I began writing about culture, gender and the arts in Asia during my undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway, University of London. My dissertation explored gender and performance in South Korean animistic religion. Another final paper discussed interculturalism and identity in the Singaporean diaspora, through Ong Keng Sen’s Theatreworks. You can view, read and download both of these papers online, through Academia.edu
The ‘Transition from Articulate Outcasts to Muted Cultural Icons’: Heritagisation and Agency in Korean Shamanism (29.4.2013)
In March 2012, I stumbled across a shamanic ritual in a mountainside shrine in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. This was my initiation into the social realm of the Korean shaman. I was invited in, plied with alcohol and allowed to watch the final hours of a day-long kut ceremony. Observers crowded along two sides of the shrine, leaving the floor clear. The shaman danced ecstatically, jumping relentlessly with a cluster of bells in one hand and a fan in the other. I was surprised that the shaman asked me to leave; but she rewarded me later for staying, giving me sweets and fruit. A smartly dressed middle-aged businessman cried as his wife invoked the spirit of his recently deceased mother. Their son, Kim Young-gu, explained to me in broken English that they hold this ritual every three years; his grandmother had died since the previous ritual. Observers gave fistfuls of cash when demanded, and were given advice and sweets. Many of the older women grew tearful as they spoke to the spirit of Young-gu’s grandmother through Young-gu’s mother. Young-gu wrote down the name and title of this famous shaman: Lee Sang-sun, holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property no. 104. Young-gu’s mother was one of several apprentices to Lee Sang-sun, assisting the shaman with her traditional clothing and tools, and occasionally channeling the spirits themselves. Women seemed to be heavily invested in the performance; men seemed disinterested unless being directly addressed. This vibrant ritual was vastly different from my experience of city life in Seoul, yet the practices were obviously still relevant to the lives of performers and observers alike. Several questions arose from this event. How have these practices changed to maintain relevance to contemporary Korean society? Is the label ‘intangible culture’ one such modification? What responsibilities does this label involve for individual shamans? How might these responsibilities affect the social perception of shamanism in Korea, or the relationship between shaman and observer? What role does gender play in the immersion and agency of the observer and shaman?
This essay looks at Singapore-based company, Theatreworks, directed by Ong Keng Sen1. My focus is the intercultural productions of Theatreworks of the 1990s and 2000s, which have been highly criticised internationally. In researching this work, the aim was to find the issue underlying all of Ong’s intercultural works. Peterson identifies the problem: ‘apart from the fact that one is able to create such theatre, what is the point of creating it?’ (216, Peterson’s emphasis) Ong is often criticised for using the power of Singaporean “New Asia” to colonise the Other of “Old Asia.” I argue that Ong’s works are not focussed on the Other, but on the Self, particularly in relation to Ong’s identity as Singaporean Chinese. First I consider the contextual framework of multiculturalism, identity and language in Singapore. Next I outline the criticisms of Ong’s approach to interculturalism. Finally I investigate identity, the Self and the Other through close analysis of Diaspora.