Author Archive
Legends
Narrative

Red Mask

Context

The “Red Mask” refers to the most prominent variation of an urban legend that was widely circulated in South Korea around the year 2004. As an urban legend originating from Japan’s story of the Kuchisake-onna (slit-mouthed woman; popular urban legend during 1990s Japan), the story itself was in circulation in Japan as early as the late 1970s, and first circulated around South Korea circa 1993 before re-emerging a decade later.

Informant Information

The informant is a South Korean native born in 1997, being seven years old during 2004 – the peak of the urban legend’s circulation. He recalls his classmates talking about the Red Mask, some with worry and others with possibly feigned bravery. Transcript of my conversation with him is as follows:

“So the Red Mask thing… it went like this, I think. A woman wearing a red mask asks a person if she looks pretty. In some stories, the person replies yes, and the woman makes her ‘look the same as her’ – she rips open both ends of the mouth until the mouth extends from ear to ear like the Joker from Batman, just with a bigger laceration! But if you say ‘I don’t know’, she only rips one side of your mouth. Some dudes also used to say that they saw different masks: For example, the Blue Mask is the Red Masks’s girlfriend. I’ve even heard stories where the Red Mask is goddamn five stories tall!”

Analysis

The “Red Mask” urban legend is pertinent for a number of reasons: Firstly, it is an example of urban legends going across borders and experiencing changes in the process of doing so; as a nationally famous and well-documented example, the urban legend gives anthropologists opportunities to better understand how different national identities can affect representation of that culture. Secondly, the changes made in the iteration that circulated in South Korea in the 2000s were very different from the original urban legend – although the stories both told of a mysterious woman wearing a mask, the woman is quiet, mysterious and unsettling in the Japanese version, whereas in South Korea the woman is depicted as wearing a red mask and possesses inhuman strength and size. Many suspect the initial circulation of the legend to be from parents’ scaring stories meant to keep their child away from strangers. Therefore, the embellished description of a fearful figure may be just as significant in describing the Korean psyche of fear and not just transformations in folklore across borders.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Foodways
Material
Protection

Hot Coke as Medicine

Context

In Hong Kong, the use of hot coke – a local delicacy – as a cold remedy is widely practiced throughout the region.

The Informant

The informant is a Hong Kong native, and we first met in high school. He used to tell me how hot coke “does wonders for your cold”. This was taught to him by his mother during childhood. He personally heats the coke with no additions and drinks it, although he did say that “some people add ginger or brown sugar” to taste. The informant claims that hot coke should be consumed for medicinal reasons instead of reasons pertaining to taste. He believes that hot coke is “the way coke was supposed to be drank”.

Analysis

As folklore, hot coke is pertinent for its overlap between food and folk medicine. Although within the United States and most of the world coke is consumed cold, in Hong Kong it takes on a cultural meaning as the coke is heated to form something uniquely cantonese.

Digital
Game
Humor

Yorick walks into a bar…

Joke: “Yorick walks into a bar. There is no counter”

Context

In the online video game League of Legends, five players play against another team of five players. Players choose a specific character to take into battle before the game starts, Yorick being one of them. The original meaning of this wordplay is that it is impossible to counter Yorick – at least at the time.

The Informant

The informant is my younger brother. He is an avid player of the game, playing on a daily basis. He said the joke in self-deprecation after a losing a game against a player who used Yorick. When I asked him where the joke was from, he said that he first heard the joke in game back in 2012, when Yorick was a strong character to use. He added that because the joke got very popular around the game’s community, it is still used when complaining about characters that are too strong.

Analysis

The example presented is pertinent as the joke was powerful enough to create other variants, such as:

“Jax walks into a bar. There is no counter.” (another character that was very strong at one point)

The meaning of the message is quite clear: The performer of this joke acknowledges that a certain character is too powerful through the use of witty language. Unsurprisingly, the joke is now commonly referenced throughout the community whenever something seems too strong. As a joke that has reached idiomatic levels of acceptance in its folk community, its influence is well demonstrated.

