Weaving Poetry, Beauty and Meaning

Huang Juxiang

Huang Juxiang (lit. fragrance of yellow chrysanthemums), Yamamoto Yueniang’s Peranakan mother and look-alike

Enveloped in a mesmerizing atmosphere with a light touch of folk magic, Southeast Asian drama The Little Nyonya traces the story of its fairylike, Japanese-Peranakan heroine Yamamoto Yueniang from the 1930s to the present day. Its origins, however, began much earlier. Since the 10th century, millions of people from the southern coasts of China had been migrating to the Malay Archipelago, most of them seeking economic opportunities and better living conditions. However, these migrants were largely male as travel restrictions, financial constraints and lack of feminine independence in the patriarchal Chinese society discouraged women from joining the men for a long time. As a result, many early male migrants married local women and their offspring came to be known as Peranakan, a Malay and Indonesian word for locally born people of mixed Malay and foreign ancestry, or Baba-Nyonya. A term with Persian and Hindi-Urdu roots, baba refers to a male Peranakan Chinese (there are also Peranakans of Indian and Portuguese descent), whereas nyonya, a combination of a Chinese dialect word for young lady (nyo) and a Javanese word for madame or concubine (nyai), is the female equivalent.

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A Headful of Mountain Flowers

Poem embroidered on a silk handkerchief in 2004 Hong Kong TVB palace drama War and Beauty

The most boorish and mercenary character in Hong Kong drama War and Beauty is also its greatest romantic.

Eager to leave poverty behind and make a name for himself in the dog-eat-cat world of 19th-century Qing China, delivery agent Kong Wu has no qualms leaving a group of defenseless girls to the mercy of ruthless thugs so that he can complete his job. Yet when he discovers a silk handkerchief embroidered with a poem inside a second-hand battle garment possibly donated by the palace, he develops feelings for its creator even though he does not know her. Continue reading


Jordanian Inspiration, Joseon Incarnation

Jang Dan-bi and Queen Soheon placing a hanbok paper cut-out against the starry sky in 2015 Naver Korean web drama / MBC drama special Splish Splash Love / Splash Splash Love / Pongdang Pongdang Love

 詠半月 (영반월) – 황진이 (黃眞伊)

誰斷崑山玉 수단곤산옥
裁成織女梳 재성직녀소
牽牛離別後 견우이별후
謾擲壁空虛 만척벽공허


Half Moon Poem – Hwang Jin-yi (Joseon poet and gisaeng)

Who broke off jade from the mythical Kunlun mountains
and fashioned it into a comb for the weaver fairy?
After she and her cowherd lover separated,
it was thrown haphazardly on the blue sky.

It is not unusual to depict scenery through fashion. Clones of T-shirts emblazoned with images of palm-tree-dotted beaches or New York streetscapes have plagued subways and malls, after all. Even among high-end fashion labels, there are the Chanel hemline comprising of glittering motifs of the Dubai skyline, Christian Siriano’s evocation of ethereal vistas of sand and water through his pastelhued prints, Jason Wu’s reproduction of the starry heavens on his diaphanous gown, and more. Jordanian architect and fashion illustrator Shamekh Al-Bluwi, in contrast, is the rare breed who unimaginably accomplishes the reverse.

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Necessity and Sufficiency

Poster of Jang Dan-bi (Kim Seul-gi) and Lee Do / King Sejong (Yoon Doo-joon) in the rain 2015 Naver Korean web drama / MBC drama special Splish Splash Love / Splash Splash Love / Pongdang Pongdang Love

Even the most fervent critic of metaphysics must have pondered from time to time: what is the meaning of my existence to this world?

Feeling hopeless about her prospects in grades-obsessed South Korea on the day of the college entrance examination, mathematically challenged highschooler Jang Dan-bi jumps into a rain puddle transporting her to a drought-stricken Joseon, where Sejong the Great (King Sejong) and his ministers are praying for a timely, much-needed rain, also called “danbi” in Korean. Now in the 15th century, when modern multiplication tables are unheard of, her mediocre mathematics skills take on heightened importance as she teaches mathematics enthusiast King Sejong rudimentary arithmetic and science. Along the way, she befriends a man she identifies as Jang Yeong-sil, an actual historical figure credited for the invention of multiple meteorological and astronomical devices, and inadvertently takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of Joseon technological advances.

But the message Splish Splash Love conveyed to high school seniors, who received their examination results the week before the first broadcast, went deeper than that.  Continue reading


Mystical Quintet

Inuksuk / inukshuk / inukhuk / inussuk in 2014 Korean weekend drama Mama - Nothing to Fear

Rock art, remarked philosopher Thomas Heyd, transforms land into landscape by imbuing it with cultural meanings. When someone looks at an old inuksuk, as Arctic researcher Norman Hallenday similarly opined, he is seeing more than a pile of stones—what enter his gaze are also the thoughts of another human being. And depending on how the viewer further engages with the stone structure, he adds new meanings to this landmark.

