Lee Mi-ja Looks Back on Her 50-Year Singing Career
Choi Bo-shik

Senior Reporter
The Chosun Ilbo

Popular singer Lee Mi-ja will perform for three days at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, starting April 2, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her debut. The concerts, titled “My 101 Songs Sung with the World,” will be followed by a nationwide tour.
During the past 50 years Lee has released 2,069 songs and recorded 560 albums. "My voice has changed a lot over the years," she says. "I have a wider vocal range now, but my voice has lost much of its pitch and power." Lee made her debut with "Pure Love at 19" (Yeol ahop sunjeong) in 1959, the year after she won first prize in a TV singing contest. She was 19 years old that year.
Five years later, “Camellia Girl” (Dongbaek agassi), the theme song of a movie with the same title starring then top stars Shin Seong-il and Eom Aeng-ran, shot Lee to stardom. As the film proved a smashing box office success, her album sold more than one million copies, a stunning success considering the nation's population at the time. But the song was banned from being broadcast and sale of the song's album was blocked in late 1965 on the grounds that it had a "Japanese tone."
Lee said, however, that President Park Chung-hee didn’t seem to know the song was banned. “In the late 1970s, when I was called into the guest house of the presidential mansion to sing at a banquet for the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, ‘Camellia Girl’ was the song I was supposed to sing that evening,” she said. At that time her two other songs, “A Goose Father” (Gireogi appa) and “Teacher of Island Village” (Seom maeul seonsaengnim), were also banned – the former for being too sorrowful and the latter for plagiarism. The ban on all these songs was lifted in 1987.
As the “Queen of Elegy,” she could have greeted her guest on a chair assuming a haughty air, or appeared late. But she was waiting for her interviewer beside the hotel door, looking at people getting out of cars. She looked as if she had never been inside a five-star hotel. It seems she constantly forgets who she is. Some time ago at a press conference marking the 50th anniversary of her debut, she said, “I’m a rustic person and I’m going to remain rustic.” She is a native of Seoul, however.
― You probably didn’t have the country look when you were 19 and made your debut.
“I was just out of high school and was full of life. My debut song, “Pure Love at 19,” was actually a light swing tune. It was after ‘Camellia Girl’ was released that people began to say I was rustic. And they called me a trot singer. There was a craze for Western pop culture at the time. Mini skirts, long hair, pop songs, jazz and ballads were very popular, and those who loved to listen to or sing my songs were regarded to have low standards. Some even said my concerts were attended by nobody but housewives wearing rubber shoes.”
― You were still young then. Didn’t it hurt your pride?
“Frankly, I was shaken and thought about changing my singing style. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t because I had a firm conviction. I was just shiftless. I wasn’t the type of person blazing the trail. I was the type trailing behind rather quietly. And I said to myself that I could digest any type of song but ballad singers couldn’t sing my songs with so rich feelings. That was how I tried to comfort myself. But, at the end of the day, I am proud of my career as a trot singer.”

Maybe, until some 20 years ago, it must have been hard for her to swallow the brand of being “unrefined.” In 1989, when she applied to rent the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts to give a concert marking the 30th anniversary of her debut, she was notified her application was rejected because “your concert would have a substandard audience.” Lee recalled, “I felt so miserable.” She called on then Seoul Mayor Goh Kun and appealed him to allow her to sing at the hall as the ban on her songs was lifted two years earlier. She said she now wanted to sing those songs before her fans for the first time in many years. She barely managed to get approval. Her concert was a great success; leaders of the all four major political parties attended it with their wives.

― Why are most of your songs sad? How much of life’s sorrows did you know?   
“After ‘Camellia Girl’ made a big hit selling more than one million copies, I was only given songs full of regrets and sorrow. It wasn’t that I knew much about life at such a young age but I conveyed the feelings of lyrics well. Mr. Na Hwa-rang, the composer who help me debut, asked me to deliver the lyrics correctly with proper feelings. He taught me, ‘If the lyrics are joyful, sing joyfully; if the lyrics are sad, sing sadly.’”
Her suntanned face, wrinkles, dyed black hair, and small stature – when she talked about her past her eyes looked wet even though she wasn’t crying.  
― Do you care for sad things by nature?

“Not exactly, but I am not active. When I have no work outside I usually stay at home. I used to do a lot of knitting in the past. I seldom went out to hang around with friends. Actually, I have no friends, except one or two.

