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Queer(ing) Korea: An Interview with Hurricane Kimchi

The first time I encountered Hurricane Kimchi (he/she/they) in person, I didn’t even really meet them.

It was a humid June, the hustle of the city both gutting and tangible at once. Lorde blasting on the speakers: when summer slipped us, underneath her tongue. Two friends and I made plans to get ready together and go to Yagangaejang (야간개장, lit. night-time viewing/tour, colloquially referred to here as YGGJ), a queer block party-esque event taking place in the alleyways of Seoul’s Jong-ro district. June 2022 was the first time in three years it was being hosted, due to pandemic restrictions and other organizing complications. The Ikseon-dong alleys—normally home to trendy pop-up stores and cafes populated by young 20-somethings—transformed into something else entirely under the pride flags and bold pink-black decorations. Yagangaejang promised a night full of performances, workshops, a flea market, free HIV testing booths, and more; artist-activist Hurricane Kimchi, as part of Seoul Drag Parade, happened to be participating in the drag concert at Saladaeng Bangkok.

The crowd at the venue was bigger than we’d expected, so we watched the show from outside with a smaller crowd of stragglers instead. Even though the sound was muffled by the floor-to-ceiling glass we were looking through, we cheered when the audience did and let our breaths fog up the window. Some small record of our presence here, however brief. I’d done my fair share of slinking into drag shows and gay bars as a teenager but this block party marked the first time I’d been back in Seoul after turning 19, the official age of majority. I felt far from an adult, but I finally had legitimate access to the sacred, transgressive space of nightlife—one deemed doubly deviant for not only refusing the confines of a 9-5 workday, but also for its frank presentation of desire, sexuality, and liberation.

My friends and I have always talked about how to grow up queer in Korea is a form of grief. Our experiences were fraught with the loss of communities around us, the loss of being able to rely on our parents, the loss of a future in the country we were nonetheless entangled with. It was queer cultural workers and nightlife artists of all mediums who let me believe in a future.

For many personal reasons, I am honored to be able to interview South Korean queer artist-activist Hurricane Kimchi; in addition to that, he continues to do amazing work in different areas that align with DAY values. Below are some snippets from our written exchanges, where we discuss creative processes, LGBTQ+ issues in Korea, and the personal and political stakes of activism. This project is a collaboration with DAY Prism, who have created the lovely graphics soon to be featured on our Instagram!

Hurricane Kimchi (he/she/they), also known as Heezy Yang, is a self-described “South Korean drag queen, singer-songwriter, event organizer, illustrator, and LGBTQ+ rights activist.” Their most recent single, “The Journey” (가는 길이 있어요, lit. there is a way) came out in May and is available wherever music can be streamed.

Eunice Kim [EK]: What was the process of writing and producing your latest song, “The Journey”? Who or what did you take inspiration from?

Hurricane Kimchi [HK]: I’ve tried many different genres since I started producing my own music in 2020 – ballad, folk, EDM, pop-rock, holiday music, etc. People have said that I have a good voice and skills for singing Trot and I’ve actually performed covers of some Trot songs at shows before. So I’ve always wanted to try the genre with my own music too. So I wrote the song back in 2021 but it took 2 years for me to record everything and mix and master as it required a lot of work and input from a lot of talented people. I wanted to mix the older Trot vibe from decades ago and more recent vibe. I would say the sound may be more older/traditional but the wittiness of the song and the (upcoming) music video reflect the modern Korean music vibe. The lyrics really reflect what I’ve been thinking about life a lot in the past few years. I felt like people (including myself) were missing out a lot of important things and a lot of fun that are around us, because we are so focused on chasing shallow goals and going forward too fast. And like the song says, we lose some friends along the way, and we realize that we didn’t even get to say goodbye to them because we were so damn busy. So musically, I was very much inspired by the Trot genre, and lyrically I was inspired by my own life and what I was going through and experiencing in it.

EK: My favorite song of yours is actually one that came out last year, “I Know Where You’ve Been” with Samuel Tolley; I looped it obsessively last summer! What were your intentions behind that song? Did you have an audience in mind?

