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SURROUNDINGS KOREATOWN

Kite Display Helps Keep Cultural Traditions Alive

September 25, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

His heart soared as he gazed upward at the huge kites.

And no wonder. These were traditional-looking Korean kites, the type that for more than 600 years have flown bearing messages of hope and renewal. The kind that Joosung Chung hasn't seen since he came to the United States 15 years ago.

A half-dozen of them are on view at a shopping mall in the center of Koreatown to help commemorate the centennial of Korean immigration to this country.

And, this being Los Angeles, the artists who created the banner-like forms, called yeon, included Latinos, an African American and a Caucasian along with Korean Americans.

"This is a very good illustration of our lives, from A to Z," Chung explained as he studied one of the 12-foot strips of cloth covered with symbols depicting the past 100 years of Korean life in the United States. "This one is very good for first-generation immigrants."

Turning in another direction in the sunlit atrium courtyard of the Koreatown Galleria, Chung, a dentist, pointed to another kite. It bore a stylized view of stars in the Big Dipper representing the future hopes and dreams of Korean Americans.

"The star one is good for second- or third-generation immigrants," Chung said approvingly. "It's very good for them."

The kites trace Koreans' path from the sugar cane and pineapple fields of Hawaii in 1903, through the fires of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and to today.

They also document Korea's traditional culture and point to its continuing importance in Korean Americans' lives.

If the display, called "Taking Flight: Migration Dreams," is an unexpectedly colorful chronicle of Korean immigration to this country, its setting is unexpected too.

Koreatown's lively nightclubs, restaurants and shops are a draw for the 92,000 Koreans who live in Los Angeles. But many lament that the area lacks corresponding amenities, such as museums and cultural centers.

The 2-year-old, $33-million Koreatown Galleria mall at Olympic Boulevard and Western Avenue commissioned the centennial project as part of the city's requirement that new developments display public art.

It was the mall's exterior design that inspired the kite display inside its interior atrium.

"I was driving by and saw these shapes that looked like giant picture frames," said Karen Mack, who first proposed the art exhibition. An African American, Mack is founder of L.A. Commons -- a nonprofit organization that helps local groups create public art. She lives in the nearby Wilshire Miracle Mile area.

Mack pulled into the mall and spoke with one of its managers, Heidi Han. Realizing that the immigration centennial was approaching, Han proposed creating kite artwork.

Kites are common in many cultures. But a version known as the "shield kite" has played a particularly important role in Korea's history and tradition. The bangpae-yeon, as it's called in Korea, is a rectangle usually made of paper and held together with five bamboo sticks. It features a hole in its center to improve airflow.

Korean kite-flying has been traced to the middle of the seventh century when a general is said to have used a flaming kite to scare a rebel army. Kites were used in the 1500s for military target practice and in the 1700s as signaling devices for the navy and between islands.

More recently, kites have traditionally been sent aloft between New Year's Day and Jan. 15 to bring good luck by "flying out" misfortune, according to Han, a La Crescenta resident.

Mack asked artists Hyunsook Cho of North Hollywood, Silvia Kwak Simmons of Thousand Oaks, and Yanira Cartagena of Boyle Heights to coordinate the kite project. They worked with Los Angeles High School art teacher Katy Brand to recruit several teams of student artists.

Cartagena, who was born in East Los Angeles and boasts Salvadoran roots, was prepared for the assignment. One of her favorite books is "Dictee," the autobiography of the late Korean artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

"It deals with identity and the way we understand power structure and society through languages. I use it constantly in my work," Cartagena said. "So I was aware of a lot of the Korea history."

L.A. High students Gabriel Pacheco, Maribel Garcia, Carlos Ganzuma, Lidia Gabino, and Francisco Ubaldo worked on Cartagena's two kites, which represent today's Korean Americans.

One depicts a mail-order "picture bride" against a backdrop that includes images of the 38th parallel, which divides North and South Korea, and of the 1992 rioting. As a contrast, the other shows a young woman -- modeled by L.A. High student Areun Kang -- against a collage of immigration papers and photos.

"We really found intersections between our own experiences and immigration," Cartagena said of her young artists -- many of whom are Latino immigrants. "There were a lot of parallels as to why they came to the U.S. as well. There were a lot of connections."

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