Wednesday, December 16, 2020

How Hahn Dae Soo became famous, then infamous, in just over two weeks in 1968

My latest article for the Korea Times is a combination of archival research and interview. Jon Dunbar was kind enough to invite me along to his interview with Hahn Dae Soo in early November, and Hahn was impressed that I’d dug up a 1968 article about him being a hippie that was published a couple weeks after he had arrived in Korea from New York. In the ensuing conversation I was amazed to realize that his stories of how he first played at the music hall C’est Si Bon and how that got him on TV the next day all took place within a week of him arriving in the country. 

He also noted that he’d been tricked by the reporter interviewing him for the ‘hippie’ article, and it was only then that I realized that, of the thousands of pages of late 1960s / 1970s magazines I’ve read, he only appeared in a handful of articles, making it clear that he had shunned the media (and vice-versa), unlike pretty much every other singer of the day (Kim Min-gi would also fit into that category). 

As for Hahn himself, he was a really cool, genuinely nice, and funny person, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. 

Here's an excerpt of the Weekly Joongang's article about Hahn from September 15, 1968 (the fourth issue of the magazine) titled "Korean HIPPIE returns from the US":

 Here is a recent interview with him by the Korea Herald (where Hahn worked as a writer and photographer after he served in the Navy between 1971 and 1974). His mention of 참새구이 (grilled sparrow) obviously got a reaction from a staffer. 

In my article, Hahn mentions how places like C'est Si Bon were spaces of liberation, at least to some degree, for young women at that time. This was also mentioned in a Korea Times article I wrote a few months ago about drinking culture at beer halls and makgeolli houses in 1968 and 1969. At the time, university coeds going out drinking was considered to be a new trend. Also worth noting is that three months before Hahn performed at C'est Si Bon, Korea's first (semi) nude happening took place there, announcing that avant garde artistic ideas had arrived in Korea. Hahn's arrival marked the next chapter in the arrival of such culture on Korean shores.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Reacting to Vietnamese 'anti-Koreanism' in 1967 and other negative responses

My latest Korea Times article, "Reacting to Vietnamese 'anti-Koreanism' in 1967", examines the reaction of the Korean media to reports that anti-Korean feeling was spreading in Vietnam after the Korean soccer team was booed by Vietnamese spectators at a tournament there. I couldn't help noting the way some newspapers tried to explain away the negative feelings engendered by the ROK military presence, and particularly the actions of Korean civilian contractors who acted rudely and "fooled" Vietnamese women (shades of negative perceptions of GIs and English teachers in Korea), by calling it a "misunderstanding" - the kind of response that has resulted in bitter commentary in the Korean media when the US military or Americans have responded similarly. The icing on the cake came when I asked William Nguyen about the topic and found out that the main reason for the booing at the soccer game was that Korea had knocked the Vietnamese team out of the championship, something the Korean media completely ignored, obsessed as they were with the slights to their reputation by "ungrateful" Vietnamese.

I decided to link that story to that of Korean netizens angering Filipinos after Filipino American influencer Bella Poarch was seen sporting a tattoo with a design similar to the Japanese rising sun flag, apologized, and then was the target of racist comments by some Korean netizens. This led to a brief "Cancel Korea" movement among Filipinos. (See here and here for more details.) One comment, quoted here, had some pertinent criticism: "We feel betrayed by you guys. Let me remind you that 112 filipino soldiers died in action during korean war. The philippines was the FIRST asian country to SEND combat troops to your country." Though some Korean netizens may not have been aware of this fact, the Korean government certainly is.

What amazes me about this story is the way in which Koreans felt the need to explain that the rising sun flag has negative connotations for Koreans due to the actions of the Japanese military... to people from a country that was invaded by Imperial Japan and whose citizens resisted the invasion. Korea, it should be remembered, never fought a war with Japan. Japanese troops landed in Korea in February 1904 and Emperor Gojong quickly signed a treaty of alliance with Japan. Yes, from 1906 to 1909 the Righteous Armies waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese, and tens of thousands of people rose up against Japanese rule in 1919, and there were sporadic acts of resistance in the following years, but Korea never fought a war against the Japanese in 1904 or any time after. The same can't be said for the Philippines, where hundreds of thousands died (particularly during the Manila massacre in 1945). The time period when Koreans suffered the most under Japan was during WWII when they were forced to toil or fight for the Japanese war machine that oppressed the Philippines. The number of Koreans who died during the entire colonial period is almost certainly less than the number of Filipinos who died during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. 

Another uncomfortable fact is that the theater with the largest number of deaths of Korean soldiers serving in the Japanese army during WWII was... the Philippines (according to the Japanese records quoted in Brandon Palmer's book, Fighting for the Enemy: Koreans in Japan's War, 1937-1945, 2,156 of 5,870 Korean soldiers recorded as having died during WWII fell in the Philippines). Needless to say, these soldiers certainly didn't die fighting on behalf of Filipinos (as Filipinos did fighting on behalf of Koreans during the Korean War).

That Korean netizens feel the need to explain to Filipinos the nature of the brutality of Imperial Japan just goes to show how narrowly Korean textbooks and popular culture depict colonial era history, with, for example, high school textbooks spending only two pages on World War II. On top of that, only one of those pages is on the Pacific War, a fact that helps to obscure the role the Allied armies played in Korea's liberation (a role never mentioned in annual presidential Liberation Day speeches). But then I suppose that makes sense, since digging too deeply threatens to turn up some uncomfortable truths about just how many people made their peace with the status quo at the time - hence efforts to portray those who signed up to be prison guards and mistreated Allied prisoners as "victims" of the Japanese and the unfair Allied war crimes trials. 

Netizens of the sort that hurl racist insults at a country their ancestors once helped invade have been busy in recent months. While some think cancel culture in the West has gone a bit overboard (but what's not to like about tearing down statues of abolitionists in the name of decrying white supremacy?), in Korea the exact opposite trend has been on display: instead of canceling racists, it's those decrying racism (or blackface) who get canceled. 

