The Voice Heard ’Round the World
One year after his story of struggle and triumph touched millions, Choi Sung-bong is on his way to becoming a global star.
by CRYSTAL KIM
Choi Sung-bong didn’t know his own name until he was 14 years old. Now, everyone seems to know his name.
In the summer of 2011, Choi’s raw singing talent and heartbreaking past as a homeless orphan made international headlines. He made it to the finals of the talent competition Korea’s Got Talent and, although he placed second, he gained explosive popularity and was dubbed the “Korean Susan Boyle.” The video of his performance of “Nella Fantasia” and moving backstory on Korea’s Got Talent went viral, amassing tens of millions of views on YouTube. It has clocked more than 55 million clicks—and counting.
One year later, Choi Sung-bong took the American stage for the first time, performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles last month as part of an international concert dedicated to peace and unity.
“I felt the performance went really well. I’m so grateful to make my [U.S.] debut here,” Choi said in Korean. “I know that many Americans saw my video on YouTube, so I was glad when I saw them at the concert.”
Choi rounded out an ensemble of globally acclaimed musicians headlined by Iranian/Armenian American superstar Andy, known as the “Persian Elvis,” and also including international singer/songwriter Shani, as well as performers from Israel and Afghanistan. Together, they sang the ballad “We Hear Your Voice,” a song Shani wrote to promote hope and world unity.
Moments after the concert ended, Choi accompanied his fellow performers to the green room for interviews. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and sharp black suit, he displayed a calm and confidence that suggested the natural trappings of a professional classical singer.
His star status, of course, is a far cry from his early days at a Korean orphanage, where he was abandoned at age 3. The viral video of his life talks about how a young Choi was often beaten at his orphanage, causing him to run away to the red light district of Daejeon.
He lived in a container box on the streets or in public bathrooms for 10 years, trudging through bleak days and nights peddling gum and energy drinks.
Choi said when he heard opera music for the first time at a nightclub he worked at, it was the first time he felt hope. At that moment, it became his dream to become a singer.
Choi reportedly reached out to Park Jeong-so, a former opera singer, after doing some research in an Internet café. Park began training Choi and put him in contact with Child Fund Korea. The aspiring singer passed his elementary and junior high general educational development tests and entered an arts high school. Just a few years later, he would audition for Korea’s Got Talent, and his life would change forever.
He told KoreAm that he would soon be making his first trek to Africa as an Honorary Ambassador of Child Fund Korea, the very organization that enabled him to live in a government-subsidized apartment when he was a teenager. This month he will be in Spain to perform at YouFest, a festival that celebrates popular digital culture.
Choi’s life has changed since Korea’s Got Talent, but the humble singer said that he will never forget his dark past.
“I’m able to do things that I haven’t been able to do for 22 years right now. After I sang ‘Nella Fantasia’ and had great experiences, I had a reason to live,” said Choi. “But still, I will never forget [how] I never starved to death or froze to death or was beaten to death. I’m thankful to be alive.”
In the past year, Choi has appeared in countless television shows, lectures and concerts, even performing at Korea’s Blue House.
The 23-year-old also recently penned an autobiography, titled Just Live Without Conditions ’Cause You Live Only Once, describing his journey. Released this summer, the book skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists in Korea. Choi will also release an anticipated album later this year, fulfilling a longtime dream of his.
“But now, my dream is to have a girlfriend, although only the older women like me in Korea,” Choi said, laughing. “No, to be serious, it’s correct that I became famous at first because of my story rather than my singing. In the future, I want to reverse this.”
This article was published in the September 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the September issue, click the link below.
Photo via Straits Times.
South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development, according to recent OECD data.
Data culled by Statistics Korea showed that more than 15,000 Koreans committed suicide in 2010, which is a 50 percent increase from 2006. This means there have been 33.5 suicides per 100,000 people, which make South Korea’s suicide rate the highest in the OECD for the eighth year running.
“There’s an increase of elderly population and single households,” a Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare official told the Munhwa Ilbo. “When you add that to Korea’s socioeconomic issues, it explains the reason behind the increase of suicide rate.” Continue Reading »
Photo via naver.com.
American-born Soo-hwan Kim doesn’t regret his decision to serve in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces.
Born in Southern California in 1986, the 26-year-old served in the United States Marine Corps for seven years prior to joining the ROK Army last month. He’s currently training at the army training center in Nonsan.
“It’s a decision I made and the best one I’ve made in my life so far,” Kim told the Korea Daily. Continue Reading »
by MONICA Y. HONG
The boys of Seoul Sausage Company have landed in the home state of Bill Clinton, the Little Rock Nine and, most importantly, the Razorbacks. With a 3-0 record, it seems the boys can’t be beat. Wearing the same uniform of camouflage shorts and “Make Sausage Not War” T-shirts across the country, they are still looking fresh and ready for action when they drive into Fayetteville, Ark.
Chef Chris shows us his eager-to-please attitude when he says, “I wanna win this food truck. I wanna win this $50,000, but most importantly I wanna do it for my parents. I can be the poorest man in the world, the richest man in the world, doesn’t matter, as long as they’re proud of me.” We’re proud of you, Chris! And Ted and Yong, too!
