A tenor voice

Choi Sung Bong is a name on everyone’s lips, no? The young tenor’s sudden rise from obscurity to fame on the television show, “Korea’s Got Talent,” has been captured for posterity on YouTube, with English subtitles. “Posterity” being defined today as, “forever, or for a couple of years, whichever comes first,” it grows even while it sheds, & the posterior of our culture has become enormous. But fame is still fame, while it lasts. And we do offer enhanced, if belated coverage of Asian Pop on this website (see, “Gangnam Agonistes,” Dec. 21).

By his own account — the main points given succinctly & modestly to the judges in reply to their direct questions when he first went on stage — Choi was dumped in an orphanage by his parents at age three. At age five, tired of beatings, he ran away. The rest of his childhood was spent on the streets of Seoul, sleeping in stairwells & public lavatories. He supported himself as urchin, selling chewing gum & “energy drinks.” There were “bad things” he did not want to talk about, such as being “sold to someone.” By age eight he had tenuously graduated to day-labour jobs, such as delivering milk & newspapers. Twice he was hit by cars, & went untreated; but after a serious fall he finally made it into the Kun Yang hospital, where the cumulative effect of traumatic injuries were diagnosed & given medical attention.

Choi prefers the name “Ji-Sung,” once given him by a kindly lady food vendor, to the name with which he was registered at the orphanage. (He seems to remember every kindness ever done him.) His life-transforming event happened in a nightclub. At age fourteen, selling whatever he was then selling, he heard a performer who sang “so sincerely.” It was classical repertoire. Choi was only vaguely aware that God had endowed him with a magnificent tenor voice. The food vendor told him he must take lessons, must get some schooling. He earned enough on the street to attend some classes in an arts high school. He listened to recordings, especially by Andrea Bocelli, & tried to emulate them. Another kindly lady gave him voice lessons, for free. He remained invisible, until the day almost two years ago when, still looking so desperately young, he came out to sing before the pop judges on television.

His choice of song was “Nella Fantasia” — by Ennio Morricone, the great Italian composer of spaghetti-western soundtracks. But this number comes from a religious film, about the Jesuits in 18th-century Latin America: the only friends the native Indians had against rapacious white men (though the first missionaries sent to them were martyred). I mention all this as a reminder of the many ways in which, I believe, Christ has embedded Himself even in popular culture; & how we must be discerning & not sneer at the “cross-over” genres by reflex — as I am apt to do.

Choi did not project emotion on the stage. Watching the clip, at first I thought, “perhaps he is autistic”; then saw him smile shyly. He answered the judges’ prying questions in a monotone; he did not seem to be playing for sympathy, but to be self-protectively cautious about his past. There was a fluster of anxiety in the hall: “How will this turn out?”

And of course it turned out fabulously. By the end of the first bar, Choi had taken the house down; the judges themselves were near weeping. They waived him right through to the finals. Then after, we see him being mobbed backstage. But again: no emotional response from him, no triumph; & when he can be free of all the well-wishers he walks alone down a corridor, to be by himself.

Now, as hack journalist of long standing, my scepticism was aroused. This story is too perfect; I smell a script. And I flinch at what happens when all the “fact checkers” go to work on what Choi said, because I already love him. But from what I am able to see, after Korean journalists had done their best to find holes in his story, every traceable detail had checked out. Still, they & other writers sprinkle their accounts with qualifiers — “Choi claims this, Choi claims that” — because our world is choking with cheats & frauds & imposters, & no one wants to be caught with his cynicism down.

This last statement is not entirely true. I am every day amazed by media credulity at the imbecile level, typically towards self-serving demagogic politicians. But as I know from first hand, the journalists are seldom so innocent or ill-informed as their reporting might make them appear. They identify with party — usually with the “progressive” side; the side of “secular humanism” — & wish to help it swing elections against what they take to be the “dark side,” of religious believers & the like. (And there will always be darkness enough to go around.) “Truth,” for most journalists, has been “relative” for so long, that they can no longer detect their own lies & hypocrisies. “Good” is whatever serves the agenda, even if it requires the suppression of context to make it sound plausible. The hard simple truth, the big inconvenient fact, will be ignored or scorned. Often, the moral posture becomes the more strident, the more twisted it becomes: & what is beautiful & inspiring is spontaneously derided.

Choi Sung Bong ran off every agenda. His “claim,” though understated, & made only in straightforward reply to factual questions, was staggering. Choi unknowingly broke all the rules, by failing to be a victim of his environment. There had to be something wrong with his story.

Charles Dickens, that wonderful old hack, quite capable of cynicism, was the man to tell dangerously sentimental stories like this. He was the Victorian Solzhenitsyn, in a sense. In a book potentially so mawkish as Little Dorrit, whose central setting was the notorious Marshalsea prison — into which Dickens’s own father had once been thrown, for debt — we find the figure of little Amy Dorrit. She was raised in the Marshalsea, as ward of a father likewise imprisoned. A swill of human evils surrounds the child, & reaches out in the panorama Dickens presents, of moral posturing that extends across England, France, & Italy; by all of which Amy seems untouched. She does what she can for people, out of unthinking loyalties, out of a naïve & unquestioning human decency; she takes her lumps without whining.

Out of a gorgeously colourful background, the “vision” of Dickens is assembled — of this goodness rising from the very mire; a goodness of which Amy becomes allegorical symbol: this angel rising from the squalor. (Dickens is replete with child angels.) From the Marshalsea as from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, it is a vision of salvation. The whole world is a prison camp, & from the bottom of it, “we are rising.” In some details, the novel may seem overwrought; in its overall effect my heart still stops at its splendour, at the breadth & audacity of the thing.

Dickens was no politician. The attentive reader will never find in him anything resembling a political agenda. He is clear that the corruption does not stop at any door; that the evils extend not only through the Marshalsea & out of its gates through the streets of every city, but also through the corridors of the Circumlocution Office. He did not imagine any solutions to the “problems of society,” short of that rising. Only when men & women rise — from within their own humble stations — can the good happen. Dickens’s faith was of the simplest evangelical kind; he had no room in his mind for precise theology. His God was of the simplest kind: the Christ child, & not the adult preacher. Yet from that childish angle he could depict a “life force” at work, that cannot be disentangled from Grace, & by which, mysteriously, Love will conquer all.

I have had the good or bad fortune myself, though only in moments, to taste real hunger & life among some of the poorest & most abandoned of mankind, & see how “the bottom of society” looks & feels. These were only little glimpses, by the luck of my travels; & by more luck I have had little glimpses of life “at the top.” I am disinclined to be sentimental about the former; nor too excoriating about the latter. As Dickens showed in Little Dorrit, give the poor enough money & they will soon assume airs. The problems of “society” will be reproduced in every society, & legislation will usually accentuate the worst features, giving new scope to corruption. Salvation comes not through “programmes” but through persons: a teacher, a food vendor, a nightclub singer.

The beauty in Choi’s case is that it proves nothing. Or else, arguably, it proves everything, which is as good as nothing. I wrote above that, by his own account, his life-transforming moment came in that nightclub, when he found his own calling, which was to sing. I cannot know if his “victory” on television was any kind of a good thing; victories in this world being in their nature transitory & illusory. It is entirely possible that it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. But not if he has taken it in his stride.