Ghanaian television personality Sam Okyere commented on the above photo of high school students, writing

I feel regret and sadness to see something like this in 2020. This is not funny! From the stance of black people, this is very insulting.[...] You put in so much effort to educate people here in Korea and make them understand that you can appreciate a culture without making a mockery of the people. This has to stop in Korea!!! This ignorance cannot continue!!!!!  

Though he noted in a later interview that he initially had meaningful conversations with some Korean netizens, these were soon replaced by people who had no desire to have a conversation and "just wanted to attack." I ended a recent post on the history of blackface in Korea by saying that I could understand Koreans bristling at white foreign netizens criticizing blackface in Korea - a practice almost certainly learned from Americans. But a black, African man criticizing it? That would be the time time to listen. 

That's not what happened, of course. Criticism of Okyere's criticism soon led to a posting on the Blue House petition page, which castigated Okyere for "infringing upon the students' portrait rights," as if the very thing that caused offense - blackface, along with sunglasses and hats - wasn't obscuring their identities already. It then criticized Okyere, an "influencer" with many followers, for making Korea look bad, and said in summary:

I petition that Okyere, who insulted Koreans by calling them ignorant and, despite it infringing upon the students' portrait rights, shared photos that induced international embarrassment and exposed Koreans to the danger of degrading our national dignity, be banned from broadcasting.

While thankfully only a few thousand people signed the petition, it, as well as an attempt to misrepresent an old post of his as "sexual harassment," ultimately achieved its goal when Okyere "voluntarily stepped down" from the quiz show "South Korean Foreigners." On the one hand, this has much to do with the role of entertainers in Korea, and the belief they should not say anything controversial or face a period of exile. On the other hand, Okyere's status as a foreigner who "criticized Korea" is likely the more important aspect to consider.

What I find interesting about this stance - that foreigners mustn't criticize Korea - is one of its sources. To be sure, neo-colonial or ignorant attitudes on the part of foreigners have justifiably rubbed Koreans the wrong way for decades, as can be seen, for example, here and here in 1975. But other forms of foreign criticism were also attacked in the Korean media that year. A New York Times article titled “U.S. Press is part of Seoul politics” (Sept. 8, 1975) quoted a column in the Korea Herald which said that unnamed American veterans of the Korean War who had recently visited Korea believed "the American news coverage of the Korean situation is mostly crooked and irresponsible, resulting in negligence in showing the true picture of Korea and Koreans." 

The news coverage they were referring to, however, was of the sort that was criticizing the Korean government for things like kidnapping its citizens from foreign countries, torturing its citizens to death, suppressing the media, and all those unpleasant things that dictatorships tend to do to maintain power. What was rather jaw-dropping was reading the Korea Herald – then the voice of the South Korean government – as saying that "distorted" reports about Korea's dictatorship in the American press were rooted in "the colonialism of the American white media." You almost have to admire the way the dictatorship used such language to defend its behavior and attack foreign commentators for criticizing it. Needless to say, watching Korean netizens use the President's website to force a foreigner to resign from a TV show for saying he was offended by blackface was... unexpected.

Not particularly unexpected was a story about another branch of the Korean government. The Justice Ministry, under the umbrella of which sits Korea's Immigration Service, caused offense due to a guide it published that is used in a course for Koreans marrying foreign spouses.

Koreans who are marrying a foreign national from one of the seven countries officially designated by the government ― China, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Thailand ― must take the course as a prerequisite to applying for a marriage visa for their spouse. [...]

Published in 2019, the guidebook titled "Understanding the social customs and marriage culture of foreign countries" purports to explain particular characteristics of people of nationalities that commonly come to Korea through and for marriage to Korean nationals. [...]

The guidebook describes Vietnamese as not easily admitting to wrongdoings and tending to make excuses for their mistakes rather than apologizing.

"Insulting Filipinos with high self-esteem may lead to unexpected violence. It is advisable to refrain from commenting about their skin color or curly hair since they have feelings of inferiority about their looks," the book reads.

"Chinese tend to perceive other neighboring ethnic groups as barbarians based on their Sinocentric mindset. Thais may lack deep thinking. They focus on getting things done quickly, without caring about quality. Cambodians are usually shy and quiet, but they change their attitude radically when they are insulted, leading to violence or shootings in some cases."

Unsurprisingly, people of these nationalities were offended by these portrayals. In response, the MOJ responded by saying, "We are deeply sorry to have included negative expressions which may lead to stereotypes of certain nationalities, and will entirely revise the book based on opinions from human rights experts." 

One wonders why they need human rights experts to tell them not to traffic in gross generalizations about entire nations of people. Then again, this is the same ministry (at the time under Roh Moo-hyun) that held a policy meeting to decide on new regulations for E-2 visa holders in 2007 and chose to invite the leader of a xenophobic patriotic group of netizens devoted to expelling "unfit" foreign teachers (who did drugs or had consensual sex with Korean women) from the country. It then defended the HIV testing for E-2 visa holders it put into place at that meeting for years (to the point that for seven years E-2 visa-holders were the only foreigners being officially tested for HIV) and waited more than two years after a ruling by the UN Committee for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination that called for the abolishment of HIV testing to do so. 

These cases are very much related to perception, which is often shaped by government policy or media reports. In one case, the perception is that Japan is the greatest source of evil in Korea's modern history, and anyone who is ignorant of this should be taught so with great urgency. It's clear the rising sun flag has been shaped into a symbol of evil in Korea, but apparently not in the Philippines, despite its great suffering at the hands of Imperial Japan. While the ROK government has long encouraged that negative nationalist feeling be directed at Japan, the current government has done so more than most. As for the second case, the perception that blackface is fine because no offense was intended and foreigners should not criticize Korea was essentially legitimized by it appearing on the Blue House petition page. As for the HIV tests I mentioned, they were instituted in part due to negative media coverage, but this ebbs and flows. This story from June of a middle school native-speaking teacher in Suwon who was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for recording nude photos and videos of teenagers via a chatting app might have appeared to be - particularly coming after all the media coverage of foreign teachers as potential disease spreaders in Itaewon - the perfect kind of story for the media to amplify, but there were only about a dozen articles, so clearly there wasn't interest in doing so at the time. 