HK: It was actually a song that Samuel and I wrote, for a drag show we did together back in 2016. It was for just that one time. But as he was deciding to leave Korea after his time here, to go back home to the states, we wanted to have a little souvenir that contains our friendship and memories so we decided to record and release the song. As a person with chronic mental issues – depression and anxiety – I know how hard it can be to just hang in there when you are going through a tough time, and you feel alone, but actually I think the world is full of people who are all going through tough times and feeling lonely. I always feel comforted and better when someone says they have had a similar experience so they know how I feel and I will eventually get through this. So I wanted to say that to others through this song, hoping it would make them feel less alone and comforted. So the people who’d need to hear that they’re not alone would be the audience. My music or other art, I always consider LGBTQ+ people as one of the main audiences because I’m deeply in the LGBTQ+ scene and community myself, and I know what it’s like to live as LGBTQ+ people in this world.

EK: In addition to being an amazing musician, you’re also a drag and visual artist who works with comics, prints, etc. Do you think working in multiple mediums has impacted how you create and view art? For instance, does your drag make its way into your music videos, or does having a visual arts background help you create looks for performing?

HK: Having a background in visual art definitely helps with my drag, and vice versa. I think the more mediums you can use, the better you can express yourself. For me it’s easier to say certain things to certain audiences with music, live performance, and sometimes it’s better to explain who I am and what I think with different mediums – comics, posters, photos, etc. All the artistic mediums can be all just similar yet very different at the same time, so it’s fun to play with them all, and who says you can’t? So why not – that’s my mindset when it comes to being experimental with art and mediums. All my art is all connected – for example, my drag appears in my music videos, comics, and illustrations. It’s natural because the source is always the same – it’s me and my life.

Our conversation then shifted to the intersections of Korean and LGBTQ+ identity. Even the stage name of Hurricane Kimchi speaks to that juncture: when asked about it, he referenced BoA’s “Hurricane Venus,” a k-pop song he liked when just starting drag. Riffing off that phrase, he ended up “replacing Venus with Kimchi” to create a recognizably Korean name. “These days, everyone around the world knows about K-pop and K-culture, but nine years ago, it was a different story. The only thing people outside of Korea knew about Korea back then was kimchi, more or less.” This was a recurring theme in our conversation, and also resonated with my lived reality as a Korean American person.

EK: In what ways do art and activism intersect for you? In what ways are they separate?

HK: I initially started becoming interested in activism due to art – performances with messages, political illustrations and posters, etc. I thought that was cool, and thought I could try and do something like that, and so that’s what I’ve been doing. Like many people have already said to me, some people became aware of South Korea’s LGBTQ+-related issues thanks to my cute and simple comics. Some people became invested in some issues due to my drag performances. Just like that, art opens up easy entryways to activism I think. People may not read or understand long articles and news programs but they would happily read my comics and come and see my drag shows, and they understand what I’m trying to say with my art. In what ways are they separate? For me, some activism art comes out of me naturally, but for certain pieces or projects, I’d have to do a lot of research and studying – laws and political stuff. I wouldn’t say the two are separate but for me personally I just need to make an effort to connect the two in order to practice good activism with my art.

EK: Recently, there has been a boom of Korean culture on a global scale. While this has been exciting, many outsiders tend to romanticize South Korea without thinking critically of its institutional flaws, which are especially evident to LGBTQ+ people here. What do you think about this attitude? How has it affected you as a queer South Korean artist?

HK: First and foremost, we don’t even have an anti-discrimination law in Korea. That means you can discriminate against us for being gay, trans, and you can get away with it. You can be put in unfair situations for being a sexual minority and the authorities won’t do anything about it. You can lose your job, you can be kicked out of a bar, and sure there’s some things you may be able to do about it – call them out, try to fight them – but these things shouldn’t happen in the first place, and when these things happen, there should be a legal system that can handle them. We don’t have that. Same goes with xenophobia, racism, ableism, religious discrimination, etc. Korea has a long way to go, and it needs to be called out by the international society when it is wrong. Here’s what I said in a TikTok video I made a while ago: “All the cool, beautiful, amazing things you see in Korean dramas… well, they’re mostly made up. But all the terrible things you see in Korean dramas? They’re all true!”

EK: I feel like international audiences are often not familiar with the challenges you mentioned, or the ongoing activism done by queer and trans people here. What are some current LGBTQ+ issues (victories, losses, landmarks) in Korea that you want to highlight?

