For Koreans, Feast and Thanks
Sometimes you have to work a bit to find the Gotham moon, as it gets sandwiched between buildings. But when it’s at its fullest, it lights up the night sky like a Broadway premiere. Many New Yorkers follow its waxing and waning with interest; some hear the voice of Frank Sinatra singing about flying there or of Neil Armstrong talking about his small step. Its fullness near the beginning of fall is a time of celebration for many ethnic groups, among them Chinese, who have the harvest moon festival; Jews, who observe the festival of Sukkot; and Koreans, who have Chusok, their Thanksgiving.
This weekend in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, traditional drummers and dancers and leading entertainers from South Korea will join Gov. George E. Pataki, Korean dignitaries and Korean-Americans in celebrating the 20th annual Korean Harvest and Folklore Festival for Chusok. The holiday is a time of expressing gratitude, honoring ancestors and feasting. The Queens festival has also become something of a Korean homecoming weekend; it’s not uncommon for people who haven’t seen each other since their childhood in Seoul to reconnect in the park.
The organizer of the event, the Korean Produce Association, expects more than 150,000 people to attend tomorrow and Sunday in the largest Korean cultural event outside Korea. This being New York City, the game schedule at adjacent Shea Stadium necessitated holding the festival two weeks after the holiday, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar.
”We wanted to create some way for the Korean-American community to celebrate together,” explained Young Shik Chang, president of the association, a group of more than 2,000 greengrocery owners. ”We want to let the people in the mainstream know our heritage and also to pass this knowledge on to the second generation.” This year’s theme is ”United We Stand.”
On Sunday the entertainment from Korea includes Mi Ja Lee, described by many Korean-Americans as their national singer (compared several times to Sinatra), a pair of younger singers who call themselves As One, a band named NRG, the television actor Young Kyu Park and the comedian In Bong Pyo. Tomorrow aspiring singers from the metropolitan area take the large stage in several contests. Housewives will vie to be named best singer in their category, as will young people and the elderly.
This is the first year of a singing competition open to non-Koreans; many of the participants are Latinos who work in Korean-owned businesses. ”We hope to strengthen relations between employers and employees,” said Harry Chun, founder and executive director of the Korean Produce Association. ”Human disputes come from misunderstanding. We’re trying for racial harmony.”
Agricultural products from several Korean provinces will be on display, and Korean food will be sold. There will be demonstrations of Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art; a Korean wedding fashion show; and modeling of traditional Korean dresses called hanbok with a beauty contest to select Miss Apple. Tomorrow unclaimed clothing from Korean dry cleaning stores will be given away. The entertainment and activities are being produced by the Korean-language radio station, Radio Seoul, based in Flushing.
The festival site is just southeast of the Unisphere, created for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said that the thing he loved about this park was that it was an early site of United Nations offices, and that ”it has become the home for the United Nations of cultural festivals.” From April to October the park has about a dozen major festivals. ”The Korean Festival is the most venerable of all of them,” Mr. Benepe said, ”because it has been going on for 20 years.”
Ilana Harlow, a folklorist who works with immigrants in New York and has previously attended the festival, said, ”For many New Yorkers their only interaction with the Korean community is at their corner grocer’s.”
She added, ”Events like this, where you can see beautiful aspects of Korean culture, give an expanded view.”
On Sunday many festivalgoers will pay homage to their ancestors by leaving fresh fruit, dried fish and rice at simulated tombs. Ancestor worship is part of Chusok celebrations in Korea, and it is customary to visit the graves of ancestors to thank them for good crops.
Koreans trim plants and tidy up the graves and also prepare a bounteous table with harvest foods on special dishes that have been handed down for generations. Many families also do something similar at home, arranging photos or the names of their ancestors and setting a table of food. They bow deeply to each ancestor and after the rituals gather for a family meal.
For Koreans in New York City this harvest time is a mingling of joy and homesickness. Unable to return to their family places, many Korean-Americans gather with extended family here; some put on traditional dress and enact a long-distance version of ancestor veneration. Some simply eat a large festive meal, like at American Thanksgiving, and others do nothing special but phone home to Korea.
Food for the living and the dead is a centerpiece of the holiday, and the most distinctive items are crescent-shaped rice cakes that look like dumplings and are called songpyeon. Rice flour surrounds a sweet filling, which might be ground beans, chestnuts or sesame seeds; the soft dumplings are white, pink and green. In Korea they are steamed with pine needles.
Sangah Kim, the banquet manager at the Flushing restaurant Young Bin Kwan, was born in Korea and came to New York 12 years ago. She recalls that her relatives would gather the day before Chusok and make songpyeon together, talking as they worked. As a child she was sent out to collect pine needles.
