TASTEMAKER

South Korean orphan turned opera singer wants to spread his wings

Korea's Got Talent alumni wants to spread his wings - and find love

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 4:31pm

Choi Sung-bong is best known for his inspirational story, going from an orphaned street urchin to his discovery as an opera prodigy on the reality show Korea's Got Talent in 2011. Now the 25-year-old is working towards expanding the horizons of his career.

"I want to explore more music. I'm developing a second album for my international fans and also working towards getting my autobiography [which is already out in Korean] published in English and Chinese," Choi says. "Right now, I'm not known by people for my music, but mainly for my story. So I'd like my music to be known more by people round the world."

Born in Seoul and abandoned at an orphanage at the age of three, Choi was mistreated at the institution, which led him to run away to live on the streets of the South Korean capital. For 10 years he sold chewing gum to survive, sleeping on the streets or even in public toilets to keep warm.

"I had taught myself to read and to communicate by the time I was 14," he says. "I'd learn by listening to people talk or by looking at advertisements. Once, a man said some foul words to me, but I thought it was a greeting. Of course, when I tried to greet some people the same way, they scolded me. That's how it is for everything I do; it's all self-taught by observation."

It was not until an opera singer captured Choi's interest at a nightclub where he was selling gum that he started his pursuit of a music teacher. His mentor, Park Jeong-so, saw Choi's potential and encouraged him to compete in the Korean version of the talent show that launched the careers of singers such as Susan Boyle in Britain. Although he didn't win, his story touched the hearts of many.

I didn’t have a home 17 years ago. Now I’m living in just a small flat, but I have a space called home

Since the competition in 2011, Choi has had many musical opportunities, from working with record labels to performances with opera singers such as Paul Potts, winner of the first season of Britain's Got Talent. Choi's debut recording, which was self-funded, came out soon after. "My first album has three songs, all in Korean," he says. "I funded the album with my income from performances and was very involved in the whole process. It was very hands on, so that was fun."

Since the show, Choi's audition video has been viewed more than 130 million times, and became a viral sensation when it was shared by celebrities such as singer Justin Bieber and blogger Perez Hilton.

"I'd really like to thank Justin Bieber for sharing my video. I feel I can relate to him because we both became popular on YouTube, so I'm very grateful that he was supporting me," says Choi.

In the wake of that success, Choi is now looking for a new direction for his career in hopes of appealing to a new crowd. "I normally sing classical ballads and opera, and that's what people know me for," he says. "But in Korea, only the older generations like classical music, so I'd like to move towards jazz or R&B, because I want to attract more attention from the younger generation."

Asked about his views on current pop music, Choi laughs and says: "The K-pop artists are just idols and many cannot sing well when performing live. In Korea, there are so many people who sing well, and although the K-pop artists may be popular, they don't represent the true Korean singers."

Choi is now majoring in arts and culture at the Kyung Hee Cyber University of Korea, but keeping up is proving difficult "because I didn't receive any regular education before. It's a big step going from nothing to university level," he says. "It's good to be receiving an education, though. It makes me feel sad to look back at my past, but I will do my best now that I'm studying at university."

Choi recently stopped in Hong Kong for a private performance for the Swiss private banking group Julius Baer, and was not surrounded by an entourage.

Apologising to his local fans for his whistle-stop visit, he says: "If I have a chance to come back for a public performance to meet more fans, I'll definitely do it. But if I had a girlfriend in Hong Kong, I'd be back more frequently.

"I don't have a girlfriend at the moment. People think I do, because I'm cute. But I don't. I live an easy life. I tend to just go with the flow with work, but if I had a girlfriend, I'd definitely work harder. Are any Hong Kong girls interested? Or Korean girls? Please let me know," he says, laughing.

"But in all seriousness, I didn't have a home 17 years ago. Now I'm living in just a small flat, but I have a space called home, so I am very thankful.

"I've overcome so much, and my chance has finally come. You only live once, so I'd like to live my life towards making it whatever I can."

vanessa.assarasakorn@scmp.com