Kim Changhoon: One-way travel from his Korean glory days

Shrouded in the gray interior of his car, moisture from the wet Chicago day gathering on the windows, Kim Changhoon drives with a smile on his face as he discusses the upbeat music radiating from the car speakers.

The music playing is, in fact, his own, although you wouldn’t know it from his professional exterior.

First impressions just aren’t accurate with Changhoon, as he could be labeled many things: A Korean. An immigrant. An American. A businessman. A former pop star.

The truth is, he’s all of the above. Thiry years ago, Changhoon was a young Korean musical sensation. Today, he’s halfway around the world, in Lincolnwood, just outside Chicago. He’s a middle-aged businessman leading what appears to be a relatively normal and prosperous life.

Few people in Korea would guess that, and few in Chicago would guess he was once an overnight rock sensation.

Overnight Sensation

Changhoon grew up making music as a hobby with his older and younger brothers. By the time he reached Seoul University in 1975, he said he and his brothers had written hundreds of songs.

AUDIO: They played every weekend and kept writing songs [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/songwriting.mp3]

But a career in the entertainment industry was neither lucrative nor well thought of in Korea at the time. Changhoon instead focused his attention on college, intent to receive a Bachelor’s of Food Science. However, a decision in his sophomore year to join the band Sandpebbles as a bass player would have unexpected consequences.

Sandpebbles went on to win a nationwide contest in 1977 for a song, “What Should I Do,” which Changhoon had written with his brothers.

“That give us some challenge, (that my brothers and I) could release our own album, because I now have some confidence (in) our song,” he recounts.

With Changhoon doing vocals and playing bass, the brothers set out to record some of the songs they’d written over the years. They passed the tape on to a recording studio, which contacted the brothers a few weeks later wanting to release their album. The brothers were shocked.

[Listen to some of their music on the band’s myspace site]

Changhoon and his brothers in the band San Ul Lim back in the 1970s
Changhoon and his brothers in the band San Ul Lim back in the 1970s

“We thought ourselves very lucky,” Changhoon says.

The band was named San Ul Lim, which roughly translates to “sound of mountain,” and in December of 1977 they released their debut album, Ani Poso, which translates to “already.” The album was a hit, and by January of 1978, Changhoon, then a college senior, was a celebrity.

“We are not ready at all to be a star,” he says. “We were very shy, only college students. Our band was first rock band, maybe, in Korea, to have big popularity.”

AUDIO: Overnight fame [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/fan-letters.mp3]

He says the band was known for its simple structure of three instruments and unique melodies and lyrics.

“People thought, what kind of music is this?” he remembers. “They were very shocked when we released.”

AUDIO: Meet the Korean Beatles [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Korean-Beatles.mp3]

However, after graduating college in 1979, Changhoon once again decided to focus his attention elsewhere. Despite San Ul Lim’s success, the brothers received no money for their album, and they were not interested in hitting the night club scene or being celebrities.

AUDIO: He could still have a private life [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/hide-himself.mp3]

Besides, Changhoon had a two-and-a-half-year Korean Army requirement to meet, so he lay aside the guitar, strapped on his helmet and set off with his brothers to complete his duties, after which he was anxious to earn a steady paycheck.

He went to work in the food science industry, where he worked long hours and had little time to devote to music. When his company offered him a position in California in 1987, Changhoon says he felt little hesitation in leaving Korea. The United States of the 1980s offered what Seoul could not: higher wages, fewer hours, and the sort of comfortable life of prosperity that had pushed him out of music only three years earlier.

Life, Loss and “The Love”

Now in his fifties, Changhoon is a practiced businessman with a firm handshake, a white-collar business card, and a résumé replete with job experience across the continent. There aren’t many discernible traces left of Changhoon’s glory days as a Korean pop star.

Music was always in the back of his mind, though, Changhoon admits. Even as he climbed the corporate ladder in the U.S., Changhoon jumped at the chance to make music back home. After writing pop songs for Korean pop singer Kim Wan San in the 1980s, Changhoon returned to the recording studio in 1993 to launch his own solo career. His debut album was a commercial flop, and Changhoon struggled to penetrate the Korean pop scene while based in the United States.

Living abroad, the band of brothers grew distant. Changhoon’s older brother, Kim Changwan, stayed in the Korean entertainment industry, while his younger brother, Kim Changik, married and lived quietly in Canada.

Changwan’s solo career took off, and he eventually broke into the movie industry, becoming one of Korea’s best-known actors today. Changik, who studied machinery in college, worked out of Vancouver at one of Changhoon’s fledgling business ventures. When Changhoon sold the business to join CJ Foods as executive vice president, Changik remained in Vancouver.

But the three brothers reunited for the 30-year anniversary of San Ul Lim’s debut album, touring Korea and parts of California while making plans for the band’s fourteenth studio record.

The reunion tour would be the last time the three brothers played together. Plans for San Ul Lim’s upcoming album were dissolved after an unexpected construction accident killed Changhoon’s younger brother in 2008.

With the pain of his brother’s death heavy on his mind, Changhoon returned to the recording studio to work on his first solo effort in more than 15 years. Recording his latest album was what he called “a sort of therapy,” allowing Changhoon to hash out the “emotional instability and depression” he felt after suffering his brother’s loss. Released in April, “The Love” is, in many ways, Changhoon’s labor of love – a simple and heartfelt testament to the memory of his young brother.

“[With] all these songs, a kind of keyword is…‘The Love.’ But it’s (connected with) death, and memory, and missing people,” Changhoon says. “That’s why we have to love, before somebody (is) gone.”

The Love’s release didn’t make much of a dent in the Korean music industry, but Changhoon seems alright with that. He went into the recording studio knowing he’d have to eat the cost, and he insists that it was never about the money or the celebrity for him. After all, Changhoon tries not to live by the light of his past. Both the dim glow of his old glory days and the long shadow of his darker ones are, in a strict sense, behind him.

“Maybe sometimes I feel – what happened if I stay in that industry? Maybe that give us some huge success,” Changhoon says. “But nobody knows – just life is a one-time game. Life is life…life is one-way travel.”

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