Things I Learned at #AAS 2017, part1 (Thursday, 16 March)

Sheraton Centre Toronto copyThis year’s conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto (March 16–19), the first one I ever attended, was enormous. Still overwhelmed by the experience, I publish some of my notes on the various panels I attended and presentations I heard, interspersed with tweets I posted during the conference. Due to the volume, I organise the material in daily installments – meaning that each post focuses on one conference day, I probably won’t be able to keep up a daily posting rate. In my listings, presentations in bold are those I heard myself, while those in italics refer to situations where I couldn’t hear a presentation as I had to leave early or came late. On my own presentation about “Pansori and Brecht” and our panel (“Koreanness on Display”), see my pre-conference blogpost.

After standing in line for my badge (and the fancy “panelist” add-on), my conference started with a lunch-meeting: Indian food with Siyuan Liu (editor of the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre and author of Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, see also his interview on the Theatre History Podcast), whom I first met in person, and CedarBough Saeji, host of our panel on “Koreanness on Display” (and author of the blog Footnotes).

Piying xi (Shadow Puppet Show) “Shadow/Point Whitesnake”

Then we headed to a performance of the Story of the White Snake (Bái Shé Zhuàn 白蛇傳), a famous Chinese legend, to which Siyuan had invited us. The performance was part of the Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature (CHINOPERL) that took place in conjunction with the AAS-conference. Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-yu Fong of Chinese Theatre Works from New York City presented a “mobile” version of their theatrical production of White Snake, “a unique, solo spectacle that fuses music, Powerpoint projections, and traditional shadow puppetry into a performance style that is ephemeral in form, flexible in scale and suitable for any sized performing venue.”

This is the description of the work I found on Chinese Theatre Works’ homepage:

The well-known romance of Whitesnake (a magical snake spirit who takes on human form and is a gifted healer, lover, mother and fierce warrior) is a favorite in every genre of Chinese literature, stage performance and opera. CTW’s production uses a live storyteller, flanked by projections of over 200 brilliantly colored images (based on antique Chinese leather shadow figures) translates this ancient legend for contemporary American audiences of all ages.

Still a bit jet-lagged, I enjoyed the multimedial spectacle with Stephen Kaplin’s engaged narration as a chance to learn more about theatre from China (about which I know virtually nothing – there were more chances to make up at AAS, though!). This video which I took from the third row gives you an impression of the performance. (An excerpt of the “original”, a combination of Kun Opera and Shadow Puppetry, is available on Youtube, see also a brief review in the New York Times.)

Later that afternoon, I met Haeree Choi (최해리) of Yonsei University, the discussant of our panel. We briefly talked about the presentations and then headed to the first “official” event:

Asian Studies, Interdisciplinarity, and Comparative Work (Longxi Zhang’s keynote address, 18:00–19:00)

Keynote address, Thu, March 16, 6:00 to 7:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Lower Concourse, Grand Ballroom East


In today’s global interconnectedness, no one can overlook the significance of Asia for the West and the other parts of the world, and this is the result of many changes that have taken place over several decades in the recent past. In this lecture, the speaker will briefly discuss several important works that have contributed to our understanding of the interrelations between Asia and Europe, East and West, and then will comment on the interdisciplinary nature of Asian Studies and the importance of a comparative perspective in understanding different cultures in both their similarities and their differences. Asian Studies, he will argue, provides an excellent forum for the discussion of human diversity as well as what binds humanity together despite linguistic, cultural, historical, social, and political differences. As scholars in Asian Studies and as comparatists, we are witnessing some significant changes in our world today, and we should face the challenges and contribute to a better and more peaceful way of living in our world for all humanity.

Longxi Zhang copyThe keynote address was delivered by Longxi Zhang (City University of Hong Kong), author of From Comparison to World Literature (SUNY Press 2015). Prof. Zhang discussed different perspectives on China from the West. These included also Adolf Reichwein’s 1923 dissertation China und Europa: Geistige und künstlerische Beziehungen im 18. Jahrhundert, published only two years later in English (if academic publishing were this swift today…) as China and Europe: Intellectual and Artistic Contacts in the Eighteenth Century (London, New York 1925, available in full online). Zhang argued against an “othering” based on the old dichotomy of Western individualism and Eastern collectivism, and instead suggested to differentiate within and between cultures, in interdisciplinary dialogue aiming at mutual understanding. His piece of advice that reading more discourages dichotomizing certainly rings true. His final slide – “bridges, not walls” – was encouraging, given the current political climate, yet bears the question of who provides the bricks. In the following days, this question was answered by many inspiring – and rarely dichotomizing – presentations and talks.

An interesting comment mentioned Suzhou, often referred to as the “Venice of the East”, and questioned the motives of such cross-cultural comparisons. I can relate very much – every time I hear about “the Korean Robin Hood”, “the Korean Romeo & Juliet”, or “the Korean Shakespeare” (see a blogpost that provides one “candidate”.), I wonder if this is directed at those who live there or more of a promotional method. In fact, there are many places called “Venice of the East”, according to Wikipedia (still I found the “Naples” of Korea for Tongyeong more fitting…).

