Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Journey of Johsel and Mineko Namkung

I’ve been thinking of the amazing life of Johsel Namkung, one of the Northwest’s true renaissance men, but who is best known before he died, at 94, last  July, as one of the world’s great nature photographers.

Washington state lost many talented citizens in 2013, but Johsel remains top of mind.  He was was born in the Japanese colony of Korea in 1919 and grew up in a world where he and his family were always at risk as war and destruction closed in on them while they navigated Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, and Pyongyang in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

He not only survived those amazing times, he thrived in them.  Among the reasons why is that people could see beyond his modest presentation to where a resilient and seriously talented person existed who pursued his love of music and art even as the world he inhabited was collapsing around him.  He was the Korean proverb:

“If you speak beautiful words, then people will speak beautiful words to you.” 

As a young Korean boy, he grew up in an international culture in Korea, then a Japanese colony.  His father had earned a Doctor of Divinity from Princeton and Johsel grew up in an atmosphere of largely western learning, rare for a Korean boy at the time.  He became interested in German lieder, a form of musical expression that combines classical music from some of the great musicians in the
German culture with top notch German poetry.   His voice turned as a young man into a rich bass and his interpretations of lieder were considered exceptional both in Korea and in Tokyo, where he won a great prize at Tokyo’s top music conservatory and met his Japanese wife, Mineko, an even greater prize, at a Tokyo opera company.

As Japanese nationalism grew more strident in Korea, and as the Japanese invaded Manchuria and set up the colony they called Manchukuo, the Japanese military took several measures to bring their colony closer to heel.  People were forced to adopt Japanese names, teaching Korean was banned, Koreans were drafted into the Japanese Army, Comfort Women were forced into sexual slavery, Christians were forced to worship in the Shinto tradition, the official religion of Japan. 

Though Koreans carried Japanese passports, they were considered racially inferior to the Japanese and were second class at best.  Johsel’s father, Hyuk Namkung, was the patriarch of a large, influential and talented family and one that was not doing as it was being told to do. He resisted, feared that he would go to jail, and in 1939 sold everything and moved his clan to Shanghai, a place where wartime refugees were mostly welcome.  Joshel would join his father in Shanghai after finishing music school in Japan and the Japanese woman he met there, would follow and marry him in June of 1941. It was a marriage that pleased no one.  Her family saw her marrying a forever poor artist.  One of Johsel's aunts was severely tortured by the Japanese. However, they thrived in the great international and cosmopolitan city and would overcome the objections.  They opened a music school, helped revive the Shanghai Symphony, one of the world’s best at the time, even as the Japanese closed in on the city.  Once he got to the US and found a life here, he nearly lost it to the great Red Scare in the mid-fifties, facing deportation and likely execution in South Korea. 

Through it all, he and Mineko grew their family in Shanghai, Seoul and Seattle, became pals with nearly every famous painter and sculptor in the Northwest School of the fifties and sixties.  He developed great technical and poetical skills as the photographer who spurned the heroic images of the great mountains and waters for images that capture a tiny, clear stream, the physics of the stream flow revealed through a slight folding of a strip of scum on top, it all flecked with pollen from the surrounding Douglas Firs.

His art, of course, survives him.  But so do the experiences of his life.  I want to write about what happened before he found his photography and what it was like to live in such dangerous and exhilarating times.  That he emerged from them with the earnest optimism he had, that he developed his considerable talents throughout, is an achievement as inspirational as his pictures. 

Let’s start in Korea.  After years of maneuvering by the Japanese, Korea had become a colony of Japan by 1910 and remained so until the Japanese surrender in 1945.  While a colony, the treatment of Koreans varied, though it was frequently brutal.  By 1920, the Korean royal family had all been assassinated and the Japanese displayed a somewhat lighter hand.  However, as the Japanese military gained greater control of the government and set their country on a war footing, first with the invasion of Manchuria in the fall of 1931, the treatment of Koreans became harsher.

