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PuSh Festival tackles linguistic imperialism with Jaha Koo’s Lolling and Rolling

Jaha Koo by Marie Clauzade (1) - Lennert Hoedaert
In January, South Korean theatre maker and composer Jaha Koo's multimedia show at the PuSh Festival will focus on tongue-tie surgery in South Korea. Photo by Marie Clauzade-Lennert Hoedaert.

In recent years, Vancouver filmmaker Vic Sarin and Toronto writer Kamal Al-Solaylee have each addressed the pernicious impacts of “colourism”.

This term describes prejudice against people with darker skin tones. Perpetrators sometimes inflict this on members of the same racial group.

Sarin explored it in his documentary Hue: A Matter of Colour; Al-Solaylee reported on this in his book Brown: What Being Brown in the World Means (to Everyone).

At the upcoming PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, South Korean theatre maker and composer Jaha Koo will address discrimination of a different sort.

In Lolling and Rolling, Koo will deliver a live performance exploring a form of linguistic imperialism known as tongue-tie surgery.

These operations are performed on some South Koreans to enable them to better pronounce the English sounds for “r” and “l”.

Koo’s Lolling and Rolling is a multimedia show featuring video, music, and monologue. He creates his work with Campo, a Ghent, Belgium–based arts centre.

“Lolling and Rolling dwells upon English being the capital language in political power, and what this means for the ‘inaudible voice’, that of the subaltern,” Campo states on its website. “Jaha Koo unveils a practice which tries to silence these minorities, taking their cultural agency.”

Campo also maintains that “the denial or devaluation of a language also instigates the loss of an identity, of a minority, of a population group”.

Watch a snippet from Jaha Koo’s Lolling and Rolling.

Koo links personal to history, politics, and sociology

Lolling and Rolling was part of Koo’s 2021 Hamartia Trilogy. It also included shows called Cuckoo and The History of Korean Western Theatre.

“In his intelligent and haunting documentary theatre performances, Jaha Koo intertwines personal stories with historical, political and sociological facts,” Campo notes. “Often themes…entail a clash of Eastern and Western culture: from the cutting of tongue belts to make it in the West, to the heavy personal toll of Western interference in the macroeconomic field.”

This topic has been addressed in documentary form. Several years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation filmed The Cost of Queen’s English. It showed extreme efforts that some South Korean parents have taken to ensure that their kids learn English, including a segment on tongue-tie surgery. You can see it below.

Watch the Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, which reveals the controversial practice of tongue-tie surgery.

Koreans aren’t alone in having surgery to help them speak another language with less of an accent.

In 2011, the Telegraph reported that a 19-year-old British student underwent a lingual frenectomy to help her speak better pronounce Korean words. Rhiannon Brooksbank reportedly loved Korean culture. However, her shorter-than-average tongue made it more difficult to pronounce certain sounds in the Asian language.

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Lolling and Rolling by Jaha Koo/Campo from January 19 to 21 in-person at Performance Works and online from January 19 to 22. The festival runs from January 19 to February 5. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.