Finding a place

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Finding a place

Standing behind the bar and pouring a glass of beer is a familiar face. Not long ago, Hong Suk Chun, 33, was a big-name comedian, an entertainer whose naked skull seemed to be all over television screens. So what’s he doing now fixing drinks in Itaewon?
When the glass overflows, Mr. Hong shakes his well-known head in embarrassment. “I guess I need some practice,” he says. That’s understandable, given that this is just his third month as owner of Our Place, a restaurant and bar.
The restaurant is quietly sophisticated, with a nice view from its sixth-floor windows ― it’s about as different from its surroundings, sitting at the edge of the infamous “Hooker Hill,” as you can imagine.
Mr. Hong is serious about his new business, expecting this to be his only real income now that the television stations have stopped calling. At least for the near future.
“I knew I was going to get booted,” he says, “but I thought in two years time they would call me back.” But it’s been more than two years, and “they” still haven’t checked back ― “they” meaning the TV producers who blackballed him from their programming in the summer of 2000 when Mr. Hong revealed in a magazine interview that he was gay.
He had actually tried to come out earlier, and had revealed his sexuality during a television interview, but the producer decided to delete that revelation to protect Mr. Hong. Not long after, however, a magazine heard of the incident and published an interview with him. Mr. Hong says, “I thought Korea was ready and that times have changed.” He was wrong.
He was once well known for his role in a popular sitcom and appearances on a children’s show called “Ppo Ppo Ppo” (Kiss, Kiss, Kiss). But since his outing, Hong has made a few appearance on the tube, but nothing significant, nothing compared to when people could see his trademark clean-shaven head virtually every day on TV.
Last year, he made a handful of brief appearances, but most of his longer, scheduled appearances were dropped. “I would get a call to be on a show but when I checked back later they would tell me that my spot had been canceled,” he says. The standard line given to him was usually this: Someone upstairs has put the brakes on.
The comedian says that he has gotten used to such responses, though they still hurt. He wants people to look at his acting skills. “I am who I am. As an entertainer, I can be anyone that people want me to be. I just need a stage.” Just last month, he was up for an emcee position at iTV, a cable broadcaster, only to hear once again that he had been turned down.
Han hak-soo, an MBC-TV producer, says that the overall atmosphere is changing somewhat. “Now it depends more on what the individual can bring to the program than what his sexuality is.” Nevertheless, Mr. Han admits that the inclination of a producer or someone high in the hierarchy of a broadcasting company may decide whether a person like Mr. Hong is going to get a slot on a show or not.
“I personally think that people should be judged on their abilities, but that’s just me,” Mr. Han says. “There are people who don’t like gays and if it happens to be a producer, then people like Hong are not going to get a job.”
Lee Byeong-chang, another producer who works for the government-owned KBS television network, agrees that programs are more flexible than before, but adds that certain programs such as family-oriented ones or children’s programs are still thought by many as being too sensitive and risk-filled to hire people like Mr. Hong.
Besides his restaurant, Mr. Hong works as a nightclub deejay at the Riverside Hotel in Gangnam district, and at a club in Bupyeong, Gyeonggi province. At each place he has a 20-minute slot assigned to him every day, usually early in the morning.
Music is one area that he has found sanctuary, and he wants to start playing more of his own music. “I like Latin music. Something sexy, you know? Besides, I found that the music industry is more tolerant of people like me.”
Mr. Hong hopes to land a spot on a music video channel in the spring, around the time he also hopes to put out an album.
He had actually planned on releasing an album some time ago, but then the transsexual Ha Ri-soo hit the Korean entertainment scene. “I didn’t want to become a focal point and get compared to her,” Mr. Hong says. Coincidentally, just as Mr. Hong’s career hit the skids, Ms. Ha’s took off.
The two have never met, although Mr. Hong has made it known publicly that he would be interested in talking to her. “As minorities, I think we both could give hope to people like us,” he says. “But for some reason her side doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Mr. Hong dated women through his first year of college. But in his sophomore year at Hanyang University in 1990, things changed. “I was practicing in my drama class when my professor lashed out at me and told me that something inside me was holding me back and that I could never truly act unless I got rid of it,” Mr. Hong says, his voice quaking as he recalls the moment.
“It was then, in front of the entire class, that I said I was more interested in men than women. Afterward, I cried. All my friends did, too.”
It was not until 1995 that Mr. Hong expressed his fondness to another man. The confession occurred when he was playing a gay character in a musical. “My acting wasn’t up to par and to study my role I went to a gay bar in Jongno,” he says. “Then I asked someone on the street whether he was gay and when that person acknowledged it, I asked him to show me around to places where I could meet more people like him.” In one gay bar he met someone who had graduated from the same high school as him.
Another major event for Mr. Hong came in 1996 when he was playing a gay role in a high-profile production of the musical “A Chorus Line.” “There was a five-page monologue that was the answer to someone’s line asking me who I was,” he says. “At the time my parents were watching it. I put my whole energy into every single word. It was my story and I wanted to tell everyone. After the performance, people congratulated me on playing my part so well.” But during the play, Mr. Hong’s father walked out. “My father didn’t like the fact that I was playing a gay character.”
Mr. Hong says that his Chungcheon province family is a typical Korean countryside clan, one in which sons are heralded for their ability to continue the family lineage. Before he was born, Mr. Hong’s parents had three daughters. Because they desperately wanted a son, his dad fathered a child with another woman. But a year later, Mr. Hong was born, and his half-brother was forced to leave the house. Only when little Suk Chun was in the fourth grade did he find out about his half-brother.
“My parents are upset because we are a very traditional family,” Mr. Hong says of their attitude toward his sexual orientation. “They still want me to get married to a woman and have children and all that.” He adds that he feels sorry for his family, but he can’t change who he is.
After the magazine interview came out, one newspaper said that Mr. Hong’s parents suggested the family commit group suicide, out of shame. Mr. Hong says that his parents’ words were exaggerated. “They were upset and they still are, but it wasn’t anything like they put poison in front of us and said let’s do it,” he says. “The language they used was just something many countryside people say when they are in despair” (His parents could not be reached for comment for this story).
The first time he visited places where gay people gather Mr. Hong says he was shocked because there were so many people who looked just like his neighbors. “I met married guys who were gay. Also doctors and lawyers. And the fact that they were just normal people like me gave me courage, you know?”
Despite his setbacks, Mr. Hong has high hopes for this year. He is scheduled to begin work this month as a radio deejay for an Internet station, and he plays a hair stylist in the movie “Dying or Living,” to be released in March. “It’s a small part, but I was happy that somebody gave me a chance to work,” Mr. Hong says. “Right now I don’t care what the role is. I’ll do anything if I get the call.”
“Coming out wasn’t the hardest part,” he says of his ordeal, “Accepting the fact that I am gay was. I don’t regret what I did. I saw other people like me hiding in the dark. I didn’t want that.”
When he opened his restaurant three months ago, he chose Itaewon rather than a more fashionable area like Cheongdam-dong, south of the river, because he says that Itaewon is the only place in Korea where so many different kinds of people live together, including gays. “Near the restaurant is a street where a lot of gay bars are located. You have the hookers, the Russians, everyone is here. The idea was to create a place where anyone could feel comfortable, that would be a ‘Let’s go to our place’ kind of thing.”

by Brian Lee
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