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Biggest Asian-based festival in Midwest highlights Korean culture



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Updated: July 27, 2013 10:24PM

Long before South Korean sensation Psy went viral with his hit song and dance “Gangnam Style,” Korean pop music had a following in the U.S.

It’s known as K-pop, and it will have a heavy presence Aug. 10 and 11 at the 18th annual Chicago Korean Festival.

The festival is a reminder of how Korea Town once thrived. Over the years, the hassles of running a business in Chicago as well as a limited selection of quality public schools drove Korean immigrants to the near north suburbs.

Each year, the festival brings many back. It is billed as the biggest Asian-based festival in the Midwest and draws scores of Koreans and Americans from neighboring states.

“When it originated it was a way of putting on a party for the neighborhood and to show off to dignitaries that we have power,” said Brandon Yu, executive director of the Chicago Korean American Chamber of Commerce, the festival’s host. “Now we want to show it’s still a large community.”

The number of American attendees grows annually. “It became a festival for people to experience another culture deeply,” Yu said.

American interest in Korean culture is most evident in the K-pop singing competition in which participants must sing in Korean. The language requirement hasn’t stopped Americans from entering and winning the coveted first prize: a round-trip airline ticket to South Korea worth up to $2,000. Last year’s winner was African American.

“Korean writing is phonetic; it’s pretty easy to learn lyrics,” said Melissa Rufus, 27, who won the 2009 singing championship although she knew just a bit of the language.

Interest in the music has taken off in the states “really because of YouTube,” Rufus adds. “Korean record companies upload videos to YouTube and have generated a following.”

Like pop music in the U.S., K-pop is geared for a younger crowd. The festival planning committee must balance that with traditional entertainment, Yu said.

Ssireum wrestling matches that resemble sumo wrestling are a staple, and so are traditional fan dances. “I want to let people know the festival is geared for a young generation while keeping old traditions alive,” Yu said.

What about the food, I asked Yu. I recounted a meeting I had last fall with a Korea Times newspaper staffer who said the demise of Korea Town means fewer Chicagoans are familiar with traditional Korean cooking.

Yu promises that festivalgoers won’t be disappointed on that front. The Korean restaurant Woori Village of Niles, which won Chicago’s Ribfest in 2011, will be one of more than a dozen food vendors.

Korean beer will be sold, and Budweiser will be available because you can’t have a Chicago festival without Bud.

If you are a fan of gluttonous eating contests, you might go for this: Major League Eating and the International Federation of Competitive Eating will hold the Chowdown in Korea Town World Kimchi Eating Championship.

Contestants will stuff themselves with kimchi, a fermented vegetable side dish. Top-ranked eater Sonya Thomas, a Korean-born American, is expected to compete.

“She’s about her size,” Yu said, pointing to his petite assistant, “but she can put them away.”

Yu said he is taking a few risks with this year’s festival, the biggest being a move west on Bryn Mawr, between Central Park and Pulaski.

“We needed bigger space,” he said.

Northeastern Illinois University will be home to a large stage and free parking, Yu said.

Not only can we get a taste of Korean culture but free parking. In Chicago that’s big.

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