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Wang exhibit illuminates the cultural significance of SPAM

Korean-American artist and playwright Jaime Sunwoo speaking at the Wang Center on Wednesday, March 6. Her talk was on the history of the canned meat, SPAM, in the Asia-Pacific region. SARA RUBERG/THE STATESMAN

Jaime Sunwoo, a Korean-American artist and playwright, came to the Charles B. Wang Center on Wednesday, March 6 to discuss the important history and dishes of the canned meat, SPAM, throughout time in the Asia-Pacific as well as her theater project, “Specially Processed American Me.” 

Sunwoo investigated the popularity of this canned meat in areas such as Guam, Okinawa, Japan and Hawaii as well as the Philippines. In Korea, Sunwoo’s grandfather fought in the Korean War. Although SPAM, also coined as “miracle meat,” may just be canned meat to other people, to Sunwoo, this is a product she grew up incorporating into some of her everyday meals today. Her research on this product began to be especially important to her, as it has opened up many unspoken stories from her grandparents relating to the Korean War.

“When I found out my grandma had SPAM for the first time during the Korean War,” Sunwoo said, “It sort of became an excuse to talk to her more about her experience during the war. It’s something my family hadn’t ever really discussed.”

Created by the Jay C. Hormel in 1937 in Austin, Minnesota, SPAM started to gain popularity during World War II. Although many people assume the brand name stands for “SPiced hAM,” the product’s name does not actually stand for or represent anything. Hormel created a naming contest, awarding $100 to the person whose name suggestion they liked the best. The contest ultimately did not transpire, as the chosen winner was the brother of Hormel’s vice president.

SPAM started to become a huge hit in America, thus creating the Hormel Girls, a group of women who were musicians before WWII but worked as military translators, typists and even pilots during the war. Jay Hormel was extremely supportive of the idea since he himself, had served in WWI.

They quickly developed into a hit group, performing in extravagant parades and going around to supermarkets to greet people all while promoting SPAM. “Lucky Tickets” were made if a person was fortunate enough to have met a Hormel Girl. The Hormel Girls even had their own program called, “Music with the Hormel Girls”. They put on performances where they sung and played instruments, but also paused for brief moments to promote some of the Hormel products. The Hormel Girls maintained relevance over a seven-year period, 1946-1953, but after the war ended, they found themselves jobless.

The canned meat, which was conveniently shaped to be stackable, became the foundation of an American soldier’s diet during the war. While fighting overseas, the product struck the Asian-Pacific with a bang. Along with other American goods such as Hershey’s Kisses, SPAM became one of the most popular American imports to hit the shelves overseas. Another reason as to why SPAM erupted during its time was because “some people actually thought processed foods were better than regular food,” Sunwoo said.

Sunwoo also reflected on her grandparents’ experience during the Korean War, and how their involvement in it relates to SPAM.

She told the audience of her grandmother’s first experience eating SPAM during the war. At that time, her grandmother was penniless and starving. A young soldier had given her SPAM to eat, and since she had not eaten any meat in weeks, she described it as the most delicious thing she ever tasted. Jamie had the audience listen to a recording of her grandmother talking about her first experience with SPAM, while also helping translate the recording.

“The first time I had SPAM was when we took refuge,” Sunwoo’s grandmother said. “When I had SPAM it was because an American soldier gave it to us. When I first had it I just opened the can and scarfed it down.”

SPAM went on to dominate other Asian-Pacific countries and created a fanbase for those who loved cooking with it.

The canned meat also became a phenomenon in Hawaii. Fans who loved the product so much began a street festival called “SPAM-JAM” which celebrates the people of Hawaii’s love for SPAM. This festival isn’t even sponsored by Hormel, it was created solely by the fans who found a love for the product.

Other countries such as Korea still showcase many modern commercials promoting SPAM. They also make giftsets with many different kinds and flavors, even creating limited edition cans for fans to buy as collectibles. Sunwoo mentioned that many Koreans look at SPAM as a luxury product, and don’t understand why people in the U.S. hate it.

“I grew up eating SPAM,” Rebecca Yin, a junior health science major, said. “When my mom would cook she would always put it in kimchi fried rice and kimchi stew and all of that, I feel like I’m connected to it because it’s apart of my childhood.”

Although this simple canned meat product may be looked at as taboo to have in your cabinets in the U.S., it certainly has made an impact in many cultures. It connects people back to their roots and serves as a delicious and original taste that millions of people serve all over the world.

Tickets to “Specially Processed American Me” can be purchased at 

Correction: March 11, 2019

A previous version of this article stated that SPAM was created by the Hormel Brothers. It was created by Jay C. Hormel.

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