What It Means to be a “Star” in Korea: The Birth and Return of Popular Singers
Zhang Eu-jeong

Professor of Korean Literature
School of Liberal Arts
Dankook University

"Popular music is distinguished as the musical form where the emotions of the masses are most honestly and intuitively reflected. In the same way that aspirin is necessary to treat a cold, popular music can serve as an antidote for emotional consolation. In other words, the popular music of today is loved by people all over the country and while it may be considered low in terms of musical value, in the conscience of ordinary people it undoubtedly provides great comfort. So, while the emotions expressed in popular music may be considered shallow in artistic terms, it must be recognized that the emotions expressed are at least without artifice."
The above quotation comes from an article titled “The lament of popular music,” written by Korea’s first university-educated singer-songwriter, Chae Gyu-yeop, and published in the March 1933 edition of a journal titled Samcheolli (literally “Three Thousand Miles," referring to Korean territory). Chae clearly defines in this article the main function of popular music as "consolation of the ordinary people.” The same applies today. More than anything else, the role of popular music is to provoke sadness or happiness. In those early days, as is the case today, popular music was criticized as commercial and vulgar. Nevertheless, it had the power to move people to laughter or tears. People looked up to pop singers and went wild over their music.
The history of pop singers goes hand-in-hand with the history of popular music, or pop songs, which began to appear in the 1930s. Of course, songs of a popular nature and entertainers existed before then. The folk songs, vulgar songs, and traditional songs such as pansori (epic chants) that have existed in the music record business since the first Korean record album was released in 1907 and the proper formation of a pop music market all have contained popular elements. However, Korean pop music as we know it today emerged after exchanges with foreign cultures and hence is clearly different from traditional music. Pop songs became commercial works of professional composers and lyricists to be sung by professional singers.
From the beginning, economic principles controlled pop songs. The 1930s was a time when the big six record companies — Columbia, Victor, Okeh, Chieron, Taihei and Polydor — engaged in disorganized competition along with countless smaller companies. To make a profit, they aimed their efforts at producing songs that catered to popular tastes. A discussion among the art directors from record companies published in the February 1936 issue of Samcheolli under the title “What’s the pop song trend for the New Year?” hints at the efforts people in the business made to understand popular tastes. As the popularity of the singer had a powerful effect on sales, record companies fought to sign up the best available singers.
It is said that “one of the fundamental trends of this age is the desire to bring the stars down to earth,” and just as people admire the “stars” shining in the sky, they also look up to the stars of the entertainment industry. Stars have become an object of adulation and such idol worship has come to replace religion to some extent. The word “star” came into use in the American movie industry and as a term referring to a popular actor or singer it was introduced to Korea through Japan in the 1930s. Many aspects of the entertainment industry today date back to that time.
Newspapers and magazines began to publish interviews with these celebrities, which fed public interest and encouraged adulation. Articles such as “The private lives, loves and art of popular singers” published in Samcheolli can be regarded as a forerunner of the Internet and women’s magazine articles today, which promise a peek at the private lives of the stars. But the life of the star did not always shine bright. This article explores the sorrows of the stars of the past, focusing on popular singers from the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945).
1. Birth of the Stars
The rise of pop singers was enabled by the formation of a system for their recruitment and management. In the 1930s, recording activity was so prolific that the period is described with terms such as “the golden age of recording” or “a flood of records.” Concerts had been limited in space and time before then but the situation changed with the invention of mass media such as radio and the gramophone. The gramophone, which Marshall McLuhan called “a concert hall without walls,” made it possible for many people in a wide area to listen to music at the same time. Hence the popularization of music was made possible. Popular songs in the true sense appeared against this backdrop.
Like the record companies today, which do everything from choosing the artists to producing and marketing their albums, those of the 1930s did the same job, overseeing the whole process from planning to assigning new songs to artists and recording production before handing over the finished product to the sales department. The art department director led the effort, analyzing the trends of the past year to forecast future directions.
