Will Kpopalypse make it all the way through a book about some opera singer dude? Will his head explode? Read on and find out!
Singing Is My Life: A Memoir of My Journey from Homelessness to Fame
Author: Sungbong Choi
Fremantle Media, 285 pages, softcover, 214mm x 140mm
RRP: US $16.95
My first thought upon looking at the cover of this book was "who is this Kurt Cobain-dressing motherfucker?". Fortunately, the back of the book was very informative:
Apparently this Sungbong Choi guy was hyped as "Korea's Susan Boyle" and was a big deal or something, plus he was a homeless for about a decade which explains the grunge fashion. If, like me, you've never heard of this guy because you don't watch worthless TV talent competition shows, you might want to check out his appearances on Korea's Got Talent in 2011 just to get up to speed. Here's his first appearance singing Ennio Morricone's "Nella Fantasia" from the film The Mission, and this is apparently the performance that went viral:
Then he got invited back to the semi-finals, where he returned with more mature fashion sense and sung another Ennio Morricone film song, the title song from "Cinema Paradiso":
And here's his finals performance, where he sings "Nella Fantasia" again, this time with an orchestra.
Sungbong's song selection is ace but he didn't actually win the show outright, instead hitting second place to some crappy dance girl who can't even pop and lock as well as Crayon Pop, but then that's Korean TV shows for you. However in a firm case of Yezi Syndrome, Sungbong was much more popular and successful after the show anyway despite not being the official winner.
Never mind all that though, what's the book like? Since we already know how the story ends, spoilers aren't really an issue I'm concerned with here, so let's go through it all chapter by chapter.
Preface to the English edition
Sungbong doesn't go into any details at all, but apparently the process of publishing an English version of this book was a right cunthole and took about 2.5 years.
Preface to the Korean edition - I Grew Up On The Streets
Sungbong mainly expresses concern that you might not like him much after reading his book, because he's not going to pull any punches on what his life was like.
Sungbong thanks a bunch of people, including the readers of the book (i.e me) who he "cannot thank enough".
Part 1: An Unforgettable Childhood That Is Best Forgotten - Ten Years On The Streets
Sungbong talks about running away from an orphanage at age five because he didn't like all the being ordered around. He wanders aimlessly for days with no food, ends up in some shithouse red light district and learns from other street kids how to buy gum, then mark it up and sell it in venues so he can buy stuff to eat. He sleeps in corners of nightclubs and public toilets, and hangs around with gangsters and prostitutes. He survives being abducted by a human-organ-selling gang, being buried alive, being raped, being hit by cars multiple times, being stabbed by cunts (he also stabs a few back), being used by an older prostitute girl to help score rental accommodation by posing with the hooker and her client as a mock family so they can rent out a hotel room for a few hours to fuck (while he sits in the corner and watches), and most terrifying of all, being duped into grinding for items by MMORPG-gaming gold-sellers. He also becomes addicted to hard drugs, but ends up kicking the habit by default because he pisses off the drug-selling gangsters so much that he can't really maintain supply.
Part 2: Setting Out into a New and Strange World - Three Years in a Night School
Sungbong finally gets somewhere to live (of sorts) because someone at a night school is cool enough to let him sleep on a couch there when the building isn't being used, I guess they figured it's cheaper than hiring a security guard. Sungbong doesn't attend classes or do much though except beg a lot and really annoy the fuck out of everyone. One of the students introduces him to church and Sungbong doesn't completely reject the idea out of hand because they basically bribe him with food and kindness which is pretty much how the church works with homeless people. Sungbong also becomes a thief for a while, gets into some legal trouble, and finds out that he actually has parents when the police run a check on him - and predictably the parents don't give a single fuck about him. He also learns dancing for a while but he has to stop because of health reasons, because he has no change of clothes or way to shower. Oh and maybe he gets raped in this chapter instead of the last one, I can't remember.
Part 3: Would I Be Able to Live like the Others? - School and Music
Sungbong hears opera in nightclubs (what nightclubs play opera and why is anyone's guess) and decides to study and to do music. He goes to school but because he's a street urchin who can't relate to anybody he hates everyone and they hate him so he quits and takes the GED instead idol-style, continuing music study privately. He takes a bunch of shitty manual labour jobs (while also collecting welfare) so he can eat and afford to live in a cockroach-infested basement that he ends up in after the night school finally get sick of him being annoying and tell him to fuck off, plus he needs money to afford expensive singing lessons. He has a sketchy relationship with the people trying to help him, and fucks off to a different neighborhood for a year only to end up miserable and doing even more shit manual labour jobs, so he returns but is too miserable to even sing anymore.
