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.