A mosaic tracingthe unknownyears of Choi Seung-hee
Mrs. Choi Seung-hee (1911-1969) is the biggest icon of Korean dance. Although she lived in one of the most difficult periods in Korean history, she succeeded in familiarizing foreigners with the Korean performing arts. She became famous during the Japanese colonial era, but as for the second half of her life, only a few details are known because she moved to North Korea shortly after the national liberation. In the following article, I would like to add some new pieces to the mosaic of those unknown years.
Choi Seung-hee was born in Seoul, and studied modern dance in Japan under the famous choreographer Ishii Baku. She returned to Seoul in 1929, where she established her own research institute to modernize the traditional Korean dances. At the age of 20, she married Ahn Mak, a leftist intellectual; the couple temporary lived in Yongin, Gyeonggi. It is interesting to mention that the house they lived in is still standing in its original place.
It did not take long for Choi to become famous; besides her performances, she also worked as a model for advertisements. Meanwhile, the Japanese pronunciation of her name, Sai Shoki, became well-known internationally. In 1938, she performed throughout the United States, and from there she and her team moved to France, to Germany and then to the Netherlands. She was proud of her “Chosun” origins, so she can be acknowledged as a pioneer of the Korean wave.
In the middle of August 1939, the Hungarian daily newspaper Pesti Naplo announced that Choi Seung-hee would perform in Budapest in October. However, two weeks after the announcement, WWII broke out, and the dancer was evacuated from Europe on the board of the Japanese ocean liner Kashima Maru. During the Pacific War, she performed in front of the Japanese soldiers several times, and was therefore accused of being a collaborator during the occupation, after Korea’s liberation in 1945.
Journey across the sea to North Korea
The accusations about collaborating with the Japanese and the difficult internal situation in South Korea led Choi Seung-hee to follow her husband to North Korea. In the summer of 1946, Choi and one of her students, Kim Baek-bong, the dancer’s sister-in-law, left for North Korea on a fishing boat. Both of them were wearing peasant clothes to camouflage themselves. But the route was not free of trouble.
The boat wobbled on the sea for 10 days, the mast was crushed and what was worse was that they ran out of food. Finally, the boat somehow reached the shores of Chinnampho (today’s Nampho city), North Korea. Kim Baek-bong, who later returned to South Korea, shared her first impressions about the North with me a couple of years ago. Kim had been very surprised when she saw several telephones on the tables in the local authority’s building; it was an unimaginably modern sight in contrast to what she had gotten used to in the South.
In Pyongyang, the iconic dancer established her new academy, the Choi Seung-hee State Research Institute for Dance. In 1947, a Soviet writer visited North Korea to write a book about his observations there, and Choi invited him to have a look around at the academy.
“Our truck reached the two-story building with a Korean-style roof on the bank of the Taedong River,” the Soviet author later wrote. “When we arrived, her pupils — all of them teenagers, wearing black ballet clothes — were running out of the building to welcome us. The practice was held by Mrs. Choi, with the assistance of Kim Baek-bong. Mrs. Choi showed the moves, and the students copied her. Listening to the melodies played on an old musical instrument, the girls moved gracefully. Their motion was in full harmony with the music.”
Two years later, in 1949, the pupils of Choi Seung-hee brought the Korean dances to Central Europe, on the occasion of the 2nd World Festival of Youth and Students. The biannual festival, which was held in Budapest that year, was the memorable youth meeting of the Soviet bloc and the third world countries. The aforementioned pupil, Kim Baek-bong, along with the daughter of Choi, 17-year-old Ahn Seong-hee, gave a performance in Budapest, where the local newspapers emphasized the daughter’s talent and skill.
“Korean Mother” in East Berlin
Following the outbreak of the Korean War, Choi Seung-hee visited Seoul again, following the footsteps of the North Korean troops — as was suggested in an article written by her in the Soviet daily paper Pravda. In the article, which was published in December 1950, the iconic dancer announced that she lost her only daughter, Ahn Seong-hee, who was killed somewhere on the battlefield. The announcement made waves in Central Europe.
But the news about Ahn’s death was false, and the papers reported in the end of January 1951 that Ahn was alive, and had been reunited with her mother in China. From then on, Choi operated her dance academy in Beijing, where her pupils were able to continue practicing.
A few months later, Choi and her daughter led the North Korean art ensemble to East Berlin, where the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students was held in August 1951. The main attraction of their performance was titled “Chosun omoni” (Korean mother), which fascinated the audience.
In the story, Choi Seung-hee played a mother who held her dead baby, while Ahn Seong-hee portrayed a young mother who joined the partisans. The young girl was captured by the enemy, but she survived the torture and finally was liberated by the victorious partisans. Under the influence of Ahn’s dances, a Romanian female poet, Veronica Porumbacu, wrote a poem about her character. It was later published in multiple languages. The last verse expressed the poet’s wish that Ahn would perform again soon in Seoul.
