City Weekend

Film, football and Facebook Live from the North’s border: for all things Korea, this is your man

Steve Chung Lok-wai has spent his whole career studying, immersed in and admiring the two Koreas and their culture. He tells City Weekend why he’s fascinated with the subject, and why Hongkongers should be too

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 1:30pm

University lecturer Steve Chung Lok-wai is a diehard fan of Korean culture, and not many people, including his family and friends, understand why he is so mesmerised by it.

The 35-year-old academic has spent many years studying the two Koreas, ever since his high school days. He began by watching South Korean movies and then went on to study the language. He was previously a research fellow at Kyungnam University in Changwon.

His love for the culture has even seen him explore the South’s sister nation. Chung has travelled to the hermit kingdom of North Korea twice.

“My family and friends don’t really understand why I am so fascinated by the two Koreas,” he said.

In his office at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Chung works as an assistant lecturer for the faculty of social science, a few posters featuring Korean actors and actresses are up on one of the walls. But on the other side of the room is a small photo sitting on a bookshelf of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Chung last visited the North just a few months ago. At the North Korea-China border on his way in, he did a Facebook Live video.

“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, calling it a bold act, since he simply walked into the secretive country over the Chinese border at Yanji.

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During his 10-minute walk on a footbridge that links the two countries, he documented the journey and adjacent landscape. His intention was to show his students and others what North Korea was like, because he said “chalk and talk” was not the best way to learn about the real North Korea.

“I have been telling my students not to only listen to what I tell them. They must go and see it with their own eyes.”

Why are you so interested in Korean culture?

I am a movie buff. I started watching Korean movies when I was in high school. Korean culture wasn’t very popular back then and there wasn’t much choice when it came to movies at that time. After watching two or three Korean films, I became really interested because they had different elements to Japanese and Hong Kong films. I thought they were really interesting, so I decided to learn more about Korean movies. And then later I moved onto watching Korean television dramas, which inspired me to learn the language.

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I am also a football fan. I started paying attention to the South Korean football team during the 2012 World Cup. Their football skills were not super good, but I really appreciated how passionate South Koreans were in supporting their national team. I think they have a very strong national identity – that was something that really impressed me at the time because as a 20-something I often questioned my identity.

Regarding my interest in North Korea, first, it was, and still is, always in the news. Back then I was curious to know how such a small country was capable of producing weapons that could threaten other countries that were much more powerful. So I decided to go to graduate school to focus on Korean studies after getting my bachelor’s degree in international relations.

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What do your family and friends think about your Korean obsession?

They don’t really understand why I am so into this, although they seem to appreciate that it is my passion and basically allow me to do what I want. When I was in North Korea recording the Facebook Live, there were some network problems, so I went offline a few times. They were really worried that I had been arrested.

Why do you think many Hongkongers are so obsessed by South Korean culture?

Lots of South Korean film directors and producers followed Hong Kong movies in the 1980s when the local filmmaking industry was thriving. Many of them liked to watch crime and gangster movies. These film genres have somehow been influencing the South Korean film industry for some years. They especially like to highlight the element of gangland brotherhood in their movies. This at the same time also explains why Hongkongers are so into Korean movies – I think it’s because they can relate to them and hence feel a sense of belonging.

What inspired you to write your first book featuring South Korean culture?

I lived in Seoul for a while, but when I first got there, I had a huge culture shock. I didn’t understand why people there were so into spicy food, why the older people were so tough on the younger generation, why it had such an intense drinking culture and why gender inequality was so entrenched and heavily in favour of men. I had so many questions so I started blogging about my observations and experiences in the country, hoping someone could shed some light on these issues and let others know what it was like living there. Lots of people responded so I later decided to organise all these thoughts and responses and turn them into a book.

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You travelled to Pyongyang 10 years ago. How was it different from on your recent trip?

I travelled to Pyongyang by plane that time, so I couldn’t really see and feel the contrast between the capital, the rest of the country, and China. But this time around, when I walked into a small town in North Korea from Yanji in China, I really felt the difference and noticed that I was entering another zone. My initial thought was that mainland China looked way more civilised and prettier than North Korea.

Pyongyang was barren and impoverished when I was there 10 years ago. But I was emotionally overwhelmed when I stood in front of the enormous statue of Kim Jong-il. He might have received a lot of criticism from the outside world, but as soon as you stand in front of his giant statue, you can feel his power, his supreme status and the level of respect shown to him in his country. And it all became clear to me why North Korean leaders were so insistent on having statues like this.

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What was the most interesting thing you saw during your trip in July?

I had lots of interaction with many local students there. I even played football with them. I was quite surprised to find out that they were not as aggressive as other players. When I was controlling the ball, they would keep a distance rather than try to tackle me. I am not sure if they had been told to keep a distance from foreigners, but I would rather think it was a form of courtesy to avoid conflicts. We had some very friendly moments during the match, such as giving high fives to whoever won. To me it was a very special experience.

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I didn’t ask any locals anything political during the trip. I thought it would have been pointless because they had all been told what to say to foreigners.

I didn’t enjoy going to tourist spots, such as visiting various statues. Those tourist sights were all very artificial. But I was required to go every day as part of the official schedule.

Last year you launched a programme at Chinese University titled Understanding North Korea. Why do you think it’s necessary for Hong Kong students to know more about the country?

A lot of Hongkongers are interested in learning more about North Korea because they are curious and want to take a peek into the most secretive country in the world. But most of the time people learn about the country in a rather superficial way. They only come across news about the wife of Kim Jong-un or maybe about the country firing missiles or even the hairstyles of the Kims. All these are only a small part of North Korea.

There wasn’t any specific subject that focused only on North Korea before I pitched the idea to the university. There is very limited news and information on the North. We largely depend on media reports, which can sometimes be selective and biased. I hope this programme can stimulate students to get to understand the country from their own perspective and be better informed, instead of seeing North Korea as some kind of perverse entertainment news.

If you could meet Kim Jong-un in person, what would be the first thing you’d say to him?

I’d ask what he would do if he is not the North Korean leader. His father Kim Jong-il had said he would have been a film producer if he had a chance. I wonder what the younger Kim, who is around the same age as me, thinks about his life.

What was the craziest thing you have done?

I think doing a Facebook live stream video in North Korea was the craziest thing that I’ve ever done. I didn’t know how the customs would react. Luckily, they didn’t say anything.

What is your favourite Korean food?

I actually don’t really fancy Korean food because most of them are spicy. I can’t eat spicy stuff. But if I really have to choose one, I would go for Korean ginseng chicken (top), since it is one of the few non-spicy Korean dishes.

Who is your favourite Korean actor or actress?

Song Kang-ho (above) is my favourite South Korean actor. I like how outspoken he is about politics as an actor.

What do you usually do for fun?

I recently started running. I actually planned on joining a marathon in North Korea.

What was your dream job when you were young?

I actually didn’t think about it when I was young, but definitely not a teacher nor Korean culture expert.

Which was the first Korean movie you watched?

It was a 1997 South Korean romance The Contact released in Cine-Art House in Wan Chai. The ticket costed me only HK$10 at the time.

You’ve lived in Sydney, Seoul and Hong Kong. Which city do you prefer?

It’s hard to say. I liked the living environment in Sydney but I didn’t have many friends there. Seoul was just a big city like Hong Kong. Maybe if I had friends in Sydney, I would have liked it more.