Editor’s Note: When I first approached Jimmie to join TheJYJFiles at the end of 2010, she was already preparing to embark on an exciting career relocation and had warned me that her availability for partaking in this project would be limited. Fortuitously, she was with us for over three months and within that time, we accomplished many goals thanks to her leadership and tenacity. As her work commitments will render Jimmie to become less active in fandom, she has written a letter of (almost) parting, detailing her thoughts and confessions about how she joined this fandom, why she became an active member, and what compelled her to take up the role that she did in fandom over the past months. Readers, please don’t feel sad for this isn’t a definite goodbye; Jimmie will always be part of JYJ fandom and continue to help out. I’m sure I speak for all TheJYJFiles staffers and readers that we heartily appreciate Jimmie for her hard work and uplifting energy.
Letter of (Almost) Resignation: Final Confessions, Part I
Many of you found out for the first time via the article written by the Chosun Ilbo covering the international fans’ petition that in real life I am an international civil servant and, as such, was bound to leave for Geneva, Switzerland in the middle of March. Consequently, by the time you read this, I will have already left Korea and most likely fully settled in on the other side of the globe. Since I was never formally “hired” by The JYJ Files, I don’t consider myself formally resigning either, but it is true that my official duties henceforth will prevent me from being as active as I used to be as a writer, and so for all practical purposes I might as well be resigning. Although this is in no way an official letter of resignation and I don’t plan to disappear entirely from view, this is, in a concrete way, a goodbye. I would thus like to take this opportunity to say all that I wanted but didn’t quite have time to. Most importantly, seeing the amount of “chaos” I caused (some would say unnecessarily) I feel I need to justify why and how I got involved in the way and to the extent that I did in this fandom for the past 3-4 months.
Since, if I wrote down everything as one continuous piece, the entire thing would be at least 10 pages long, I have decided to divide it into 3 parts in the interests of preserving the health of my readers. Nonetheless, I would like my readers to keep in mind that these are not three independent pieces to be interpreted in isolation of each other but rather one unified letter that just happens to be divided into three.
As a lot of you know already, I came to you as a brand new JYJ fan. I was never a follower of Dong Bang Shin Ki, and so I stumbled on to their story not as a fan of an idol group per se, but more as a clueless third party who happened, out of pure boredom, to see a couple of scenes from a little televised series called Sungkyunkwan Scandal. I was thoroughly impressed by the main lead, whom I had never seen before and so was most likely a newbie actor, but who portrayed his role and controlled his presence on screen like someone who had at least a couple of works under his belt. Park Yoochun’s character in the drama was not my favourite (that would be Song Joongki’s Yeorim/Gu Yonghwa), but in my estimation, of the four main actors, Park Yoochun gave the most impressive performance. And in the estimation of almost everyone else that matters, he gave a performance above and beyond expectations for a first dramatic piece.
I am a huge lover of the Arts. I am especially fond of the performing arts: everything from film to theatre to dance…even the circus (no matter what anyone else says, I consider Cirque du Soleil to be art). There really is a reason why the philosophical greats, from the Classical Greek tragedians to Postmodern icons like Jean-Paul Sartre, were fascinated with the theatre…there is a way in which the performing arts both imitate and transcend life itself (but this is another topic for a different time). Park Yoochun and his performance in Sungkyunkwan Scandal reminded me why I value artists. There’s something indescribably marvellous about watching the career birth of a promising stage or screen actor, especially if the piece in which he conveys is craft is as commendable as his performance. And with Park Yoochun, it was.
By the final episode of the drama, I was convinced that Park Yoochun had the potential to become the George Clooney of Korea and a more than capable replacement on the small screen for the likes of Jang Dong Gun and Won Bin, the first generation pioneers of the Korean Wave who have now either moved on to film festivals or Hollywood. Actors like Park Yoochun are the answer to how to make a sustainable Korean Wave. As accomplished actors move to bigger stages and inevitably overseas, the Korean Wave will need a steady supply of equally promising new talents given improving opportunities to shine and expand their artistic capabilities. This applies not only to the film and television aspects of Hallyu but also to the music.
Given the merit of the piece and its main lead, I thought I could walk away from Sungkyunkwan Scandal with the reassurance that the future of Korean culture would be bright and that nothing more would be required of me thereafter except to enthusiastically follow Park Yoochun’s next works and critique his performance from time to time through reviews or whatnot. Until the discovery of JYJ, this was what being a “fan” consisted of in my world. I couldn’t fathom the fanatical habits of idol group followers….The totality of a painting’s beauty can only be appreciated from at least a stride away. Likewise, an artist’s admirer knows to keep a certain distance. So, all that this fandom has accomplished—the petitions, the bus ads, the attempt at the first ever fan-run Internet TV Station, etc.—would have struck me as abnormal; in a way, it still does…as proud as I am of it all.