Record companies in the 1930s, as those nowadays, had in-house composers, lyricists and singers. Since the singer determined the success or failure of a record, selecting the right one was directly connected to profits. Record companies thus competed to sign up promising talent and conflicts sometimes ensued between artists and management companies as happens today.
A prime example is the case of the singer Wang Su-bok. When Wang was about to sign with Columbia, Wang Pyeong, artistic director of Polydor at the time, hid the singer so that she would sign with Polydor. In another case, Lee Cheol, branch manager of Okeh Records, one day heard the voice of Lee Nan-yeong. The singer had already agreed to join Taihei but Lee went to great lengths to win her over. One night all of the employees of Okeh dressed in disguise and surrounded Taihei, and even engaged in a car chase. Another singer Hwang Geum-sim, unfamiliar with the rules of exclusive contracts, signed with both Okeh and Victor, leading to a legal battle between the two companies.

Many popular singers became caught up in the middle of a tug of war between record companies. Among the male singers popular at the time were Choe Nam-yong, Kim Yong-hwan, Chae Gyu-yeop, Nam In-su, Kim Jeong-gu, Ko Bok-su, Lee Gyu-nam, Kang Hong-sik, Baek Nyeon-seol, Yun Geon-yeong, and Lee In-gwon, while popular female singers included Lee Nan-yeong, Kang Seok-yeon, Lee Hwa-ja, Park Hyang-rim, Lee Eun-pa, Seonu Il-seon, Kim Bok-hui, Jang Se-jeong, Wang Su-bok, Lee Aerisu, Park Dan-ma, and Hwang Geum-sim.
Most of the males were full-time professional singers while Kang Hong-sik and Choe Nam-yong were actors as well. Ko Bok-su and Yun Geon-yeong entered the industry through talent competitions. In contrast, the female singers went through transitions in the 1930s.
In the first half of the decade most of the female popular singers were originally actresses. By the mid-1930s, many of them were gisaeng (traditional female entertainers) and in the late 1930s, professional female singers finally appeared. Kang Seok-yeon and Lee Aerisu were famous singer-actresses while Lee Hwa-ja, Lee Eun-pa, Seonu Il-seon, Kim Bok-hui and Wang Su-bok were famous gisaeng singers. Most female singers of the early days were either actresses or gisaeng because of the social perception of singers at the time.
Countless singers today dream of becoming pop stars, and female singers are treated as “goddesses,” but in the past people who sang for a living, particularly women, were not highly regarded. In the early 1900s, when Korean women had not yet entered the workforce, it was only natural that the women who stood in front of a microphone to sing and make records were gisaeng.
Actresses with stage experience and gisaeng who had been trained in song and dance had all the makings of popular entertainers. These days most pop singers make their debut after two to five years of training. For example, most of the members of Girls Generation (Sonyeo Sidae) trained for five years, while Seonye of the Wonder Girls was a trainee for six years and Jo Gwon of 2AM for eight years. While the actor-singers and gisaeng-singers of the early 1930s had not trained with the objective of becoming popular singers, their stage experience and training in music and dance respectively was a great advantage.
At the Pyongyang Gisaeng Institute, for example, women studied various arts for at least three years. The school had 250 students in 1934, and its graduates went to work all over the country. In their late teens or early twenties, the students studied various subjects such as vocal music, calligraphy and painting, dance, poetic song, Japanese song, mathematics, Korean language, and poetry. In other words, they mastered not only traditional Korean songs and dances but also traditional and modern Japanese songs. It is no coincidence that Wang Su-bok and Seonu Il-seon, both graduates of this school, were the biggest singing stars in the mid-1930s.
The salary of singers depended on the fame and reputation of the record company and the artist. Every time they recorded an album, they also received a bonus, which was based on an A to D grade system. In 1933, the recording bonus for two songs was 100 won for an A singer, 60 won for B, 30 won for C, and 20 won for D. Hence, a grade A singer received five times as much as a grade D singer. Evidently the polarization of wealth in the industry was a problem then as it is today. No doubt there is something seductive about gaining both money and fame and the adoration of the public. In this light, how great was the popularity of singers in the 1930s and how did the public react to them?
