Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

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This is a Korean name; the family name is Cha.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.jpg
Native name 차학경
Born (1951-03-04)March 4, 1951
Busan, South Korea
Died November 5, 1982(1982-11-05) (aged 31)
New York City, New York
Occupation Author
Language English
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley (MFA)
Period 1969 to 1963
Notable works Dictee (1982)
Spouse Richard Barnes
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Hangul 차학경
Hanja 車學慶
Revised Romanization Cha Hak-gyeong
McCune–Reischauer Ch'a Hak-kyŏng

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (Korean: 차학경; March 4, 1951 – November 5, 1982) was a South Korean-born American novelist, producer, director, and artist, best known for her 1982 novel, Dictee. Cha was considered to be an avant-garde artist. Cha was fluent in Korean, English, and French. In her works, such as Dictee, Cha took language apart and experimented with it in her writing. Cha's interdisciplinary background was clearly evident in Dictee which experiments with juxtaposition and hypertext of both print and visual media. Cha's Dictee is taught in contemporary literature classes.

Early life[edit]

Cha, a Korean American, was born in Busan, South Korea during the Korean War. She was the middle child of five to Hyung Sang and Hyung Soon Cha. Both of her parents were teachers. Her mother and oldest brother left Korea for Hawaii when Cha was young, in 1962. The rest of her family eventually moved to the United States in 1963, temporarily settling in Hawaii. A year later, in 1964, Cha's family relocated to California, where she attended Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco. During her time at Sacred Heart High School, Cha studied French.[1]


Theresa Hak Kyung Cha attended a private catholic high school, Convent of the Sacred Heart High School, in San Francisco. At this school Cha started her education in western classic and language. She also studied French, Greek, and Roman classics. During her time at Sacred Heart, she sang in the choir. It is suspected that Cha's time at Sacred Heart inspired her to write Dictee. By the time she graduated Cha had earned many scholastic awards.[2]

Before committing to Berkeley, Cha attended University of San Francisco for one semester. Cha transferred to University of California, Berkeley the following year, where she completed her studies in art and writing. There, she also studied ceramics with Peter Voulkos and James Melchert, who encouraged her to work in performance. As a student, she became close friends with Dennis Love, another student and Bertrand Augst, a professor of French and comparative literature. Her classes with Augst influenced Cha to study comparative literature, which she later earned degrees in.[3] It is noted by teachers and friends that Cha enjoyed reading, reading anything from Korean poetry to European modernist and postmodern literature. In 1973, Cha received her B.A. in comparative literature and 1975 she received her B.A in art from Berkeley. She worked as a student employee of the Pacific Film Archive for three years.

As a graduate student, she became close friends with Mechert and even became his teaching assistant in 1976. During this time, Cha connected with fellow artists Reese Williams, Young Soon Min, and Mark Thompson. As Cha's interest in film grew, she studied under Professor Bertrand Augst at Berkeley who recalls her interested in poetry written by Stéphane Mallarmé and plays by Samuel Beckett. According to Augst, Cha felt an affinity with Mallarmé's associative and restrained use of language.[4] It is likely these artist introduced her to her unconventional typographic design. Which become constant in her works. Such as Beckett’s highly reductive theater found echoes in the spare setting of Cha’s performances. Even though she drew inspiration from Stéphane Mallarmé and by Samuel Beckett influenced Cha her studies of film theory with Augst had a greater effect. Augst taught his students structural and semiological film analysis, frequently using an Athena projector, which can slow a film to a single frame. This frame by frame-by-frame study greatly inspired Cha’s own films and video stills. In 1976 Cha decided to pursue a degree in film theory at the UC Education Abroad Program, Centre d'Etudes Americain du Cinema, in Paris. During her stay she studied under Jean-Lous Baudry, Raymond Bellour, Monique Wittig, and Christian Metz.[5]

Career and personal life[edit]