Part 4: Will I Be Happy Now? - One Step into the World
Sungbong starts to realise that he has some mental issues from his (lack of) upbringing so he checks himself into a psych ward, but then leaves two weeks later when it's revealed that it'll take years for them to make him "normal". Sungbong gradually becomes more depressed and suicidal to the point where when it's suggested to go on Korea's Got Talent he's really not that keen on the idea and has to be badgered like fuck to even try out for it. He eventually relents, resulting in his life looking up drastically as he's swept away by viral fame and his income increases almost overnight from starvation level to poverty level. The book then swiftly becomes a lot less interesting as he boringly talks about god and faith a lot and how lucky he is, because it's not a book written about Koreans and music unless there's incessant god-bothering and extreme humility every few pages.
Epilogue: To All of You Who Gave Me the Reason to Live: Thank You and I Love You
You get the idea. Moving on.
Interviews: Attesting To Sungbong Choi's Life
There's some interviews here with some of the people who looked after him, which are fairly redundant for anything except verification purposes, as they correlate pretty much exactly with Sungbong's own chapters. It makes sense that these interviews would be included for verification as I'm sure a lot of people would be cynical and think that he didn't really spend ten years on the streets and that some falsehoods were told to make his struggles seem more appealing to the heartstrings. Koreans especially on the Internet are human garbage willing to make up lies to attempt to destroy musicians' careers (see Tablo, T-ara, etc etc) so being forearmed against the hive-mind of fuckheads is certainly sensible, but sadly these interviews as a result aren't that insightful and feel like a retread of the same information. A lot more interesting is the interview with the Korea's Got Talent production team who reveal some interesting things, including that the finals performance was actually a pre-record (i.e mimed to a pre-recorded backing track, including a mimed orchestra, something which happens all the time but few people believe). Watch the above videos again - can you tell?
A glossary of some Korean terms but it's fairly useless as all of these terms are footnoted when they first appear in the text anyway.
BUT KPOPALYPSE YOU HAVEN'T TOLD US IF YOU LIKED THE BOOK OR NOT YOU CAONIMA
Being a poverty-stricken musician for a large portion of my adult life and having slept on a few piss-soaked floors of my own means that I've rubbed shoulder-to-shoulder with many of the same types of people that Sungbong has, which means that not much in this book surprised me in terms of the horrible shit that happens to Sungbong, in fact while reading I predicted almost all of it (or maybe it's just my Boram-given ESP). However Sungbong's high determination levels were/are certainly very impressive. While I've never been homeless myself, quite a few people I know certainly have, and I know how hard it is for people who've been homeless for extended periods to reintegrate themselves into a "normal" lifestyle and socially adapt because I've seen them try and regress so many times. I read through the entire book before I saw the videos of him singing, and the fact that he managed to cultivate such a good voice is impressive, but not as impressive to me as the fact that he gave serious academic study a red-hot go after ten years on the streets with no schooling whatsoever, which must have been one hell of a culture shock. Sure, I give religion a lot of shit in my posts but hey if belief in the Tooth Fairy or the Unicorn Queen can give someone the strength of mind to increase their determinations to make something positive from their lives, then I'm all for it, whatever works for them.
So in other words, even jaded-as-fuck Kpopalypse found something worthwhile in this book. I honestly couldn't stop reading the thing once I started and blew through it in about a week of public transport rides, it's highly engaging and moving stuff, really. Also because of his lack of manners due to his upbringing, Sungbong is hilariously rude to people who deserve it, which is fantastic and brings much dark humour value. This interaction with someone at church is one of many Sungbong iljin highlights:
One day as I was leaving the worship service, I saw a lady staring at me. I knew right away what was in her eyes: disregard or contempt.Although I'll never learn to like opera singing (I much prefer the instrumental originals to Sungbong's versions of the Ennio Morricone songs), at least ideologically, Sungbong is the hero Korean music needs. I want some idols who make music that I actually listen to to follow his example, and it probably won't happen especially now that Sungbong has learned how to be all nice and shit, but I can dream. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book and I'm giving it four Unicorn Queens out of five.
"What school did you attend?" she asked.
"I didn't go to school."
She laughed. She laughed unpleasantly. It was a sneer, meaning that it was just as she had expected: Why would a thing like me ever be at a place like this?
"Fuck, am I not human because I don't go to school? Why are you sniggering like that and bullshitting around?"
"My, kid... you need to watch your mouth when talking around adults."
"You've heard about how when they hit you on the left cheek, you should also give them the right cheek, right? Do you want to be hit exactly like that?"
However make that five Unicorn Queens if you're a vocalfag-hater like me and you appreciate Sungbong steadfastly refusing to discuss the technicalities of vocal technique at any stage during the book as much as I did. Even opera singers know that that shit is FUCKING BORING AND NOBODY CARES. Bless Sungbong Choi and good luck to him for the future.