HK: In 2017, the Korean military used a gay dating app to find gay soldiers (Korea has a compulsory military service for “men”) and the soldiers were sentenced to two years in jail with probation. The legal battle went on for a long time, but the supreme court ruled in favor of the soldiers and they were found not guilty in 2022. Article 92-6 of the Military Criminal Act which was used to criminalize the soldier still remains.

This year, after a long legal battle, the South Korean high court ruled that National Health Insurance Corporation should recognise a gay activist couple’s same sex common-law marriage. It was truly amazing news. But the National Health Insurance Corporation appealed so we will have to see what the supreme court says in the end, and in general same-sex marriages are not recognized in Korea.

Many Asian American individuals are familiar with the experience of (predominantly East) Asian culture used for aesthetics and “diversity” points, while our most vulnerable communities become further invisibilized as the dominant gaze fails to perceive them.

The recognition of South Korean media and popular culture worldwide has created important visibility in some ways—it still amazes the older generations of my family, who came of age facing the direct aftermath of Japanese colonization, American war, and military dictatorship, that Korea is now a so-called global power in its own right. That I can go to college in America and be met with nods of recognition when talking about Seoul. Sometimes even excitement, both respectful and not. It’s clear that Korea now has a place in the Western imaginary.

This imagination can be traced back to a long history of Orientalism. Even when explicit mistrust gives way to admiration, its foundations rely on the same logic of othering and alienating, refusing to see a land as inhabited by real people. We cannot talk about Korea without addressing the (South) in front of it, a divide created by US intervention and escalation in the “Korean” War. Similarly, it is this continuing militarism that allowed for a central Seoul and created the need for nightlife and other forms of transgressive entertainment in the area: the neighborhood of Itaewon, where many queer artists like Hurricane Kimchi now successfully live and work. Queer and trans performers were historically involved in highly unequal exchanges with US soldiers, and at the same time, able to congregate and organize in the physical space of Itaewon, which contributes directly to the wellbeing of queer Korean performers today.

When I speak about queer grief, it is this complicated legacy—one example of many—that I grapple with. Coupled with the lack of comprehensive legal protections and institutional support that LGBTQ+ Koreans face, our realities cannot be simplified down to whatever the latest k-aesthetic is. It is crucial to make visible Korea’s larger systems, both historical and current, holding them accountable in a way that also humanizes the real people at stake.

EK: Where do you see LGBTQ+ activism going in the future? You can talk about your personal plans as an activist, more broadly about your community, or on larger scales.

HK: (I will speak about Korea’s situation, specifically.) Not only do I know that there are so many fierce, hardworking, smart LGBTQ+ activists here, but also I know that the younger generations of this country are already so much more open minded and better educated on human rights issues, so I think things will definitely look up, and we all know things change very quickly in Korea. However, right now the people with political power and money are conservative older people and religious (mostly Christian) people. Even the liberal politicians in this country are homophobic, and our previous president who used to be a human rights lawyer stated that he is against homosexuality at a presidential debate on TV. So in the meantime, we will have to do everything we can to minimize the damage and reach out to and save those who are in need of help.

EK: Finally, activist burnout is something I’ve had a lot of conversations about recently. We often feel a sense of urgency and forget our bodyminds have limitations. What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you sustain your activism while protecting your own capacity, especially as the status quo seems to get worse and worse?

HK: I’m working on this but it’s so not easy! Burnout is one thing and I have to manage my chronic depression and anxiety as well. I’ve gotten better little by little in the past few years I think. I take some medications but I make sure I know what I’m taking and how they affect me and I think about how I would like to change my medicine consumption status over time, depending on how I’m doing. And also I started meditating recently and it really helps. And knowing and accepting that I’m not 20 something any more, and giving my body less work and more breaks is key I think! As a highly sensitive person, I do find all the things happening not just around me but around the world extremely exhausting, and that part gets worse and worse as I get older and I am aware of all the problems in this world. I’ve yet to find solutions for that but I plan on actively working on it!

This pride month, I want to think about queer futures; worlds where we survive and take care of our own. I remember my own younger self, watching hungrily from the sidelines, waiting for something I couldn’t have had the language to name yet. Queer grief is a blueprint. It means believing in something so hard you create it.

Follow Hurricane Kimchi online:

Make sure to stream their music here and watch their latest music video here!

Editors: Alisha B., Uzayer M., Luna Y., Lang D.

Image Credits: PinkNews


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