Cha began her career as a performance artist, producer, director, and writer in 1974. Cha also worked as an Usher and cashier from 1974 to 1977 at the Pacific Film Archive, with friend. In 1979 Cha traveled by to Korea for the first time in seventeen years. She had long and expressed great anticipation for such a return in her book Exilee, where she describes the flight in term of the sixteen time zones that separate San Francisco from Seoul. It was a sorrowful but memorable trip. The excitement of finally returning to her homeland was diminished by the cool reception she received from her own people, to whom she was just another foreigner. In the late 1980 Cha traveled to Japan and then back to Korea, this time she was working on a film with her brother, called White Dust From Mongolia. They were never able to finish the film, at this time it was dangerous to be in Korea. South Korea President Park Chung Hee had just be assassinated that previous May, new laws had been declared. Cha and her brother were harassed by suspicious South Korean officials who thought they might be North Korean spies.[6] Cha has been described as ambitious, disciplined by some and undisciplined by others, tragic, pure, and intelligent. Cha married Richard Barnes whom she met in a drawing class during her time at UC Berkeley in 1982.[7]


Many of Cha’s work focus on interactions between languages. Her visual and performance work often involved words and letters manipulated such as changing the sizes and placement of letters. These words are often imposed on or near images as a form of communication, another theme in Cha’s work.

Dictee features heavily French language and English language, along with others, often together on the same page. Commonly the languages are used in repetitive, “broken” phrases and frequent code-switching, similar to the communication of an individual learning the languages. According to Hyun Yi Kang, this style causes readers to “[reconsider] the arbitrary and ideologically colored prescriptions on language and writing, challenging the requirements of good speech and correct grammar.” [8]


Cha was influenced by a variety of sources, her friends say that she was inspired by the art activity around her. Sadly, there has been little analysis of this aspect of her development as an artist. Cha was inspired by artist Terry Fox (artist), a fellow artist and performer. She met him in 1973, during one of his solo exhibitions at the UAM, now Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Cha came to his performances and watched Fox and his brother Larry interact with various materials and objects; such as a metal and a mirror.[9] Fox's exhibit was over a variety of things (performance, sculptures, and drawing). Cha drew her inspiration from Fox’s slow ritualistic, performances. The translucent veil employed by Fox to demarcate and isolate his performance space was a device Cha used in her 1975 performance A Ble Wail and in Pause Still, preformed in 1979 with her sister Bernadette. Cha also used props—candles, bamboo sticks, flour—in some of her performance, which Fox had previously used in his own.[10] Cha and Fox have been compared in similar slow and deliberate, almost trance like paces they employed in their performance. Fox had witness a few of Cha’s performances and commented on the way she moved in the space, barefoot, not making a sound.[11] During her time as an usher Cha became interested in the work of Marguerite Duras, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Yasujirō Ozu, and many other film theorist and artist.

Published works[edit]

  • — (2001). Terpsichore Choral Dance. Beacon Press. 
  • — (1998). Dictee and Clio-History. W. W. Norton. 
  • — (1998). Elitere Lyric Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • — (1995). Commentaire. Kaya Productions. 
  • — (1993). Melpomene Tragedy. Penguin. 
  • — (1987). Clio: History. MIT Press. 
  • — (1986). Polymnia: Sacred Poetry. Tanam Press. 
  • — (1982). Pravdal ISTINA. 
  • — (1980). Exilee and Temps Morts. Tanam Press. 
  • — (1980). Apparatus-Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings. Tanam Press. 
  • — (1979). Etang. Berkeley: Line. 
  • — (1978). Reveille dans la Brume. 
  • — (1978). Audience Distant Relative. The Little Word Machine Publication. 
  • — (2001) [1982]. Dictee. Berkeley : University of California Press. ISBN 9780520231122. 
  • —; Lewallen, Constance; Rinder, Lawrence (2001). The Dream of the Audience. Berkeley : University of California Press. ISBN 9780520232877. 
  • —; Lewallen, Constance (2009). Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works. Berkeley : University of California Press. ISBN 9780520259096. 

