The entire nation is their stageKim Sang-cheol, 39, bowed to his mother and left his home in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang province. There were no tears, even though Mr. Kim won’t be returning home until the end of November.
His departure in March has become an annual event. That’s just life in a bohemian circus troupe.
Mr. Kim’s troupe includes a firebreather and a former bank employee who now sings while wearing short skirts.
The troupe performed at a flea market in Gyeonsan, North Gyeongsang province, earlier this month, where Mr. Kim is part of a singing hobo duo along with a 60-year-old partner. It may not be a prime role, but still it’s a living.
Things were much worse once. Growing up poor, Mr. Kim’s formal education ended after elementary school, and he later earned his living by polishing shoes.
Mr. Kim played the part of the singing hobo with a hometown friend when both worked in night clubs together. The hobo character is a common folk performance in which the vagabond satirizes current affairs and elicits laughs from the audience while banging the side of a filthy tin can.
The hobo performance is rumored to date back to the Three Kingdom era between the 4th and 7th century and was first recorded in print during the Joseon Dynasty. However, performances really took off and flourished after the Korean War in the 1950s, spreading all over the country.
A family tradition
Mr. Kim is not the only one living on the road as the frost slowly thaws with the coming of spring. Other street performers and circus acts are in high gear.
“Everywhere is a stage under the blue sky, even under the bridge. But wait, there’s an exception: a funeral,” said brothers Nam Ki-mun, 46, and Nam Ki-su, 45, laughing.
The two brothers run a Namsadang preservation organization and have spent most of their lives living and breathing Namsadang. Namsadang is a traditional troupe of bohemian performers.
There have been similar groups, but Namsadang was the largest of all since they first appeared in the late Joseon Dynasty.
However, many of the higher classes saw the group as a bunch of male delinquents whose social status was dirt. Yet they were welcomed by many commoners because entertainment wasn’t something that was readily available.
Namsadang not only had actors and comedians but also musicians and acrobats. The group usually consisted of 40 to 50 performers, with one leader. The Nam brothers’ father, Nam Hyeong-woo, who died in 1978, was a leader of one troupe. The performing tradition has been passed down for seven generations.
The late father was a talented performer who had 100 entertainers in his troupe and had traveled to Manchuria to perform during the Japanese colonial era.
“Our father would tell us how the Japanese military constantly bothered him because they were suspicious of a group of men traveling on the road,” one brother recalled.
The two brothers recalled a hard life on the road as kids. They remember eating a piece of apple that had been thrown away in the sewer and being mocked by neighborhood children because of their colorful costumes. Making friends was almost impossible because they stayed for only a few days in a town.
As adults, the Nam brothers received a lot of attention on stage. But as the country became more industrial, it was hard for the troupe to sustain interest. People were turning more to television for entertainment.
The troupe finally ended its tour on the road in 1964 after the government designated Namsadang as an Intangible Cultural Property and the Nam family finally got a home of their own in Seoul.
But that was not the end of the Namsadang performances. Whenever there was a client asking for a performance, Mr. Nam would call up his old friends to hold a show that usually lasted a week.
The brothers have kept the tradition alive because of personal pride, even though it was never a prosperous living. Recently, the brothers and the members of the Namsadang troupe were cast for a television show that will be aired in May. The brothers couldn’t be happier to get the attention that they have always desired.
Joining the circus
Elsewhere, in a open space in Bucheon, Gyeonggi province, a huge circus tent was erected. Due to the heavy snow, fewer than 20 people showed up.
With a loud bang, the show started and soon circus performers took over the stage and climbed on ropes, pulled out rabbits from magic hats and even rode a tightrope with a motorcycle.
Some in the audience were amazed by the performance. “They’d be getting a gold medal if they went on the Olympics,” one said.
The majority of the acrobats were Chinese. In the past 10 years, the circus has had no new recruits, and the 10 Korean acrobats are all they have. The youngest Korean acrobat is Kim Mi-young, who is 20.
Most of the circus performers, many of whom came from impoverished households, started their career in the same way: One day, a circus came into town, and they watched the same act night after night until someone came over and whispered, “We’ll feed you and dress you and take care of you, so wouldn’t you like to join the circus?”
Not much talent was required since many of them had climbed trees since they were young. “It took me only two days to learn some of the circus acts, including tumbling,” says Ms. Kim.
Since most of the circus people were inexperienced in socializing, they were shy. A 22-year-old acrobat, Kim Dong-gi is a gentle person who likes to climb on platforms and do tricks in midair.
Of course, Mr. Kim experiences fears when he is up there, but it is just a momentary feeling that washes away in a second.
“There’s an electrifying feeling going through my veins when I’m up there, but that’s of course when there is an audience below,” says Mr. Kim.
This year, the winter was bitterly cold and longer than usual, which means there were fewer visitors to the traveling circus. In the spring, the show has drawn up to 2,000 people.
Kim Young-hee, 39, an animal trainer at the circus, absolutely hates the winter. “I can’t give my dogs haircuts, because it’s too cold. If the circumstances are better, I would like to raise and groom tigers and lions like circuses overseas,” says Ms. Kim.
Ms. Kim not only trains animals but she also can do some of the circus tricks even though she doesn’t seem like the typical performer, bodywise. But when she’s twitching and swirling in mid-air, there’s no doubt.
Ms. Kim hopes to pass down her tricks to her children since she believes that in the future circus acrobats will be rare and valuable.
“Chinese are fabulous in tricks acted out on the floor, but Korean tricks are acted out in midair. If we train a few well enough at a young age, we could definitely perform for the audiences of the world,” she says.
by Kwon Hyuck-joo