Arts / As Hawaii celebrates the 110th year since Koreans first arrived in the Islands, the East-West Center (EWC) at UH Manoa presents a series of opportunities to experience this remarkable creative culture. “Dancing the Spirit: Korean Masks, Music, & Social Concerns”–a series that includes an arts exhibition, live performances, film screenings and talks–is a superb chance to discover traditional masks, dance, music and films, which remain far less known and appreciated outside the former Hermit Kingdom than, say, K-soaps and K-pop. (Some of the performances in this series have already occurred.)
“Korea is not represented well in the art world,” says EWC arts curator Michael Schuster. “In pop culture, it’s the rage, but its traditional culture has been less represented in cultural institutions.”
Schuster happened to stop by Santa Cruz as his friends Kathy Foley, a University of California-Santa Cruz professor and puppeteer, and Chan Park, a pansori singer and professor of East Asian languages and literature at Ohio State, were developing the core elements of “Dancing the Spirit.” He promptly signed on to bring the series of events to Honolulu.
The Western mind craves linear stories. Other cultures accept that life runs in cycles and swirls, and what happens today may have begun centuries before. Korea’s story and its connections to Hawaii are too nuanced and interwoven for simple answers, and the connections leading to these shows are equally complex.
As a doctoral student at UH in the 1970s, Foley spent a summer at Yonsei University studying theater and beginning to collect traditional masks, many of which appear in this exhibition. Back at Manoa, she met Park, who had just graduated from a Jesuit college in Korea, part of a Western-influenced university system established in the 19th century.
“Americans don’t realize…how fundamentally the impact of the early missionaries shook up [Korean society],” Foley said. “It started people having to rethink how they structured the country, something that is part of becoming modern.”
Women gained access to education, and Western institutions, technology, and thought entered the society. Amid progress, though, a process of cultural erosion had begun that would diminish Korean traditional arts for a century.
“I was very Westernized,” Park relates. “Just by chance, a friend of mine was learning pansori and invited me to come along.”
Pansori and puppets
Pansori is traditionally performed by a singer and a drummer, alternating between spoken parts and songs with a sound that is uniquely and quintessentially Korean. It was an itinerant art of the common folk.
“My family was very concerned because it’s stigmatized,” Park explains, “But it awakened my sense of identity and social justice, because if a Korean learns how to sing something that sounds very Korean, it’s the heart of Korea, [and] if that is wrong, then I don’t know what is right.” Park is well known to Hawaii audiences for her powerful and wickedly funny performances. The pansori and puppetry show that opened “Dancing the Spirit” featured Korean dolls manipulated with touches of Indonesian puppet theater. Dialogue shifted between English and Korean in an Asian story anchored at the peak of American colonialism.
Park, the singer, composed four songs for the show. Her son provided the drumming; Foley voiced the Western perspective via the character of Isabella Bird Bishop, an intrepid Victorian explorer, missionary, and writer whose destinations included the American West in the 1850’s, Hawaii in the 1870’s,and Korea in the 1890’s. The story imagines a meeting between Bishop and Queen Min, who struggled with intrigue within the court as multiple countries sought control of Korea and its resources.
“History repeats itself all the time, repeating itself everywhere around the world,” Park explains. “Like Hawaii with Queen Liliuokalani, there’s a lot of social and political and international issues.”
Min was assassinated in 1895 by real-life ninjas as the Japanese seized control of Korea. By 1907, an independent Korea essentially ceased to exist until after WWII; the Korean resistance movement against the Japanese occupation began here in Hawaii. Min’s puppet funeral in this show was presided-over by Cho Oh-Whan, a Korean national treasure and director of the Jindo Folk Cultural Performing Art Center.
The arts of Jindo Island were featured in last weekend’s performance by the dancers of the Halla Huhm studio. Huhm came to Hawaii in 1949, after the liberation of Korea, and is credited with bringing traditional Korean dance to the islands. Her student Mary Jo Freshly maintains the studio and the tradition.
This coming weekend, several Korean musicians based in Hawaii will play their traditional instruments in the gallery. Seola Kim, Minsang Cho, and Hae In Lee will perform on ajaeng, haegeum, and gayageum. Gayageum is similar to the koto, a plucked zither-type instrument. The ajaeng is its bowed cousin, with an unearthly sound like no other instrument on the planet. The haegeum is a fiddle similar to the Chinese erhu. Korean music has a particular hauntingly raw emotionality that reaches through barriers of cultural difference. Events continue until just before the anniversary of Korean immigration. Notable among those is a talk by CedarBough Saeji about the Korean mask dance tradition and her photo-essay on the topic, which is on display as part of the exhibition.
As Jan. 13 approaches, the Korean community in Hawaii will host further events to mark the occasion.