Elwood 5566

When Weird is Normal – Traditional ‘Beggar Singers’

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Entertainment, Food and Drink, Gender by 노강호 on July 5, 2011

Podcast 86

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 ‘band’ in action

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).

kak-sor-i

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!

Boy George and his milking smock

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.

a kak-sor-i performer

Fellini’s freaky Satyricon

Jackie Stallone – truly freaky

 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.

not yet spotted…

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.

See! He’s talking about me…

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!

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Trip to Pohang – Monday 25th of December, 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Entertainment, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 25, 2000

A typical ‘beggar singer’

On Saturday, I was due meet Pauline in the morning and the go to U-chun’s in the afternoon where I am supposed to be giving her daughter and niece an English lesson. Pauline and I spent ages talking and then left my house to walk down the road together. It was a really bright afternoon and very dry has it hasn’t rained for several weeks. By the pedestrian crossing almost opposite MacDonald’s, some kind of a busker was performing to a small crowd. He had an amplifier mounted on a trolley and was singing and dancing on the side of the road. The music, which I assume, was traditional Korean folk music was captivating. Most strange however, was the man’s dancing. He danced with his body bent so far forward that his chest was parallel to the floor. His steps were long, rhythmically erratic and awkward and involved lots of pivoting and sudden changes of direction. He was dressed in shorts and a jacket which was pinned with hundreds of pieces of coloured cloth. The pedestrian light was red and so we stood and watched him and naturally, the moment he noticed me he danced towards me, took my hand and led me out into the front of the crowd where I had to try to copy his dance. I was quite embarrassed, in fact very embarrassed. Suddenly, U-chun appeared and rescued me. Walking on down the road to just past Di Dim Dol and Lotteria, we took the bus to another Daegu suburb known as Dasa (다사). (note – I’ve since discovered these are a type of ‘singing beggars’ known as 각설이 or 품바 – see link at end).

The bus journey was only short but we left the valley in which Song So is situated and headed west into another valley. I have since learnt that Korea is a land of mountains and where there is human habitation it exists in meandering valleys. Though part of Daegu, Dasa  felt like another city. After leaving the bus, it would so happen that U-chun’s flat is in a high-rise the furthest point from the bus stop and at the edge of the largest hill in Dasa.

Inside, the apartments are very large, spacious and well-built. Koreans tend to be more minimalist than Europeans in terms of clutter and furniture. The kitchen, dining room and front room were combined into one very large room and leading from this were bedrooms, a study and a European style bathroom. U-chun and her family sleep on beds and not the floor. In the kitchen was a voice activated telephone, something I had not seen before. I discovered that U-chun had resigned from Di Dim Dol earlier in the week so I will miss her friendly face. Unlike many of the other Koreans with whom I work, she is very keen to take advantage of my being a native English speaker, many Koreans shy away from me rather than practice their English.

Even though it’s Christmas week, Jo started his antics again. On the Monday, at 8 pm, and just as I was going home he asked me to accompany him to Letter and Sound, his school in Yon San Dong. He wanted me to give a presentation to prospective parents! Well, I became quite angry and began to tell him off. Then, I suggested we go into his office to ‘sort things out.’ I made it quite clear that I didn’t appreciate being told to do something with little or no time to reschedule my life. Earlier in the week my sister had told me how there is an alarming number of South Korean people who pay people to kill them as they are fed up with their working life. Jo apologised and said that he had been so busy he had forgotten about the presentation. I politely told him he was talking rubbish and he had been involved in organising an advertising campaign for the new school.

On the Wednesday he called Nana and I and asked for a meeting in his office in which he told us that we had a week’s holiday beginning next week. What a fat lot of use is that as there is no time to plan anything. If you want to book flights in Korea they are almost impossible to get at short notice during any school vacation period. Nana and I didn’t particularly want time off if we couldn’t do things with our free time so we both decided to come back to work on the Wednesday after Christmas.

