In Search of Spirits

--KoreAm /November 2006

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

Shaman Halmoni scoops up five square gold

coins and throws them onto the low table with

a crash. Halmoni studies the configuration of the coins on the table--a shaman technique for interpreting spirit voices.

"I hear your dead father crying," Halmoni says

in Korean to my Korean friend and interpreter,

who's sitting beside me in the shaman's small L.A. Koreatown apartment.

"Why is he crying?" my friend asks.

"Because  you are not married."

The Korean shaman picks up the coins and slams

them again on the table. She continues in a strong voice, the spirit speaking through her. "I see you have a boyfriend. An American. What month is he born?"

"January," she replies.

"Perfect!" Halmoni says. "He's a good one. You will  marry him this year." 

*   *   *

My search for Koreatown shamans started by accident.  One day I was casually flipping 

through the L.A. Koreatown phone directory. In the index, sandwiched  between "forklift" and "freight trucking"  I spotted "fortunetellers." I was surprised to see three dozen listed.

Fortunetellers, I learned, are widely used in L.A.'s Korean community. Some are horoscope readers. But others are shamans, who communicate with spirits to solve clients' problems. Although skeptical,  I wanted to meet some Koreatown shamans. A transplanted Midwesterner, I'm intrigued by L.A.'s diversity and enjoy exploring it. 

I learned from UCLA Korean Studies folklorist Tim Tangherlini that shamanism is perhaps the best known of Korea's indigenous religions. Shamanism has survived in Korea despite major inroads by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Korea's establishment stresses the country's high tech economic strides and often dismisses shamanism as antiquated superstition. But shamans still practice in Korea. They become shamans because early-on they display an ability to connect with spirits. They undergo long apprenticeships. 

Shamans, Tangherlini said, perform similar functions in L.A.'s Korean communities as in Korea. They advise individual clients on problems by invoking spirits. They also go to clients' homes to exorcise ghosts, as well as to perform rituals to help the sick and to bring good-luck. They help Korean merchants by blessing new businesses, praying for failing ones, and by keeping bad spirits away.

 

Tangherlini advised that while there are perhaps 150  Korean shamans in Southern California, my search wouldn't be easy. It's a hard-to-penetrate closed mostly female network, he said. "They are suspicious of outsiders and donít want attention because local Korean Christian churches frown on them. L.A. shamans would be afraid you'd ridicule them or breach the privacy of their clients, some of whom are Christians."

But he said they might talk to me out of curiosity. "As a non-Korean, they'd tend to regard you as a Martian."

Tangherlini gave me the name of three Koreatown shamans. The first two calls were dead ends. But a third call somebody answered.

"Yo basao."

"Hello, I'd like to speak to Book ak San Halmoni," I said.

The woman didnít  speak English, but she put somebody on the phone who did-- one of Halmoni's clients. I explained that I wanted to meet with the shaman. "She will talk to you," the woman said. "But you will need a translator."

"I have a Korean friend who can translate," I said, thanking her. And as our shaman meeting drew closer I grew curious about what the Korean shaman would tell us.

*   *   *

 

Shaman Halmoni welcomes my  translator friend and me into the simple Koreatown apartment she shares with her son's family. We take off our shoes.

 

My friend takes a pillow and sits on the floor. I sit on the couch near Halmoni, who sits cross-legged. Halmoni wears a brown dress and a gold chain around her neck. She tells us she was born in Hamkyung Province in North Korea in 1921.  She looks younger than her age. Her posture is erect and her voice is strong. 

As we settle in, the client I had talked to on the phone arrives. She says she came to Halmoni with marital problems almost 10 years ago, and has been seeing her off and on ever since. "She's helped me a lot," the woman says, not volunteering her name.

Stacked against one wall sit two colorfully decorated tables that earlier in the day were filled with food offerings for a ritual Halmoni performed. In the dining room we spot the remains of a pig used at the ritual.

Halmoni says that at age seven she had an intuition about becoming a shaman. But she became a Catholic instead. She eventually married and had eight children. At  39 she started speaking strange words and was sick for three years. Although Halmoni didn't want to become a shaman, she felt called.

             

She's been a shaman for many years, the last 18 in L.A.  She says she can predict the future, can tell who'll be elected the next president in Korea and America. She can tell whether a pregnant  woman will have a  boy or girl. 

