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Yoon Bok-hee: a Korean Kitten in Kingston

Yoon Bok-hee at the Rose Theatre Kingston“Aigoo!” grumbled veteran pop diva Yoon Bok-hee as she bent down to untangle a kink in the microphone cable. Her back didn’t seem to be giving her any problems though. She told us twice, to much applause, that she is now 63 years old, and very sprightly she is too. This was all part of the banter which forms much of the interaction between Korean performers and their audiences – Kim Soo Hee last year provided a similar level of conversation.

Yoon’s programme at the intimate Rose Theatre in Kingston consisted of items for which she is famous – gospel songs, spirituals and musicals. Nothing too energetic, but plenty of emotion and spirituality. Perhaps one of the highlights was a whispered performance of Golgotha from Jesus Christ Superstar. And she rounded off with the ever-popular Yeoreobun (여러분).

Yoon Bok-hee at the Rose TheatreBacked only by a solo guitar, Yoon lacked the instrumental support for her own wide dynamic range. Indeed, at high volume, Yoon was unable to hear the accompaniment, resulting in some of the top notes being on the flat side. Self-effacingly, one of her encores was deliberately and comically out of tune.

After the concert, Yoon came front of house for an informal photo session with members of the audience. It was all over too quickly, but it was great to have an icon from South Korea’s musical and fashion history over in the UK again.

There were some helpful programme notes, and given the complete lack of biographical information about her otherwise available on the web, I reproduce here an edited version, with thanks to Theatre for All.

Yoon Bok-hee
Fashion Icon, Charismatic singer and the mother of the Korean musical

Yoon Bok-hee was born in Seoul on 9 March 1946, to parents who were famous entertainers. Her father, Yoon Bu-gil, graduated from Kyung-sung Music School with a vocal music degree and became a popular comedian. Her mother, Sung Kyung-ja, was a well-known classical ballerina. Yoon’s older brother, Pastor Yoon Hang-gi, was a member of the group “Key Voice”, and was a singer-songwriter in the vanguard of Korean rock music. It is therefore not too much to say that Yoon Bok-hee was born into the world of performing arts.

In December 1951, five year old Yoon Bok-hee debuted with the Nak-Rang Music Troupe’ in the Joong-Ang Theatre. At the age of eight, she worked with popular singer Hwang Jung-ja, and the following year she recorded the song “Bo Go Ship Eun Umma” (보고 싶은 엄마 – I miss you mother) written by Son Mok-in. So her early career already promised great things for the future. But she had to come to terms with the death of her mother at the age of seven, and again the death of her father when she was thirteen. Despite loneliness and poverty she resolved to continue with her life in music.

The Korean KittensIn 1963 at the age of seventeen, Yoon performed at the opening of the Walker Hill Resort in Seoul, sharing the billing with Louis Armstrong. With some daring, she did an impression of Armstrong, which caught the public’s attention. Her fame growing, she had her first overseas performance in October that year, in the Philippines. In October 1964, exactly one year later, she gained an opportunity to become a worldwide star. After watching her performance in Singapore, English show promoter Charles Owe offered her the chance to join the vocal group called the “Korean Kittens”. In November, the group went to London and performed in the BBC Tonight Show wearing hanbok. The act went down well with the British public, and contributed to Yoon’s fame at home.

She toured extensively with the Kittens. In 1975, as a dedicated performer and at the same time a committed Christian, Yoon returned to Korea to sing in an evangelical musical. Then, in 1977 she sang the role of Edith Piaf in the musical “Padam Padam Padam”, receiving a Baek Sang Dae Sang award for her performance. Her transition to the world of the musical was complete. Two years later, to great acclaim she took the role of the ever-young Peter Pan in the musical of the same name. In the same year, she sang “Yu Ru Boon” (It’s You) at the Seoul international Song Festival, winning the Grand Prix, – a memorable moment in Korean popular music history.

Yoon Bok-hee performed in many musicals since the. She performed the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar for 20 years from 1980. She has also performed in The Sound of Music (1981), Gwang Gae Toh Dae Wang (King Gwang Gae Toh) (1988), and Cats (1989), among others, becoming known as the Mother of Korean Musicals in the process. In September 2001 Yoon performed in a concert at Sejong Arts Centre to celebrate 50 years dedicated to singing and performing, also announcing a celebratory album, Sharm (Life). In April 2007 she stood on the stage together with her elder brother Yoon Hang-gi in a show entitled CBS Easter Concert – Yoon Hang-gi and Yoon Bok-hee’s Yu Ru Boon – an inspiring and moving concert dedicated to two veteran singers.

Yoon Bok-hee performed at the Rose Theatre in Kingston on 16 June 2009, as the gala opening event of the 3rd New Malden Arts Festival.

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