Friday 25 July 2008

Interview with Kang Han-Gwon, Korea's Champion Flag-Eater

You've seen his work: many of us have. He's been on national and international news networks, and his picture is copied and reproduced in many Korea-related discussions on the internet.

So why does Kang Han-Gwon complain of being misunderstood? Mr. Han sees himself as an artist, a practitioner of a new and exciting form of self-expression, yet he claims that his performance pieces are taken out of context time and time again, and he is mocked and ridiculed, having intentions ascribed to him that are nowhere near his actual purpose. "However," sighs Mr. Han, "It's common for artists to be misunderstood, especially when their medium is so new. I'm sure some day in the future, people will understand better what I've tried to do, when people like me are more culturally accepted."

It's time to meet Kang Han-Gwon, Korea's top, and only, Flag-Eater, face to face.

"It's not a common field of interest, I suppose -- but I've never been interested in normal pursuits," Mr. Kang explained in an exclusive interview with DokdoIsOurs, "Even when I was young, when most kids were picking wild grass to add un-nutritious bulk to the soup their families would eat during Korea's days of poverty, I would follow them, hit them, and steal their grass, rather than gathering my own -- my mother always commented that I had different ways of doing things.  After I graduated university and put my molotov cocktails aside, my mother wanted me to work in a big company, but that just didn't interest me.  I made my living by brokering sales of trade secrets between disgruntled Japanese salarymen or engineers, and Korean R&D departments -- you know, something off the beaten path.  I guess it just made sense for me to become a performance artist."

Flag-eating was not always Mr. Kang's form of artistic expression: it started off as a simple hobby, discovered by accident as he attempted to repair a shirt-cuff.  Rather than search for scissors, Mr. Kang chose to bite off the loose thread, and the moment the thread tickled the roof of his mouth, he knew he was onto something.  "There's something so calming about having a piece of cloth in my mouth," he says.  "At first it was like a shameful compulsion -- like biting fingernails or berating my wife, but after a while I decided to leave my shame behind and admit that cloth-eating is simply something I love to do.  Eventually I chose flags for three reasons: beautiful, bright colours, synthetic fabrics, which go down easier, and mostly, because my wife hated finding bite-holes in her clothes -- it made them unwearable -- but nobody wears flags to begin with, except at the FIFA World Cup, so I could eat my flags without getting into arguments with my wife."

From hobby to performance art was a step spurred in 2001 by a surprising source: when Takeru Kobiyashi, Japan's hot-dog speed-eating champion, made world headlines doubling the previous world record at Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog eating contest, Kang realized that eating was becoming more than just a survival practice and a communal ritual: it was beginning also to be seen as an arena of competition.  "If dancing contests are gripping and exciting, dancing performances are transcendent art -- I wasn't much one for competition, so I chose to eat flags as an art-form instead.  Also, there weren't enough other Flag-Eaters to have competitions in those early days."

Unfortunately, the day Kang hoped Flag-Eating would finally come to the fore as an art form recognized the world over, fate had other plans. "There was an anti-Japan protest at the same time as the performance art festival in City Hall Plaza," Kang said. "I'd prepared a lovely piece I called 'The Rising Sun's Sweet Cherry Flavor,' using a Japanese flag and a Korean headband, which I'd planned to eat after finishing the Japanese flag -- it was even seasoned with sesame oil." However, Dokdo protestors had other ideas. 

Despite signs that clearly delineated the end of the protest and the beginning of the performance art festival, filled with enthusiastic animal-mutilaters ("Bestial!  That poor pig!  They had no refinement, but lots of passion," says Kang), dung-throwers, ("Funny, but no real thematic unity," Kang chuckled) and finger-choppers ("Those guys were crazy motherfu¢kers"), protestors misunderstood Kang's flag-biting as another kind of anti-Japanese protest. Cameras flashed, and Kang's heart, he says, "raced to the heavens," imagining that flag-biting would finally arrive as a legitimate art-form. His dismay, when the newspapers reported him as a protester, and not an artiste, was shattering.

