GBH and Unknown Famous Koreans

Be warned: this tune is slightly addictive. Not because Kylie Minogue is prancing about in a space-kimono getup, which is amusing the first time through, but because it has one hell of a groove. Not bad for 20th century music (of a relatively obscure sort — it has a poor release history, this track does).

So is Towa Tei well known in Korea? Is it widely known that he’s a Zainichi Korean, or do most Koreans who hear of him assume (as does most of the West, I guess, and understandably) that he’s Japanese?

It fascinates me which Koreans outside Korea get famous in Korea, and which ones don’t. One that another blogger has been mentioning endlessly is Margaret Cho, and indeed, in this post he mentions John Cho, another famous Korean who seems not-so-famous in Korea. (Though I bet he got noticed in the recent Star Trek reboot film.)

A few times, I’ve asked my students if they knew who Bobby Lee was, and most of them didn’t — though they do tend to be at first baffled as well as annoyed at how un-Korean parts of it are (“Long-Bong isn’t even close to a Korean-sounding name!”). Some jokes remain over their head — like the name of Bobby Lee’s character, “Poon Ji-Sum” which is, of course, a play on some naughty words they don usually know, and since they don’t know what “bong” means, the fact that the name is translated as “to smoke marijuana” seems simply baffling. But finally they usually end up amused… by this:

It’s funnier if you know Korean, because you know how ridiculous the spoken dialog is, and the subtitles are even funnier. In fact, what it’s satirizing — the over-the-top nature of the melodrama in Korean TV — is one reason a number of students give for being so interested in American TV shows.

(There’s a whole series  of these videos of youtube, by the way — not just the first one. Look around.)

Any other famous Koreans who aren’t famous in Korea? I came up with Verbal from M-Flo, and a few other celebrities in Japan, but nobody in the English speaking world. (Sandra Oh seems at least moderately famous here, because Grey’s Anatomy is aired and watched by some here.)

I ran across the reference to M-Flo here, by the way, and the discussion, I guess inevitably, gets into questions of pure-bloodedness and racial identity. That’s a sigh you’re hearing me let out. So… so last-century. It’s just boring.

But for a lot of young Koreans, it doesn’t seem so last-century at all. In one piece of student writing, I read a screed about how Hollywood is, essentially, racist towards Asians because in Hollywood Asians of one ethnicity are expected to play characters of another ethnicity.

My response was this (slightly edited for the purposes of privacy and clarity):

I think you’re off-base in your criticism of casting Asian actors interchangeably in an American context for the following reason: in Hollywood, actors are often asked to play roles as ethnicities other than their own, or at least of a range of different “ethnicities.” Ben Kingsley, a British actor of mixed race, has very  prominently played roles as an Indian (Gandhi, no less!) , but also as a Jew, a Russian, an Iranian (I think it was, in The House of Sand and Fog), and an Anglo-Saxon, among others. Another actor, Rutger Hauer, was often hired to play Russians, despite the fact he is Dutch, and has also played Anglo-Saxon, white American, and other European roles. My point is not that this is good, but that it is common in Hollywood — in American cinema especially, actors playing characters of various races is not abnormal, since after all in the West we are quite aware of and comfortable with the mixing  of races that has long been a part of European and North American life. We tend to think race can be important, but it’s not so important as the quality of the actor and the plausibility of the race being ascribed to him or her.

I left out that the mixing of races has just as long a history in Asia, because there’s such a thing as too much criticism in an essay, and I don’t want to go into all the East Asian nationalist-historiographic stuff in a course on American Popular Culture.

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