Remembrance of Neighborhoods Past: Preservation of Historical Memories in Seoul’s Urban Regeneration

Panel 16, Thu, March 16, 7:30 to 9:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Birchwood Ballroom

  • Soyoon Choo (University of Southern California), “Urban Preservation: Lessons or Legacy of the Urban Past? Understanding the Dynamics behind Seoul’s Preservation-Based Shantytown Revitalization”
  • Hyunjoon Shin (SungKongHoe University), “Betwixt and Between Urban Regeneration and Industrial Displacement in a Former Industrial Town: The Case of Guro (Seoul, Korea)”
  • Pil Ho Kim (Ohio State University), “In the Liberation Village: The Cinematic Landscape of an Early North Korean Refugee Settlement in Seoul”
  • Discussant: Kelly Y. Jeong, University of California, Riverside

The very first panel presented three takes on urban redevelopment and revitalization in different neighborhoods in Seoul: Baeksa Maeul (백사마을), Seoul’s “last shantytown” (마지막 달동네) in Nowon District (Soyoon Choo), Guro Digital Complex (구로디지털단지) in Guro District (Hyunjoon Shin), and Haebang-chon (해방촌) in central Seoul (Pil Ho Kim). The presentations include fruitful comparisons of municipal planning and the realities of one of the last remaining shantytowns, between romanticized retro-imagery for members of a young “Instagram”-generation and communal nostalgia of older generations; area-branding following transformations from industrial to “digital” areas; and cinematic depictions of the recent post-war past in movies (all of them available on Youtube thanks to the Korean Film Archive) such as Mr Park (박서방, 1960, Youtube), A Coachman (마부, 1961, Youtube), Bloodline aka Kinship (혈맥, 1963, Youtube), and Aimless Bullet (오발탄, 1961, Youtube). (See Darcy Paquet’s Korean Film-page for reviews of A Coachman and Kinship.)

Hyunjoon Shin copy

Among other things, I finally learned why the district cultural center of Guro-gu is called “Art Valley”: It seems to be a reference to the “G-Valley” branding (in analogy to Silicon Valley).

When Pil Ho Kim talked about the movie Bloodline, I was reminded of the eponymous play I saw last year at the Myeongdong Theatre (the official English translation of the title is Bloodline). It was a new production of Kim Yeong-su’s (김영수) classic play by Yun Gwang-jin (윤광진). Besides the tagline – “This is not a place for people. This is hell.” (at least on the English page, the Korean one seems to stress family values a bit more) – the production used a “historical realism” for nostalgic scenes of love among the lumpenproletariat. (See the production’s “highlights clip” for some impressions.) It would be interesting, though, to consider how different productions of this play diverge in their depiction of the foundational post-war era.

Pil Ho Kim copy

Un/Popular Sound in Colonial Asia

Panel 4, Thu, March 16, 7:30 to 9:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Pine East

  • Fritz Schenker (Washington University in St. Louis), “’Manila Bandsmen’: Musical Migrations and Imperial Histories”
  • Laura Jo-Han Wen (Washington University in St. Louis), “Cinema, Gramophone Records, and Sonic Modernity in Colonial Taiwan”
  • Hye Eun Choi (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “Munye-bu and Korean Record Production in the 1930s”
  • Jennifer Hsieh (Stanford University), “From ‘Noisy Disturbances’ to ‘Noise Control’: Acoustic Modernity in Colonial Taiwan”
  • Discussant: E. Taylor Atkins (Northern Illinois University)

On the next panel, hosted by E. Taylor Atkins, a noted expert on colonial culture (see his Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945, U of California P 2010), I originally wanted to hear Hye Eun Choi’s talk on the music industry in colonial Korea. Her presentation seems to relate closely to her ongoing PhD-project “The making of the Recording Industry in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945” (University of Wisconsin – Madison). While early records appear to be a relatively established field of research in Korean-language scholarship, a comprehensive English-language account would certainly be appreciated, especially as Choi’s dissertation promises “a multilayered cultural history” that includes “transcultural adaptations, negotiations, and co-productions” and locates “the Korean recording industry squarely within not only the regional history of the Japanese empire but also the history of the global recording industry”. Looking forward to this dissertation!

Instead, I heard Jennifer Hsieh on noise control, on how metaphorical treatment of noise turned towards more scientific ways of dealing with it, and how the judiciary regulation of urban sound in colonial Taiwan related to the Japanese metropolis and Western models.

The recent edited collection Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique (edited by Ronald Radano, Tejumola Olaniyan, Duke UP 2016), which I briefly browsed in the book section of AAS the following day, might give some ideas for such an approach. Exploring “empire as an audible formation”, the book seems to focus mostly on Africa and Latin America, though, apart from two chapters on China.

Another thought I had: The recent revival of the “Insa-dong Street Soripan” (인사동 거리소리판), an outdoor concert for bypassers performed by a group of pansori singers in downtown Seoul, wasn’t met with universal applause. A shop owner complained about the noise, seemingly afraid that the singing might disturb their customers (see my report for details). This seems to be an ongoing problem with busking performers, so not specific to traditional music, nevertheless I found it interesting how the pansori voice, evocative of the (pre-colonial?) past, is perceived in the staged environment of a “traditional” tourist shopping street.

The day faded away – after the buffet at the graduate student reception – with some preparation for our panel’s presentation.

– 16 March 2017 (木)


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Abroad, Academia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s