Kang smiles ruefully when DokdoIsOurs shows him another photo.  "Here's another piece I did, a clever commentary I wanted to make about Chairman Mao's legacy and the rise of Chinese capitalism, inspired by lines from the Tao Te Ching and a translation of William Blake.  I'd even dyed my hair and lost some weight for the show.  Again, there was a protest on the same day as I'd scheduled my performance -- this time about some mountain in North Korea, I think.  Nobody understood my art then, and nobody understands it now."  Kang shakes his head.  "Fu¢king protestors.  So goddamn noisy."

Kang isn't angry that his intentions have been misunderstood by journalists, and hopes this interview will set the record straight.  He is a gentle, soft-spoken man, warm-hearted and wry.  For the interview, he invited DokdoIsOurs into his house, had his wife prepare a traditional Korean meal, and offered DokdoIsOurs his daughter.  "She's young.  Not a virgin, but quite pretty," Kang said, as his daughter blushed and looked at the floor.  She seemed to share her father's gentle sense of humor, and given a chance to chat with DokdoIsOurs, brightly asked, "Can you eat spicy food?" The father, Kang, is not so chipper.  His face saddens when he talks about the media's misunderstanding of his passion, but lights up when asked about the future prospects for Flag-Eating.

"It's finally starting to catch on, I think.  I've seen scenes of people cooking flags in some Muslim countries, though I prefer mine raw."
And there's a young lady also in Denmark -- her name is Hanne -- who prefers hers frozen.  I've written her a few letters, and I started a group on CYWorld for other Flag-Eaters, but she was locked out of joining, because she doesn't have a Korean ID number.  However, I hope that will not stop us from sharing our passion for Flag-Eating."

In the world scene, Danish flags are popular menu items, and so are American flags, as the Olympic hopeful Indonesian team here demonstrates in the March photo from a calendar they published to raise funds and Flag-Eating awareness:

Kang respects the Indonesian team's ambition, but criticizes their technique.

"It's like they're just holding on, not tearing at all.  Nylon-vinyl is tough, and you're not going to get a good mouthful just by nibbling," he says, with a real analyst's eye.
"Having a team, however, will help them improve their craft.  To be honest, it gets lonely sometimes for me, being the only Flag-Eater in Korea."

Kang enjoyed the American flag he ate, but notes, "I don't just do it for the flavor; this is my art as well.  I'm mostly sticking to Asian flags, to remind critics of the diversity in Flag-Eating.  I plan a piece called 'Mossy Ruins of Angkor Wat at Dawn' using a Laotian flag, for the fall.  Danish flags, though, those are just bloody delicious.  Even better than French flags!  Cooked, frozen, fried -- I eat those for the sheer pleasure."

Asked for his flag-eating dreams, Kang first muses about some kind of international event or festival.  "I don't really care where -- put it in Sydney, Tokyo or Paris -- a few other Flag-Eaters and I, we hoped to have a demonstration at the Beijing Olympics, but they rejected our visas," he said.  Until Flag-Eating is a recognized competition, Kang also has a few other personal Flag-Eating goals.

Sheepishly, he pulls two photos out of his wallet.  "I found these online, and, uh, I'd love to eat a flag like one of these, just once."
DokdoIsOurs looked at the photos (pictured above and below), nay, studied them intently, as if they held some key into the mind of this gentle, but passionate Flag-Eating aspirant.  Kang's daughter, too, gazed deeply at the photos, carried away by her gentle father's love for his art.  His commitment to an unknown art is touching, and a little sad, as the signs of aging body, teeth, and digestive tract begin to show: in all likelihood, he will not live to see the true blossoming of this performance art style, but the foundational work he has done will surely be remembered, and this reporter hopes that, at least, he could have some of these simple Flag-Eating fantasies fulfilled.