A Hong Kong blog that does a lot more than blog
News broke last week of the planned comeback of one of the most influential figures in South Korea’s modern musical history.
This May, following more than 30 years in relative obscurity, Kim Chu-ja will return to live performance, playing at some of Seoul’s biggest venues. I heard this news on Wednesday of last week; as chance would have it, the very same day that I was due to give my university students a lecture on the lady herself!
Kim’s influence on K-pop (Korean popular music) is hard to overstate. Before she burst onto the scene in 1969, female singers were expected to be fragile, demure little things, dressed in the traditional hanbok, singing in a high-pitched voice. Live performances were almost motionless.
And then came Kim Chu-ja.
With her breathy, intoxicating voice, mini-skirts and gyrating dance moves, Kim Chu-ja was overtly sexual. It needs to be understood that 1970s Korea was a conservative society, a far cry from today’s highly image-conscious, cosmetic surgery-undergoing Korea that we see reflected in the K-pop industry.
This winning combination of sex-appeal and genuine musical talent led to Kim becoming the dominant female artist of the decade. She was prolific, to say the least. Between 1969 and 1980, Kim released sixteen albums, many of which produced under the guidance of Korean folk and psychedelia legend, Shin Joong-hyun.
While much of Kim Chu-ja’s success may be attributed to Shin Joong-hyun, it was a collaboration of theirs that started her eventual decline. The song It’s a Lie was banned by the military dictatorship of the time for containing lyrics that inferred that the government was not to be trusted. As a bizarre footnote, the dictatorship suggested that Kim’s dance moves on a TV show included coded messages to North Korean spies!
Kim’s career never really recovered from this set-back at a time when the government had full control of radio playlists. Her decline was beset by personal tragedy, too. When Kim rejected a marriage proposal from her obsessive agent, he severed her face with a broken beer bottle. As a result, a dark irony is that she became probably the first Korean pop idol to undergo cosmetic surgery; albeit for very different reasons than today’s thin-nosed, buxom-chested mannequins.
It is rumoured that Kim Chu-ja spent the vast majority of the 80s and 90s (barring a brief, unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1988) as a virtual recluse in the port city of Busan.