementary school students in 1990 explained to children how buying foreign goods would destroy Korea's farms, leaving the country vulnerable to rapacious foreigners who could charge whatever they wanted, and send food which was rotten by the time it arrived. The solution was to monitor your parents when they went to the market and stop them from buying foreign goods. In the midst of this comes a discription of sintoburi, in which, according to the hanja, sin = body, to = soil, bul = not, i = 2. So, body and soil are one (as illustrated by an episode from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms), so you should buy only Korean goods. While it might seem simply a patriotic song, when seen in the context of how it was sold to children in the comic book, it doesn't seem so innocuous - especially when sung by someone in blackface.
But wait. The comic also has a scene which is rather topical:
[First day back after summer vacation]
The teacher is coming!
Hold on a second… during vacation did a student transfer from Africa?
You! What black people’s country did you come from?While nowhere near as offensive as the Hankyoreh cartoon above, it shares with it the characteristic of being completely unnecessary. This is one example of what children were reading at schools (again, the images of the 1990s English dictionary posted by the Metropolitician give further examples of how ideas about race were shaped). But even the elementary school English books used up until a year ago depicted black characters in much the same way we've seen above:
I’m Republic of Korea Saebom Elementary School 5th grade 1st class Park Daljae!
Well then why are you sitting there with a blackface?
I ended up looking like this after spending all vacation by the sea.
I thought he was sitting there because maybe a black African had transferred.
What I presume to have been a foreign English teacher with some time on their hands has compiled a number of images and videos of Peter (who appeared in the grade 5 and 6 textbooks) at a blog called Black Peter, where he re-imagines many of the books' characters in rather dark ways, such as in this post, which offers commentary on this video:
If you were wondering what part Peter gets to play in the musical he does with his classmates, well, have a look here. Considering the defensive response (or outright denial) of many (apparently Korean) commenters at Eat Your Kimchi's post, and comments like, "'Sikeomeonseu' was really fun, but that it was discontinued due to the Olympics is too bad, and surprising," it would appear that a good many people simply can't conceive of why it is offensive. But I imagine that each one of these incidents prompts a little more understanding (or if not that, then a pragmatic desire by media companies not to offend). While those images above from the textbook discontinued a year ago were offensive, the national textbooks for grade 5 and 6 last year were greatly improved:
Here is the depiction of the black character in this year's textbook:
So things are improving. And that may have something to do with the fact that there have been increasing numbers of foreigners - some of them black - working in the public school system over the last 5 years. Still, I have my doubts whether this incident will put an end to the use of blackface for laughs on Korean television.