We lay the scene at the stadium of this college town, where Tyler gives the contestants only $300 in seed money and a weekend of tricks up his sleeve. Seoul Sausage sticks with its standard fare of burgers and balls, but is hit with an immediate Truck Stop upon setting up and selling to an early slew of customers. It’s a Truck Stop shutdown. All the food trucks must close for the night and reopen bright and early for a mystery ingredient breakfast challenge. Continue Reading »
Clinton to Tokyo, Seoul: Cool It
Wall Street Journal
An escalating island row between South Korea and Japan has been an annoyance for the U.S., coming at a time when Washington needs all the help it can muster from friends in Asia to counter China’s growing military might.
After watching the spat largely in silence over the past few weeks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in over the weekend. Following separate meetings with Japanese and South Korean leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vladivostok, her message was clear: The two nations must cool down and get along.
North Korea Is Ready to Discuss Aid From Seoul
New York Times
North Korea said on Monday that it was ready to discuss humanitarian aid from the South to alleviate damage caused by flooding and typhoons.
The South Korean Red Cross Society first offered aid a week ago. On Monday, its North Korean counterpart said it wanted to know what the South planned to offer and how much, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
Typhoon tourism: One week in North Korea
There’s never been a better time to visit North Korea. The specter of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a potential nuclear test, assassinations of defectors in South Korea, and general saber-rattling haven’t prevented a record 4,000 tourists from arriving in Pyongyang this year. There’s even a hopeful air among diplomats that the two Koreas, as well as China and Japan, might find the right balance of words and gestures to smooth out their emotional grievances that fuel regular nationalist flare-ups.
The scene at Beijing airport already gives clues into how North Korean society continues to defy economic gravity. Pyongyong elites check in dozens of boxes of household goods (from electronics to wine glasses) for their own use or to resell. Like upscale Iranians ferrying in and out of Dubai, the international, multilingual and urbane class may seem like precisely the ones to support regime change, but also profit the most from the status quo.
How Michelle Rhee Is Taking Over the Democratic Party
In a major shift, education reformers are now influential at the highest levels of the party once dominated by the teachers unions.
LAPD asks public’s help to find missing Hollywood woman with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia
Los Angeles Daily News
Los Angeles police today were seeking the public’s help in locating a missing 82-year-old Hollywood woman with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Bok Dal Kang was last seen leaving her home in the 1900 block of Argyle Avenue about 7:45 a.m. Friday, Officer Cleon Joseph said.
Kang is Korean, stands 5 feet 4 inches and weighs about 130 pounds. She has grayish brown hair, brown eyes and a light complexion with age spots on her face. She wears glasses, uses a walker and speaks primarily Korean.
John Cho Talks Go On and Harold and Kumar’s Animated Series
You’ll be seeing and hearing a lot of the John Cho soon. The busy actor recently wrapped up work on the Star Trek sequel, reprising his role as Sulu, and he has a role in NBC’s new comedy, Go On, with Matthew Perry. In addition, Cho and Kal Penn are continuing on with their Harold & Kumar characters, via an in-the-works Adult Swim animated series.
I recently spoke to Cho about his role in Go On, as the boss to Perry’s recently widowed lead character, Ryan – who forces Ryan to join a support group. In addition, we chatted about what it’s like taking Harold and Kumar into animation.
A Writer Evokes Loss on South Korea’s Path to Success
New York Times
LIKE so many South Korean parents at the time, Shin Kyung-sook’s mother saw education as her daughter’s best chance of escaping poverty and backbreaking work in the rice fields. So in 1978 she took her 15-year-old daughter to Seoul, where Ms. Shin would lie about her age to get a factory job while attending high school at night to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist.
Seoul-bound trains at the time, like the one mother and daughter boarded that night, picked up many young rural South Koreans along the way — part of the migration that fueled South Korea’s industrialization but forever changed its traditional family life.
LPGA marathon: Shin tops Creamer on 9th extra hole
The Associated Press via the Seattle Times
Jiyai Shin needed only 20 minutes Monday to do what she couldn’t in eight hours a day earlier.
The South Korean made a two-putt par on the ninth playoff hole, beating Paula Creamer to win the Kingsmill Championship and end the longest playoff between two players in LPGA Tour history.
The designer behind spectacular superhero scenes
The futuristic yet realistic portraits of the fictional world in the superhero films “The Avengers” and “Transformers” captured the eyes of millions of international viewers. Behind the spectacular scenes was Steve Jung, a Korean-American concept designer.
The Stark Tower and major scenes of the films made Jung a household name in the entertainment design field and raised awareness of entertainment design among both the Korean and global audiences.
“I think the realistic design that looks believable to others has been recognized by many,” said Jung in an email interview with The Korea Herald.
Korean-Flavored Chevy Is Thrifty and City-Smart
New York Times
The Spark also illuminates G.M.’s greater global focus, having been designed, engineered and built in Korea. The littlest Chevy, which replaces the larger Aveo, has been on sale internationally since 2009.