2. Feast of the Stars
Record companies in the 1930s used a variety of tactics to promote albums and increase sales. One of their strategies was to keep the singer’s face a mystery to stimulate curiosity. These “masked” singers went by names such as Miss Korea or Miss Regal. A big advertising arch was installed in front of record stores with thousands of copies of song lyrics. Passers-by could pick up one of the sheets and sing along to the songs coming out of the loudspeakers. Sometimes hundreds gathered in front of a store and performed an impromptu “street chorus,” which brought the police running.
The record companies released new songs every month, ran ads in newspapers and magazines, and distributed posters. Some put ad balloons in the sky, covered department store displays with colorful ads for new songs, and even rained ads from a plane. These are an indication of the liveliness and diversity of record companies’ publicity activities in the 1930s.

Popular singers were born in this flurry of publicity. The popularity poll of recording artists run by Samcheolli in 1935 is indicative of the wide public interest in singers at the time. The first poll was run between January and September 1935 and as many as 10,130 votes were cast. It is said that votes were sent from Xinjing, Harbin, Shanghai, Hawaii, and North America, wherever a community of Koreans existed, as well as from the outlying islands of Korea. Evidently the public was greatly interested in popular singers.
According to the final results of the poll, the top five male artists were Chae Gyu-yeop, Kim Yong-hwan, Ko Bok-su, Kang Hong-sik and Choe Nam-yong, while the top five female artists were Wang Su-bok, Seonu Il-seon, Lee Nan-yeong, Jeon Ok and Kim Bok-hui, all of them of gisaeng origin. As these results show, gisaeng singers enjoyed the heights of popularity in the 1930s. Their popularity was closely connected to the emergence of so-called “new folk songs” (sin-minyo). The genre of new folk songs was formed during the popularization and vulgarization of existing folk songs and gained huge popularity with the people who were thirsting for something Korean amid Japanese colonial rule. As the gisaeng singers were especially skilled in this type of song, their popularity naturally grew.  
Back in those days also, successful singers gained both fame and money. Wang Su-bok earned 300-400 won per month at the worst times and 700-800 won in good times. Considering that a female bus conductor had a monthly wage of 20-30 won, and nurses, teachers and journalists around 50 won, Wang clearly had a hefty monthly income. Moreover, as she was able to sing Japanese songs with fluency, Wang was also well known in Tokyo, Osaka and other parts of Japan as “Miss Osang.” Another singer of gisaeng origin, Kim Bok-hui flew in a plane hired by her fans when she travelled from Pyongyang to Seoul to record an album, giving birth to the term “plane expedition.” The above stories show that popular singers were as adored then as they are now.
Back then, as they do now, fans sent handwritten fan letters and some followed their tracks in an attempt to see the popular singers in person. In 1936, Wang Su-bok, Seonu Il-seon and Kim Bok-hui received up to five or six letters a day. Hundreds of letters were sent to their record companies each month. Some of the more extreme fans went to meet the singers in person. The story about fans of Ko Bok-su and Kim Yong-hwan who shed tears when they met the stars behind the stage after their performances is telling of people’s response to singers and their songs.
At times, however, the fans’ adoration was expressed in undesirable ways, attracting public criticism. Recent cases of letters written in blood by extreme fans of boy bands or girl bands, an act of distorted fandom, hark back to the 1930s when a similar incident arose. As related by the songwriter Son Mok-in, an extreme fan terrified Ko Bok-su by sending him a handkerchief with the character for “love” (愛) written on it in blood. While criticism is aimed at the doings of a few fanatics, the songs sung by pop stars have always consoled people’s hearts, in the past and in the present.
