Actress hopes to revive royaltyLee Hong seems to be your average single woman in her early 30s. Witty, outgoing and attractive, she lives in a small apartment in southern Seoul with her 3-year-old daughter, where she blends in with her neighbors.
However, her apartment isn’t the residence listed in her national family registry. Her official home is at 175 Anguk-dong, Jongno district, in Seoul, which is the address of Gyeongbok Palace. But to enter, she has to pay the admission fee like everyone else, even though she’s a great-granddaughter of King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty.
Ms. Lee was the last one in the court to be called “Your Highness,” but this was when she was an infant, so she does not remember hearing it. The professional name-giver of the royal family gave her the first name Hong, according to court rules.
Now she’s a rising actress who has her own fan club ― maybe not drawing the same crowds as the members of the royalty once did, but in choosing a career in entertainment, she’s following in her father’s footsteps.
Ms. Lee didn’t know of her lineage until shortly before she entered middle school. Her parents had divorced when she was 3 and lived separate lives in the United States, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother.
Her mother, Doko Chong-hee, who visited Seoul often to see her daughter, said, “Now that you’re going to soon learn both Korean and world histories, it is time for you to know your origin. King Gojong is your great-grandfather and we are a royal family. Don’t forget this.”
Ms. Lee recalls being “dumbfounded more than anything.”
“Finding out that I’m from royalty did not physically change anything in my life,” Ms. Lee says. “But I came to pay extra attention to my words and actions.”
When Japan officially colonized Korea in 1910, the Joseon Dynasty, which had ruled since 1392, came to an end. Japanese rule made life more difficult for many Koreans, especially for the royal family.
King Gojong tried in vain to hold on to his country, especially after Queen Myeongseong, better known as the heroine of the musical “The Last Empress,” was assassinated by the Japanese.
Japan dethroned King Gojong in 1907, and one of his sons, Lee Cheok, took the titular crown to become King Sunjong, but then he was forced to step down in 1910.
His brother, Lee Gang, was a noted anti-Japanese activist. He was the only prince to stay in Korea even though the Japanese rulers demanded that the royal family move to Japan. Lee Gang’s 11th son is Lee Seok, the father of Lee Hong.
Of all the offspring of the Joseon kings, Lee Seok is one of two who are still living. The other is Lee Gu, the product of a forced marriage between King Yeongchin and a Japanese court lady named Masako, better known as Lee Bang-ja in Korea. Lee Gu lives in Tokyo and has no plans to return to his father’s country.
More hard times
In 1945 came the long-awaited liberation from Japan, but things didn’t get better for Korea or its royal family. Divided in two, Korea again suffered from turmoil.
With the South adopting a constitutional government in 1948, the royal family was again relegated to the back seat. On top of this was the Korean War in 1950, followed by military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s who weren’t friendly to the idea of giving the royal family any of its old power.
Until he was forced out, Lee Seok lived in Chilgung Palace, next to today’s Blue House, as a prince.
“Every day on my way back to school, four court ladies followed me for protection,” Mr. Lee said, with a faraway look in his eyes. “For lunch, they used to bring a whole table set of royal cuisine with more than 30 side dishes, and the leftovers often went to treat the principal.”
After graduating from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies as a Spanish major, Mr. Lee found his royal bloodlines weren’t worth much in the job market. Then he started to pursue a career that felt the most natural to him ― singing.
He first started to make his living by singing at a downtown bar. Shortly afterward, he met his future wife through a friend. “I fell in love with him when he played a song by Englebert Humperdinck,” Ms. Doko says.
After their courtship, which included dates at the palace, Mr. Lee and Ms. Doko married and later had their daughter in 1970.
The times were not so kind to the couple, with political upheaval bringing more trouble for the royal family, which was expelled from the palace by then-President Chun Doo Hwan. Mr. Lee still harbors hopes of being able to die in the house from which he was forced out.