Needless to say, that netizens or government ministries attack or portray negatively (respectively) Southeast Asians or Africans while the media takes a pass at highlighting crimes by more privileged foreigners in Korea like English teachers seems different from how things were in the past, and I don't think that's a good thing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Korea Peace Corps volunteer newsletters (1966-1981) online

Update, October 13, 2021:

It seems the USC Digital library moved stuff around... or something... and none of the links below seem to link. I'd be annoyed if not for the Wayback Machine. If you want to use the directory of links below, I'd suggest going to this post archived there.

Original Post:

In addition to columns by members of groups like the Royal Asiatic Society and Yongsan Legacy, the Korea Times (which recently added the Korea Times Archive to its social media channels) has also added articles by Friends of Korea, a group based around former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Korea between 1966 and 1981. It has contributed two articles - We left Korea, but Korea never left us, and Memories of serving as last Peace Corps Korea director

Anyone interested in the experience of Peace Corps Volunteers [PCVs] might want to check out the recently released book Peace Corps Volunteers and the Making of Korean Studies in the United States, in which former PCVs who became Korean Studies professors write about their experiences in Korea in the late 1960s and 1970s. Considering the era in which they lived in Korea, they have lots of interesting stories. I've been working on a memoir by David Dolinger, a PCV who was forced to resign from the Peace Corps for his role in the Kwangju Uprising, and last year I found documents and a photo for Paul Courtright, another PCV who witnessed 5.18, for his memoir Witnessing Gwangju. It was Paul who introduced me to Steve Literati, an M.A. Student at the University of Southern California researching the foreign witnesses of 5.18.

Through Steve I learned about the USC Digital Library's Peace Corps Korea Archive. It hosts scans of numerous materials dating back to the early days of the program as well as interviews with former PCVs (though not all of the materials in their collection are digitally archived). Something I decided to organize is its collection of newsletters edited and written by PCVs: Yobosayo, The Noodle, and Jam Pong. There are lots of first hand accounts by PCVs, stories, gripes, travel writing, warnings about yeontan gas, and even an essay critically analyzing the entire role of the Peace Corps in Korea (in the February 1968 issue) by a PCV named Bruce Cummings.

If you look near the top left of the pdf reader there is a red "download" button; use it to download a pdf of the entire issue.

1966 11 Yobosayo Vol. 1 No. 1

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Yu Gwan-sun, you'd be so much prettier if you smiled more

I came across these photos on Facebook which show a "reconstructed" version of teenage independence activist Yu Gwan-sun, who died 100 years ago (on September 28, 1920) after serving time in Seodaemun Prison for her participation in the Samil protests. 

The photos are also posted in this article, which says that the netizen who posted the photos said, "Every time I looked at the photo of Yu Gwan-sun, I felt sorry for her with her face swollen from torture. She was 17 years old (at the time), which is only 4 years older than my child, but there's only that photo of her suffering face” so "I made a picture of her ‘living face’ with the photo editing app FaceApp.” [If this is just an ad campaign for that app, nicely done!] The person went on to say that they hoped the smiling image would end up the 100,000 won bill, if there ever is one. Personally, I think that as long as we're going to put fake photos to money, the obvious choice would be Dangun's skeleton, which was 'discovered' in North Korea years ago. 

The photos are based on these, taken when Yu was arrested in 1919.

There are so many problems with these disrespectful, 'altered' photos of Yu Gwan-sun it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, considering no photo of Yu's teeth exists, her smile has been simply created out of thin air. And while imposing current beauty standards on a figure from the past is something that stands to be criticized, this is waved away by saying that her face was swollen from being beaten, so it's actually recreating her 'true' self - one that happens to look exactly like every person who has ever appeared in a Korean government or corporate propaganda piece public service announcement

The aforementioned article even includes a 3D restoration of her face made in 2012 by ‘experts’ who claimed her face was swollen due to torture. The article includes some photos of Yu released last year from her days at Ehwa Hakdang, but while it includes this close up of her when she was younger (it suggests it was taken in 1915 or 1916)... does not include a close up of this photo of her from 1917 or 1918.

This article, however, does include a close-up of her, making it clear that by her later teens her face had grown quite a bit rounder. 

The thing is, though, that another photo of Yu from her Ehwa days has been available for decades (here it is in a 1947 Donga Ilbo article), and it's clear her face isn't thin in this photo either.

 (Photo from here.)

I'd guess that this psuedo-history myth of her face being round because she was tortured exists (with 'experts' creating computer models to support it while obviously hoping no one bothers to look at widely-available photos) because it fits well with the narrative of victimization that invariably colours popular (and academic) representations of the colonial period. (This isn't to say that she wasn't tortured during her imprisonment; I'd imagine she was, though tales of her body being mutilated by the Japanese were debunked by the missionary who dressed her body for burial, as noted in Don Clark's Living Dangerously in Korea.)

 I've often wondered why Yu became a symbol of the Samil movement. She's mentioned in newspapers soon after liberation, so her story was clearly kept alive during the colonial period. I'd guess that being a teenage girl who died young had much to do with it - victimized young women are central to many narratives of abuse by foreign powers in Korea. As I noted in this post, Yu, Hyo-sun and Mi-seon, and the comfort women have long served as 'victimized innocents' who symbolize Korea's purity despoiled by outsiders, be they Japanese or American.

Around ten years ago Seodaemun Prison Museum was refurbished and the screaming animated mannikins were removed and replaced with, in one room, walls filled with arrest cards. Unfortunately, the cards are not rendered in Hangeul or explained in any way, so it's just an overwhelming mass of faces of arrested people. Still, the images are memorable, and make clear that there were plenty of other young women who were arrested who could have been memorialized. 

I wonder who these women were, what there stories were, and what became of them. None of them look very happy, which is what is to be expected when you're arrested by those enforcing a police state. What bothers me about the photo alteration of Yu's face is that it ignores this context - the very thing that made her a national symbol - and it feels like she's being told, "You know, you'd look prettier if you smiled more."