Currently, Halmoni says she advises individual clients, mostly women, on health, business, and marriage concerns. She communicates with spirits and gives advice. She says she can help sick people get well  by getting rid of a bad spirit through  rituals.  Her shaman tools include coins, drum, flags, sword, and knife. She may sing, chant, shout, cry, and dance to reach spirits.

Halmoni asks if we'd like our fortunes told.

She starts with my friend. Halmoni pulls out a low wooden fortune telling table. She lights incense, grasps beads, and begins rattling them. She scoops up some coins and repeatedly hurls them onto the table.  Her voice grows even stronger. The spirits are presumably talking through her. The atmosphere grows more mysterious and the incense makes me light headed. Listening to three woman speaking Korean, I wonder what I'm doing here--like a Martian might wonder.

After several questions, Halmoni tells my friend she will be married this year--and happily.

The longtime client who's watching becomes excited:  "Oh, Halmoni is so good!" she says.  "She can't lie because the spirit is speaking."

My friend asks Halmoni whether she needs to worry about her mother's health now."

Halmoni: "How old is she?"

"She's 81."

"Your mother can live up to age 90. You don't need to worry about her."

Then it's my turn. My role shifts from observer and questioner to subject. I squirm uneasily on the couch.  Halmoni asks my age and birth date. You will be married three times in my life, she says, throwing down the coins.

       

"You have two children?" she asks.

"No children," I say.

Halmoni says I went through some hardship in my life.

I nod.

Halmoni's middle-aged daughter suddenly enters from the kitchen. She says Halmoni has had a long day and must rest. Her daughter hugs Halmoni, who smiles sweetly. The fortune telling session is over. 

           

Moments later, as my friend and I drive away, I try to sort in my mind what I had observed. Halmoni certainly had charisma, but I wasn't sure what I'd experienced. I would have liked to have more time.

I wasn't sure what to make of Korean shamans after one encounter. But I was even more determined to meet Korean shamans.

*   *   *

Finding another Korean shaman proved difficult, however. Some didnít want to talk. Other leads were dead-ends.  One Korean American Christian warned that a shaman would seduce me into devil worship. Halmoni's nameless client said she knew various shamans, but didn't produce one.

I found an American woman who lives in Koreatown and studies Korean shamanism. She knew of a local male shaman who dances on knives. However, the phone number proved to be another dry hole. But through her I ultimately reached a Koreatown shaman named Sunny Yun who speaks English. She agreed to meet me at her Koreatown home.

*   *   *

I arrive at 2 p.m. for my visit with Sunny Yun. In front of a small house near an auto body shop, I spot an attractive middle-aged woman working in her front yard smoking a cigarette.

I wave.

She waves.

The front yard has two dogs and a well-appointed garden.

Sunny lets me in with a smile and leads me into her house. She wears a stylish jacket over a white tank top, and a green necklace. The room has a classical Korean string instrument on the floor, photos of Sunny,  a piano, an exercise treadmill, and a large TV.

Sunny, who says her shaman name is Chun-Sin Bosal, shows me her shrine room. On a platform along a wall sit several statues of bearded men and Buddhas. One, she says, is the spirit of the mountain. There are many candles. Landscape scenes form a mural backdrop. The exoticism of the shrine was like nothing I'd ever seen in a home.

The platform also contains offerings of rice, fruits, vegetables, and cookies.  "The spirits eat the food by touching it or looking at it," she says.

Sunny sits before the shrine alter beating forcefully on a large prayer drum, then she kneels and prays. She says the prayer drum helps her connect with the spirits.  She replaces it with a smaller drum, which she taps softly.

"My neighbors donít like it when I pound on the big drum," she says. "So often I use the smaller, softer drum."

Much of the time she prays to her personal spirit, her great-grandmother. Sunny says when she gets deeply into prayer her body shakes. When her hands start shaking the spirits are present.

We move to a low table in one corner. She puts a long string of white beads around her neck.

"What year, month, and day were you born?"

After I tell her, she consults a book. "Year of the chicken."  She rattles some bells on a long stick to call her great-grandmother spirit. Then she jots down notes in a book, transcribing what the spirit is telling her.

"You have a chance to  be married three times. Also, you don't live with your children."

Okay. That sounded like what Halmoni said.

"Your first wife was strong mentally. And maybe that was a problem. But you still think of her sometimes."

I listen.

Sunny keeps writing what the voices are telling her. "You sometimes have headaches. Or maybe stomach problems."

"Stomach."

She keeps dictating. "You are intelligent, but not greedy. So you are not a millionaire."

