A long struggle for multicultural stars

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A long struggle for multicultural stars

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At 20 years old, Kim In-soon had a beautiful voice, but she eked out a living singing at pubs. Then one night, a producer heard her perform, and her life in show business began. She debuted as a member of the female trio the Hee Sisters, and became part of Korea’s first archetypical “girl group.”

In spangle-studded dresses and form-fitting spandex, the trio stole the hearts of many male fans, but Kim was forced to put on an extra piece of clothing every time she appeared with the group: a hat or handkerchief to hide her hair.

Kim, who goes by her stage name Insooni, is the daughter of a Korean mother and an African-American soldier, and her mixed heritage gave her darker skin, a face that stood out and intensely curly hair. Because of her appearance she was often banned from appearing on TV shows, and she was denied the chance to participate in an international singing competition as a representative of Korea. Yet, today, she is still one of the country’s most influential musicians.

Insooni’s mother Yang-bae passed away in 2005. When Kim was born, her mother’s family forced her either to abandon her child or be disowned. Kim Yang-bae chose her daughter.

When it came time to give birth to her own daughter in 1993, Insooni flew to the United States to ensure she would be an American citizen. The singer has publicly said that she did this because she was afraid her child would have the same dark skin that caused her so much pain. While other mothers may count the number of their babies’ fingers or toes right after they are born, Insooni checked her daughter’s skin color.

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Ten years later, camera flashes splattered across the face of another beautiful young woman as she cried her eyes out. “If I had come out and said that I’m mixed, I was afraid of being discriminated against,” actress Lee Yu-jin told reporters in May 2003, blowing her nose and wiping her eyes. It had come to light that Lee’s name was listed on her grandfather’s family register, not her father’s, making Lee and her mother sisters on paper. At this press conference Lee, then 26, confessed her long-held secret - that her father was an American of Spanish descent who served as a soldier here.

After the press conference, it took Lee, who was a regular on many hit TV sitcoms, dramas, shows and glossy magazine covers, nearly six years to come back to a major TV drama last year.

When the JoongAng Daily asked to interview Lee, her manager, Kil Jin, said, “She’s had enough of it. She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. I’m so sorry.”



The continuing pain Lee is experiencing shows that, despite the progress that has been made in Korean society, the issue of discrimination against multicultural people is far from resolved.

“Multicultural children in the past were usually born to an American solider and a Korean war bride. And most Korean women who married American soldiers used to work as prostitutes,” said Park Kyung-tae, a professor at SungKongHoe University who specializes in minority studies. “For that reason, Koreans, especially older ones, have fixed negative images about multicultural people.”

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Another multicultural R&B singer and rapper, Yoon Mi-rae, born Natasha Shanta Reid, is also trying to keep the focus off her cultural identity. She has an African-American father.

An official from Jungle Entertainment, which represents Yoon, said, “She feels uncomfortable talking about [her background].” But Yoon, often called Korea’s best female rapper, does communicate about her ancestry - through her music. One song titled “Black Happiness” has lyrics that read, loosely translated into English, “People finger-pointing at my mommy / My poppy is an African-American soldier / I can see sadness in Mommy’s eyes / I feel guilty so I wash my face with white soap .?.?. I have to put white makeup on to hide my dark skin.”

Yoon debuted in 1997 at age 15 as a member of the hip-hop and R&B group Uptown. Today she’s a superstar with many releases under her belt. She is currently working on her fourth solo album, coming to stores in May.

Recently Sean Richard, an actor who plays a foreign missionary in “Jejoongwon,” a prime-time medical drama set in the Joseon period (1392-1910), met the public in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. “I’m a Mungyeong celebrity. Even though I’m not wearing the beard and the glasses, they still recognize me and call me Allen-wonjangnim [term for the head of a hospital],” said the 26-year-old Richard, who has a British father and a Korean mother.

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The handsome young actor talked openly about how his mother and father met. “My mom immigrated to the States at 17, and she worked at a bank in L.A. and my dad was working in L.A. with a one-year work contract. My mom’s roommate was dating my dad’s roommate.”

After majoring in business and theater at Boston University, Richard came to Korea hoping to learn more about his mother’s country, and landed the role of Allen. It was his first audition for a professional role, and he had more than 100 competitors. The doctor’s character is based on an actual figure who arrived in Korea in 1884 as a missionary and established the very first Western hospital in Korea.

