Turn Back the Clock Thursday, Supplemental
- Reflections on Hidden Family Histories
(Or: Fred Armisen is part Korean)

From old Kaesong to Portlandia

In 1392, when General Ri Song Gye forced the last king of the Koryo Dynasty to abdicate, his forces proceeded to try to eliminate the royal family and their many relatives in the region of the capital Kaesong. The direct scions of the Koryo royal family had adopted the surname ‘Wang’ and had inhabited the region for more than five centuries. ‘Wang’ means ‘king’ in Korean and at the time was written using the Chinese character ‘王’.

One can imagine soldiers loyal to General Ri sweeping the capital district – neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, and village by village - for Wangs, most of whom would have had shared only tenuous ties with their formally privileged royal relatives. These death squads would have been looking for the character ‘王’ on in local records and the family histories kept in any household with some status. In what is very likely an apocryphal story, local Wangs found an ingenious way of avoiding execution by adding a few brush strokes to their surname.

One could add a small dot to ‘王’ to alter their name to ‘玉’ which is read as ‘Ok and means ‘jade’. By painting a two-stroke cap above ‘王’, one could change one’s whole family to ‘全’, meaning ‘complete’ and read as ‘Chon. Those fancying the sound of Chon also had the option of adding two vertical strokes to become ‘田’ meaning ‘field’.

To this day there are many living in the Kaesong with the surnames Ok and Chon, and very few Wangs. (Some especially bold families saved their family histories till the times settled down and one exists today at the Kaesong Koryo Museum; see below.)

Hidden family histories are common in turbulent times – ancient and modern. Despite hindsight, for one reason or another, these details often do not come out until much after the fact. Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ new 10-part, 18-hour documentary PBS The Vietnam War is a reminder of just how much individuals (as well as societies) can shy from the past. In the documentary there is an anecdote of two men whose spouses only found out they had served in the war after it came up in conversation a decade later.

Among my own family, my Chinese grandfather would never talk about his father, a gambler and womanizer, divorced by my great-grandmother. The reason for this silence, it was later revealed, was that my great-grandfather had collaborated with the Japanese occupiers in Shanghai during World War II, while his son studying abroad, my grandfather, joined the US Marine Corp to fight Japan.

The same family found itself on different sides of the Chinese Civil War, some supporting Chiang Kai-Shek’ Nationalists, and others Mao Zedong’s Communists. After the victory of the Communists in 1949, it was revealed that at least one of the staunchest Nationalist supporters had, in fact, been a Communist agent all along (his acts would end up saving his former Nationalist relatives, whose political background made them persona non grata in the political strife of the subsequent decades.

Many similar stories exist in Korea, where families were similar torn about by colonial occupation, national division, and civil war. For an idea just how divisive the division of Korea and the Korean War, check out The Guest, a fictionalized and phantasmagorical account of the atrocities that took place near Sariwon. The continued political animosity between north and south means that many family histories may remain untold for at least the time being.

Although it may not be apparent, millions of families across the world share similar experiences, finding themselves on different and unexpected sides of history. American comedian Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia (‘Put a bird on it!’) recently found out as such on the PBS show Finding Your Roots, which explores the interest family histories of famous and prominent individuals. In the recent episode, Armisen discovers that he of Korean, rather than Japanese, heritage. His grandfather, the famous Japanese dancer Masami Kuni, had been born in Korea and adopted by Japanese parents.

For a good recap of this fascinating story that involves spy craft and Nazis, check out the Angry Asian Man Blog. Or watch the full Episode 2 of Finding Your Roots which also features Christopher Walken and Carly Simon.

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