In the past when life was tough, consolation did not come in the form of anything big or grand. Sometimes, one popular song brought great comfort. When Hwang Geum-sim returned home from a concert tour in 1938, a large number of letters were waiting for her at the record company office. She recalled one letter as follows: “The letter said, ‘I was tired of the bitterness of life and attempted suicide several times. But when I heard your song I regained the desire to live.’ It may sound funny, but I’m sobered by the thought that I saved a person’s life with my song.”
As in the past, people today continue to find comfort in the songs of popular singers. The songs provide solace and courage to those who have been disappointed in love, those who are homesick in foreign lands, and those living tough and lonely lives. No matter how hard their difficulties become, people seek hope and strength in the songs of their favorite singers. In this respect, little has changed since the colonial period.
When record censorship toughened after the second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, singers shifted focus from recording to concert tours around the country.  For instance, Lee Cheol organized a troupe of entertainers called the “Joseon Akgeukdan” (Korean Music and Drama Troupe), which toured the provinces. Comprised of singers, dancers, actors, comedians and musicians, the troupe held a parade before their performances. The parade was headed by musicians playing hit songs on trumpets and drums. They were followed by singers in rickshaws, which had banners 2m long and 40cm wide bearing the singers’ names as a way to advertise the concert. The most popular singer of the day came at the end of the parade, a publicity strategy that gave even the late-arriving spectators a glimpse of the concert’s biggest attraction.  
In a discussion among singers published in 1936, the singers noted that on their tours the most enthusiastic response came from the people of Hamgyeong Province, while the people of the Pyongyang region also gave them a huge welcome. The most successful concerts (in terms of ticket sales) were held in Seoul, Pyongyang and Daegu, followed by Jeonju, Gwangju, Mokpo and Wonsan. In Seoul the revenues reached 700-800 won per day, and even in other areas the amount reached 300-400 won. In other words, an amount equivalent to Wang Su-bok’s monthly income was earned in one evening concert. In this way, popular singers gradually replaced the gisaeng and clowns and became the biggest stars of their time.
The life of a singer, however, did not always glitter. There are always two sides to everything and the public naturally sees one side only. Celebrities were treated as part human beings, and part commercial products. Fans regarded the stars as both idols and products and this two-sided attitude often caused pain and sorrow. Singers sometimes became stars overnight only to see their popularity disappear just as quickly. Certain problems were also rooted in Japanese colonial rule. The following looks at the dark side of a singer’s life, hidden behind the glamour and riches of stardom.
3. Sorrows of the Stars
Of the singers who dominated the 1930s, Lee Hwa-ja was a star whose loneliness stood out. Called the “folk song queen,” Lee was a singer of gisaeng origin whose sensuous image gained her huge popularity. Lee was working as a gisaeng in her hometown of Incheon when she was discovered by the singer-songwriter Kim Yong-hwan. Thanks to her coquettish appearance and pretty voice she became “a lover of 20 million Koreans” overnight. Her songs were heard everywhere and everywhere she went scandal followed. She was so popular that Lee Hwa-ja impersonators even appeared in stage shows.

A “star” in every sense of the word, Lee earned more than enough money and her arrogance rose in proportion to her fame. She became embroiled in scandals wherever she went, and eventually she turned to opium. On stage she was a queen, but off stage she created a fuss if her opium ran out. Her public image was evidently very different from her private life. Her life, brought down by opium, was miserable in the end and she died at the age of 35. “Flowers and Dreams of Spring” (Hwaryu chunmong), one of her most popular songs, speaks for the life she lived.
           Tears came in the flower of youth
           Tears also came with first love
           With a face powdered and rouged
           I’m a fallen flower with shattered youth
           My mind fettered by the name gisaeng  
           I have been petted by gentlemen
           I have been loved by the young
           Late at night in the drunken rickshaw
           Many a time I wetted my handkerchief
           My mind bound to the name gisaeng
           I have coveted shining diamonds
           And played coquette before power
           But with riches gone and love faded
           I am a flower fallen and trodden
           Must the gisaeng’s mind be left to rot?