“Getting a role during one’s first audition is very rare even for local actors and actresses,” said Jeong Seo-young, head of a public relations team at BH Entertainment, which represents many A-list celebrities, including Lee Byung-hun from the TV drama “Iris.”

Since he described acting and wanting to live in Korea as two important goals in his life, Richard kept using the word “blessed” to describe his luck.

“I only said annyeonghaseyo [hello] at first. That’s all. Over time I think the director liked what I was doing, so they made my part a little bit bigger.”

There has certainly been a shift in attitude toward multicultural entertainers in Korea over the past several decades, from Insooni to Lee Yu-jin, and most recently Richard. Yoon Su-il, a multicultural singer who often performed with Insooni during the 1970s, agrees.

“I think this nation is becoming a multicultural society, and viewers and the public accept multicultural entertainers without hard feelings, meaning people start to see them as their neighbors,” said the 55-year-old singer-songwriter, whose 1982 hit “Apartment” is still a favorite for many Koreans.

For Yoon, who was born to a GI father and a Korean mother, music was his sole consolation. “Growing up, I kept thinking, ‘Can I go on living like this in Korea?’ because of my different looks. So I grabbed a guitar and got into the music industry because that field was less closed to people like me.”

Today, Korea has more multicultural entertainers than ever before. Heartthrob Daniel Henney, Julien Kang, Dennis Oh, Ricky Kim and Kim Deanna are all multicultural stars who often appear in TV commercials, musicals and dramas.

In this new wave of multicultural stars, Henney may have been the first to prove they no longer need to feel alienated as Insooni and Yoon did.

Henney, who was born to a Korean-American adoptee mother and a British-American father, made his first appearance in the 2005 hit TV drama “My Lovely Sam-soon,” playing the part of Dr. Henry Kim. His good looks, gentle manner and sunny smile were enough to melt the hearts of many female viewers. It came as no surprise that he was on the fast track to success after the drama ended. The 31-year-old model and actor signed on with another drama and two full-length films in two years, and appeared in commercials for 20 different products, from sedans and suits to cosmetics and digital gadgets.

While Henney is now living in Australia, discussing his next projects with industry representatives there, Julien Kang has taken his place as the latest half-Korean star - though he didn’t realize how popular he would become at first.

“I was a little awkward and shy when people first started coming up to me for pictures and autographs,” Kang said.

Kang plays the role of a warm-hearted English teacher who shares a house with his Korean roommates on the popular TV sitcom “High Kick!”, which has an audience share of about 20 percent.

For Kang, who was born to a French father and a Korean mother, memorizing lines, especially Korean slang, and the hectic shooting hours from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. were the hardest parts, but he never felt segregated just because of his ancestry.

“I have not felt discriminated against or isolated because I am biracial, but I did feel it a little because of the language barrier. Now that my Korean has improved, I feel much more accepted,” Kang said. Julien is the younger brother of mixed martial artist Denis Kang, known as “The Super Korean.”

With High Kick! still going strong, Julien has already clinched his next gig, playing a U.S. general in an upcoming drama with actor So Ji-seob.

With more and more multicultural celebrities enjoying successful careers, some entertainment agencies are giving extra points to those who speak English when recruiting new managers. And of course there are those omnipresent government campaigns to build a new, multicultural Korea.

“I think Korean society has made a lot of progress in terms of their view and treatment of biracial people,” Kang said. “In the past, society may have been hostile toward biracial people because it was something unfamiliar and out of the ordinary. But these days, people are starting to view us in a more positive light.”

Yet experts say there are still many obstacles to face.

“Indeed, we have many multicultural stars, but we have to realize that they are all half-white and half-Korean. Multicultural entertainers who have white parents act and sing despite their poor Korean, but people who have African-American parents just sing,” said Professor Park at SungKongHoe University.

“Daniel Henney is a good example. Despite his inarticulate Korean, he’s acting and modeling, while there are no African-Korean actors. This shows us that Korea still admires Caucasians and has biased views.”

When asked the chances of Henney or Kang becoming role models for children who are born to Korean fathers and Southeast Asian mothers, Park continued, “They could be dangerous models. Children who have Korean fathers and Southeast Asian mothers usually belong to low income brackets, and they stand at different starting points compared to people like Henney.”


By Sung So-young [so@joongang.co.kr]

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