Halla Pai Huhm (1922 – 1994)
The name Halla Pai Huhm is synonymous with Korean dance in Hawaii. Guest performers and teachers have come to the islands from time to time, but no one so significantly contributed to Korean culture through dance and music in this island-state as Halla Huhm. When recognizing her in 1979 as the first Outstanding Korean in Hawaii, a spokesman of the Korean Community Council described her as working "quietly but arduously in promoting and exposing Korean culture . . . ." The Council also acknowledged "her extraordinary generosity and personal dignity while perpetuating the image of the Korean community in the larger Honolulu Community." The thread that weaves its way throughout the life of Halla Huhm is composed of equal strands of artistry and generosity.
Halla Pai Huhm was born in Pusan in 1922. At the age of five she and four siblings went to Japan, where she was raised by Pai Ku-ja, the daughter of her father's sister. Although technically her cousin, Halla Huhm often refers to Pai as her sister; a reflection of their strong familial relationship. In addition to Korean dance, Pai had studied ballet and modern dance in Europe, and began to pass on her knowledge and skill to her young relative. Huhm learned dance at the same time she worked toward earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics at Jitsen Women's University in Tokyo. But with the start of World War II she returned to Korea, beginning a regular pattern of travels between these two countries. With her 1949 immigration to Hawaii she simply widened her circle of travels.
Her artistic side was first displayed in Hawaii in flower arranging rather than dance. But she soon began teaching dance informally to students in her home. Her own performing abilities, both in dance and acting, became increasingly apparent to the people of Hawaii. In 1954 she performed the role of Lotus Blossom, a Japanese geisha, in the Honolulu Community Theatre's production of Teahouse of the August Moon. Newspaper articles about the highly successful production touted both her acting and dancing ability. Interestingly, however, the dancing was Okinawan! But this was not unusual for Halla Huhm. She had studied several dance forms before coming to Hawaii, and was actively involved with Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan, and Filipino dance groups. She even included some of these dance forms in her own early studio recitals.
Halla Huhm maintained scrapbooks of photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings that provide memories of her many activities in Hawaii. Besides reflecting the nature and quantity of her involvements, statements in these clippings also attest to her artistic qualities. They continually describe her ability as a performer and choreographer; "a mime and dancer of extraordinary talent," "a number of [her] creations rise to the level of great art," "an artist of the first rank." The clippings and letters also speak of her generosity. Over the years she gave of herself and of her students through performances for countless functions sponsored by a vast array of community organizations: Hawaii State Fairs, the Honolulu Art Academy, the Women's Society of the Korean Christian Church, the Honolulu Symphony, a convention of the Hawaii Dance Masters of America, and benefits for the Cancer Society and the Korean Wounded Veterans' Association.
Citations from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Information, and the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea, and from the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Hawaii; an invitation from former Governor William F. Quinn to serve as a member of his Cultural Commission; and letters of appreciation, from such organizations as the Soroptomists and the Jaycees and such individuals as U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, speak of her willingness to spread Korean culture and serve the community. Her 1980 cultural medal from the Korean government is particularly noteworthy, since she was the first overseas individual to receive this recognition.
Dance is an expensive art form, and Halla Huhm's concerns with perpetuating Korean culture in Hawaii continued despite limited financial resources. Shortly after her arrival in Hawaii she worked in a variety of jobs in order to take care of her most basic needs. Later, after opening the Halla Pai Huhm Korean Dance Studio in 1950, she worked for a travel agency, taking tour groups to Japan and Korea, in order to pay rent for studio space and allow many young students to forego tuition payments. Few people in the community realized the expense involved in performing; the cost of fabrics to make costumes and then maintain them, travel to sustain ties with the dance community in Korea and continue her own studies, and obtaining tapes of music to offset the lack of Korean musicians in Hawaii. But she never asked for fees; if an event would contribute to knowledge about Korean culture and further worthwhile causes, those were sufficient reasons to perform.
Although the foundation of her dance training came from her "sister," Pai Ku-ja, Halla Huhm never stopped studying. She sometimes invited guests to teach at her studio and her Hawaii-Japan-Korea travel circle frequently included trips to continue dance studies. Her teachers were some of the finest Korea had to offer, and she always sought out specialists from whom she could learn particular types of dance. She studied traditional dance with Han Sung-jun, a man acknowledged throughout Korea for both his retention of traditional movement characteristics and innovative choreography; Buddhist ritual music and dance from Pak Song-am, a priest formally recognized by the Korean government for expertise in this area; shaman rituals and dance from Lee Ji-san, a shaman from the Seoul area; Salp'uri, a solo dance form considered by many to be the epitome of Korean dance, from Kim Mok-hwa; and court dance from Kim Ch'on-hung, a dancer recognized by the Korean government for his traditional dance knowledge and ability.
In 1983 Halla Huhm was invited to return to Korea as an Assistant Professor in the Dance Department of Chongju University of Education. For five years she taught traditional dance to future teachers in her homeland; a significant comment on the validity of her Korean dance knowledge.
