If you believe you have graduated from Korean dramas of the early 2000s or take pride in never having been part of the fandom, you would probably shrivel in mortification at yourself in the event you fall for the following tropes in 2013 web series Wind Chimes in a Bakery: cancer, amnesia and parental opposition to courtship. Few, though, would consider the symbolism of love through wind chimes a banal storytelling device.
In this eight-part English drama helmed by Korean director Jang Jae-hyuk, a talented Malay boy dates a spunky Chinese girl, who encourages him to open a bakery. Just when she has gifted him the said wind chimes and found for the reluctant boy a nice-looking location for the said bakery, all the above tropes work their effects and the result is that he believes she has died during her brain tumor operation. In his grief-stricken state, he catches sight of the chimes and pulls himself together to realize their dream. On the day he opens the bakery for business, the chimes, which he has hung on its door, tinkle and in walks the now-amnesic girl, long attracted by the shop’s appearance and waiting for it to start operations. Even without her memories, she finds him familiar, and they rebuild their relationship against all odds. The last webisode ends with the couple running the bakery together and turning around as the chimes tinkle again with the arrival of their first visitor …
Wind chimes have been used to bond characters in other fictional stories as well. In Korean drama That Winter, The Wind Blows, the lonely and blind female lead keeps her window open despite the cold weather so that the glass wind chime hung there by the male lead would lull her to sleep. The only other method that alleviates her insomnia is for him to lie by her side. Later, he ties a string connected to the chime to her wrist so that she can sleep even after he is gone. He also piggybacks her up a mountain where wind rustling through ice-coated branches makes a magical chorus reminiscent of thousands of wind chimes, asking her to think of the place when he is not around. All this while, however, he pretends to be her brother and conceals his growing romantic affection for her.
In Chinese Canadian Wayson Choy’s award-winning novel The Jade Peony, an elderly immigrant reminisces over a long-lost lover back in her homeland who left her a wind chime with a jade peony in the center. With her grandson, she scavenges scrap materials from back alleys, garbage cans and smoking ruins of a fire site to construct their own wind chimes, to the embarrassment of the other family members. They finally make an elaborate one for her death, which his father hangs out from her window, fulfilling her wish of displaying it so that her spirit may respond to the chime, return and bide a proper farewell to this new, strange land. Left unvoiced in this episode, yet seemingly hovering over the actions, are the family’s conflicted feelings about their roots and of belonging neither here nor there.
The ill-fated lovers of a novella simply named “Wind Chime” also pin their hopes on a chime. The woman, who has been pressured into marrying someone else and given birth, returns a wind chime to the man, requesting him to hang it outside his door if he agrees to her divorcing and remarrying him. He stares at it for a long time and finally shakes it in his hands at home. She rushes out at the sound but is devastated to see that the chime is not outside the door. He takes it to his barracks and suspends it outside his door there, mentally asking her if she sees that he has hung it. Other soldiers start to complain about the rattle, so he takes it down and shakes it in front of his chest in desolated areas instead, mentally asking her if she sees that he has placed it before his chest. Finally, he returns home and does exactly as she said, mentally asking her if she now sees and hears it. This time, she both sees and hears it whereas her husband has left for a younger girl, but she merely stays cooped up in her home out of shame. The man then goes over, shakes the chime in front of her and states how he has placed it outside his door and before his chest. It is her child, having learnt to talk, who says, “Mama, I want it……”
Compared to the cases in these relatively traditional media, the use of wind chimes in the web series is rather curious, though. Wind Chimes in a Bakery is actually branded entertainment commissioned by Samsung Malaysia to promote its GALAXY S4 smartphone. The couple, in fact, uses the phone to capture images and video messages, which later help reestablish their relationship and change her father’s mind. It is interesting that even with such a high-capacity recording and communication device in hand, the story perceives a place for the good old wind chimes as a storage medium for memories and signaler of love and change.
Part of the reason may be that wind chimes speak in volumes screens do not. For one, wind chimes are more readily associated with poetic sentiments than technological devices per se. The dances winds conjure up in them remind some of wondrous forces of nature, the motions of joined mobile elements evoke notions of connectedness, and chimes with traditional designs stir up nostalgia and mystical connotations. Naturally, all these apply to graphics and videos of the chimes as well, but the emotions may be more strongly felt through three-dimensional experiences from physical chimes. They even have the power to engage the sense of touch in the obvious way no quantity of pixels or voxels can. For some of us, too, the acquisition of physical objects gives us a stronger sense of possession and perhaps, by corollary, extension of the self than the acquisition of digital representations of the same objects. Although the viewer is watching the characters’ experiences from behind a screen himself, the use of actual chimes probably makes them more relatable because of his identification with those real-life considerations than the use of phones alone. Then again, norms may be changing and as digital technology grows more sophisticated (in the areas of virtual reality, haptics and stereoscopic imaging, for instance) and embedded in cultures, its contents may eventually be perceived in the same way as physical love tokens.
The more mysterious factor behind the charm of wind chimes may lie in how they do not speak. Unlike ordinary text and video messages, they leave a lot to the imagination. In the plots above, all the non-web-drama characters refrain from voicing their most difficult feelings. The chimes embody those feelings for them. Such indirectness may feel less crass and awkward. Neither is anyone restricted to one or another interpretation of the chimes. Should they think of wonder at the sight of them, and if so, the refreshing wonder of natural serendipity or the bittersweet wonder of capricious winds? No one can dictate. In the web series, too, the tinkling of the chimes at the arrival of an unseen visitor at the end generates unbridled suspense. Where enjoyment of fiction is concerned, they give the reader/viewer more mental freedom.
In actual communication, however, the indirectness and ambiguity can be time-wasting and a hindrance to interpersonal understanding. When each party interprets a symbol according to his own temperament and life experiences, the language of communication may not even be the same. To choose symbols over substantial discussion, despite knowing this, is to sweep issues under the rug and let them fester. Again, this problem can also occur in electronic communication, but not simply because we can choose to trade digital pictures and footage of physical objects. It can happen with differing interpretations of chat abbreviation and emoticons, as when someone regards the “LMAO” or even “LOL” the other party uses to express camaraderie an insult. But to blame the problem on reliance of objects and gadgets is to neglect the similar obscuring effect that can be found in verbal wordplays.
Much has been said about the evils of digital technology. Some of it, such as addiction issues, is valid. There are times, though, when the phenomenon may be another instance of symptoms receiving more attention than their psychological and social causes. Statements like “smartphones hurt love life / productivity / conversation quality” neglect that device users often have a choice—to concentrate on one task, to chat with their dinner partner instead of scrolling WhatsApp message threads, to lay things out clearly instead of employing shortcuts, etc. The more observations on adverse technological habits are disseminated, the more strong-willed non-addiction and non-work-related device usage behavior that persists probably is. Sometimes, perhaps, technology merely makes it easier to execute choices people have subconsciously always wished for—to escape the confines of reality and evade uncomfortable topics. In non-technological areas, we may even have been so accustomed to milder manifestations of the problems that we accept them unquestioningly as “culture” or “diplomatic communication.”
As such, the conflict is, in some respects, not so much between words, chimes and gadgets, but between communication and non-communication, communicating with ease and communicating with a more artful mix of forthrightness and sensitivity. As one savors the unique aesthetic experience of viewing Malaysia through Korean lens in the web drama, the intrigues of “heartware” innovation vis-à-vis hardware innovation deserve a look too.