From East Berlin, the ensemble moved to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary by train. The North Korean legation in Budapest previously notified the Hungarian officials that in Warsaw and Prague “celebrating masses” had greeted the team, and vice ministers greeted them on arrival. Therefore, the North Korean legation covertly asked the Hungarians to take the same attitude.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian organizers had a hard time because of the several pieces of contradictory information they received. At first, the Koreans told them that the ensemble would spend ten days in Hungary, but later reduced it to four days. The Hungarians subsequently reorganized the whole schedule. The Hungarian officials were informed that the train would arrive in the evening of Sept. 17, 1951, but two days earlier the Korean side sent a notice saying that the ensemble would arrive in Budapest in the morning. Because of this, the welcome celebration had to be reorganized again. Moreover, after their arrival, the Koreans announced that they would not leave Hungary after four days, but would stay ten days in the country as it had originally been scheduled.
Complaints in Budapest
After their arrival, the team was accommodated in the Hotel Gellert, which remains one of the most picturesque luxury hotels along the Danube. Choi Seung-hee visited the locations that were proposed by the Hungarian side for their performances. She chose the Budapest Operetta Theatre for the rehearsals and for the main performances. The ensemble also gave a performance at the Opera House, where the Hungarian party leader Matyas Rakosi personally greeted them. The performances were successful, but, according to an archived diplomatic report, their stay was far from trouble-free. They were unhappy with their accommodation in the Hotel Gellert, due to the lack of huge conference rooms.
Furthermore, they were dissatisfied because the Hungarians did not recognize the ensemble as a “political delegation” despite the fact that two “war heroes” were among its members. After the various complaints, the Hungarians tried to pay more attention to satisfy the guests, and the ensemble was invited to the Opera House to see “The Nutcracker”, “Carmen” and “Don Carlos.” Meanwhile, various Hungarian organizations gave gifts to them: from the bicycle factory in Csepel, the team received two bicycles, from a textile factory all of them got silk handkerchiefs and from the provincial city of Gyor, the ensemble received vases and ceramic goods. The local youth organization gave them various musical instruments and some medical equipment, and the Institute of Cultural Exchange gave them more musical instruments, fur-lined coats and cigarette lighters. Choi Seung-hee personally got a coat, two dresses, a pair of shoes and nylon stockings.
Eventually, the North Korean ensemble left Hungary for Romania on Sept. 27, 1951. According to the archived diplomatic report, the North Koreans wanted to have a special train arranged for the ensemble, but it was difficult to organize. Therefore, the Hungarians attached four separated Pullman sleeping cars to the scheduled train for them. The performances of Choi Seung-hee and Ahn Seong-hee remained memorable in Hungary, but a very bizarre situation occurred after their farewell. Mr. Gyorgy Timar, a young Hungarian poet, never received the news that Ahn Seong-hee’s death was false, and he also missed their performance in Budapest. Therefore, he wrote a sad verse about Ahn’s death, which was published in a literary journal in 1952.
Reception in Beijing
As mentioned above, during the years of the Korean War, Choi Seung-hee had operated her dance academy in Beijing. One story about her from that period is also available in a reminiscence written by a Hungarian surgeon. Dr. Janos Denes and his fellows served one year in the Hungarian hospital in North Korea. On their way back to Europe in February 1952, the group took part in a reception at the Hungarian embassy in Beijing. Among other illustrious guests, Choi Seung-hee participated in the event, and she invited the whole group to her academy the following evening. According to Dr. Denes, around 130 North Korean and Chinese pupils were studying at the academy. Most of them were girls, but there were some boys, too. The evening was spent in good spirits, with the physicians enjoying the performance and the buffet. Dr. Denes left the place in the middle of the night by the embassy’s car, but the other doctors stayed there to enjoy the reception a little bit longer.
“Sado Fortress” in Transylvania in 1956
The next piece of the mosaic about the legendary dancer and her daughter comes from Romania, during the autumn of 1956. According to the local newspapers, the North Korean art ensemble arrived in Bucharest on Oct. 12, 1956. They performed their new dramatic dance, the “Story of Sado Fortress” (Sadoseongui iyagi), and then the team left for Transylvania, a region near the Hungarian border. They gave performances in Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvar and Oradea, Nagyvarad, but they were still in the region in the second week of November. The reason they could not continue their trip to Hungary was the anti-Soviet revolution, which broke out in Budapest on Oct. 23, and the clashes between the freedom fighters and the Soviet tanks lasted for almost two weeks. It seems that the team was waiting for a decision on whether they could cross the border to Hungary or not, but finally the ensemble left for Czechoslovakia.
Just like the cases of other North Korean intellectuals and artists, the career of Choi Seung-hee and her family ended due to the internal turbulence of the regime. In the late 1950s, a campaign had started against all forms of “revisionism.” Therefore, Choi Seung-hee and her husband, the leftist intellectual Ahn Mak, lost their influence in the cultural sphere. Ahn was arrested in 1959, and he was soon executed. A former Hungarian diplomat, Mr. Istvan Garajszki, who served in Pyongyang in the 1960s, told me that the diplomats had heard some rumors at that time about the purge of Choi Seung-hee. According to the rumor, after a dance performance, which Kim Il sung personally attended, the North Korean leader wanted to greet Choi in her dressing room. However, the iconic dancer reacted “disrespectfully” to the greetings. She ultimately disappeared, with the circumstances of her death remaining unknown. But decades later, her grave appeared in the Patriotic Martyrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang. The fate of her daughter, the aforementioned Ahn Seong-hee, who earned great popularity in Central Europe, also remains a mystery.
Ambassador of Hungary to Korea
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