            ― Music by Jo Myeong-am, Lyrics by Kim Hae-song; released by Okeh
         Records, 1940
The heroine of this song is a gisaeng, who naturally overlaps with Lee. The gisaeng is loved by a multitude of men, is in command of riches, as suggested by “shining diamonds,” and has played the coquette in front of the powerful. But the message of the song is that all is in vain. It is a song of lament, where the gisaeng, who has lost love and fame and whose youth has withered away, compares herself to a “fallen flower.” The last line of each verse is the most important. The gisaeng in the song laments that a gisaeng in body is inevitably a gisaeng in mind as well. “Must the gisaeng’s mind be left to rot,” she asks. The song expresses the wish of the gisaeng to be respected as a human being.
It was true that many stars who led a seemingly glamorous life were unhappy and often longed for an ordinary life. The singer Yuni, who killed herself at the age of 26, just before she was set to launch her third album in 2007, had been the primary breadwinner of her family from a young age. Her family was so poor that when she was not working, she often didn’t have money for transportation. She was forced to laugh and be happy in public but in private her mental anguish sank deeper and deeper as she had no means of release. Seonu Il-seon, another top star from the mid-1930s, confessed her sorrows in an interview as follows:
“Well, I wish I could have been a recording artist from the beginning, not a gisaeng. I’m sick and tired of being a gisaeng. But in truth I don’t like the life of a singer very much either. I’d like to leave everything behind and live quietly, looking after my mother… As a gisaeng, when I sit in front of my guests, I don’t resent them to be exact, but I feel that on one side is the guest and on the other the product. I sell song and dance and am a product that is bought and sold. So it seems the people on the other side have taken away my freedom as well, and on this side I have become completely helpless. Sometimes when they get drunk and curse and soil my clothes, I break into a sweat more severe than if I had been hoeing the fields in the dog days of summer.”
In this interview Seonu confesses that she feels like an object or product when she is with guests, and expresses the longing to give up everything and live quietly with her mother. Her words are focused on the troubles she faced as a gisaeng but they clearly reveal the sorrows of a woman and individual veiled behind the glamorous life of a star.        
Today as well as in the past, the dichotomy of being treated both as a goddess and a commercial product is part of the female singer’s lot. Image and appearance are of paramount importance for female singers and entertainers who want to be stars, but in a society that is still male-dominated the public wants female stars to be both innocent and seductive, and pure and sexy at the same time. Female entertainers are plagued by rumors of “sex for favors” and corruption in the entertainment industry, with scandals popping up just when people are about to forget about the issue. While their lives may seem glamorous, stars are no different from ordinary people when it comes to experiencing the joys and sorrows of life. They, too, are humans who cry and laugh from happiness or sadness.
The troubles of Korean singers of the 1930s were rooted in the fact that they were living under colonial rule. In the beginning the Japanese showed little interest in the recording industry. But public response to singers was greater than expected and censorship was introduced in 1933. Censorship was carried out by the division in charge of books and other publications at the police department of the Japanese government-general, and the major criteria were “disturbance of public order” and “corruption of public morals.” Free creative activity was difficult under the Japanese rule.
In the case of “Song of Seoul” (Seoul norae; lyrics by Jo Myeong-am, music by An Il-pa, sung by Chae gyu-yeop), it was revised twice before it could be released. To pass censorship, symbolic expression was naturally adopted in the lyrics. Sometimes censorship worked to a song’s advantage. The writers of “Tears of Mokpo” (Mokpo-ui nunmul; lyrics by Mun Il-seok, music by Son Mok-in, sung by Lee Nan-yeong) were often called into the police because of the sentiments expressed in the song, but that only added to the popularity of the song, which is still a much loved favorite today.