Digital
Humor

Gachimuchi

Context

Gachimuchi refers to the originally Japanese style of Internet meme originating from the Japanese video streaming website Nico Nico Douga. Initially beginning with the submission of a gay pornographic wrestling video with a deceptive title circa 2008, it eventually evolved to take the form of a mash-up, where specific sound clips originating from said pornography were extensively sampled to cover existing musical pieces or create new sounds. This style of trolling later spread to nearby countries of South Korea and China, and recently Europe and the Americas through video streaming communities such as Youtube and Twitch.

As more of these videos are made through existing video samples, there is a regular cast of characters, and inside jokes have formed around many of them. Billy Herrington in particular achieved international stardom, visiting Japan and China multiple times, “thanks to the unexpected later success of his pornographic work”.

Analysis

At a fundamental level, Gachimuchi is very much a misunderstanding of homosexuality, just in the opposite direction than usual, at least in the case of Asia. Gay men are typically seen as feminine by Asian cultures at large, but the widespread popularity of Gachimuchi led to a warped view of homosexuality – although gay men were no longer seen as effeminate they became part of an internet joke on an international scale. This is definitely one of many growing pains in Asia’s struggle in achieving social justice.

On the other hand, Gachimuchi showcases the creativity of its own folk group; content creators like HIWIRE reached a point of musical refinement where their take on Gachimuchi resembles electronic dance music productions (taking influences from various genres of house) rather than poorly sampled mash-ups of gay pornography. With the resurgence in western listeners and attention, this meme has been, and will be on the rise for a while.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

“Every cloud has a silver lining”

This is a British proverb that means: In every unpleasant situation still has a positive aspect to it.

The informant is a childhood friend of mine of British descent. He claims to have heard this proverb multiple times throughout his life. This proverb is poignant for being a very ‘British’ proverb, for lack of a better word; at a literal level, the fact that a cloud refers to an unpleasant situation is very apt when considering the British obsession with weather. However, the most moving part of the proverb for me was that it was a message of hope – in hardship the person has to endure it, for there is hope to be found somewhere.

Game
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Convention Centers and the Festival

Informant Information

The informant is currently a student at USC, who is interested in American comic books and 90s memorabilia. When I heard that he goes to the Frank and Sons Collectible Show (“Frank and Sons”) with his friends every Saturday to indulge in his hobbies, I asked him for the location’s significance:

Collector: “Why do you choose to spend over half an hour traveling to a convention center when you can go to nearby convention centers in the LA area instead? Is there something special about Frank and Sons?”

Informant: “Well, I used to go there a lot as a kid… and a big reason why I still go is because I like their selection of goods. There are other convention centers, but you can get comic books from the ‘50s from Frank and Sons, and then play some games all in the same venue. Then you get to see people with really well made costumes and cool fan art – it does take a while [to drive], but in the end it’s all worth it.”

Analysis

The convention at Frank and Sons can be seen as a contemporary folk festival; it is for an audience sharing common interests (nostalgia, collectibles), and creating a new ecosystem of human interaction based on that common interest. The significance of Frank and Sons as a folk festival has to be in its wide range of goods for sale: In its availability of ‘random old stuff’, Frank and Sons consolidates existing folklore while opening avenues for more folklore by creating a strongly social environment within the convention center.

Digital
Game
Humor
Legends
Narrative

Pokémon and the Mystery of Mew

Context

The year is 1998: Following the release of games Pokémon: Red and Blue, the new games are popular throughout the United States. However, this was not always expected, as it was a game that was released very late into the Game Boy’s life cycle during its Japanese release. Then a question arises: how did the game become so popular? The best answer perhaps comes from the elusive Pokémon that was only available through an in-game glitch – the 151st Pokémon, Mew. The informant shares one of these urban legends on how to capture the elusive Pokémon, and why it was so important in the success of the games as a whole.

Informant Information

The informant is older brother to a friend of mine, and he has played the original Pokémon games when they were released in the United States at the age of 6. While he has stopped playing the newer games, he has a first-hand, nostalgic experience on the first generation of Pokémon – the subject of this entry.

Informant: “Mew was the shit. All the kids were talking about it all the time in class! I heard that you had to use dig* next to this one truck to get it, but when I tried, no dice. That was better than this one kid, though – he was told that he had to beat the Elite Four** exactly 100 times to catch Mew… he did it and absolutely fucking nothing happened. Nothing.”

