Poi is a performance art in which balls, usually made out of wax, are suspended from a length of flexible material, usually plaited cord. It is held in the hand and swung in circular patterns. Choreographed dancing and movement is usually involved .
Meet the mastermind behind Korea Burn, a former contestant on Korea’s Got Talent, and the “King of Poi” of South Korea: Shin Yeob Chung, AKA: Shin Masta.
Since 2007, Shin has been vigorously a part of the poi scene not only in Korea, but all across the globe. He’s participated in festivals in Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United States. His passion, dedication, and love for the sport oozed out onto the coffee table as we sat down for a one-on-one interview. We discussed the birth of Korea Burn, life after Korea’s Got Talent, and how exactly he wants to become a “monster.”
What is poi in your own words?
Poi is a visual art, but it can also be seen as a sport. It’s up to the person, the organizer, and the event. If someone organizes a poi art convention then poi can be looked at as an art, but if there’s a competition poi can be looked at as a sport.
It’s not everyday I meet poi players, it’s quite an unusual sport. How did you even begin to discover it?
The fire spinner scene is growing and there are many fire festivals across the world. At first I found it online, like on YouTube videos or photos from festivals, such as Burning Man. I went to a MoRave Gathering in Korea and I met an Australian foreigner who played poi. I thought this looked fun, so I tried to spin. That was my start. But at that time, I was not passionate about it. I didn’t take it seriously. The more I researched online, the more interested I became.
I decided to go to New Zealand because that’s where poi originated from. This was the trip that made me go crazy and passionate for poi. I had so many beautiful moments there. I decided to go to the Juggling Festival in New Zealand, I had to find a ride from someone because there was no public transportation available.
When I arrived to the festival I said “I want to learn poi.” When they saw me (play poi) they said “No you should teach poi, you are already good.”
What exactly is it about poi that made you so passionate about it?
At the time I didn’t know, I honestly just went with the flow of things. It’s kind of a meditation. Sometimes I spin poi because I want to decompress my stress or because I’m sad.
Today, poi gives me so many connections for what I love to do. There’s Korea Burn, my travels, performing for events or festivals, and meeting foreigner friends. Poi is the reason for all of that. It connects with everything that I love.
I also spin because it’s fun. I don’t think I would’ve fallen in love with it if it wasn’t any fun.
How long did you practice before you became a professional?
I don’t feel like I practice. I play. Sometimes I play all day for more than five hours. Sometimes I play for just one hour. Nowadays it’s a bit difficult to play because the projects I’m working on mean that I don’t have a lot of time.
Do you make your own choreography?
Yes. There are not a lot of Korean spinners. When I started I was the only one at the time. I think there are more people out there who spin poi, but only as a hobby at their home, or who only have a light interest.
What’s your personal goal for poi?
I want to be a crazy poi artist monster. There are many festivals – music, rock, art, photography – but there’s no fire or poi yet in Korea. In Europe and other countries they have these festivals and I want to start one in Korea. Also, my goal is to make a show. Cirque du Soleil is great show that’s exciting and beautiful. I want to make one of the most amazing poi shows in the world with the same impact.
Tell me about your experience with Korea’s Got talent 2011.
When Korea Got Talent came to Korea they said anyone could apply. I signed up for many reasons: to test myself, to introduce poi and fire sports to the audience, and for the experience itself. I also applied because there are not many stages for fire dancers in Korea since people recognize it as a dangerous sport even though it’s not.
To be honest at the time I was just so happy because I was performing. When people like it I feel happy.
How was your life after Korea’s Got Talent?
There were so many nice opportunities for me. Some companies asked me to advertise for commercials or ads, but I already had travel plans to go to Germany and Switzerland to perform at festivals. I didn’t want to cancel my travel plans to be in advertisements. I wanted to perform.
Do you feel like you should have won?
Honestly, who doesn’t want to be the winner? I was so happy even though I didn’t win. Especially since after the show so many people recognized me. [Laughs] It made it easier for me to perform.
How did Korea Burn start?
It started with my friend Katlyn Wyllie who also organized Bultanen Saram in 2011, the first regional burn gathering in Korea. Kat and I had the same idea to start a type of Burning Man in Korea. At first, we didn’t think about legal permission or renting the grounds, we just had a cool idea. We just thought: Let’s get together and let’s play! That was just the start.
Then we made a Facebook event. It just grew and grew. Finally I felt we should get permission and search for the perfect beach.
Muuido wasn’t the right place because there were supermarkets in front of the beach and I felt like it wasn’t the place to hold over 1,000 people. I visited many different beaches. Finally I decided on Giijipo. It was like the Burning Man in Nevada, no stores, just desert. I made a presentation to the officials of Guijipo. I made many trips to persuade these officials because they were not in favor of having Korea Burn there. It was difficult, but they finally agreed.
A lot of people helped us organize Korea Burn with translations, paperwork, photography, videos, designing all the images, maintaining the website, building the two wooden men, and a lot more. There were so many volunteers.
Will there be another Korea Burn next year?
Yes, we are planning to do one every year. It’ll be bigger and better. But in the meantime we are also throwing the Korea Burn After Party. It will be in Obeg in Hongdae on Saturday night. I will perform, I hope you will come.
Is there a special fire or poi dancer you would love to perform or collaborate with in the future?
There are many fire spinners in the world. I met so many of them in my travels. I want to invite all of them to Korea. I had so many beautiful experiences will my travels and my friends. I want to respond to them with a thank you. When you travel to another place and meet nice people you want to invite them to your home.
What type of change would you like to see for the poi community?
I wish fire dancers and poi performers could have their own place to play. Figure skating has an ice rink. Swimmers or synchronized artists have a swimming pool. Soccer players have a soccer field. Fire performers have to get permission every time through some type of public official. And normally, spinning fire is illegal. I want to make it legal. If artists such as musicians can play on a stage, then the poi community should have a stage too. Every time I perform we always have trouble through officials or police. I know fire can be a hazard, but that’s exactly what I mean. We need a stage, maybe made out of stone. Stone is safe. I’ve never seen a place like this, but I’m sure one day someone can build this. Maybe the first one can be in Korea.
A little over a month after the pioneering Korea Burn, the organizers are coming back with an After Burn party October 20th at Club Obeg (500) in Hongdae.
To strengthen the community that formed at Korea Burn, the creativity and expression will continue in Seoul at Korea After Burn party. This isn’t just another party with great music, costumes, and cheap drinks but an opportunity for burners to meet each other:
7pm to 10pm, doors will open for a Burner potluck dinner. Bring a dish of food to share. Enjoy the showing of homemade Korea Burn videos.
9pm to 11pm: Open Stage & Thanks. Here is your chance to ask questions, give suggestions, and find out how you can become apart of the Korea Burn team for upcoming events.
11pm to 5am: Music by Innertrip, Audio Avengers, and more. Themes and costumes encouraged!
Korea Burn was free for all but still cost the organizers W 11,762,236. The community graciously helped fund W3,790,134. A portion of the door sales at Korea After Burn will be donated to help fund the debt of Korea Burn. Entry is 10,000 won.
Interview and photography by Emily Ann Hodges. Poi performance pictures by Tor.