Ignorance would have indeed been bliss, but then, I found out about the lawsuit…
And about the flagrant corruption and illicit dealings in the Korean music industry, which were denying Korea promising cultural ambassadors and denying Koreans (and others) the enjoyment of their craft. (Since the Korean government is looking to make the Korean Wave a viable economic export, the ugly mess that is rearing its head against JYJ is also denying Korea a stable economic future as well, but more on that later.)
Uncharacteristically, I became incredibly irritated at this state of affairs.
At that point, I realised that my definition of “fan” had to change and that I had to approach (and broach) the JYJ fandom—including the international fandom—not just as someone who ardently admired Kim Jaejoong, Park Yoochun and Kim Junsu, but in all my human capacities: as a proud Korean, a citizen of a modern democracy with a vibrant free market economy, an international civil servant, a Government employee and representative, and lover of the Arts.
It’s difficult to put into words how proud I am of my country’s cultural awakening that is both the driving force and the core of the Korean Wave. I am certainly not the only Korean who feels this way. However, the JYJ v. SM Entertainment saga has demonstrated clearly for all to see that this pride rests on extraordinarily precarious foundations. I have already covered elsewhere the threat that “slave contracts”, such as the one SM Entertainment regularly uses to compel their artists into abusive labour relations and compensations thereof, poses to Korea’s image, Korea’s international commitments and to the sustainability of the Korean Wave. I will not repeat the reasons here. In any case, what horrified me even more was that the understanding of Art and regard toward artists that companies like SM base their business model on have in fact not advanced beyond the Joseon Dynasty (1300s-1910).
Under the Joseon Dynasty, Art was considered a baseless pastime—unimportant, a sinful symptom of laziness—in comparison to the scholarly pursuits edicted by Confucius. Artists, especially performing artists, were likewise considered to be the basest manifestations of human beings, undeserving of any social status or respect. As a matter of fact, performing artists were placed in the same social class as slaves[i]. Since they were innately undeserving, it was commonly accepted that artists could, would and even should be used by the higher classes and should not complain but rather be grateful for every use the higher-ups made of them. I recommend readers to watch the Korean film The King and the Clown (왕의 남자 in Korean) to get an idea of how this attitude toward the Arts and artists manifested itself in the Joseon Dynasty. You will then come to understand that SM Entertainment’s business practices and contracts are merely homages to an outdated and dangerous attitude.
From the same Chosun Ilbo article, many of you now know that I went to graduate school in Paris, at the prestigious École normale supérieure (ENS)…prestigious for its unparalleled excellence in two fields: the Humanities (of which literature, philosophy and theatre studies are included) and the Natural Sciences[ii]. Neither one field is regarded as more important than the other, and writers, philosophers and artists issued from this school have won just as many and just as prestigious honours as the mathematicians and scientists (almost all of France’s Nobel Prize winners in both the sciences and the arts have some connection to ENS). On the same street and clear in view is the famed Panthéon, in which France’s most highly regarded writers, philosophers and dramatists are buried and enshrined[iii]. I remember walking past that imposing Greek-style temple almost on a daily basis and thinking how different was the French understanding of the Arts and artists from the Korean. In Korea, artists were regarded as slaves; in France, they’re worshipped as gods.
For years now, the Korean public and media has agitated over when a Korean would win an arts-related Nobel Prize or a Grammy. Considering the intense rivalry the country has with Japan, whose nationals have won several Nobel Prizes in literature, this question gathers frenetic attention every time a Japanese is nominated.
Well… perhaps if we Koreans didn’t let our writers or indie musicians starve to death[iv], perhaps if we threw away our Joseon Dynasty prejudices that artists should be grateful for their mistreatment, perhaps if we actually gave our artists time and freedom to fully develop and unleash their potential instead of killing them off in five-year cycles or actively constraining them in poverty for 13 years, maybe then we can start talking about our chances. We don’t have to treat our artists as gods, but if we could just grasp the concept that they’re human beings and act on that…Is that a Grammy I see in the distance?
[i] Russell, Mark James. Pop goes Korea. Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA: 2008, p. ix.
Written by: Jimmie of TheJYJFiles