*A Pokémon move usable outside of battle
**The four trainers encountered before facing against the strongest trainer: the champion

Collector: “[laughs] Did anyone you knew at the time actually have a Mew?”

Informant: “Not anyone I personally knew, but I always heard that somebody knows a person who does – I personally think they were all lying. I don’t think anybody in that elementary school actually knew how to get a Mew. That’s probably what got them talking, you know? It was the mystery of it that was so cool.”

Analysis

The urban legends created and circulated by players on how to obtain Mew added to the mystique of the Pokémon: This added to the desire to obtain it, resulting in more urban legends, and this positive cycle resulted in the extended popularity of the Pokémon franchise. Another key reason for the popularity of these urban legends came from the lack of widespread Internet usage during the time. Since a quick search from Google was unavailable in 1996 – or any other search engine, for that matter – it was much harder to verify or dispute the urban legends since only a handful of players outside of Japan knew how to obtain Mew through an in-game bug and how those steps worked. Overall, the Pokémon franchise was able to create folklore, and therefore create a large folk following through Mew, ensuring the franchise’s success over later generations.

Childhood
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Celebration of the First Birthday in Korea

Context

The celebration of a baby’s first birthday in particular is widely practiced across the world, as infant and child mortality rates were much higher in previous eras. In the eastern Asian regions, this traditional celebration includes a ceremony where the objects are placed in front of the baby and good things are said about the baby’s future based on the grabbed object. In my native South Korea, the objects typically associated with the occasion are books, writing tools and money. Other objects – even microphones and calculators – can also be used in the celebration, though that depends on how traditional the practitioner wants the celebration to be.

Informant Information

The informant is my uncle, who recently celebrated the first birthday of his twin sons. He first learned of the tradition in childhood, then through from his mother and grandmother. As a celebration for his sons, the performance of this tradition was of a personal importance to him. I was unable to attend the celebration in person, but I was able to ask the informant about it during spring break.

According to the informant, he placed a pencil, a book, money and a ball of strings – traditionally included symbols/items – on the table, but he also placed modern picks: a computer mouse and a basketball. The traditional symbols refer to a future in education, academics, riches and healthy life, respectively. The informant said that his contemporary additions represented “technological savvy” and “athleticism”. In the end, both his children picked up the pencil and the informant wishfully said that he was “happy he shouldn’t have to worry about their [the twins'] grades”.

Analysis

It can be observed that the practice of traditional celebrations sees variation based on the practitioner, as do works of folklore in general. Though it is entirely up to choice to follow tradition or not, the informant’s use of contemporary objects to update the objects to be grabbed by the baby show that celebrations can be altered to be contemporary yet not taking away from the traditional meaning of celebration.

To see the traditional Chinese version of this tradition, see “To Catch the First Year” in the Folklore Archives
(http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=30617)

Game
Humor
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Urban Legends and Trading Card Games

Context

Trading card games are often too associated with child’s play to be taken seriously; by many it is considered to be entirely driven by luck and inherently unfair. Despite this widespread opinion, trading card games – such as Magic: The Gathering have found a competitive audience where skillful players attempt to best others through a combination of strategy and deck building.

In Magic, the most important game mechanic and key consideration in building decks is the resource: Mana. It comes in five different colors that explore different themes: Green for example focuses on playing stronger creatures and generating extra mana to play them earlier, while blue focuses on negating the opponent’s plays and drawing extra cards. The vast majority of mana is accessed through land cards of usually one or two colors that can be played to generate 1 mana of a color per turn (although exceptions exist). This causes situations where one only draws creatures (mana-screwed: unable to cast anything due to lack of mana) or only draws lands (land-screwed: unable to play creatures as the hand is full of lands), causing losses often attributed to statistical variance.

Informant Information

The informant is an avid player of Magic. I first met him in a card shop in Yatap, South Korea, and we kept in touch ever since. One time while he was playing a draft game – a game mode where decks are built from cards chosen from packs opened on the day of the event – he told me an urban legend supposedly pertaining to the very location we were playing in:

Collector: “What did you end up drafting?”

Informant: “I drafted a 4 color control deck.”