Namkung’s father was the leader of the most prominent Christian community in Korea and they lived in a compound with people from all over the world.  Johsel thrived in that bubble.  An older brother was a role model who seemed to do anything he chose with ease – painting, poetry, music, languages, science.  He followed his lead, worked hard to make things seem easy.  His aptitude for science paled when compared to his vocal skills and it disappointed him considerably.  He heard records on 78 rpm record players of the day and fell in love with the scratchy German lieder he heard on them sung by the great German singers. He focused on art and music and he became exposed to many different kinds of musical expression though his love of German music was by far the most robust.  The family moved to Pyongyang when his father was appointed to a professorship at the Christian college there.

A teenager, he competed in Korea’s national music contest in Pyongyang and emerged the winner.  It was enough to convince his father that he would be a better candidate as a music student than as a minister.  At 17, he traveled to Japan and entered the premier music school in Tokyo.  On his second try, he won the national voice competition in Japan.  He was later invited to join one of Japan’s opera companies and continue his studies there.  He met his Japanese wife, Mineko, at this opera company in 1938.

The result of 1839-1842 Opium Wars between China and the British Empire was that the British and later the Americans and French, among others, received Chinese land for use as trading stations.  While the land was China’s, its use was conceded to the foreign countries and these outposts were under nearly the total control of the governments who had them.  

As the concessions grew in size and influence, they took on the look and feel of the western countries operating there.  A county-like government, the Shanghai Municipal Council, provided governance for the British and American sectors while the French, sector governed alone.  

The nightlife of Shanghai was famously sinful. The gambling life was equally rich.  They even combined the two.  The Canidrome Ballroom was both a hot night club and a greyhound dog track, combining the words canine and racetrack.  Some nightclubs, like the three story art deco Paramount, survive today.

The International Concession also had one of the great orchestras of the world, beginning its musical life in 1879 as the Shanghai Municipal Public Band. For many years, the orchestra did not allow Chinese to hear its performances, but a sensualist Italian gambler/musician, Mario Paci, came on the scene in 1919 and soon was exhibiting a world class sound.  He made sure that Chinese could not only enjoy the orchestra but play in it and this attracted some great Chinese musicians. 

Mario Paci
Paci loved the mayhem that was Shanghai.  He loved the available women and the rush of the gambling.  And he loved the music he played and the remarkable audiences who came to listen and the remarkable players who came from across the world to play with such an orchestra in such a place.  For Paci, Shanghai became a refuge, the place he was meant to live in.  It was also a refuge for others, but mostly because they needed Shanghai to survive.  The concessions became home to White Russian refugees fleeing the Russian Revolution.  After, Russian Jews found their way to Shanghai and Jews from Baghdad.  Koreans like Johsel’s father and later Johsel found a safe haven from the Japanese in Korea, so did political dissidents and intellectuals from Manchukuo. 

Wolfgang Fraenkel
German Composer
In 1937, German Jews began arriving in Shanghai, initially with the complicity of the Nazi government, whose pre-extermination policy was forced emigration.  By 1940, 40,000 Jews were packed into Shanghai, many in the concessions.  Some of them filtered into the orchestra, adding to its quality.  Johsel immediately found his way to the orchestra.  His language skills – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, English, German – soon meant he was writing the liner notes and providing musical criticism around the orchestra.  Paci was just ending his tenure at the orchestra when Johsel arrived in 1940 and Johsel would have known him. 

The setting was fluid.  Japanese influence around Shanghai grew over the thirties as the Japanese fought with the Chinese and grew its presence beyond Manchukuo.  A German policy of recognizing Nationalist China changed to a policy of support for Japan.  China and Japan went to war in the late summer of 1937 over Shanghai and Japanese bombs fell throughout the city, though most of the concessions were spared.   