"That last part is certainly true," I say.

"I also see that you love sports. Especially baseball."

"I played baseball in college,"  I said, impressed with her insights.

*   *   *  

Back in the living room, Sunny says she's from Iksan in southern South Korea. Her great-grandmother was a shaman. "As a girl, I dreamed of being in the army, a singer, and a housewife," she says, adding that she often had dreams that foretold the future. She came to America in 1982.

Sunny went back to Korea, but returned in 1987 to live in L.A.'s Koreatown. She lived with her aunt and son and worked at a clothing store, eventually owning a Koreatown karaoke nightclub. Sunny says she had a bad temper, focused on money, and drank every night at her karaoke nightclub.

In her late 20s, Sunny became sick and heard voices telling her she was a sad girl. She tried to muffle the voices by playing loud music or sleeping. 

She also began dreaming about Korean historical figures and about travels to mountains and oceans. Her tastes changed towards older clothes, traditional Korean music, and candlelight. When she got lost on the L.A. freeway a voice steered her home.

Sunny felt she was being called to become a shaman. "I didn't want to become a shaman," she says. "I was a Christian. "I wanted to stay  being an ordinary person, not a special person." 

She talked to a shaman and consulted a minister, who told her there was some spirit in her body and that she was going to hell. When she made her choice, her Christian son was not pleased, but understood. "I told him I canít take it anymore. That I have to be a shaman."

The voices were a natural gift. But Sunny had to learn shaman rituals. So she traveled to Korean and studied with famous Korean shaman Kim, Kum Hwa. In 2003, Sunny had a successful naerim kut, a right of passage performance for would-be shamans. Her spirits told her she could make a living as a shaman, but the goal was to help people not to make money.

"But I still had mixed feelings," she says. "I hid from clients and spent my time praying. I didn't want to tell fortunes. Wasn't sure I could do it."

She says her spirits became upset.

"I prayed for forgiveness," says Sunny, who became a practicing  shaman in January 2005. "I was surprised I could do this and help people. When my clients say their problems are solved I feel happy I became a shaman."

*   *   *

Every morning from eight until noon, Sunny cooks rice and prays in her shrine room on behalf of her clients. In the afternoon she sees them by appointment. At 7 pm and 11 pm she prays again.  "It's difficult to pray late at night because sometimes I'm too tired."

All her clients are Korean. Most of them are women. Her clients range in age from 20s to 60s and older. January through March is her busy time because people want to know what the new year holds. Clients seek her out for various reasons--opening a new business, a problem with an existing business, picking the best date to get married.  A woman may have problems with her husband or mother-in-law. Sunny tries to help them get along. Or a couple may have a child with a problem.

"I'm like a counselor," she says, noting she can usually tell people their problem before they reveal it to her.

Sunny mostly sees clients in her home. She also travels with them to local mountains or beaches to pray to spirits, who give her ideas. Her main spirit is her great-grandmother. Sunny spends one to three hours per session with clients. Some are regulars. Some visit annually. Others simply pay her to pray for them.

Sunny will also visit a client's house when a recently deceased relative is reluctant to leave. Sunny  helps coax the spirit to depart. "The spirit naturally wants to remain near the family. So we give the spirit food and new clothes to wear."

She says she's had  many success stories.

For instance, she has told symptom-free clients to see a doctor, who saved their life. She has saved marriages and businesses.

These days Sunny doesn't drink, eat meat, pork, or fish, of lead a hectic  social life. She sees a few female friends, but focuses on praying and helping her clients. "I hold my temper now." She doesn't know what would happen to her health of she stopped being a shaman.

*   *   *

Sunny says so far she is able to support herself through shamanizing. "Some months are better than others. But I'm doing all right."

At times she calls other Koreatown shamans for advice on how to deal with situations. She acknowledges that it's easier to be a shaman these days in Korea than in Koreatown, where there are so many Christians.  

Sunny says that her life goal now is to become a better and better shaman and to help many people. A dream is to help build a Korean shaman museum in L.A. Most Koreans in L.A., she says,  donít know about Korean shamanism.

Shamans are now becoming more popular in Korea, and in Los Angeles, she says. "People realize shamans can help them."

As I drive from Koreatown, I think about Sunny's sincerity and  feel less skeptical about Korean shamans. They seem to provide comfort people donít get elsewhere.

I still don't fully understand what I experienced. But I doubt that meeting a few Korean shamans will lead me to devil worship.

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