Collector: “That sounds like too many colors and card requirements to consistently play anything, that sounds so bad…”

Informant: “Yeah but if you draft your cards at this shop you get all the cards you need for the deck to run well.”

While he did end up losing most of the games, they were close losses, largely because my friend was able to get the right balance of cards to make reasonable plays each turn. Intrigued, I asked around the shop if the urban legend was true, and soon realized that most players in the shop not only knew about it but also agreed – somewhat sarcastically or otherwise.

Analysis

As the context of the location changes, not only including the exchange of goods, but also social gathering, a folk group forms and produces folklore. This urban legend is particularly significant because in a competitive setting, non-skillful (i.e. luck-driven) elements are undesirable; this makes the discussion of luck in an outcome of a game very contentious: A taboo topic. By giving members of the folk group ways to joke about the taboo (such as sarcastically agreeing to the urban legend, as seen above), the taboo topic becomes less serious, and therefore less frustrating to the losers. Another factor to consider is the urban legend becoming a subject of superstition; by believing and hoping that he/she will receive good luck, the passion for the game and the folk group of card game players can remain intact. This in particular shows that a work of folklore can be contextualized to fit into multiple genres.

Folk speech
Musical
Narrative

Military Service and Folk Music

Informant Information

The informant is my uncle: He often told stories to my brother, my cousins and myself during holiday gatherings, and I heard it mentioned before that he served in the Korean marines. Curious, I decided to ask him about it, and he told me about things he found most memorable: the constant risk of injury (“if the bamboo [spear] splits into the visor, the wearer is probably already blind”), occasional beatings issued by superiors and how he was “counting his days”. He told me that by the time he was almost done with his service, he found himself remembering a song his superiors sang when they were almost done with their services; the song is shown below in the original Korean, revised Romanization version as well as the translated version:

Korean

나 태어나 이 강산에 의경이 되어
꽃 피고 눈 내리기 어언 이십육개월
무엇을 배웠느냐 무엇을 하였느냐
데모막다 돌맞아서 병가가면 그만이지
아, 다시 못 올 흘러간 내 청춘
방석복에 실려간 좆같은 군대생활

Phonetic (romanized using Revised Romanization)

Na tae-eo-na i gang-san-e ui-gyeong-i doe-eo
Kkot pi-go nun nae-ri-gi eo-eon i-sib-ryuk-gae-wol
Mu-eos-eul bae-won-neu-nya mu-eos-eul ha-yeon-neu-nya
De-mo-mak-da dol-ma-ja-seo byeong-ga-ga-myeon geu-man-i-ji
A, da-si mot ol heul-leo-gan nae cheong-chun
Bang-seok-bo-ge sil-lyeo-gan jot-ga-teun gun-dae-saeng-hwal

Translation

I was born and became a conscripted policeman in this land
Flowers blossomed and snow has fallen for twenty-six months already
Regardless of what I learned or did
I’ll get hit by a rock in a riot and be on sick leave
Oh, my springtime of youth has already flown
This fucking military life, stretchered away in protective gear

Analysis

Once reaching adulthood, a South Korean man has to serve in the Korean military unless dealing with debilitating conditions – it is very much considered a rite of passage. In the military, the man may deal with instances of hazing on top of the military training, while the thought that his life is being wasted (especially as certain privileged people and women can spend time to have fun or better themselves instead with no drawbacks) is very much an existential crisis on its own. The Korean military police is particularly notorious for their hazing practices and perpetual danger in duty as it is often tasked with stopping violent, politically extremist riots. In such an environment started the singing of songs – defeatist songs lamenting their wasting of time and their lives.

The lyrical structure and the instrumental of the song itself was taken from the Korean song “An Old Soldier’s Song” written by Kim Min-gi and performed by Yang Hee-eun. Therefore, the example provided above is a variant of this song, but the narrator has changed from an old professional soldier who sacrificed his youth for future happiness to a nihilistic youth who laments the wasting away of his ‘best days’. As a musical piece performed by a member of a folk group (with military service being the common interest), the subject highlights the flexibility of folklore in that folklore can be repurposed to suit new folk groups and practices.

A link for the original song is shown below:

[geolocation]