Japanese interference in the recording industry grew more severe during the Sino-Japanese War. Before that time no song lyrics were overtly pro-Japanese. But when the colonial government enacted new rules regarding film and record approval standards in June 1937, pro-Japanese war songs that expressed support for Japan’s militarism and invasion of China began to appear. But such songs released between 1937 and 1938 were not only small in number, they failed to garner much of a response because of their strong, inflammatory tone.
Martial songs began to resurface in 1942 following the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. Songs from that time include “The Volunteer Soldier’s Mother” (Jiwonbyeong-ui eomeoni; lyrics by Jo Myeong-am, music by Masao Koga, sung by Jang Se-jeong), “A Son’s Pledge in Blood” (Adeul-ui hyeolseo; lyrics by Jo Myeong-am, music by Park Si-chun, sung by Baek Nyeon-seol), and “Wives of the Suicide Squad” (Gyeolsadae-ui anae; lyrics by Jo Myeong-am, music by Park Si-chun, sung by Lee Hwa-ja), and like these, many martial songs appealed to public sentiment by dealing with the fates of different family members. This was a period when all singers were required to record military songs.       
In 1940, entertainers in the fields of film, theater, popular music, traditional music and the circus were classed as necessary war personnel and issued with an “artist’s certificate.” To receive the certificate, entertainers had to pass two annual exams, one held in spring and one in autumn. The exam was run in two parts, theory and practice. To avoid the draft and continue to perform, entertainers had no choice but to cooperate with the Japanese.
The government-general merged the Korean Theater Association and the Korean Entertainment Association under the Korean Theater and Culture Association. On the eighth of every month, all members of the association living in Seoul were summoned to the association’s office to make a deep bow toward the east (Japan) as part of a ceremony to commemorate Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, they were forced to recite the Japanese emperor’s war declaration and were then taken to the Shinto Shrine and forced to bow there as well. The tyranny of the Japanese continued to grow more severe, with police ordering performances to be halted and slapping singers if they sang American songs. At this time, Baek Nyeon-seol, who was at the height of his popularity, recorded “A Son’s Pledge in Blood” and was forced to sing this song on radio every night for two months straight.
Japanese oppression reached a peak between 1940 and Korea’s liberation in 1945, and during this time Korean singers were forced to cooperate with the colonial rulers. Today, they are given all the blame for their action. But what is the right way to assign blame? Should the singers bear all the responsibility, or should their actions be blamed on the times? Of course, their mistakes cannot be justified by blaming the times in which they were born.
The important thing is to clearly identify what they did but not to ignore the contribution that they made. A society where one is either friend or foe, where there is no tolerance or generosity of mind, is a society without progress. No individual always does the right thing or the wrong thing. All people have their faults. What is needed is the perception to objectively distinguish between mistakes and positive contributions to society.
Conclusion: Return of the Stars
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea. This prompts us to wonder what colonial rule took from us and what it left behind. Popular singers appeared in the 1930s when the record industry began to boom, and their songs helped to comfort and console Koreans suffering under foreign oppression. But toward the end of the colonial period they were forced to cooperate with the Japanese under wartime policy. The songs they sang are still remembered and serve as solace for the older generations.
Today the songs of the 1930s singers can still be heard from time to time, but as products of colonial rule both the songs and the singers are snubbed and ignored. However, we cannot go forward into the future if we ignore and deny the past. Facing up to the past may lead to disillusionment, or confrontation with things we would like to ignore or deny. But we must continue to examine without prejudice the past, which is the source of our existence today. Only when we evaluate the past without exaggeration or distortion can we truly settle with and make peace with the past and move toward the future.
The singers who dominated the 1930s are no longer with us. This paper, however, is not titled “the extinction of the stars” but “the return of the stars” because other stars have appeared to take their place. Stars continue to appear and disappear in countless numbers. Old stars become extinct and new ones are born. And somewhere, potential new stars are stirring, waiting to be born. As in the past, we continue to yearn for the stars — passionately, and sometimes madly.
[History Criticism (Yeoksa Bipyeong), Spring 2010,
published by History Criticism Co.]