A poet’s home, once for beggars, now in weeds

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A poet’s home, once for beggars, now in weeds

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MUAN, South Jeolla ― Standing alone in knee-high grass, the stone monument was the only thing left among the weedy hills that still indicated the place had given birth to the largest and the longest running theatrical performance in the history of Korea.
It was the play “Pumba,” directed by Kim Si-ra, an activist, a poet and a playwright in the 1980s who staged the performance more than 4,000 times until his death in 2001. This year is the show’s 25th anniversary.
“Some believed the man must have been a beggar himself, because the beggar’s songs became so famous through his plays,” said Gwak Geun-sang, a staffer in Muan county’s tourism and culture division.
Pumba comes from a word repeated in certain songs of street singers and beggars from the early 20th century, and is a onomatopoeic word for passing gas. Beggars would knock on the doors of rich people and sing and dance until they were given food. If they didn’t get any food, they would chant “pumba, pumba,” and yell that the rich person deserves to “eat their farts.”
Later, the word came to generally refer to songs the homeless performers would sing at events and parties as they strolled around tapping on empty tins with spoons. But since 1980, the word has been used more for the famous play it was based upon.
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Its writer grew up here; his house had been near the weed-covered site where the band of some 100 singing beggars lived together at a place they called “Angel Town.” Neighbors called it “Beggar’s Town.”
Beggars often knocked on his door. Mr. Kim’s father served them meals. The beggars praised the man for being generous.
“I remember the beggars were always thanking our family,” said Jeong Cheondaeja, 67, the wife of Mr. Kim’s older brother, and the only relative who still lives in the house. “And Si-ra spent a lot of time watching the beggars sing and dance whenever he came back to his hometown.” As an activist in 1975, Mr. Kim was hiding from the government authorities for being involved in anti-government protests and writing plays the government considered threatening.
As he watched the group of beggars sing and dance, he found a strange peacefulness and freedom in them, he wrote in his memoir, “Pumba Songs.”
“When we were born, we must have had only an empty tin can and a heart to love,” he wrote. “I believe it is my duty to fill up these cans with rightful things which will go empty again if I don’t do it fast. My only wealth is love and that I will fill up and pass it on to my neighbors.”
Mr. Kim was mesmerized by the lifestyles of these beggars. They had a leader named Cheon Jang-geun who was a runaway port laborer. Under his rule, about 100 beggars, most of them runaways laborers, lived together in huts. They had strict rules of their own: Those who hurt women were buried alive. Those who stole from the poor were kicked out of the organization.
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For five years, Mr. Kim watched the beggars. In 1980, he staged “Pumba” in Muan, dressed up as a beggar himself. Some people in town hated the idea, asking why a “learned man like Mr. Kim” would want to make a play out of a bunch of bums that the town was embarrassed of.
But when the curtain fell, the audience was in tears.
“He told me it wasn’t about the beggars themselves but it was a story of the poor people,” said Park Jung-jae, Mr. Kim’s wife.
The play gained popularity, and the scale of its production increased. Outside performances could easily attract 5,000 people. In the mid-1980s, it was known as a must-see for college students interested in the labor movement and those wanting to help the poor.
“In his play, he was practicing a human rights movement,” Ms. Park said. “If he borrowed the lips of a renowned scholar or a government official, no one would have listened. But he chose to borrow the lips of the beggars to criticize and to say the right thing.”
The “Angel Town,” however, had been cleared during the Park Chung Hee regime. At that time, the resident registry system was initiated and beggars were forced to find a place to live. Begging was also strictly forbidden for some time.
The site where the beggars used to roam is now covered with weeds. The leader of the beggars, Cheon Jang-geun, is said to have gone into hiding a long time ago. He had a lush landscape in which to disappear.


A show goes on thanks to a wife’s love and dedication

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For Park Jung-jae, currently leading the theatrical group Gaga Assembly, it was in the years after her husband’s death that she found out she, like him, had a talent for directing.
“I don’t know how I got the courage to work,” Ms. Park said. “But I guess I knew the plays shouldn’t stop and that someone had to continue [my husband’s work].”
Ms. Park, 43, is the widow of Kim Si-ra, an activist, poet, theatrical director and the creator of the play “Pumba.” His sudden death in 2001 almost brought an end to the play that was the largest and longest running in the history of Korean theater. Fortunately, his wife took over the job, and the show has been running without a break ever since.
Next month, the play is celebrating its 25th anniversary ― it made its debut in 1981 ― with a special performance that Ms. Park has been working on in memory of her husband.
Based on one of Mr. Kim’s posthumous works, “Angels Without Wings,” the play is to be a one-person monologue explaining what “Pumba” is and what it means. For younger audience members who are probably unfamiliar with the famous play from the 1980s about Korea’s beggars, the performance will include modern instrumental music and dance, which she says will make it easier to understand.
“I think my husband would have done the same thing if he were alive and staged it himself,” she said.
Despite her professional devotion to her work, she said she knew nothing about Pumba or its famous originator whom everyone called a “genius” when she first went to see the performance with her friends 20 years ago.
“For me, it was just a show that everyone said was good,” she said. “And I didn’t want to miss out on the trend.”
But that single ticket wound up changing her life. After the show, the director asked her if she would work with him for the next show. He was wearing a long traditional topcoat and a bushy ponytail, which she described as “strange, boorish and even shocking.”
She was a pretty young theater major who starred in Western mystery plays, and the strange director asked her to be in a sequel to the traditional play, which harshly criticized the government and might never be staged without a change of regime.
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But she accepted the offer. A few months later, the two married. She was 23; he was 40.
She said her married days with Mr. Kim had been earnest and devoted. He was very kind and gentle at home, she said. When he worked, however, he was too much of an idealist and so eccentric that he often had to apologize to his young wife and beg for her understanding.
He immersed himself in his work, rarely resting, and she did all she could to help him ― sometimes standing in for missing actors and sometimes even directing the play herself when he didn’t feel well.
In 2001, the couple and their theatrical company, Gaga, came back to Korea after touring across the United States for 10 months. Mr. Kim suggested that the show’s 20th anniversary should be something “extra special.”
She said it was then that Mr. Kim suggested that after the show she try a bit of directing of her own.
Her voice trembled as she recalled her difficult start in the director’s chair. But she said she was excited to finally try directing her own show.
Three days before the big show, however, her husband passed out from a heart attack. He was sent to the hospital, and died the next morning.
“I was in shock, the theater was in shock,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do.”
She urged that the show must go on, but it was not easy to convince the actors. Many left the company. The original 23-person play had to be cut to only four actors, but it kept going.
“It’s been five years since he died,” Ms. Park said. “I hope my husband is proud of me.”

Celebrating Pumba’s 25th anniversary year, the play “Angels Without Wings” will be performed from Sept. 16 to Oct. 29 at White Sang Sang Art Hall in Daehangno, central Seoul. For more information, call (02)741-3934.


by Lee Min-a

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