, , ,

Los coreanos latinos – far, far from the motherland.

Year: 2009
 South Korea
Language: Korean and Spanish
Director: Song Il-gon
Narration: Lee Ha-na, Jang Hyeon-Seong
Runtime: 90 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at the Korean Cultural Centre (KCCUK) during the Song Il-gon (송일곤) month of KCCUK’s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”.

It is seemingly the most random topic for a documentary: the lives of the first Koreans that emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century. Who would have thought? And it is the most random topic, one that the director, Song Il-gon, stumbled upon in his fascination with Che Guevara and with a curiousity to see how things looked 50 years on from the Cuban revolution, discovering in the midst of his readings that some hundred years ago several thousand Joseon natives embarked on a journey – unbeknownst to them at that point – of no return to the other side of the world.

It wasn’t politics that prompted the diaspora, or any communist connections that we might previously assume (falsely, because if you check the history books, the Korean immigration of course precedes communism, whether on the Korea peninsula, Cuba or elsewhere). Instead, it was a small advertisement in a newspaper that lured the future Coreanos to distant lands by promising a few years of work in Mexico and a ticket back to the home country thereafter. Neither promise was fulfilled: the work as it had been described in the ad never materialised and there was no return voyage to Korea. The immigrants found themselves slaving away on plantations of henequen (a plant fibre used to make rope) in Yucatán, doing dangerous work (the plant is very spiky) in extreme heat and earning very little. After a while many of them packed up their lives again and continued on to Cuba, hoping for better opportunities there.

A henequen plantation.

Siganeui Choom tells the story of these people, remembering the original immigrants and the families that they created as they tried to build a home away from home. Factual details and explanations are sparse in the Song’s piece as Siganeui Choom is more a private filmic history of a handful Korean-Cuban families than the typical, information-filled documentary. Fourth and fifth generation Coreanos are interviewed about their ancestors, memories that are supplemented with coverage of their own modern-day lives and identities as Korean-Cubans. The approach does not give much of an insight into the past and current situation (political, economic, social, etc.) of Korean-Cubans as a whole, but offers individual and often very personal stories.

The effort that the Coreanos make even several generations on to keep Korea within their grasp is striking, if a self-defeating battle to hold on to the culture their ancestors left behind long ago and they themselves only know indirectly. Regular gatherings are held in which Korean food is shared, attendees wear traditional clothes such as the hanbok or practice music from the homeland. And yet, there is a disconnect: if descendants speak Korean, it is often stilted, as demonstrated by the interviewee who was visibly uncomfortable when pressed to say some words in hangukmal. The most revealing example, however, was that of an elderly man recalling a song his father, one of the original immigrants, sung in moments of sadness and longing for the home country. Although the man was able to reproduce the song, he did not know what it meant, only that it had held special meaning for his father. The song? As revealed in the documentary’s subtitles, it was the Korean national anthem of that time.

Family gathering on the patio. 

There is a strong sense then that a century onward from the original emigration the Coreanos are irreversibly removed from Korea. As someone who has lived both in Latin America and Asia, it was acutely obvious to me how Latino they were: not only in terms of the language they spoke, but how they expressed themselves, in their bodily and facial gestures, in their interactions with others, their ways of dressing, and so forth. Although the first generation or two married other Koreans – or at least Asians –, the descendants have over time become more mixed, in some cases only traces – if that – of Asian features remaining visible. How would they fit into Korea, the homeland their ancestors never returned to and they themselves have only known from afar? A country in which only 35,000 of 50 million people are mixed-race and where children are still taught in school that they are ‘ethnically homogeneous’? (See also From Stranger to Kin for references or simply google “Korea” + “homogeneity”.)

Siganeui Choom does not answer these questions for us as none of the interviewees have ever visited Korea. Neither are these questions that are easy to answer, for they raise the issue of identities divided: of neither fully belonging in one place nor in another. Even those who fully identify as Cubanos (the all-decisive question: ‘Who would you cheer for if Korea and Cuba were matched against each other in the Soccer World Cup?’ ‘Cuba of course.’), are still called Chinos1while in South Korea, with so many generations having passed, they would most probably not be recognised even as “halfies” but would simply be foreigners.

The focus of Siganeui Choom may be on a few, specific families only, not even giving a sense of the Coreanos more widely, but the questions the documentary raises on identities, on belonging and not belonging at the same time, on living in one geographical and cultural present, but having and (somewhat) holding on to a very different past, will resonate with anyone living within that split diasporic reality – it certainly did with me.

1Persons of Asian decent are generally called “Chinos” (“Chinese”) in Latin America, regardless of which Asian nation they originate from.

Rating: 8/10

Verdict: Siganeui Choom is a meditative and thought-provoking documentary rather than a fact-filled one, giving a glimpse into the rather personal histories of the first Korean immigrants to Cuba while giving rise to difficult-to-answer questions about the diasporic experience and split identities.

Tweet review: 시간의 춤 (Dance of Time): torn between cultures, never fully home in either – relatable and thought-provoking docu.’ (2012/04/20 – My thoughts immediately after watching.)

Bonus Links:

  • I wasn’t too keen on the narrators of Siganeui Choom – particularly the female one. But I have watched enough Korean drama and films to know that something was lost in translation here: the direct addressing of the viewer (“you”) felt awkward in English, but reflected a style not so uncommon in Korean.
  • Article on the documentary in koreantimes.co.kr, with some interesting input from the director.
  • A recap and reflections on an article from the Chosun Ilbo new site on Korean Cubans published back in 2007. This is from a blog, “Stranger to Kin”, of a half-American, half-Korean student who was conducting rather interesting research on mixed-race issues in Korea in 2007. The blog hasn’t been updated in years, but it’s worth browsing for the personal reflections on the topic. The complete article from Chosun Ilbo.
  • Kim-Gibson Dai Sil also made a documentary on Koreans in Cuba. It’s called Motherland (2006). Watch the trailer, read more about the documentary and yet more, and hear from the filmmaker herself in an interview.
  • The World Catalogue lists Coreanos en Cuba by Raúl R. Ruiz and Kim Lim Martha, published in 2000, as a book available on the topic. It’s in Spanish. A few, second-hand copies are floating around, e.g. on abebooks.com.
  • Song Il-gon recently released his second documentary entitled 시간의 숲 (Siganeui Soop/Forest of Time, South Korea, 2012), which is about Yakusima, an island and natural reserve in Japan – the place where Studio Ghibli’s もののけ姫 (Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke, Japan, 1997) is set.
Image Gallery: