Thor's Korea Diary

The Bright Smile Love Club

@19 December 2001

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One of the grasshoppers was was wandering around in a way that was strange, even for a grasshopper. He was lime green, with little transparent wings on the back, and big painted eyes that somehow couldn't focus on anything for more than a few seconds. Now the ants were very industrious, as ants should be. They were black, with huge painted eyes. They worked hard to transfer cushions from one pile to another pile. The other grasshoppers could have been feckless as Aesop declared, but they too had a shaky routine which was remarkable for a bunch of tiny, autistic children. On the scale of mastering challenges, these kids were heroes. The unguided grasshopper though, he added a special dimension of dramatic tension which climaxed when he solemnly fell off the big stage. Picked up like a rag toy and pointed at the stage steps, within a minute or two he had ambled back to wreak more droll chaos.

The Bright Smile Love Club and the International Culture Art Peace Troop were sponsor's names to resonate oddly in a Westerner's ear, tweak a smile. We only trust in understatement, kindness must arrive as a surprise. But this Festival for the Disabled in Busan's cavernous KBS Auditorium expressed some of the best of contemporary Korean culture. It was far more than a cameo performance by some small, brave children. The pity of it was that, as far as I could see, one other guy and I were the only foreigners in the whole place. This was even though a posse of four graduating students from Busan universities had trudged around town offering free tickets to expatriates. They tracked me down in the wilds of Bansong-dong and navigated to my apartment with a mobile phone (a major use of these gadgets in a country that amazingly has no street names or useable house numbers). Puzzled, I later asked why no other expats took up the freebies. Suddenly everyone "had meetings" to go to, they said sadly. Hmm.

Now it is true that sitting through some performances in a language you don't understand can be a trial. Several times I've endured hours of Maori speeches on Maraes (traditional meeting grounds) in New Zealand. Kind of numbing after the first novelty. Then there was a female singing contest in Pulau Bangka (an island off Sumatra, Indonesia) to celebrate Hari Kartini (holiday in memory of Princess Raden Ajeng Kartini, a revered fighter for women's emancipation from pre-independence days). All the judges were smug males, and the rules were absolutely fair. Each of seventeen ladies, rigid in a traditional tight sarong, had to individually sing the *same* song. As an honoured guest, I was required to sit immobile in the front row, no escape .... women's liberation has some way to go in most of Indonesia. Well the concert in Busan's KBS hall wasn't anything like that.

Over a couple of hours, there were six supporting acts, as well as a "grand performance". First vote would have to go to the grand performance (by Ge Man Gong Yeon / Shin Bung Min Sok Yeo Sul Dan , I think). This was a kind of jazz ballet with some really wild drum work. You didn't need to know Korean to be caught up in the tempestuous rhythm and the dramatic sweep of dancers. From that superb professional peak, the night ebbed and flowed through different levels of talent. How could you not be moved by a choir of the mothers of handicapped children? Sometimes things teetered towards the edge of pity, which is a risky base for showbiz, but somehow the pace and good humour survived. The fashion parade could have been awful, but it wasn't. Willowy professional fashion models, with all the hauteur of their trade, stepped down center stage, each hand in hand with a diminutive handicapped girl. Then, in a kind of creepy science fiction completion, an electric wheelchair rolled with military precision into the line. The small, white suited quadraplegic man driving it moved upstage with a tiny girl on each wing. The music swelled, a bubble machine released clouds of bubbles, then one of the dutiful mini-models suddenly said to hell with the script, and began to chase the bubbles in sheer delight. She took some catching too.

Occasionally the Korean love of costume overwhelmed the performance. In one interlude, gorgeous silver bells were carefully arranged on a long table that could have served the Last Supper. Each pair of silver bells was attended by a lady in a claret velvet gown, while a fussy man in a tuxedo waved a stick to orchestrate his harem. The ladies tried hard but a jam session it wasn't. I thought of how, say, a bunch of dirt poor Nigerian street kids could make magic with plastic buckets and tin cans, sheer spontaneous energy... Energy returned with the closing number, which took us by surprise. Professional dancers bounded back onto the stage, mini skirts a-flutter, black & white soccer balls a-bouncing. Did someone say the World Cup series was arriving here soon?

Was that the end? It should have been. There's something about putting ageing males into suits that makes them feel they are stage stars too. First Busan's mayor trundled onto the stage. At least he was gracefully brief. Then came a stodgy fellow in a business suit, a professor of something or other. He had the charisma of a cement brick, and droned on forever. Keeping a large crowd bolted down for over two hours takes genuine talent, or armed threat. They had been pretty good, but just to make sure the organizers had stationed catchers in the aisles to physically restrain a small audience segment who thought that concerts, like soccer games, were a free-for-all. The grey suit though was a mute insult to the spirit of entertainment, and the plebians properly revolted. Some stood in groups talking. A steady trickle to the exits began to become a flood. What a messy finish. I looked to my translator and guide, Kim Cheol Hwan, stared meaningfully at the clock beside the stage and muttered "I've got to go". It was true -- the buses to Bansong-dong didn't run all night. We joined the flow of exiting bodies, and I wondered if, as a token foreigner, I was committing some terrible faux pas by walking off before the last curtain fell.

Kim Cheol Hwan had attached himself as soon as I sat down. I recognized him as one of the graduating students who had made it to my Bansong apartment. For him, I was English practice and perhaps partly an accidental experiment in "making world peace by talking to the people of the world.". My waspish company must have put his idealism to the test. Still, he was very good about it and bravely did his best to explain what the hell was going on. Now we hustled out into the freezing night air, and as he graciously walked me to the subway, I burbled on about Korea as a story through stranger's eyes. I sensed a suppressed exasperation with this offbeat indifference to slogans of international goodwill, but could only think humbly that the anarchic green ant with big painted eyes, and the little girl chasing bubbles, had been somehow vastly more valuable than any fragile orchestra of expensive silver bells.


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise. ** Actual names have been used in "The Bright Smile Love Club".

"The Bright Smile Love Club"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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