When Weird is Normal – Traditional ‘Beggar Singers’
Experience has taught me to avoid them like the plague. Traditional singers (각설이 or 품바), sometimes known as ‘beggar singers’ are often seen in festivals, towns or cities; sometimes they appear in a troop, as a sort of band and at other times as individuals pushing a kind of decorated cart.
The ‘bands,’ for lack of a better term, consist of a central character, always bizarrely dressed, supported by others who take part in the comedy and play the various percussion instruments which accompany singer and prerecorded support. This type of entertainment is popular at various types of festival.
The individual performers are also common at festivals but are often seen in towns. They usually push a barrow which carries various props, an audio system, sometimes even a computer and screen capable of playing karaoke and sell traditional pumpkin toffee, hoa-bak yeot (호박엿).
Why do I steer clear of them? My first encounter was on the streets of Daegu only a few weeks after arriving in Korea. It was a hot afternoon in September and I was on my way to work. Attracted by the strange singing and the even stranger apparel of a man who looked like Boy George in the early stages of his career; when he prettied his face and wore farmer’s milking smocks, I stopped to watch. A big mistake! Nothing aids a kak-sor-i’s performance more than the presence of a naive and uncomprehending waeg. I had no idea what he was saying into his portable microphone but suddenly the small crowd were starring in my direction, and laughing! Next moment, he grabs my arm and coaxes me into performing a ridiculous dance in the center of the crowd. Eleven years later, and the recollection still makes me cringe. His dance was similar to something that you might have performed around a Native American Indians fire, with a tomahawk, except I was carrying a briefcase and can remember swinging it wildly as I copied him. At the time, I didn’t feel a prat and simply thought I was responding in the correct manner. Perhaps the heat induced a temporary insanity or maybe it was the hypnotic rhythm he struck on his strange drum with which he accompanied his tinny ‘music box’ and weird wailing. Luckily, a friend pulled me back into the crowd and with a surprised and embarrassed look on her face, asked me what the hell I was doing. And she was Korean!
Several months later, I saw a troop performing at a festival on the beach in Pohang and kept a respectful distance. On this occasion, the lead singer had something rather large dangling down the inside leg of his baggy pants and to the amusement of the children seated in the front, he frequently lunged his hips and what appeared like a hefty boner sprung forward.
It’s difficult interpreting how these artists are perceived by Koreans because for a westerner they verge on the obscene and bizarre. Often there is an element of cross dressing, both from male-female and female-male; the content is often mildly sexual with sprung activated codpieces down the pants, simulated stripping, flashing knickers or underwear and sometimes traits of campness. Kak-sor-i ‘drag down‘ rather than ‘up’ until everything becomes rustic, lopsided and the people a bit pumpkin. Verging on the grotesque, it is the antithesis of British drag. Whenever I see a troop of performers I am reminded both of the freakish scenes from Fellini’s Satyricon and Jackie Stallone and somewhere between the two lurks Michael Jackson.
I don’t have a zoom lens. They don’t make them for my cheapo camera so capturing a photograph of a performer can’t be achieved at a distance. Getting too close brings back bad memories and also, I’m culturally confused. A few weekends ago, I happened to see a kak-sor-i at a traditional wrestling festival in Daegu. He was on the edge of the festivities and with his barrow atop of which sat his music system and bags of pumpkin toffee, he was giving a half hearted rendition of some an old fox-trot song (트로트), almost apologetically and as if he shouldn’t have been there.
As far as such performers go, this one was slightly more cross-dresser than some and though it might not be politically correct to say so, if I saw him performing on a London street, I’d probably consider him a freak and steer clear. I see nothing threatening in transsexuals or transvestites because I usually know into which category such individuals fall; a transsexual would do a much better job looking female and a transvestite would parody female characteristics and associations to the max. Neither would wear fishnets with a pair of socks and trainers. Unable to read the character, I’m confused and on British streets this would attract the label of ‘possible freak’ and cause me to avoid them. Kak-sor-i don’t seem to bother hiding their sex and this one is clearly male but his hair is all wrong, his sequined shorts, or is it a skirt? too ambiguous, and what’s with the blobs of intense rouge on his cheeks? The rouge is the freakiest part of his appearance because no self respecting trans-person would ever mock their face in such a clown-like manner. Further, his movement is male and there is nothing camp about him in mannerism and rather than performing songs by Barbara Striesand or Kylie Minogue, he is warbling to some typical Korean trot.
I sit down at a distance and casually take out my camera. I’m thinking I can perhaps get a few shots while his back is turned but I really want a full frontal. Eventually, I catch his eye and before he has consented I click a few off. He’d previously been singing with intermittent announcements advertising his pumpkin toffee, at 2000 Won a bag. Suddenly, he starts talking about me, I can pick out the words ‘waygukin,’ meaning ‘foreigner’ and my cheeks start turning red. Not sure how Koreans read this character, I’m concerned if they see it as anyway perverse, or what Koreans term ‘pyontae’ (변태 – abnormal), they will likewise think I am for wanting to photograph him. Once I’ve got my photos I am polite and go up and buy some toffee and all the time I know he is talking about me. He tries telling me it’s 20.000 Won a bag but I know it isn’t and hand him 2000. Then I leave as quickly as possible.
I now sense from discussions about performers, that they are not perceived as ‘strange’ (변태) and their costumes and make-up cast no dispersions on their sexuality, gender or mental state. Indeed, Koreans probably view even the most extreme kak-sor-i as more normal than they would some western celebrities whose’ freakishness’ goes beyond the cosmetic and transitory to pervade their entire persona. I am told kak-sor-i are no more the character they are wearing, than the actors in a drama or movie. However, my fear still lingers because without the ability to communicate effectively, I’m at their mercy. And once bitten, twice shy!
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.