But hey, I guess she'll sell more chicken flashing those perfect, pearly whites.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Arrival in Busan

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea
Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]
Part 2: In Search of Freedom
Part 3: Drama at Phu Quoc Island
Part 4: Storm Near Taiwan
Part 5: Arrival in Busan

Part 5: Arrival in Busan

May 12, 1975 
The Night I Saw Busan

From far away, Busan, with all of its lights, looked like a sparkling gem in the middle of the night. Finally, the land where I was hoping to start my journey to freedom was emerging magically from the dark, and from the top deck of the mighty LST warship, Busan did indeed look like a gem, one that glowed like my hopes for a better life. I had finally made it. There would be no more worrying about communists, no more worrying about some guy approaching me and asking for money to let me stay onboard. I was sure the moment I set foot on land the next day would be one I would cherish for the rest of my life.

May 13, 1975 

After a sleepless night, the day I had been anticipating for more than two weeks had come. Everybody’s faces seemed to be brighter, and there was a lot of talking around us and so many emotions. Many people were asking questions like “What's going to happen? Are we going to stay in Korea? Will we be able to go anywhere besides Korea?” In my head I honestly did not care. “Just give me a place where I can work to provide for my sister, a roof over my head and everything will be okay with me – I will take everything from there one step at a time!” With nothing on me but my sister’s clothes below the thin cotton shirt I had left after the storm near Taiwan, it was hard to keep the cold at bay, and I saw my sister and brothers shivering in the cold weather of Busan. Despite this, I didn’t really care about anything more than just getting on to land and facing whatever lay ahead.

Slowly leaving the mighty LST ship, I looked at it one last time after my first few steps on land, and my god, it was huge, the ship was massive before my eyes. “Thank you LST, thank you for the once-in-a-lifetime ride, your name and all these memories will stay in my memory for a very long time.”

We walked past a lot of Koreans, and I was overwhelmed by the way they greeted us. Though I was not sure what they were saying, I could guess just from their expressions that everyone was giving us a warm welcome, and all I could do was nod my head respectfully back. It was the best feeling. It felt so warm in a way I had never experienced before in my life, and it lifted me above the hardship of the trip, including the storm near Taiwan that terrifies me even now any time I think of the ship.

By that time I felt comfortable because I knew I was on land now. Everyone settled into the long queue for the buses that were waiting for us. When the bus started to move, good lord, I could see so many people gathered on the side of the road to greet us, waving, smiling, and holding many banners. They were written in Korean, which I did not understand, but by the look on the faces of the people holding them, I guessed they had to be a nice greeting to welcome us to Korea. It was quite a sight, and it really made me feel at home.

We got to the refugee camp, which was housed in the former Busan Girls High School, around noon. The rooms were all set up nicely with mattresses and blankets laid out on the floors, and with help from all the Red Cross officers there we all found a place to settle in.

Our first meal on land, which was served by the Red Cross officers, consisted mostly of ramyeon and japchae and sure tasted good after close to two weeks on the LST.

“Nothing could be better than this,” I thought as I settled into bed with a belly full of food. Full of gratitude for the wonderful hospitality of the people and the land that I had never been to before, and appreciating my mattress and the smell of the clean blankets, my eyes start to close and soon I was asleep. Tomorrow would be another day, and I was sure it would be better than I could imagine.


To illustrate the arrival in Busan, here are a few photos I previous published here. This photo is from the Weekly Joongang, May 25, 1975:

The following photos are from the Weekly Kyonghyang, May 25, 1975:

 First breakfast.

A sleeping area.


While this is the end of the memoir that William wrote about his arrival in Korea, the rest of his story is fascinating. Some of it is told in brief here, but at some point I would like to write it out. As it turned out, the family who took care of them in Seoul was that of General Lee Dong-yong, then the commander of the ROK Marines, who hosted parties from time to time at his residence, where William once shook hands with Park Chung-hee. William, though penniless when he arrived in Seoul, had come from a well-off family in Vietnam, which included an uncle who was, if I remember correctly, an ARVN Colonel who had actually met General Lee during the war, when he had commanded the ROK Blue Dragon Division. And William's quest to find the General's family was successful. I visited the General's grave in the national cemetery with William, met his brother and sister and their families, and also met the General's daughters. He went to Busan not sure how to find the family of Mrs. Choi, who had taken care of his family there, but after asking at a police station (her husband had been a police chief in Busan), after several days I was happy to hear he was able to meet her son. 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Storm Near Taiwan

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea
Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]
Part 2: In Search of Freedom
Part 3: Drama at Phu Quoc Island
Part 4: Storm Near Taiwan
Part 5: Arrival in Busan

Part 4: Storm Near Taiwan

Everything was going smoothly for us on the deck of the mighty LST warship. My sister got a job washing dirty clothes for some of the Vietnamese ladies with Korean husbands in exchange for a few dollars that we would need in the future. I asked her to do this because I was sure my 16,000 VN Dong was now a souvenir worth less than toilet paper on the “Ship to Freedom,” as I named it. My younger brother and I got a job writing letters in English for the Vietnamese ladies with Korean husbands. They wanted us to write letters to their husbands and, strangely enough, we were actually kept fairly busy doing this. 

A few days, or perhaps weeks, later - I don’t remember exactly - after a Marine told us we were nearing Taiwan, a massive storm approached the two LST ships, and all of us on the ship’s deck had to go down below. The storm really affected us. Being civilians, we did not have any experience being at sea in a storm, so people around us were sick and vomiting and the conditions were really bad. My sister was unconscious and required emergency aid, and my brothers and I just lay on the floor and could not be moved. I think we stayed below deck for one or two days. The memory of our experience during that storm terrifies me even now, more than 40 years later. Just thinking about the smell of that space below deck, and the scene of people crying and being terrified still gives me goosebumps. A favorite past time in Australia, which I now call home, is deep sea fishing, but I associate that with one of my biggest fears. 

I lost track of time and was not sure what day it was when I regained consciousness. Everything seemed to be quiet and calm, so I slowly climbed the stairs and gained access to the ship’s deck. There were already quite a few people up there. What a sight, I thought, what a wonderful sight of Mother Ocean after the storm. I was just speechless. Acting as if there might not be a tomorrow, I took the biggest breath of my life, trying to take as much air as possible into my chest as I absorbed as much sunshine as I could.

