When Jang Yong-Soo, 89, was a boy growing up in a small North Korean village, his family owned a noodle shop, and his sister owned a brewery. So the Jang family was especially popular on May 5 when the country’s masked dancers would come through town. “We were able to provide food and drinks for all the dance troupes,” Jang reminisced through a translator in a conversation last week at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center.
“I’m from the country, not the city--and in the country, the dance troupes went around and entertained people, and when I was 10 or 11 or 12, I would go around with my brothers and watch them, and I would imitate them, " Jang said. “May 5, the annual holiday, was the time when in the country the dance troupes came and entertained the rich people, who could give them money.”
While he never became a dancer himself, Jang, who will turn 90 in November, later built his life around those early masked dances, which insolently lampooned the ruling class. He is now director of Eunyul Talch’um, a masked dance company that will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at UCLA’s Royce Hall during the kickoff week of the Asia Society’s Festival of Korea, a yearlong, nationwide festival of performing arts events, art exhibitions, films and family events.
The company began over three centuries ago in the North Korean village of Eunyul; Jang plays the gong in the instrumental ensemble of the 18-member troupe, a role that he began the 1920s. The UCLA performance marks the first time Eunyul Talch’um will be seen outside Korea.
The event also marks Jang’s first trip to the United States and reunites him with his 58-year-old daughter, Jang Ai-Sim, who immigrated to Los Angeles three years ago and owns a wholesale earring business in downtown Los Angeles, as well three grandchildren who are students. Jang said he has 12 grandchildren and “seven or eight” great-grandchildren.
“While he is here, I just want to be good to him,” said Jang Ai-Sim, who joined her father for the interview. Also present was 33-year-old Cha Boo-Hoi, general manager of the company, who became interested in the dance company while a college student in 1978 and now dances with the company, as well as helping Jang restore the dance traditions.
At UCLA, the Eunyul company dances on the program with a dance troupe on the opposite end of the spectrum, Chongak, a 25-member group of dancers and musicians who perform a classical dance repertoire that for many years was only performed in the court for the high-class society of the Choson Dynasty. The term chongak means “proper or correct music.”
Later in the season, the Asia Society will host two other Festival of Korea concerts: On March 5, 1994, a troupe of shaman from the island of Chindo perform Chindo Sikkim Kut (shaman ritual), followed by a May 7 demonstration of the Korean martial art tae kwon do at Sunset Canyon.
Other events on the year’s calendar include a traditional Korean celebration of the autumn harvest in New York’s Central Park and a traveling exhibit of 18th-Century art treasures entitled “Splendor and Simplicity,” which will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from June 16-Aug. 21, 1994.
Jang, who fled with some of his family members from North to South Korea in 1951 during the Korean War, has been designated a Korean “National Living Treasure” for his work in preserving the age-old dance forms that otherwise would have been lost in the war. As a National Living Treasure, the Korean governments pays Jang’s living expenses. Jang lives 45 minutes outside of Seoul in the city of Inchon. His company has been designated a “National Cultural Treasure.”
Jang lost his two older brothers in the war. They were in their 20s when the war broke out and were drafted into the military and killed in battle. The rest of the family migrated to southern Korea and spent their first years there struggling to re-establish their businesses.
“When we were settled, we began to think about rejuvenating the masked dance,” Jang said. “But, at that time, there were other types of (North Korean) masked dance that were becoming reintroduced in South Korea. The government agency said: ‘We already have two types of masked dance, why would we need a third one?’ It was 10 years before one of the cultural ministers who came from the same part of North Korea that we did recognized the importance of preserving the masked dance and granted government recognition.” When an arts institution is designated a national treasure, it helps preserve the art form by making it more of an honor to be part of that institution, more likely to ensure that the art form is passed through the generations, Jang said.
“The masked dance that originated in North Korea is indicative of the personality and the character of the North Korean people,” Jang said. “A long time ago, the South Korean man was the king of the kingdom, and he would not give any position of distinction, or high-ranking position of the government, to people from the north.
“In the northern part of Korea, the personality characteristics are very strong, very aggressive. When they fight, they fight fiercely. In the southern part, they are laid-back, they are very gentle, and more gentlemanly.
“The reason that this masked dance attacked the yangban (the nobility and educated upper class) is because, first of all, they couldn’t directly attack the king--it would be considered treason. So they would attack the yangban of southern Korea. The ruling class had a lot of mistresses, a lifestyle that the North Korean people found a little bit decadent, too much beyond their power.”
Dance master Cha said that there are four main subjects treated by Eunyul’s masked dances: the satire of the ruling class, the corruption of Buddhism, the hope for world peace and harmony, and human relationships--often poking fun at the yangban’s taste for mistresses, concubines and illicit love triangles.
Through the UCLA performance, Cha said that he hoped the American audience would “understand Korean culture a little better and go away with a better feeling for Korean culture, for the tradition. I would also like them to feel . . . the inner essence, the soul of the dancer. Without it, you cannot dance. Average people don’t have it. It is almost being under God’s influence, the influence of the dance.”