In Search of Spirits
Photos by Bill Stephens
scoops up five square gold
throws them onto the low table with
Halmoni studies the configuration of the coins on the table--a shaman technique
for interpreting spirit voices.
your dead father crying," Halmoni says
in Korean to
my Korean friend and interpreter,
beside me in the shaman's small L.A. Koreatown apartment.
he crying?" my friend asks.
"Because you are not married."
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?"
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
gave me the name of three Koreatown shamans. The first two calls were dead
ends. But a third call somebody answered.
I'd like to speak to Book ak San Halmoni," I said.
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.
* * *
welcomes my translator friend and
me into the simple Koreatown apartment she shares with her son's family. We
take off our shoes.
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.
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.
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.
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
if we'd like our fortunes told.
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.
questions, Halmoni tells my friend she will be married this year--and happily.
client who's watching becomes excited:
"Oh, Halmoni is so good!" she says. "She can't lie because the spirit
My friend asks
Halmoni whether she needs to worry about her mother's health now."
"How old is she?"
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.
two children?" she asks.
children," I say.
Halmoni says I
went through some hardship in my life.
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.
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.
* * *
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
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
* * *
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
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.
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
also contains offerings of rice, fruits, vegetables, and cookies. "The spirits eat the food by
touching it or looking at it," she says.
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.
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.
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.
a chance to be married three times.
Also, you don't live with your children."
sounded like what Halmoni said.
first wife was strong mentally. And maybe that was a problem. But you still
think of her sometimes."
writing what the voices are telling her. "You sometimes have headaches. Or
maybe stomach problems."
dictating. "You are intelligent, but not greedy. So you are not a
last part is certainly true," I say.
see that you love sports. Especially baseball."
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
* * *
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."
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.
a counselor," she says, noting she can usually tell people their problem
before they reveal it to her.
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.
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.
she has told symptom-free clients to see a doctor, who saved their life. She
has saved marriages and businesses.
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.
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.
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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