Everything went back to normal as we refugees reclaimed our spots on the deck. We had lost almost all of our clothes, however, because we had left them hanging out to dry when we evacuated below deck, including my favorite Levis jean jacket and pairs of jeans which I had treasured very much. All we had left were the dirty clothes we were wearing and a few of my sister’s clothes which were still in her suitcase, as well as a few dollars from working on the ship and the 16,000 VND sitting worthlessly in my pocket. Having passed Taiwan, the weather seemed to be a little colder at night compared to before the storm. When night fell, all of us wore my sister’s clothes under our remaining shirt and pants and then took them off when the sun came up in the morning. We knew we would have to do this until we reached Busan, but that was a week or two away. I was so worried because in Vietnamese, Korea was called Dai Han (greatest cold). I was not sure what would happen when we reached Korea, but I told my siblings “Que Sera Sera.”


It should be noted that the experiences of the Vietnamese refugees leaving Vietnam for Korea was similar in some ways to the experiences of British and Australian POWs transported to Korea after the fall of Singapore. In August and September 1942, almost 1,000 of them were crammed into the ship Fukkai Maru and transported to Busan, stopping in Cap St Jacques (Vũng Tàu), Vietnam, and in Taiwan along the way. Much like what William and his siblings experienced, the ship experienced storms and even water spouts north of Taiwan, as depicted in the sketches below:

(The first image is from J.D. Wilkinson, Sketches of a P.O.W. in Korea, 1945, while the other two are from A.V. Toze and S. Strange, In Defense of Singapore: Scenes and Person Sketches Before and After the Fall of Singapore, 1947.)

Unlike the experiences of the refugees, 17 POWs died within weeks of their arrival in Busan, and for the survivors the 40-day trip was the worst memory of their captivity.

In the cases of both the POWs in 1942 and refugees in 1975, Busan's residents were asked to come out and jeer at the POWs and cheer for the refugees, respectively.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Blackface and depictions of indigenous people in South Korea in the 1960s, 1970s, and today

Update, July 22:
I've inserted some more examples below of festivals from 1974.

Original Post:

Eight years ago I wrote "Three decades of blackface in Korea," an examination of blackface in South Korea between 1978 and 2012, which has turned out to be my most-viewed post. During the past few years I've been researching youth culture in Korea from 1967-1976 by reading the weekly magazines from that time, and occasionally I've come across photos of Koreans in blackface. I decided to write a "prequel" post examining the use of blackface and depictions of Africans and indigenous people from that time.

Considering the role of the US in Korea after 1945, it is clear that American racial attitudes have influenced Koreans' attitudes toward black people, but since Koreans were wrenched into modernity by the Japanese Empire, one wonders what influence the Japanese had on Koreans in this regard. I really don't have an answer to that question, but I did discover David Wright's article, "The Use Of Race And Racial Perceptions Among Asians And Blacks: The Case Of The Japanese And African Americans," which reveals that Japanese people were exposed to American racial attitudes during some of their earliest official interactions with them. From pages 136-137:
In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan on a mission to force open the doors of trade and to propose a trade and commerce treaty thinly disguised as the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Friendship (Kanagawa 1854 Treaty). Among his crew were "tall jet black Negroes, completely armed to the teeth" whose job it was to escort the men who on July 14, 1853, delivered Commodore Perry's credentials and a letter from President Fillmore to the Japanese shogunate. Perry reportedly chose to have himself surrounded by the black men because they appeared to be the most intimidating. The use of black guards was an obvious attempt to impress the might of the United States on the Japanese officials and to intimidate them into signing an agreement as quickly as possible.

 Apparently this tactic was helpful because on March 23, 1854 the treaty was concluded and a celebration commemorating the fact soon followed. Commodore Perry and the white American sailors aboard the flagship Powhatan, choose to express their blissfulness by treating the Japanese delegates to a good old-fashioned minstrel show performed in blackface. According to diaries the Japanese "were entertained by an exhibition of negro minstrelsy, up by some of the sailors, who, blacking their faces and dressing themselves in character" sang 'Mistah Tambo' and 'Mistah Bones' to an apparently delighted Japanese audience. Not content with displaying their talents in front of a limited audience, some of the 'performers' later toured other parts of Japan with their successful 'act.'
What effect this had on the Japanese, and whether this might have eventually influenced Korean attitudes during the colonial period is not clear, but American racial attitudes most certainly had an influence on Koreans after 1945. Beyond the fact that there was a market for Confederate battle flags outside US bases in 1952, the incident that illustrates this influence best would be the Anjeong-ri race riots outside Camp Humphreys in July 1971, which I've written about before here and here. I've been doing more research on this topic and discovered that the situation was even worse than what I briefly described here. Incidents occurred at Camp Humphreys several times that year, mostly in response to the "color line" in the off-base clubs, which were often very unwelcoming to black soldiers, and whose Korean owners colluded to close down the only club that did serve them. As relations worsened, they exploded the evening of July 10, when black soldiers trashed the clubs that wouldn't serve them. In response, hundreds of Koreans gathered and attacked any black soldiers they found. The next day they held protests outside the gates of Camp Humphreys. Whatever traditional preferences might have existed in Korea for those with lighter-coloured skin, only the influence of American racial attitudes can explain a banner that reads "We don't need any ni--ers - Go back to cotton field."

(Photo from the Kyunghyang Sinmun.)

To what degree these attitudes - most likely learned from direct contact with white American soldiers - filtered into the population outside of the camp towns near US bases is not clear. What can be learned from the weekly magazines from the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, is that the use of blackface to depict black or indigenous people was not uncommon, and, in fact, the practice continues today.

One use of blackface - or wearing full-body black paint - in the late 1960s and 1970s was in costume parades at school or university festivals. Even today having students dress up in costumes for "international day" or such activities is common, and at a kindergarten / hagwon I worked at in 2001, one kindergarten class was dressed up in "primitive tribal" clothes and carried shields and spears and was said to be from "Africa."

