The Spectographies of Asian Divas: Focusing on the first Korean Colonial Diva, Lee Erisu and Unclaimed Memory

Abstract:
Lee Erisu, often referred to as the “Diva of the Century,” was the one of the first
popular singers and Shinpa actresses in Korea under Japanese rule with the release of Ruins of
Hwangsŏng in 1927. She recorded popular songs in both Imperial Japan and Korea which
confirmed her status as a cultural icon of inter-Asian colonial modernity. A legendary recital of
Ruins of Hwangsŏng in 1933 instigated collective mourning for Korea as the “ruined country”
and provoked anti-Japanese patriotism. Lee also typified the modern woman figure and the
concept of free love. In 1932, at the pinnacle of her career, Lee disappeared from the
entertainment industry and tried to commit a suicide with a married man she loved. As a study of
cultural memory, this paper focuses on Lee Erisu’s life and the ways in which her records
addressed embedded structures of Japanese colonialism, the impact of Lee’s stardom on sociocultural
values, and the invention of a modern, female subjectivity. By tracing untouched
narratives of Lee’s career and music, this paper articulates various discourses of acoustic
modernity, modern free love as an ambivalent sense of desire and reversion, and accounts of
audience reception to her music as both passive resistance to, and ambivalent desire for, colonial
modernity.
About the Speaker: 
Yongwoo Lee is an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of East Asian Studies in the
Department of East Asian studies at New York University. His primary research and teaching
interests focus on media and cultural studies of modern Korea, critical theory, popular culture in
East Asia, film studies, critical musicology, intellectual history of wartime Japan and postwar
Korea, Korean contemporary art, and post/colonial historiography. He received his Ph.D. from
the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University (2010) and an
M.A. in Media and Cultural Studies from Seoul National University (2002). He taught East
Asian media and cultural studies at Cornell University (2010-2013) as a Mellon Postdoctoral
Fellow in the Society for the Humanities, and research fellow in Interdisciplinary Information
Studies at the University of Tokyo (2006-2007).

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