Jennifer Barclay’s account of Kingston’s answer to the Boryeong Mud Festival
Where else on a wet Saturday in June would you get classical dance, freestyle football and women arm-wrestling? But no-one I asked in Kingston-upon-Thames knew where Fairfield Recreation Ground was. Signs might even have attracted the curious. Eventually I got directions from a policewoman, and the friendly young man at the entrance to the park welcomed me with a surprising handshake to the 10th Korean Festival.
Last year’s was held in mid-August and was rainy and windy, one reason for the Korean Residents Society moving it forward to 30th June this year. It had alternated between drizzle and torrential all morning, and small crowds huddled around the tents with umbrellas. The day could not have been more challenged by the weather.
It opens annually, and movingly, with a parade by British Korean War veterans. The uniformed and decorated veterans then wandered about enjoying the Korean cultural offerings and food. ‘Try a piece of that, ‘Arry!’ said a nice cockney chap who’d enjoyed the kkaetnip kimchi at the Agricultural Cooperative kimchi-tasting stand. He collapsed into a coughing fit when he moved on to the radish one. ‘Made my eyes water, that did! Dear me!’
We could all appreciate the astonishing skills of Mr Woo, record-holding football freestyler, with his shoulder-length, wispy, bleached-blond hair. To the rather raunchy musical accompaniment of ‘Shake Your Ass Baby’, he kept the football in the air by bouncing it off shoulders, chest, head, back, twisting around to juggle the ball with ankles, heels, instep… Later, I spoke to the world’s greatest football entertainer who now lives in London. His skills were seen by millions in the T-Mobile commercial during Euro 2004 and he holds the Guinness World Record for keeping a soccer ball in the air for five hours and six minutes. A player in Korea and Germany some years ago, he’s now a professional freestyler. ‘It’s getting bigger worldwide,’ he said, ‘because kids can do it by themselves anytime, anywhere.’ Two kids in football strips spent most of the afternoon practicing.
Mr Woo and I interrupted our conversation to enjoy the hip-hop performed by local youth, the boys in black suits and white ties, the girls in tracksuits, with the occasional B-boy solo of somersaults and spinning. There was plenty of classical music and dance, too. A reliable favourite of the traditional Korean dancing is the fan dance, and this one performed by a team from SeoKyeong University was complex, amazingly co-ordinated, and the girls were pretty in their embroidered silk costumes.
If the weather kept the crowds small, at least the officials were all there including a mayor and the Korean ambassador, who visited the police stand at the same time as I did. One of the stranger exhibitors, the police were scouting for new recruits for the Special Constables. A Special plays the same role as a full-time police officer, but it’s a volunteer position for only eight hours a week. The helpful man who spoke to me worked for London buses when he wasn’t a Special; ‘It’s a way of helping your community, and after one year it’s easier to get into the police. I could never look back and say I haven’t enjoyed it.’ Kingston has 44 Special Constables alone; currently there is only one Korean Special Constable in the whole of the UK — making him truly Special, I suppose.
HSBC were also there, ‘letting people know we’re part of the community’ and particularly drawing attention to their international services for wealthy clients. This was the first year they’d taken part in the festival. ‘It’s such a shame the weather’s not better,’ said someone. Then British Korean War veteran came up and asked for a brolly, and was told they’d given away the last one. There were about a hundred empty umbrella cases — at least HSBC would get some free advertising.
We all had mud on our jean cuffs by the time the final raffle tickets were being drawn. But kids still happily bounced their balloons on elastic strings, and the women-only arm wrestling went down a treat, especially as all the finalists won a set of golf clubs. The Korean community had a good day out. Maybe a few non-Korean Brits had come out of curiosity, but performances were introduced only in Korean. If one aim of the festival is to consolidate friendly relations between the Korean people and the wider community, announcements in English would help to draw people in. To be fair, the presenter did ask if everyone understood, but I wasn’t going to be first to put my hand up and say ‘no’. Most people seemed to have some sort of Korean connection, a Korean friend who’d invited them or a particular interest in drumming (the SOAS contingent) or martial arts (most of the taekwondo and hapkido performers were white British).
The non-Korean Brits were therefore drawn mostly to the food stands, carrying away stacks of fried dumplings or barbecued meat. Lots of Brits were tasting kimchi for the first time; I felt sorry for the blokes demonstrating how to make it, their hands stuck in wet cabbage all day. A few tough guys with skinhead haircuts stood around drinking Hite from the bottle. There was delicious, cold ‘healthy tea’ made from different grains for 50p a cup from a man who said his church was raising money to help people in Africa; better than anything Starbucks has to offer. So there was something for everyone to enjoy, and once again the British Korean War veterans felt proud to have contributed.