In 1979, the president’s military regime confiscated all the assets that belonged to the royal family, which included 450 million square meters of land around the country, according to the surviving family members. The Sheraton Walkerhill Hotel and U.S. Army base in Yongsan, among other developments, are standing on the land Mr. Chun took.
“We were left with almost nothing,” Mr. Lee says.
However, he found success as a pop singer, with hit songs like “Bidulgijip (Pigeon’s Nest),” which extolled the happiness of a family.
His own family life, however, was far from happy. When his only child was 3, Mr. Lee divorced Ms. Doko.
“I was not myself back then. I couldn’t stop from getting angry with my fate,” Mr. Lee says. He left home for Los Angeles, and Ms. Doko went to New York. Ms. Lee didn’t see her father again until she turned 17.
Dreams of acting
However, Ms. Lee felt closer to her father when she realized that she wanted to pursue a singing and acting career. Upon graduation from high school, she tried to study acting in college, but her mother put a stop to that.
“I had her take lessons in many fields from fine arts to classical singing, but I didn’t want her to pursue a pop music career,” Ms. Doko says.
Instead, Ms. Lee entered Hangsung University as a design major, but still couldn’t give up her desire to be an actress.
She has had her share of troubles, such as her divorce in 2000, but she remains on friendly terms with her husband. She also found a measure of peace from her father and mother’s eventual reconciliation. “I guess I went through all that to be happy now,” she says.
Ms. Lee has found a great deal of satisfaction in her career as well, which shows some promise. Since earlier this year, she has been fielding offers to appear in a print advertisement. In February, her fans created an online club, which now has 200 members. And she will be soon starring in a TV sitcom airing on KBS-TV.
“What I really want to do,” Ms. Lee says, “is the role of the Queen Myeongseong. After all, that’s the story of my own family.”
Ms. Lee sees her career as a way to raise more awareness of the royal family. “By making myself known to the public as an actress, I’d like to revive the royal family in the long run,” she says. “Later in my life, I’d like to participate in charitable activities, like Princess Diana did.”
Brush with royalty
Last Thursday in central Seoul, Ms. Lee walked with her father and mother in their legal home, Gyeongbok Palace. “I feel most at home inside this palace,” Ms. Lee says.
Wearing the traditional court dress, complete with a chignon and jade and gold accessories, Ms. Lee draws the attention of passers-by, foreign tourists and teenage students. They line up to get her autograph and to take pictures with her.
“She is a real princess,” her father says with a smile to the autograph seekers, who look at Ms. Lee in amazement.
Dokugawa Hiroko, a Korean-Japanese living in Osaka, bursts into tears at the sight of the Lee family in the palace, bowing deeply again and again, saying, “It’s an honor,” in broken Korean.
“We feel more welcome by foreigners than by locals, which makes us sad,” says Ms. Doko, as Mr. Lee nods at her side. Last Friday, Mr. Lee was invited by the French Embassy to talk about his family heritage.
“Little is done for the sake of the royal descendants,” Ms. Lee says, raising her voice, “though royal family is a part of the precious history of this country.
“Since liberation from Japan, Koreans haven’t had any chances to look back at the past history,” Ms. Lee says. “With the war and fast economic growth, people were too caught up in just making a living. Now is the time to rediscover our identity.”
Her mother concurs, saying, “Thailand brought back its royal family after about 60 years, now much beloved by the public. Why not us?”
Though they feel history has forgotten them, they still try to comport themselves as a royal family. When taking a seat in a restaurant, the family follows the rules of the court, with the father in center, the wife on the right and the child on the left. Mr. Lee tells his daughter to bow and smile warmly to everyone who greets her in the palace.
The family’s storied past is never far from Ms. Lee’s mind. She keeps a reminder of the royal family’s better days ― a black-and-white photograph of her first birthday. In the photo, Ms. Lee is in the arms of Ms. Masako, who made the baby’s ceremonial dress with her own hands.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring back the happiness of the royal family,” she says.
by Chun Su-jin