In the New York area, songpyeon are available at restaurants, bakeries and some grocers. On the eve of the holiday last month, at Woorijip (which means ”Our House”), a restaurant and takeout place at 12 West 32nd Street in the Manhattan neighborhood known as Koreatown, many people were buying them. Heidi Lee, who owns Woorijip, said making them from scratch takes a few hours; the restaurant sold about 40,000 of them for the holiday. ”It’s something you must have,” she said, ”like turkey for Thanksgiving.”
The origins of Chusok are said to go back more than a thousand years. ”It’s one of those sorts of festivals that doesn’t have a specific starting point,” explained Dr. Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean history at Columbia University. ”It exists outside of history.”
A legend sometimes mentioned in connection with Chusok is that it began as a monthlong weaving festival. The king announced a contest with teams led by princesses, and a winner was proclaimed on the full moon of the eighth month, followed by a city-wide banquet.
Among the dances that will be performed at the festival by the Korean Traditional Music and Dance Institute are a farmers’ dance related to Chusok as well as fan, flower, hourglass drum and women’s dances. Boram Han, a college student who plays the jang goo, a drum, in the folk-music band called Hanool, explained that she did not know anything about traditional music while growing up in Korea. She learned to play the jang goo for an international festival at her Queens high school.
”I found it interesting and wanted to show the music to Americans and teach it to other Koreans who didn’t know our traditional music,” she said, adding that when the group gets together to play, it is a kind of jam session.
Most of the singing at the festival will be more pop music than age-old melodies. Mi Ja Lee sings in a contemporary style known as trot, with a voice that’s high-pitched and trembling; many of her lyrics are melancholy. Amateur singing is popular in the Korean community, and there are many signs for karaoke in Flushing and around 32nd Street in Manhattan. The housewives’ competition is modeled after a long-running show on Korean television. Many of the participants this year are hardly housewives; they work long hours, some in family businesses. Anna Kim, a receptionist, is competing for the first time. She said she was more nervous talking to a reporter than she would be singing onstage.
Some of the traditional dresses being modeled are designed and sewn by Rosa Lee, who has been sewing since she was 9 in Korea. In her Flushing shop, called Rose Handicraft, she shows her creations and explains the symbolism of the billowing dresses. The rounded sleeves reflect the roof of traditional country houses, and the wide bottom follows the line of the house. Mrs. Lee, who also does marital and other counseling, explained the meaning of different colors (blue is sky, red is earth) and pointed out the 10 Korean symbols of longevity in her handiwork, including turtles, pine trees, cranes, clouds and water.
This interest in longevity goes along with the respect Koreans pay their elders. Dr. Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College, explained that Koreans in America had special challenges in passing on their cultural heritage, related to shifts in religion that have accompanied immigration. Many Koreans in the United States are Christians. ”When the second generation inherits the Christian tradition, they won’t inherit Korean cultural practices,” he said, noting that ancestor worship, which is very important in Korea, is still practiced by Korean Buddhists and Catholics but not by fundamentalist Christians. It’s not yet clear, he said, how the next generations will mark Chusok in America.
Another word for Chusok is Hangawi, which is pure Korean. Hangawi is the name of a Korean vegetarian restaurant at 12 East 32nd Street in Manhattan. William Choi, the owner, said he chose the name because of its reference to family gatherings, the spirit of generosity, bountiful food and the full moon. Speaking in terms of eum and yang (Korean for yin and yang), he saw those qualities as the eum to balance Manhattan’s yang of noise and size.
”I want to make harmony in the universe,” he said. Mr. Choi, who came to New York in 1985 from Seoul, said that he felt grateful for his good fortune in America and that he thought of every day as Chusok, Hangawi, Thanksgiving.
Festival: Shows, Contests and Displays
The Korean Harvest and Folklore Festival will be held — rain or shine — in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens tomorrow and Sunday, 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Daily activities and entertainment include music and dance performances, children’s projects and agricultural and other displays; Korean food will be available.
Tomorrow, a ceremony at 11:30 a.m. officially opens the agricultural exhibitions; traditional dancers and folk musicians will perform, and final singing competitions will take place in the international category and those for housewives, the elderly and youth. A marketplace where dry goods can be freely exchanged will be open.
Sunday’s activities include the Miss Apple competition, Tae Kwan Do demonstrations and traditional music and dance. Ancestor worship rituals are scheduled in the morning. The festival’s official ceremonies begin at 1 p.m., followed by a program of entertainers from Korea, including Mi Ja Lee, Young Kyu Park, Il Jun Park, In Bong Pyo and Jin Ju Kim and the groups Bunny Girls, As One and NRG.
To get to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park by subway, take the No. 7 train to the Shea Stadium stop.
Sandee Brawarsky is the author of ”212 Views of Central Park: Experiencing New York City’s Jewel From Every Angle,” with the photographer Mick Hales.