Thinking of this, I couldn't help but be reminded of a term used in a 1984 Kyonghyang Shinmun article about Itaewon that described it as a place of "ethnic exhibition within Korea." The term "place of racial/ethnic exhibition"(인종전시장) was used to describe places around the world such as Geneva, New York, Bangkok, or, within Korea, a 1970 Asian Development Bank meeting, or the second World Taekwondo Competition in 1975. It highlighted the racial diversity of the outside world and stood in contrast to, and reinforced, the idea that Korea was a racially homogeneous nation.

Perhaps the most memorable use of the phrase, due to the accompanying illustration, might be from cartoonist Kobau's visit to Hong Kong in 1962, where he noted that the shower room at Repulse Bay Beach was a place of racial exhibition.

Interestingly, a 1973 Kyonghyang Shinmun article about Toronto contrasted it with large cities in the Great Lakes area like Detroit and Buffalo by saying that "Toronto gives off the feeling of a racial exhibition place, but it doesn't have anything like American ghettos and the accompanying scorn towards black people."

Despite such understanding of racism in the US, this "Miss Bokjori" cartoon from the February 18, 1970 issue of the Weekly Kyonghyang is hardly enlightened (start at top right):

Note the blackface-style caricature of a black person:

The June 10, 1970 issue of Sunday Seoul also featured a similar design (complete with a bone through the nose) of a spear-holding 'savage' who says to the white woman, "I ate my wife and decided you will be my wife." In this case, unlike the Miss Bokjori cartoon above, the cartoon is almost certainly reprinted from an American (or Western) publication. Sunday Seoul and Weekly Kyonghyang regularly reprinted single-panel American cartoons featuring adult humour. (Most obvious in the cartoons was the blatant sexism of the time. Who knew breasts were so funny?)

On the topic of "primitive natives," the Korea Times featured this ad in October 1956 (thanks to Rob York for sharing this):

Why they chose to depict a "native" (with every possible accoutrement from leopard head to mask to tooth necklace to a skull, and, of course, a bone through the nose) really is not clear at all.

As well, a caricature of black person can be found on the wrapper of Haitai Black Chocolate (or "해태 부랙 쵸코렡") in this ad from the November 17, 1971 Weekly Kyonghyang:
A more detailed expression of attitudes towards Africa can be found in the December 17, 1969 issue of Weekly Kyonghyang, which featured a "camera report" titled "Invitation to Africa: The black continent where the primitive and modern coexist." The article, By Son Chung-mu, clearly focused on topless women, both sexualizing them and depicting them as primitive. (Both Sunday Seoul and Weekly Kyonghyang regularly featured photos of nude women from 1968 to 1970).


The introduction both highlighted the contrast of the primitive and the modern in Africa by describing men with four or five wives and buildings with 20 or 30 floors, but also described Africans as people with black skin due to god baking them for too long, a "racial origin myth" told throughout East Asia (mentioned here in Taiwan).

Though Koreans may have felt their society to be inferior to the West (feelings no doubt reinforced by the cultural influence of the US military presence), the article places Korea above Africa in various ways. For example, we are shown this photo, accompanied by the following caption: "For black-skinned Africans, Korean-made radios are the most popular. Five years ago Goldstar entered the African market and this year is selling around 7,000 radios to the black continent (Sierra Leone)."

Compare the above caption to this photo and caption: "Engineers of the black continent, who are building houses, primitive as they are, to escape the heat. Weaving kudzu vines together is their best technique/technology. (Niger)"

The article also features a second photo of a topless woman ("with Hausa women in the Sahara milling grain") but this time with the author posing next to her. The juxtaposition of the Korean man, in crisp pants, shirt, tie, and sunglasses with the Hausa women, particularly the topless women, makes manifest the implied racial and gender hierarchy.

While it could, I suppose, be argued that these photos were chosen because the article was being published by a tabloid weekly that devoted many of its pages to photos of scantily-clad women, the same can't be said for an article the same author published a month or so later in the academic monthly Sedae, which featured this photo:

Titled "Mondo Cane: Africa," it was the first in a series called "Sights and sounds of the world's back alleys." (Mondo Cane was a 1962 Italian "exploitation documentary" about strange cultural practices from around the world.) A link to the article can be found here (click on the '원문보기' button; requires download of National Assembly Library document viewer).

Unlike the photo-oriented Weekly Kyonghyang article, the Sedae article is text-oriented, and some of that text is not at all what you would call enlightened (though it makes Korea look so in comparison). In one section, titled "The Ecology of Black Sex," he wrote that "Africans, who do not wear clothes properly, have a very narrow concept of sex" and then argued that sexual mores in Africa were being affected by the "current wave of free sex in the West" as it "penetrates the black continent." He then described how in one tribe, men and women would just meet and have sex, while in another, girls from the age of ten become the communal property of the men in the village. After the age of 12 or more, they had to comfort the men protecting the village and comfort those leaving to go fight. Highlighting the "lack of civilization" from a Korean point of view, he wrote that "Africans don’t know their own names. And they don’t know their ages. So for Africans there is no such thing as a family tree." Yes. He actually wrote that. Considering the importance of family trees in Korea, it's difficult not to conclude that he was trying to depict Africans as backward and inferior to Koreans, and was doing so in part by either outright lying about, or willfully misunderstanding, what he was seeing around him. Part and parcel of this process, then, is the confluence of ignorance or misinformation and portrayals of Africans or other indigenous people as inferior to Koreans.

Returning to the topic of blackface in Korea, having students paint their faces or other parts of their body black in order to dress up as "primitive" people was not uncommon at school festivals. Below is a costume parade for a girls' middle school's sports day at Hyochang Stadium in 1969 (from a book commemorating the 60th anniversary of the school's founding).

Note that there isn't any specificity in who they're depicting. Much like how the kindergarten children I saw dressed up in "tribal wear" were meant to represent "Africa," there seems to be an amorphous blend of various indigenous peoples, in this case with Native American headdresses and dark skin.

These pages from a May 25, 1969 Weekly Kyonghyang article showcase student festivals at universities in Seoul (and include cross-dressing):


A full page was dedicated to depicting an "Indian festival" costume parade at Konkuk University featuring "Indians" "who had grown up with their skin blackened by the sun holding axes and spears," a "group with bare feet in the jungle" who were seeking the "blessings of the sun god."