Pohang – Bay of Yongil, Christmas Eve 2000

On Sunday, Christmas Eve, Pauline and I took the bus to Pohang (포항) which is a town on the east coast not too far from Andong. I wanted to see the Sea of Japan, otherwise known as the Sea of Korea or East Sea (동해). We arrived at the bus station and immediately boarded a bus. The journey took 2 hours and would have been a lot shorter if the bus hadn’t made a journey around all the suburbs of Pohang before arriving at the city centre. On the beach front an enormous market, all under tents, sold all sorts of electrical goods from massage machines to electric organs. At the end of one enormous marquee stood a small stage on which a weird folk band was playing. There were six of them all together two men and four women. The men, perhaps in their fifties were both heavily covered in lipstick, eye shadow and had white powdered faces. They wore clothes similar to those worn in Aladdin’s Lamp. The men banged drums of assorted sizes and danced in a very bizarre fashion (note – more ‘beggar singers’ – 각설이). One of the men started playing the giant scissors of which he had two pairs and all I can say is that they resembled cattle castration implements. Every now and then he would stand with he legs firmly apart, in a straddle stance, make a very perverted facial feature (he had no front teeth), and then start gyrating his hips in a very sexual manner. At his feet sat about thirty children. Stranger however, was the fact that as he gyrated his hips and made thrusting movements, something very large and heavy banged about in his baggy white trousers. I suspect he had some form of dildo, mounted on a spring, strapped to his groin. Whatever it was the children found it very funny.

The beach was set on the Bay of Yongil (영일 만) and the sand was clean and white. All along the beach promenade were seafood restaurants with enormous fish tanks beside or in front of them. In these swam all manner of sea creatures from small sharks, squid, octopus, eels, ray fish and sea cucumbers. You pick which one you wish to eat and then it is brought to your table in the restaurant – though depending on what meal you choose, the creature isn’t always dead. It was a bitterly cold day and a freezing wind blew in across the sea. We found a small noodle tent where I contemplated how I never expected to be sat on the edge of the East Sea eating noodles and drinking soju on Christmas Eve. As we were leaving Pohang on the bus, we noticed a couple of Koreans dressed as Santa. They were stood on a plinth on the sidewalk giving children free sweets as they passed. The only problem was that each Santa weighed about 10 stone and had a sylph like waist!

Outside KFC Song-So, Christmas Eve 2000. One of the first photos I took in Korea

When we arrived back at Daegu central bus terminal, we took at taxi to Song-So and had a chicken burger in KFC. When I walk to my school, I usually come out my front door, turn right and then walked down to the crossroad where I take a left turn. This road leads down to Kemyoung University though this is probably a twenty-minute walk. There is a definite divide of apartment blocks and parks between Song So and Kemyoung. From the crossroad on this road to my school, is no more than a few minutes’ walk but in that time one passes MacDonald’s, KFC and a Korean burger chain called Lotteria. Apparently, Lotteria is more popular than is MacDonald’s.  Since my first trip to Daegu there has since appeared a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlour with a second one being built at the new plaza complex near the crossroads to my apartment. A Pizza Hut restaurant is the very last commercial enterprise as you leave Song So on the road towards Kemyoung. Back to the KFC restaurant where Pauline and I are sat on New Year’s Eve; outside the restaurant stood a life-size plastic statue of Colonel Sanders, the staff have dressed him in a Santa outfit and even given him a cane which hung from one of his wrists. The cane, which wasn’t fixed on the statue but just hooked over a wrist, remained there for my whole stay in Korea; no one thought to steal it, remove it or throw it away.

Well, it’s now Christmas Day and I am sat in the internet cafe where life goes on a usual. The place is full of Korean boys playing internet games like Diablo 2 on the networked system. It is bitterly cold outside and the only thing that makes today special is that it snowed a little last night and there was a glaze of ice on the road outside my apartment.

(Notes – KFC was still in situ when I returned to Korea several years later and was still guarded by Colonel Sauders and his cane. When I returned around 2005, it had closed. However, the premises is now a stationary shop and the face of Col Sanders can still be seen embossed in the glass paneling going up the stairs. Lotte Burger closed around the same time and is now an optician. Baskin Robins and MacDonald’s are still here but MacDonalds moved further down the road in 2014).

 

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Further References

On ‘beggar singers: When Weird is Normal (Bathhouse Ballads, July 2011)