Film/video works[edit]

Selected works distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York [1]

  • Secret Spill (1974) 27 min., b&w, sound
  • Mouth to Mouth (1975) 8 min., b&w, sound
  • Permutations (1976) 10 min., b&w, sound
  • Vidéoème (1976) 3 min., b&w, sound
  • Re Dis Appearing (1977) 3 min., b&w, sound


  • Barren Cave Mute (1974), at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Aveugle Voix (1975), at 63 Bluxome Street, San Francisco.
  • A Ble Wail (1975), at Worth Ryder Gallery, University of California, Berkeley.
  • Life Mixing (1975), at University Art Museum, Berkeley.
  • From Vampyr (1976), at Centre des etudes americains du cinema, Paris, inspired by the film Vampyr
  • Reveille dans la Brume (1977), at La Mamelle Arts Center and Fort Mason Arts Center, San Francisco.
  • Monologue (1977), KPFA Radio Station, Berkeley.
  • Other Things Seen. Other Things Heard (1978), at Western Front Gallery, Vancouver, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  • Pause Still (1979), 80 Langton Street, San Francisco.


On November 5, 1982, Cha was raped and killed by security guard and serial rapist Joey Sanza in New York City, New York, in The Puck Building on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan. She had gone there to meet Barnes, who was documenting the renovation of the building. She died a week after the publication of Dictee.[12] Sanza was convicted after five years and three trials. Shortly before her death, she was working on an artistic piece for a group show at Artists Space in SoHo.[13] The Artists Space exhibit later became a memorial for Cha after her death by exhibiting images and text from Dictee.[14] Additional work left incomplete at the time of her death included another film, a book, a critique of advertising, and a piece on the representation of hands in Western painting.[15]


Catalogued in the book of the same name, an exhibition of Cha’s work entitled “The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982)” was organized by at University of California Berkeley Art Museum by senior curator Constance Lewallen. This exhibition, building off the work of two previous by former curator Lawrence Rinder, aimed to display lesser known work by Cha including other published works, videos, performances, works on paper, and Mail art.[16]

In 1991, nine years following Cha’s murder, her brother and director of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation, John Cha, asked if the University of California Berkeley Art Museum would be able to set up safe-keeping of Cha’s videos, artwork, and archives. The gift was accepted by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 1992.[17] The museum has prioritized digitizing the collection and making the work available for public viewing on its website. [2]

Today Dictee is widely studied in contemporary literature classes, including classes on avant garde writing, Feminist literature, and Asian american literature.


  1. ^ Nelson, Emmanuel S. (28 February 2000). Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook H. Greenwood. 
  2. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of The Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 -1982). University of California Press. 
  3. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 -1982). University of California Press. 
  4. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 
  5. ^ Lewallen, Contance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 
  6. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 - 1982). University of California Press. 
  7. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 - 1982). University of California Press. 
  8. ^ Yi Kang, Hyun; Kim, Elaine H.; Lowe, Lisa; Sunn Wong, Shelley (1994). Writing Self, Writing Nation: A Collection of Essays on Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Third Women Press. 
  9. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 - 1982). University of California Press. 
  10. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951 - 1982). University of Califorina Press. 
  11. ^ Lawallen, Constance (2001). The dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 
  12. ^ "Tributes & Obituaries: Theresa Cha, Keith Haring & Barbara Lehmann". "Homicide, Homelessness & Winged Pigs". Village Voice. Retrieved December 21, 2012. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Yi Kang, Hyun; Kim, Elaine H.; Lowe, Lisa; Sunn Wong, Shelley (1994). Writing Self, Writing Nation: A Collection of Essays on Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Third Women Press. 
  15. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 
  16. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 
  17. ^ Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press. 

External links[edit]