Once again, this seems to mix concepts of primitiveness, indigenous peoples, "Indians," and dark skin all at once.

As to where these ideas might have come from, a Donga Ilbo report on a May 1976 children's festival held, once again, at Hyochang Stadium (and attended by 20,000 children and first lady Park Geun-hye) describes one of the highlights of the festival: "In particular, the pinnacle of enjoyment for the children was an Indian dance demonstration by five American Boy Scout troop members with their faces painted black." I couldn't find any photos of the Americans, but these photos set the scene:

Another festival in 1972 provided the occasion for one of the few sets of color photos I found of such festivals. As the Kyunghyang Sinmun reported, in April 1972, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies held the second World Folk and Art Festival at Citizens Hall to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the university’s founding. Taking part were 330 HUFS students studying foreign languages, 30 foreign professors, and 100 foreigners living in Korea. The show was to include dances from 16 countries including those associated with an Indian marriage ceremony, Chinese dance, Spanish "flamingo" dance, and an Arab camel dance.

(Photo from the Kyonghyang Sinmun).

As it was described in a photo spread in the April 30, 1972 issue of Weekly Kyonghyang, the festival was held "in order to understand the indigenous lifestyles and folk culture of other countries in today's rapidly changing international society."

You have to wonder how the foreigners involved in the show felt about the whole thing (the Dutch girls at bottom right look a bit shell-shocked).

The dancer below is said to represent Portugal, though the caption makes it seem like someone mixed up "Iberian" and "Liberia" (and Seoul is closer to the equator than Lisbon): "The clothing of the Liberian Peninsula, which is close to the equator, is very practical. Do they enjoy wearing red and yellow because it is the expression of a sea power's personality?"

Is this actually representative of something from Portugal? It looks quite similar to the depictions of indigenous people above, and one wonders why there are skull and crossbones included as well. (That style of color pinwheel umbrella is still used in elementary school student festivals.)


Two years later, on April 20, 1974, the 20th anniversary of the founding of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies was celebrated in a similar way (from Sunday Seoul, May 5, 1974).

Once again, Portuguese are depicted in this way, with the exact same patterns on his shins, which suggests the same source as that pictured above two years earlier.

Students studying Portuguese at HUFS dancing together:

Oddly, the May 5, 1971 issue of Weekly Kyonghyang shows that the HUFS festival that year featured students in similar make-up but described it as being representative of Thailand (and mentions the participation of Thai UN soldiers). I suspect that may be an error by the magazine, since photos of Thai dancers are clearly visible in another photo.

The May 19, 1974 issue of Sunday Seoul also features photos of a sports competition sponsored by the magazine:

The person in full-body blackface with a grass skirt and a spear is not singled out for mention in the photo captions, but may be a TV celebrity.

[End of update]

The kinds of exhibitions seen at the HUFS party still occur today, and not just at school festivals. When Korea hosted the G-20 in 2010, a display of dolls depicting world leaders in their "traditional costumes" caused embarrassment when in was discovered Australia's Prime Minister was dressed up in Austrian clothes. Though this was fixed, nothing was said about the Canadian Prime Minister wearing a kilt.

Returning to the topic at hand, blackface was also used in other kinds of performances, particularly in the theater. In 2011 the Joongang Daily wrote about the return of a play to the stage in Korea:
American writer William Faulkner’s book “Requiem for a Nun,” which was dramatized for the theater by French author Albert Camus, is returning to the Korean theater scene for the first time in more than 30 years. The work by two Nobel Prize laureates in literature comes back with the same shocking title it had when it premiered in Korea in 1969: “Confession of a Black Prostitute.”
While the 2011 version didn't appear to use blackface, the 1969 version certainly did. Here is a photo from Sunday Seoul, September 14, 1969:

Weekly Kyonghyang, September 17, 1969:

Sunday Seoul, September 21, 1969:

The September 14, 1975 issue of Sunday Seoul also captured the use of blackface at a "morale-boosting concert" that was common for both Korean and American troops. (These were rarely reported on by the weekly magazines prior to 1975; one assumes the increasingly dictatorial and militaristic Yushin authorities began to require such coverage that year). A month-long "Korea Thank you Festival" was then being performed for US troops and locals, and Sunday Seoul reported on a September 4 concert near Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu attended by 1000 US soldiers, including USFK Commanding General Stillwell, pictured below shaking hands with a performer:

Novelty folk duo Two Koreans were among the performers, and a headline reads, "[When they] saw Two Koreans’ impression of Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong they convulsed with laughter":

The caption reads, "With black paint on their face and doing impressions of Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, Two Koreans were the most popular act." (To be fair, one of the duo really could do a serviceable Louis Armstrong impression, as can be heard in their version of the Lee Jang-hee song, "한잔의 추억.") One wonders what the black soldiers in the audience would have thought of this. Like the children's festival with the American Boy Scouts in blackface that was presided over by first lady Park Geun-hye, this festival was attended by the commander of USFK.

Reusing some material from my previous post, performances of the South African, Apartheid-era play "The Island" in Seoul in 1978 were said to feature two actors made up to look like black convicts (one may be pictured in black face at that link, but it's a rather dark photo). Actors most certainly used blackface in a 1982 musical version of "Roots" (based on Alex Haley's novel and the TV series), which featured African music and jazz. An article about it included 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 was 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 but not on his hands, which were white. I think that may give some insight into the way in which blackface was considered a legitimate, and even proper, way for actors to portray black people, and that in order to appear authentic, the actor had to be in full black makeup of the sort seen at the cultural festivals pictured above.

This brings us up to where my post on blackface in Korea between 1978 and 2012 began. Despite the complaints from foreigners about the 2012 incident of comedians appearing in blackface on Korean television, such incidents involving celebrities, including K-pop stars like Mamamoo (is it just me or do most of the photos in that post look familiar?) and others continue to occur, and each time they do, the performers and the media company respond with shock and surprise at the angry response.

One question to ask in regard to why this persists might be this: Do these kind of black face (or black body) festivals and costume parades detailed above still continue today?

