Bullfight in the OK Corral

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Bullfight in the OK Corral

CHEONGDO, North Gyeongsang province - et's talk bullfighting - the the Korean kind. We mean big, stout bulls, lots of dirt, tanned faces, cowboy hats and the easygoing accents of Koreans from the south. We mean festival food, smiles, cussing and gambling. We mean pre-show primping, snorting and drooling, and that's just by the bulls.

Every spring, the small town of Iseo in Cheongdo county hosts a bullfighting festival. This year's event runs from Saturday to March 17. Iseo, population 5,000, is the kind of rural town where tractors are as common as noses. But during the festival, all heavy equipment will be off the main roads, making room for the 55,000 tourists expected each day.

The rules of Korean bullfighting are simple: Two bulls face off in a sand pit. When a whistle blows, the animals lock horns. The fight lasts until one bull backs away or is knocked down by the other. Sometimes, a bull will enter the pit, rub a hoof on the ground, size up his opponent and then suddenly give up. Other times, both bulls will plant powerful legs in the dirt and butt head and horn for more than an hour.

Fighting styles include mangchijugi, when the bulls ram each other like hammers; moktteugi, when one bull gets its horned head underneath the other's body and flips it; and dwitgeoreum, when a bull tricks the other by pretending to back away in exhaustion, only to charge forward.

The duels are rough on the beasts, but killings are rare. That contrasts with bullfighting in Spain, which generally ends in the matador's brutal slaying of the bull.

The competition is invitation-only, and owners of winning and losing bulls receive monetary compensation. The damage done during a fight and the cost of training a bull can be a significant loss for the ranchers.

The local ranchers go all over Korea to compete, and take their biggest bulls with them, one rancher said with a grin.

For more information, call 054-370-6061. For help in English, call the Korean National Tourism Organization at 02-757-5997.


Kim Gwang-ung walks out of a barn, a plastic baby bottle lost in his large hand. "I'll be with you in a minute," he says, then disappears into a shed to wash his hands.

A week before the bullfighting festival, it is drizzling. The rain plays on the tin roofs. A rooster crows in the distance. A mangy white puppy emerges from under a shed, runs across the dirt yard and starts sniffing around an egg carton lying in the dirt. Mr. Kim's wife tells it to get out of the wet cold.

She slides open a door to a nearby building. There is only one room in this building, and awards are all around it: trophies next to the bed, banners on the coatrack and photos of bulls on the walls. She proudly points to the rich velvet banners; first place prizes in bullfight after fight. Then she proudly says her husband was born in the room.

To all except the most ignorant folk in Cheongdo county, Kim Gwang-ung is the man who made the area ?once known for seedless persimmons, pepper and peaches ?famous for bullfighting.

Mr. Kim, 64, walks into the bedroom. He smiles a gleaming smile with gold caps, squints and rocks his body to his speaking cadence. He grew up in Cheongdo, on a plot of land passed down his family for at least 60 years. He used to watch rich neighbors hold bullfights on special days such as Chuseok. It was a quaint village custom. One day he heard about an organized bullfight in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province. After watching the fight, he thought, "My town does the same thing."

Excited, he met with 30 local ranchers, and pitched the idea of an organized festival to build a tourist base and revenue.

Mr. Kim gets up to find his straw hat. As he heats a concoction of rice, barley, beans and other hearty ingredients, he laughs over a mention of John Wayne. He pours the mix into a pail and lugs it to a barn. In one day, bulls in training eat 45 kilograms of this special mix. His other cows eat 60 kilos of cheaper food. "You train bulls like athletes, strict diet and exercise," he says.

No longer involved in the festival organizing, Mr. Kim is training three bulls to fight, one in each weight class: lightweight, 570 to 640 kilos; middleweight, 640 to 730 kilos; and heavyweight, more than 730 kilos. His heavyweight, Sindong, which means "genius," weighs 820 kilograms. The bulls are kept in separate barns.

He trains the bulls by walking them over rough fields at 5:30 a.m. For additional cross-training, every three days he takes them up and down hills. He also gets on a bicycle and leads them on 1,000-meter sprints.