Shanghai Train Station, 1937
Associated Press
H.S. Wong
The concessions always seemed in some kind of crisis, upping the adrenal level of living there.  In 1940, control of the French concession transferred to the collaborationist Vichy Government of France.  Assassinations of Japanese and Chinese were common, the shooters running into the grand hotels and out the back.  At 4:00 AM on the morning of December 8, a Japanese destroyer in the river harbor sunk HMS Peteral, a gunboat anchored in the Yangtze River and captured the USS Wake, tied up ashore.  The troops entered the concession and the great Japanese invasions of Pearl Harbor, Manila, Maylasia and Hong Kong were underway.  Johsel and Mineko remembered the shelling and the clatter of boots in the street below their apartment.  Many residents, including 18,000 stateless Germans Jews, Russians and Russian Jews and others were sent to a part of the city called Hongkew, sealing them off in a Japanese Ghetto. 

The invasion caused a great deal of trouble for the orchestra, but a Japanese intelligence officer with an interest in German music soon put together a group to reopen the orchestra as well as a Russian Ballet Company.  Johsel took over programming for the performances and even learned to conduct.  They continued to run the music school they had set up when they arrived. 

By 1944, the Namkungs had a baby girl, Irene, and it was becoming clear that Shanghai would be chaos when the Japanese left and especially dangerous for a Japanese woman and her young daughter.  In November, they caught what likely was the last Japanese passenger vessel leaving Shanghai for Japan.  Just before leaving, a woman who helped Johsel with his conversational German gave the couple a large packet of Cream of Wheat, just in case there were problems with their journey, then just an overnight trip. 

Kobe in 1945
It turned out the sea was full of allied submarines and warships and the boat was the target of torpedoes, though with no result.  Hugging the shore they went south and west along Korea’s coastline, then dashed across international waters to Kobe, a great city now nearly flattened.  The overnight journey took more than a week and the baby Irene survived on the Cream of Wheat.

They made their way to Nara, a cultural heritage site not on the allied bombing list, but could not find housing.  As the constant bombing closed in on them, they found a boat going to Korea and bought tickets, even though there was a risk for a Japanese woman in post-occupation Korea.  The end of World War II found them in Seoul living with Johsel’s sister, a pianist, and his parents.

The country had been divided into a Russian sector in the north, above the 38th Parallel, with its administrative capital in Pyongyang and the American Sector in the South.

His music, voice and language skills propelled him along.  He soon found his way to the church choir and stood out as special.  He was asked to be a personal interpreter by an American Major from Seattle who had gone to Seattle Pacific University.  A former Army Chaplain in Korea had been appointed the President of the University of Seoul immediately after the war.  Before the war, he was the Dean of the Commerce Department at Seattle Pacific University.  After hearing Johsel sing at church one day, he and the Major knew that Johsel needed to study music at Seattle Pacific and the sooner the better.  

Assured of a scholarships in Seattle, Johsel and Maneko each received student visas and enrolled at Seattle Pacific.  They found the music department well-below the quality they were used to in Japan, Shanghai and Korea. 

In Seattle, Johsel quickly began performing and drew the attention of the University of Washington music department as well as its language department, then in need of someone with Japanese conversation skills. 

After he joined the University of Washington faculty, he was in a position to change his immigration status which would allow him to bring his two children – another had been born in Seoul after they had left Shanghai – to America.  Before leaving, a Korean Methodist Minister Namkung knew asked him to deliver a letter ‘as a friend.’  The letter was to Kim Il Song, the leader of North Korea and Johsel was supposed to give it to a physician in the South Korean Public Health Service.

Namkung knew the minister was a North Korean sympathizer and took the risk because, at the time, conventional wisdom had it that the North was better prepared militarily and would dominate the South if it came to war.  He hoped carrying the letter would position him to help his father, the most prominent Christian in South Korea, in the event the North prevailed.

He traveled to Seoul a few months before the war broke out, picking up his children, receiving a different visa, delivering the note and spending time with his father.  He returned with his kids in the Fall of 1948.  Certainly he and his father talked about personal safety and the fear of war on the peninsula.  His father was poorly positioned in Seoul.  Not only was he at risk from the North, but in the South.  He was a political enemy of the dictator Syngman Rhee, the autocratic leader who emerged as the postwar leader in the South.