The answer to that question is yes. In fact, these festivals have local government funding. One that began in 1996 is the Gangdong Prehistoric Culture Festival which celebrates the prehistoric village site in Amsa-dong in Seoul. Below is a photo of the site during the festival:

It might not be clear in the photo above, but as can be seen in this photo of the parade during the Gangdong Prehistoric Culture Festival in May 2019, some of the participants are wearing full-body brown-face and carrying bones and clubs.

The two photos above are from this video, which also features a song to promote the festival's 20th anniversary in 2015.

In addition to this festival is the Yeoncheon Paleolithic Festival, which started in 1993.
An Arirang TV clip about the festival from last year can be seen here (the video description provides background on the festival), while the photo below is from here.

In a clip posted here, MBC covered the event in 2017, in which the reporter used split screen to interview himself as he dressed as a cave man and grunted like a monkey, and then walked up to children cooking meat on sticks and got the children to shout with him "Ooga! Ooga!"

Needless to say, seeing people today depict what they believe to be their prehistoric selves in brownface rather strongly suggests that at least some of the ideas about indigenous people that were present in the 1960s continue up to the present. In fact, just days ago when I showed a grade 5 class this video, the scene of him dancing with indigenous people from Papua New Guinea led one student to say "Ooga ooga," while others wondered if the scene was shot in Africa. All of this suggests the connections students perceive between "Africa," and indigenous or black people.

These connections have been reinforced in children's animation like Dooly (voted Korea's favorite animation in 2014), which has depicted "Africans" in the following manner.

It should be noted that this episode ('내 친구들,' viewable here) did not first air in the late 1980s during the first Dooly series, but in April 2009.

Many years ago, Michael Hurt examined how black people, indigenous people, and Africa were presented to students a generation ago when he posted images from a middle-school English dictionary published in the early 1990s. It's well worth your time to go and look at all of them, but here are two that are pertinent to the perpetuation of the attitudes described above; note the bones in the nose in both illustrations:

School textbooks have improved a great deal over the past decade, getting rid of blackface-like cartoon depictions of black characters in elementary school English books such as this one:

Even without these overt representations, however, textbooks can still convey ideas about a certain colour of skin:

To put this video in context, there were earlier scenes on the textbook cd in which students were shown that mixing three primary colours together resulted in the color black, but someone making this Grade 3 English textbook at YBM decided to take that idea in a peculiar direction, one that reminded me of mixed-race rapper Yoon Mi-rae singing about her personal experiences growing up in her song "Black Happiness": "I washed my face dozens of times a day... I resented my black skin." Though there have been positive changes made to textbooks over the past decade, there’s clearly still room for improvement.

Though it is influenced by the legacy of the US presence and role in Korea, blackface in Korea exists in a context quite different from that of the US. One aspect of this, seen in the articles about Africa from the late 1960s, reflected a need to position Korea’s level of civilization, which had been depicted by Japanese and Americans as being "backward," as being higher than that of less-developed countries. Another aspect was the perceived need to highlight, in contrast to the "racial exhibition" of other countries, Korea’s racial homogeneity as a positive attribute (the legacy of which still lingers; a survey last year found that "46 percent of Koreans said the country should be proud of maintaining a 'homogeneous bloodline,' and 35 percent said accepting people of different races undermined national unity"). This has often involved the deployment of stereotyped caricatures of people of other races. As well, essentialized depictions of people from foreign countries and cultures has likely been seen as acceptable because Koreans depict themselves in similar ways in textbooks and elsewhere. Having lost so many traditional ways of life during the forced march of modernization, things like hanbok, kimchi, and samulnori are used as shorthand for being "Korean," and these depictions are part and parcel of "international day" or other "global" activities.

While it’s not entirely clear when the use of blackface began in Korea, it seems likely that it was after 1945, at a time when the practice was considered acceptable by many Americans (as we can see with US soldiers laughing along with the Two Koreans’ blackface performance in 1975, or American Boy Scouts presenting an "Indian dance" in blackface a year later). Its use in Korea, however, was not connected to a long history of denigrating black people the way it was in the US. The above articles from 1969 make it clear that it was considered a perfectly acceptable way to depict black people on stage, to the point that, as the articles from the early 1980s make clear, not doing full-body blackface was considered inauthentic. Also problematic was (and is) its use in cultural festivals and in the media to depict indigenous people whose level of civilization is depicted as being below Korea’s. Still, it is worth remembering that these attitudes are the result of a complex interaction between South Korea's experience of colonization, its relationship with the US, including its exposure to American racial attitudes, and its attempts to both overcome its perceived subordinate position and to come to grips with the changes wrought by modernity and globalization.

Only in the past two decades has blackface and other demeaning depictions of black and indigenous people really been criticized in Korea, often (but not always) by foreigners. This has often been met with responses portraying it as a "misunderstanding" of Korean intentions, or as an "attack" by foreigners. While the use of blackface and negative depictions of black or indigenous people, complete with bones in their noses, deserve to be criticized, and cultural producers and educators in Korea should better understand that something can be offensive regardless of an lack of intent to offend, it might be worth reflecting on the very different context in which these appear in Korea, as well as the fact that the likely source for many of these concepts is the US, a country which has long been in a superior position in its relationship with Korea and which has a long history of depicting Korea and Koreans in negative ways. Some criticisms of blackface by foreigners, many of whom are likely perceived by Koreans to be white and American, have crossed the line from criticizing the practice to portraying it as an example of  Korean "backwardness." In cases like these, I find it hard to blame some Koreans for feeling that the criticism of Korean culture or society for being racist due to the use of blackface – while overlooking the fact of Korean blackface’s American origins and America's international position vis-à-vis Korea – might just be another way of asserting Western superiority over Korean culture. While carefully-applied pressure from the outside can have some effect (though "carefully-applied" is not the way I would describe discourse in the West at the moment, particularly that taking place on social media), blanket criticism is more likely to cause offense or to simply be ignored. That being the case, I don't really think the practice of depicting black and indigenous people in these ways is going to change until Koreans themselves decide to continue the conversation about discrimination stimulated by Hines Ward's visit to Korea in 2006 (though note the depiction of the racially mixed Korean in the cartoon). The passing of this anti-discrimination bill could also provide a tool to help facilitate change when that time comes.