A week before the festival the training tapers off, and the bulls take slow walks. Some trainers feed their bulls snakes and hanyak, Oriental medicine, as energy boosters. On fight day Mr. Kim gives them makkeolli, or rice wine. He'll sharpen their horns, polish their hoofs, bathe and brush them. He'll drape them in prize banners and parade them at the grand opening like a proud father.

You can see Sindong fight Tuesday and Wednesday.


"Bullfighting is boring," Cha Jeong-hak says, then sneaks a glance out of the corner of his eye. "That's why they hired me."

This year will be Mr. Cha's fifth as the festival jokester, the man with the glib tongue and the master of ceremonies. Before Mr. Cha, another local funnyman, a Mr. Park, used to man the microphone. But many of the organizers always wanted Mr. Cha, who is legendary for his tall tales, odd insights and crude jokes.

An honorable man, even if his jokes aren't, Mr. Cha balked at taking over the emcee duties out of respect for Mr. Park. But as the festival grew bigger and bigger, the TV stations that show highlights of the event got involved and canned Mr. Park in favor of Mr. Cha.

Mr. Cha and his wife run Gwenchana Munbanggu, or the O.K. Stationery Store. In his free time, in order to train for his once-a-year broadcasting job, he devours any bovine literature he can find. He regularly goes to the cattle market before dawn to watch auctions. Mr. Cha, also known as Gwenchaneun Ajeosi, or Uncle O.K., has a gift for predicting which bull will lose and how long the bout will last; he teases the crowd with his knowledge. He has an arsenal of jokes and he loves to talk.

"The best fighter I ever saw was a bull bought for 50 million won [$38,000]," Mr. Cha says. Fighting bulls usually cost a lot less. Mr. Cha explains that this one gave "grand slam" performances. But during one off-season it suddenly died of stomach failure. Only a few bulls are around that can fetch such high prices, but Mr. Cha refuses to name the owners.

The most exciting fights are those that last 15 to 20 minutes; any longer than that gets boring. It's those extended bouts that test Mr. Cha's skill for keeping the audience engaged. Mr. Cha says he once called a fight that lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes. And he kept talking the whole way through.


It sounds far from appetizing both in Korean, chueotang, or in English, mudfish stew. But the fragrant spices of this local specialty are a true delight for the tastebuds.

Thirty-five years ago, Cheongdo was not famous for chueotang. Thirty-five years ago, Kim Mal-du, facing poverty after the death of her husband, began Uiseong Restaurant. She named the restaurant after her hometown and concentrated on her father's favorite meal. The menu listed one dish, chueotang, fashioned after her mother's recipe of cabbage, garlic, pepper and mountain vegetables, but no mudfish. Instead, Ms. Kim grinds up perch and catfish, saying these fish are much tastier.

Over the years, many restaurants have sprung up nearby that offer chueotang - with mudfish. But Ms. Kim, 70, sticks to her original formula. The restaurant, now managed by Ms. Kim's daughter-in-law, is open 24 hours. During lunch, customers come from as far away as Daegu, about an hour by car. The restaurant is packed at all hours. Packed means nearly 20 customers crammed in a dark, hole-in-the-wall setting.

Ms. Kim has opened a second and larger and brighter restaurant across the street from the original. But for a glimpse into an older time, visit the original Uiseong Restaurant, which is three stores down from Cheongdo train station. Ms. Kim will not be opening a stall on the festival grounds; she's confident that her customers will leave the fairgrounds and brave the traffic to dine in her restaurant.

How many bowls of mudfish stew does she serve a day? On a good day, about 400.

For more information, call 054-371-2349.

How to tell a bull's a fighter

Small eyes

The eyes should be narrow slits, to look menacing.

Small ears

Small ears make the head fur look bigger, giving a fierce appearance.

Long neck

A short-necked bull is less able to crane its head down to attack low.

Curved horns

Tougher for the opponent to dodge.

by Joe Yong-hee

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