South Korean Refugees Fleeing in 1950
And war did come.  And the conventional wisdom was correct.  The North Koreans were pushing the South Koreans into the sea and capturing Seoul in September of 1950.  Only the invasion of US forces at Inchon, well-behind the North Korean front, turned the day – for the moment.  Now the South Koreans and Americans troops were carrying the fight into North Korea, first capturing Pyongyang, then continuing north into the northern territories.  On October 28, 1950  the Chinese crossed the border, crushing South Korean troops and encircling the Americans fighting with them.  By January of 1951. the Chinese and North Koreans had retaken Seoul.

And Johsel’s fears about his father were also accurate.  He and the husband of his sister were detained by the North Koreans in the Fall of 1950 after they had captured Seoul.  They disappeared into the violent history of Korea, likely taken North, tortured and killed with other religious leaders. 

The message Johsel delivered also came back to threaten him and his family.  The US and South Koreans sifted through North Korean papers when they occupied Pyongyang in 1951.  There, they found the letter sent to Kim Il Sung by the minister in Seattle with Johsel’s name identified as the courier.  The letter is a relatively clueless view of American politics, but sufficient for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to issue a deportation order for Johsel on a Tuesday effective the following Friday.

He found a great attorney, Ken MacDonald, who represented him for seven years as he appealed the deportation.  McDonald made the point that it was a death sentence for Namkung to return to South Korea.  Two of his brothers had become communists in the twenties, though he and two other brothers had not.  People who were not compliant under the Rhee government did not fare well.  Recent disclosures from a South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission show that Rhee’s government had murdered thousands of people suspected as being opponents to his government, communists, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A private bill, sponsored by the state congressional delegation, ended Johsel’s seven year nightmare in 1961.

Johsel decided he could not be a professional singer because singing at his level required constant practice and he had a family to support.  There was precious little money singing German lieder in America.  

So, he began to drift into his photography as his creative outlet and worked as a photographic printer, improving his eye for color.  He also found work as electron microscope photographer at the University of Washington Medical School.  A Japanese businessman sent him $500 out of the blue, asking him to buy the camera gear he needed.  He and his wife opened a gallery and were soon friends with other young artists in Seattle who would later become famous.  
From left to right, Paul Horiuchi, George Tsutakawa,
gallery owner Zoe Dussane, John Matsudairia and Kenjiro
Elmer Ogawa Photo

All the while, he roamed the Northwest and Alaska, finding his unique scenes and waiting for the perfect light.  His prints began to sell.  He was asked to illustrate a book about the Olympic Rain Forest and it sold well.  He was on his way.

He and Mineko, also called Helen, created a unique space in the world of Seattle Art in the late 1950s and early sixties.  Through Tsutakawa, a professor at the UW School of Art, he met many artists in and out of the university.  Soon, Mineko and Johsel were having dinners and parties at their house with Mark Toby, Paul Horiuchi, Guy Anderson, Ken Callahan -- icons of Northwest School today, then just becoming known.
Mark Tobey
Robert Bruce Inverarity

Tobey, who was also an excellent musician, would sometimes play the piano and Johsel would sing his German songs, the others sketching away and laughing. There was a camping trip to Shi Shi Beach on the Olympic Peninsula that ended with an art show attended by no one but these artists -- sticks, rocks, seagrasses, driftwood, bits of broken glass rubbed cloudy by the Pacific Ocean -- arranged on the beach, surviving at most a day or two.

Reading through the list of people and institutions who own Namkung's work, I came across the words "Japanese Royal Household" and suddenly remembered a woman in a bright yellow dress, glowing with a Seattle Spring day in a large suite at the Westin, Mineko bowing, me giving my welcoming remarks on behalf of the city and Johsel unwrapping the gift of one of his pictures.  I can't remember the name of the royal personage, just that she sure looked royal.  Nor can I remember the picture Johsel gave her, just the glow of the dress in the big room.

After, at a nice lunch, we talked about a couple of things I've described above, but mostly about how glorious it was to meet a real princess wearing such a lovely yellow dress, a color not found in nature.

Namkung's Photography

Smithsonian Institution Oral History

Wolfgang Fraenkel's Journey to Shanghai