Traditionally used by various indigenous Arctic peoples as markers for food, direction and danger, as codes for private messages and as decoys that lead animals to hunters, inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) can carry a strong connotation of survival. In their unpolished states, they show mankind triumphing over nature by reconfiguring rather than destroying all its key elements. Co-existing on these man-made stacks of boulders, flat stones and/or broken rocks are the rustic beauty of unadulterated mineral formations and the moving beauty of human fortitude. To modern, non-Arctic viewers, these attributes add layers to inuksuit‘s exotic charm, harking back to a long-lost age of simplicity and primitive magic.

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A Soldier Wearing a Ball and Chain

Yi Bang-won / King Taejong (Yoo Ah-in) in Jung Do Jeon / Jeong Do-jeon's cave in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

Eminent American judge and legal scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once expressed the following disturbing opinion:

“If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.”

Essentially, Justice Holmes believed that the importance of crime deterrence outweighs that of considerations about social circumstances which have led a person to go down a criminal path. Yet the idea of sacrificing a hapless individual to the common good runs contrary to modern notions of civil rights. This struggle between the individual and the masses is echoed in Six Flying Dragons, a historical drama about three fictional and three non-fictional personalities’ involvement in the establishment of the Joseon dynasty. In the dark times of the preceding late Goryeo dynasty, when many are already dying under oppressive politics, its characters wonder if their own political means are really worth more than the ends. As a 12-year-old boy, bright-eyed protagonist Yi Bang-won already had his own answer:

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Of Sky Waltzes and Rain Dancers

Kim Shin-hyuk (Choi Siwon) in 2015 Korean romance drama She Was Pretty E4, performing Gene Kelly's "I'm Singing in the rain"

Amidst a sprinkling of American pop classics, She Was Pretty‘s characters live, laugh and love, alternately pulling off hilarious shenanigans and waxing sentimental about work, romance and friendship. Second male lead Kim Shin-hyuk merrily glides through rain puddles and twirls his umbrella to the tune of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” all by himself on a slightly busy pavement under the city lights. Main couple Ji Sung-joon and Kim Hye-jin bond over the Carpenters’ “Close to You” during a downpour that triggers a panic attack in him and annoyingly curls up her hair. But it is without lyrics when second female lead, Min Ha-ri, daintily holds out her hand to raindrops from a drizzle, smiling brightly at the rain itself. In their asymmetrical love quadrilateral, which tests the ladies’ non-romantic love for each other, the first leads take to blue skies, in quiet unison, whereas the second leads ultimately tune in alone to the music of rain.

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The “Was” in She Was Pretty

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) wrapping his coat around Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) in a back hug in front of a frame at a beach in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Does our opinion of an acorn change slightly when we recall that it was once part of a majestic oak tree previously looming tall on some revered mountain? Yet, an acorn has a brand new life waiting to be unleashed from within, on whichever shores animal companions bring it to. It does not want to be locked away in some dark museum, forever remembered as a dead tree.

Similarly, does knowledge of someone’s past enhance or detract from our understanding of him? While She Was Pretty‘s lead character Hye-jin hides from her childhood beau, Sung-joon, out of insecurity about herself—after he grows up successful and good-looking and she underemployed and “ugly”—their colleague Shin-hyuk hides away from everyone to be himself.

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Monte Carlo Fallacy

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) climbing into a slide in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Here goes a popular mathematical joke: If you are fearful of the small risk of boarding the same plane as a bomb-crazy terrorist, make the odds even tinier by packing along a bomb in your luggage!

Known as the gambler’s fallacy or Monte Carlo fallacy, the most spectacular example of this type of flawed thinking took place in the eponymous casino in 1913, when the ball in a roulette wheel landed on black 26 times in a row, taking away millions from players believing that it was more likely to give red after each lengthy sequence of blacks. Like these players, many people tend to believe that after the same event has happened multiple times or after a single unlikely event has taken its course, the likelihoods of events of an opposite nature will rise as part of some compensatory mechanism of the universe. Yet, in reality, if each event occurs independently, such that an outcome does not alter the conditions under which the next event takes place, the probabilities of the events should remain constant, regardless of how unlikely the previous results are.

If there is any compensatory effect, it manifests by Continue reading

Fly Away, Skylark!

Ha No-ra (Choi Ji-woo) in 2015 Korean drama Twenty Again

This is a familiar sight in family photographs and illustrations: the wife wraps her arms sweetly around her child, the husband wraps his protectively around them. They are in love yet not quite in love.

Things are not entirely rosy beyond the halo around romantic and parental love. German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) argued that love is really greed in disguise. Each party wants to possess the other and absorb something new from that person into himself. Even sympathetic love is dispensed to relish superiority over the “weak” party. Those craving for such love, in turn, are actually trying to wield the one power they may still have: the ability to get people to suffer for them.

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