When asked, “How did such a person run around to become a singer in her teens?” she said with a smile, “It was my dream. I probably was brave enough to become a singer at least.”
― Who gave you the brilliant title “Queen of Elegy” which always goes with your name?
"After 'Camellia Girl' was released someone proposed to make a film based on my life story. Looking back, it was sheer nonsense to make a biographical movie of a new singer merely in her twenties. But I was too young then and just thought a movie was a movie and no more. I didn’t expect they would blow up the most painful part of my life so much for commercial purposes to make me look wretched. I was mad. The storyline aside, there was little to complain about the movie’s title.”
― Patti Kim made her debut the same year you did and was active during a similar period. Did you regard her as your rival?
"She was at the peak of her career then. She had a beautiful appearance and prominent singing ability, and was so sophisticated. As she had lived abroad she had marvelous stage manner, too. I never regarded her as a rival but always envied her, wondering how I could become like her. But I knew I would never stand above her if I tried to become like her. Everyone has her own way.”
― At the press conference marking half a century of your career, you said you would like to become a plain housewife if you were ever born again. Any woman can become a plain housewife, while it must be very tough to become an outstanding singer.
“Do you mean any woman can become a good housewife? I think that in every woman’s life what’s most important is to become a good housewife. It’s no use to become popular and famous when you have no family.”
― I’ve heard that after remarrying you had a hard time due to conflict with your mother-in-law.
"There was no conflict. That's not true. My mother-in-law was stubborn and reserved. I did have a tough time adapting to my husband’s family because my husband was the eldest grandson of the clan head family and, as a pop singer working outside home most of the time, I had had no experience at all in managing home for such a big family. More than 40 relatives got together when there was an ancestral rite. And I had to make several basketfuls of pan-fried foods alone to set up the ritual table and serve the guests. But I had never done such a chore before. I had vague worries about my housekeeping ability but I assured myself over and over that I should overcome all difficulties to build a home as nothing could be gained without paying a price.”
― If you were a genuine artist, you might have freed yourself from the boundaries of home and pursued your own way.
“After I failed in my first marriage I came to think I would be nothing but a loser in my life if I had no family. I’ve never sung at home. The moment I come inside my home I’m no longer a singer but a housewife. I’ve lived like this all my life.”
― If you have to choose one between singing and your family, which would you choose?
"Singing or family... no, I can’t tell which to choose if you ask me now.”
― I’ve heard you feel so sorry for your husband living in the shade of your fame that you have never had any bankbook or house registered in your name or even for joint ownership.
"That's right. I have avoided doing anything in my name. At all official events my husband is introduced as ‘somebody’s husband’ unlike all other men. Every time I was so sorry. And my husband must have felt his pride hurt many times. So, I never referred to him as my ‘husband’ but instead as ‘my master’ (uri jip juin) or even ‘my noble gentleman’ (uri jip yangban). The world is changing rapidly and we are living in a digital era, but I remain an old-fashioned person.”
― According to a certain music critic, you memorized the lyrics of a new song on the spot and recorded it on the same day you received it. He said you neither looked beautiful nor danced well but you made it solely by standing straight in front of a microphone andsinging. Would it have been possible in today’s world?
"It’s right that a singer is born. My father’s friends would sing popular songs when they were drunk and the following day a small kid memorized the whole lyrics and sang the songs so skillfully. Back then, we only had radio and to become a singer, all you had to do was singing well. But these days, no matter how well you can sing, you also need a good appearance and in order to attain a good appearance, you need economic support as well. It would have been difficult for me to become what I am in today’s circumstances.”
― Young singers these days who aspire to have a long career seek advice from you. What is your response to this? Isn’t it boring to sing the same old songs for 50 years?
"Do many people find it boring to continue listening to my songs? I never intended to keep singing. Rather, it was always because they love my songs so much and I felt obliged to return the support and favors given to me to make me what I am that I went up to stage to sing.”
― What was the most unforgettable moment?
"I can’t forget my aforementioned concert given at the Sejong Center in 1989 to mark the 30th anniversary of my debut. Another unforgettable moment was when I visited the Pigeon (Bidulgi) Unit, which was the first Korean unit dispatched to Vietnam War, to perform for our troops there. Few other singers wanted to go for fear of being killed. President Park put me in the consolatory performance group. We had no national flag carrier at the time and it took us three days to get to Saigon [present-day Ho Chi Minh City]. Arriving at the unit I found ‘Camellia Girl’ had become their theme song. I saw the soldiers’ burning eyes filled with tears. I feel as if I can still see them. I got on to the stage and sang the song over and over endlessly. ‘So many countless nights, my heart cutting with pain, how much did I cry? I’m the camellia girl. Exhausted with yearning, exhausted with crying…’ Everyone cried and it was like the sea of tears. It’s really unforgettable.”
Her eyes became wet.
― Do you feel those days were better than now?
"It’s not so. Now is better. By the way, when I say so, young people nowadays don't understand what I mean. Sometimes, I too find it hard to understand what they are saying.”
― You have managed your life well.
“I would rather say I have endured it all well. Nobody’s life is without trouble but always full of joy. So I have patiently endured and persevered, hiding everything deep in my heart.”
[March 8, 2009]