SEOUL (Reuters) - Dressed in blue jeans, a checked shirt and sneakers, the soft-spoken young contestant 40272 on “Korea’s Got Talent” seemed a far cry from a typical opera singer.
But Sung-bong Choi’s powerful baritone and his inspirational life story have now pulled at the heart strings of millions around the world thanks to the Internet, a story rivaling that of Susan Boyle.
Saturday he goes before the judges again in a semifinal round of the popular talent contest. But Choi, 22, now has as many fans from outside South Korea as at home and has been lauded by the likes of Justin Bieber.
“For me, singing is a wide bridge that links me to the people and the world,” he said in an email to Reuters.
In May, in the first round, when a judge said she couldn’t tell his occupation from the way he looked, Choi gave a nervous smile and said he was a manual laborer, to audience laughter.
“You mean, early in the morning and things like that?” the judge said, laughing.
A moment later, Choi hesitated when asked about his leaving the “family” portion of the application blank, then revealed in a soft voice that he’d been left in an orphanage at age three.
He said he ran away two years later after he was beaten by people there, and then lived on the streets in the city of Daejon, south of Seoul. He survived by selling gum and energy drinks, and sleeping “on the stairs or in public toilets.”
Choi confessed just before his performance that he did not sing that well, but added “But when I sing, I feel like I become a different person.” Then he launched into the Italian song “Nella Fantasia” (In My Fantasy).
His rendition left the audience and judges in tears.
“I just wanna give you a hug,” one judge said.
In a country which has spawned countless K-pop boy and girl bands which have churned out hit after hit across Asia after careful grooming and rigorous training, Choi’s rise to fame is even more phenomenal than his choice of song.
Like Susan Boyle, who shot to fame on a British TV talent show and became an Internet hit with a song from an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, Choi has become a global phenomenon.
His story has gone viral on YouTube, with more than 9 million hits. (here).
The likes of pop star Bieber, who was himself discovered on YouTube in 2008, and the “Perez Hilton” celebrity gossip website are among those lauding his talents.
While some on the Internet have questioned the authenticity of his story, the show’s producer Kim Sae-jin stands by Choi.
Indeed, Choi’s case was all too familiar during the height of the Asia financial crisis in the late 1990s, when authorities said thousands of children were abandoned by one or both parents. Many lived at home alone.
“I have lived from hand to mouth and had even given up on my life as I guessed there was no more hope in the future. During that time, music is my only best friend,” Choi said in his email.
The turning point came at 14, when a woman from a snack bar near a bus station in Daejon helped him enter night school. He soon passed middle and elementary school equivalency exams, and teachers discovered his talent for singing.
“I still remember the moment when I first met a singer at nightclub when I was selling chewing gum. That was just a miracle,” Choi said.
“Every melody of the song touched me deeply and made me feel alive amid happiness and joy. That highly motivated me.”
“I want to be a person who gives hope and happiness with a song,” he added.
Writing by Jeremy Laurence; editing by Elaine Lies