Hwa Records was conceived after Caroline Yoo was diagnosed with hwa-byung in 2020 by an acupuncturist in South Korea. “Hwa” refers to  hwa-byung (fire sickness), defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a culture-bound syndrome mostly affecting women; a Korean folk syndrome attributed to the suppression of anger where pent up emotions then manifest in the body.  While the diagnosis in South Korea occurs primarily in middle-age to older women suffering under a prevalently patriarchal society, with further research Yoo found that hwa-byung in the United States could also be caused by displacement stresses such as balancing two cultures - in this case Korean and American. Symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, panic, fear of impending death, dysphoric affect, and indigestion. While discussing her diagnosis with Kayla Tange, another Korean-American, echoes of similar symptoms, experiences, and emotions related to the stress of bridging two cultures emerged. They began to wonder how many in the diaspora had hwa-byung without realizing, due to limited access to receive a diagnosis or treatment.

part of the Meantime programming at ICA SF. 

Edited video of Hwa Records public performance.

In 2020, as Covid-19 ran rampant, another disease surfaced: latent prejudice and racism towards Asians. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that hate crimes against Asian Americans from 2019 to 2020 rose by 149% with mostly women targeted. While the effort to contain the coronavirus continues, we must also address the epidemic of racism that has been exacerbated by the past two years of global crises. If xenophobia is the virus, what is the cure?

The first rendition of The Hwa Records project aimed to create community space for diasporic Koreans to alleviate some of these pressures, and to create space to collectively process the ever-present, but only recently acknowledged racism directed towards Asians. The project offered free workshops to members of the Korean diaspora living in the United States between July and September 2021 where participants could see, feel, process, and release any pent-up emotion, fire, or hwa in their bodies. To create an intimate space conducive to facilitating friendship, listening, and a feeling of safety, sessions were limited to seven participants. Led by Kayla Tange, Caroline Yoo, Roger Kim, and Saewon Oh, the workshops were inspired by Korean artistic and healing traditions.

The four sessions that were provided were Hwa Break Release, which focused on voice finding and collective screaming; Meeting our Hwa with Poisonous Plants a meditation session where we provided flower essences for free to aid in emotional connection to their hwa; Hwa Family Stories and History Workshop where the participants started to voice the lack of knowledge that came with migration and started to detangle the shame that came from not knowing; and finally Dancing Away the Patriarchy in Your Family which was for our femme, queer, non-binary community only, where we rage danced together in an attempts to purge the hwa from patriarchy.

The facilitators received funding from the Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry and Carnegie Mellon University to make these sessions free and provided facilitator fees. We partnered with Gyopo, a Korean-American diaspora art collective in LA, to help us promote through social media. All of our sessions were filled and we had waitlists equal to triple our participant size for all of our events. We even added an extra workshop in an attempt to provide for our waitlists. The workshops in 2021 were a success and we saw the urgency of spaces that were provided, as we created a safe space for a range of Korean diaspora. Moreover, as we explained the origins of hwa-byung in relation to our project, many of our workshop participants recognized the symptoms and underlying causes in their own lives, even beginning to wonder if their other body ailments were misdiagnosed by Western medicine, confirming the critical need for community spaces addressing the feelings of dysphoria and displacement specific to the children of Korean immigrants, adoptees, and others in diaspora. We saw as the diaspora not only showed up for these workshops but for each other. It was joyous, brilliant, revolutionary and dare we say life changing.

Through the Meantime Program at the ICA San Francisco, we are proposing to continue these workshops but execute them in person, hosting the four sessions all on the same day or over two days where the final event would be a live performance. We are excited to see how these workshops change when we can feel the energy between us and create relationships, as we facilitate trust and vulnerability in spaces of intimacy.

Our team is compiling a performance film inspired by our past workshops. Through the Hwa Records, people found healing throughothers who could see them for who they are. With previous funding, Roger Kim created a robot gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument, which can only be played by two or more people at the same time. The robot gayageum is a diaspora object depicting our communities’ uplifting through connection. A sheer red custom traditional Hanbok (dress), was produced for Yoo and Tange to wear. Yoo moves in the top piece, Tange in the bottom skirt while Saewon Oh and Roger Kim perform the robot gayageum. This performance depicts how we exist and survive through each other.

By using the 901 Minnesota building as it is being built, the construction of the community that the ICASF strives for is echoed in our workshops as well as our performance as we strengthen and give hope to our own peoples. We want to use the building and our programming to show the sprawling Korean community in San Francisco that there is a space for us in institutions, care for our communities and the ICASF is a safe place for our bodies.

Hwa Records workshop setup.  

Some potions and gifts we provided for our participants.

Since the workshops were private we refrained from photographing or recording the participants during each session. 

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