Hooray for Chollywood | The early days of modern drama theatres and movie halls in colonial Pyongyang, 1910-1950.
When your arms are empty, got nowhere to go
Come on out and catch the show
There'll be saints and sinners
You'll see losers and winners
All kinds of people you might want to know
Once you get it, you can't forget it
W.S. Walcott medicine show. -The Band
Modern Pyongyang is a city of theatres (theatres, not theatrics! It is very real). There is the Grand People’s Theatre, the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, the Moranbong Theatre, the Mansudae Art Theatre, the State Theatre, the Drama Theatre, the Puppet Theatre, the Civilian Circus, the Military Circus, the Yanggakdo International Cinema, the Taedongmun Cinema, and numerous smaller movie theatres throughout the city’s many districts.
Before the arrival of western-style theatre to Korea, the county had already had a rich history of performing arts. Since earliest time the cultures of Korean peninsula were known for their music, song, storytelling, and dance. Koguryo-era tomb murals dating back more than 1500 years depict dancers, musicians, and acrobats at court, while the famous Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762) of the Tang dynasty praised the elegant dance and dress of the people from across the ‘Eastern Sea’.
By the Choson Ri dynasty (1392-1910), Korean performance arts had evolved into roughly two general categories: highly-ritualized and/or erudite performances held for the royal family, aristocracy, or gentry, and folk performances held among the common people. These two categories were by no means mutually exclusive and there was, of course, interaction and overlaps between the two. For instance, an educated Confucian scholar might write down or formalize popular stories, while locals might adopt and adapt national stories to their own region. In Korea there has also been a long tradition of itinerant storytellers, performance troupes, and scholars who would have helped transmit and transform a story or song to the context of a particular region.
The regions that today make up North Korea were particularly famous for a number of types of performances: the masked dance/dramas of farmers in the agricultural lands of Hwanghae Province and those of the entertainment women, or kisaeng, of Pyongyang.
The first western-style theatre hall was established in Korea in 1908 in Seoul, with more theatres quickly sprouting up in the capital among the Korean, Chinese, and Japanese communities in the city. The following decade saw an explosion of western-style and western-inspired performances across the peninsula, including reinterpretations of traditional Korean stories, translations of foreign plays, and wholly new domestic creations for the times. Traveling troupes of actors and musicians continued to travel about the country taking performances to cities, towns, and villages, and contributing to news cultural and political consciousness.
Pyongyang’s first modern performance hall and accompanying performance group was established in 1920 as the Machi Theatre (마치극장) with connections to the nascent labour movement and factory-based literary circles. It was later renamed the Bright Day Theatre (명일극장) and sprouted other theatre groups, such as the New Era Theatre (신세기) and New Art Troupe (신예슬좌). One could also attend the Golden Thousands Theatre (금천대좌), also established in 1920, which was a small-sized hall where spectators sat on Japanese-style tatami mats.
In 1928, the 400-seat Sun Happiness Theatre (해락관) was opened for stage performances and could also be used to show films. Two years later, the 450-seat Public Theatre (대중영화) was opened specifically for movie-goers but also hosted stage plays and performances.
At the base of Moranbong Hill, one could visit the Pyongyang Kisaeng School (평양기생학교 aka 명월관) to see a variety of shows, traditional and western-inspired. Graduates of the school also performed at restaurants and clubs around the city.
In 1937, the Pyongyang Public Hall (평양공회당) was built downtown and would be one of the few prominent buildings to survive the Korean War. It was later converted to the Pyongyang Art Theatre (평양예슬극장) and then the Pyongyang Puppet Theatre (평양인형극장). It still stands today and is a rare remnant of a bygone era.