Her continuing studies, even after reaching the age of 60, reflect both a solid commitment and a strong sense of discipline, qualities she expected in her students. Stern scoldings sometimes lead to tears, but invariably to an understanding of Korean culture and to the development of true character. A dance class was often interrupted for a lesson in etiquette or costume; the appropriate way to treat elders or how to properly wear a Korean dress. Ultimately these lessons were directed at teaching "the Korean way" and becoming the kind of dignified person she herself was often described as being.
To recognize the abilities of her students and try to instill in them the importance of their contributing to the perpetuation of Korean culture, in 1963 Halla Huhm began a system of awarding certificates of achievement to students that is based on a system she learned in Japan. The highest certificate awarded students the name of her primary mentor, Pai, and designated them as instructors in the Pai tradition; Pai Ku-ja honored Halla Huhm by giving her the Pai name.
Halla Huhm's persistence in keeping Korean dance alive in Hawaii has never ceased. In 1959 she began teaching at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus. Over the years she extended her performances to include presentations on the Neighbor Islands. Although enrollments in her studio classes increase and decrease, the Halla Pai Huhm Korean Dance Studio has been the only continuous source of Korean dance and music in the state. In 1989 Halla Huhm and her studio were honored with an invitation to be part of the performing arts delegation when Hawaii was the featured state at the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., a testimony to the significance of Korean dance and culture in the ethnically diverse fabric that is Hawaii.
It is because of Halla Huhm that many second and third generation Korean girls know how to wear a traditional Korean dress, many boys can beat out a farmer's rhythm on a Korean drum, and many Korean immigrants can continue to see and participate in an activity of their ethnic heritage.
Throughout 1993 Hawaii celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of Korean immigration to the state. On January 13, 1903, the first boatload of Koreans arrived at Hawaii's shores from the port city of Inchon This marked the beginning of Korean immigration to Hawaii, and subsequently to the mainland United States. Koreans have made significant contributions to Hawaii in business, education, and politics. The 1993 festivities highlighted the impact of Koreans on the Hawaii community. To celebrate the vast contributions of Halla Pai Huhm to Hawaii's understanding of Korean culture, tribute performances were held in January in Honolulu and Hilo. Sponsored by the Committee on the 90th Anniversary Celebration of Korean Immigration to Hawaii in cooperation with the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Department of Theatre and Dance, Music Department, and Center for Korean Studies; and the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the Big Island Korean Club, Halla Huhm and her students performed to near-capacity audiences.
The program featured thirty-seven dancers ranging in age from six to fifty-eight years old. Although most of the performers were of Korean ancestry, two were Caucasian and one was Hawaiian-Portuguese, only a suggestion of the variety of ethnicities of students at Halla Huhm's studio over the years. Performers also reflected the diversity of backgrounds of those who have studied at the studio; a Caucasian elementary school physical education teacher who studied with Halla Huhm for more than thirty years and earned the Pai name and teaching certificate; a recent visitor from Korea who studied in Seoul with well-known dancer Lee Mae-bang; two homemakers who were born in Korea and recently immigrated to Hawaii; and the youngest performer, a second-generation Korean who only began her studies of Korean dance in the fall of 1992.
The January performance was a retrospective of some of the many works choreographed by Halla Huhm. It demonstrated her interest in both traditional Korean dance roots and creativity as well as her concern with showcasing the varying abilities of her students. Halla Huhm herself performed Noin Ch'um, The Old Man's Dance. Inspired by a mask made in Japan, she choreographed and first presented this dance in the 1950s. Noin Ch'um came to be a favorite of Hawaii audiences because of the amazing poignancy and believability of the character portrayed. Halla Huhm also performed the role of the teacher in Yeh Do, The Way of Art, originally choreographed in 1990. In a manner representative of the way she taught at her studio, the dance depicted the almost ritualistic passing on of dance traditions from teacher to student.
The evening concluded with a colorful pastiche of drum dances. As the entire cast of dancers circled the stage weaving long, colorful streamers in maypole-fashion, the Honolulu audience rose to its feet to acknowledge a dance master and ambassador of Korean culture; a woman described earlier in the evening by Donald Kim, chairman of the sponsoring committee, as a "pillar of Korean culture in Hawaii."
A little more than one year later, on January 29, 1994, Halla Huhm passed away. Her body was cremated, and to the accompaniment of Buddhist chants and prayers, her ashes were scattered off the coast of Honolulu.
This text, adapted from "Halla Pai Huhm: Portrait of a Korean-American," is copyright by Judy Van Zile and may not be reproduced in any form without her permission. The original article was published in the fall 1993 issue of Korean Culture. For additional information about Halla Huhm and the Halla Huhm Studio, see "Korean Dance in Hawaii: A Study of the Halla Pai Huhm Korean Dance Studio," unpublished M.A. thesis by Ann Kikuyo Nishiguchi, University of California, Los Angeles, 1982.