Korea's 'Susan Boyle' Choi Sung-Bong's Overcomes Troubled Past

The 22-year-old manual worker barely makes enough to live on for a day.

August 20, 2011, 7:31 PM

Aug. 21, 2011, SEOUL, South Korea -- He sings of a fantasy where everyone lives in peace, honesty, free-spirit, and full of humanity.

That's something Choi Sung-Bong never imagined to have even existed before signing up for the "Korea's Got Talent" show hosted by TVN, an entertainment cable channel, in South Korea.

The 22-year-old manual worker has been living like a "dayfly," as he calls it, barely making a living enough for a day.

But his baritone challenge at the finals on Saturday pulling out a powerful rendition of "Nella Fantasia," marked him first runner up following Joo Min-Jung, an 18-year-old popping dancer by only 280 votes.

It was the same song he had stunned the world with in the pre-trials in June when he told the judges of his tragic childhood story.

The video instantly became an international sensation, attracting almost 12 million YouTube and Facebook fan page hits and has been dubbed a Korean version of Susan Boyle from "Britain's Got Talent."

Even world-class pop singers like Justin Bieber uploaded Choi's video on his Twitter and Facebook fanpage, with praises and support.

Bieber tweeted "This is awesome. NEVER SAY NEVER and good luck to this kid. great story. WATCH THIS."

"Frankly, I wanted to win. But what meant the most is that I felt love and genuine interest in me," said Choi, immediately after the show was over. "There are people out there who really care. I felt it. And I'm proud to have come this far."

An Uphill Battle

But Choi's life has been an uphill battle, a very steep one.

Choi was abandoned at an orphanage at age three.

To run away from frequent beatings there, he got on a bus when he turned 5-years-old and ended up in a red-light district full of nightclubs and bars in Daejeon, about 100 miles south of Seoul.

Choi sold gum and energy drinks with fake Viagra to make a living.

He slept crouched in public bathrooms to avoid frosty winters.

"If lucky and when I was in good terms with the gangsters, I got to sleep stretched on one of these staircases," he said as he pointed at cheap red-carpet covered stairs in an old rundown building. "But of course, that's after the club closes just before sunrise."

Choi shivers when describing the "gang brothers" who he claimed would often rob him of his little earnings.

He confesses with a bit of shame that he did "many bad things" such as giving in to their demands to rob, steal, or punch others for money.

With a horrible childhood with no one protecting him or taking care, even when run over by a car, fallen from an overpass, and stabbed by a gang, he was never taken to a hospital.

"I went to the pharmacy and plastered bandages around it, just waited to heal. I didn't know what a hospital was nor did," explains Choi without a hint of emotion.

When asked what was the most difficult part of his past, he bluntly said, "having had to talk to people."

Alone at age 5 before fully learning how to make a conversation in a full-sentence language, he had to rely on senses and instincts to communicate with intoxicated adults.

Some gave nasty responses and some gave him money. He couldn't figure out what caused the different reactions.

"I just had to do anything to sell my stuff and not starve. Like faking a smile or making a fool out of myself," he said.

Human contact alone was simply torturous Choi quietly confesses.

"But I never let my pride down. Often fought against those who looked at me with pity, I think I wanted to deny where I was... and did it through violence," he said.

Journey Into Classic Music

He had also been nameless until a woman working in the market gave him the name Ji Sung.

It was only when he was tracking his official record at the orphanage that he found his birth name Sung-Bong.

Choi's revelation came at age 12 when one night he heard a classical vocalist sing at a night club.

"All I had been listening to was loud nightclub music. But that song was so peaceful. It was the first time my heart felt strangely calm."

A few years later, he found Park Jung-So, a then-college student who posted an ad online for vocal training.

"I had no idea that people pay money for lessons," Choi smirked. He asked for free lessons.

Park said he was stunned by the bold approach.

"But no human would have asked this kid to pay for lessons after witnessing how he lived day by day," Park said.

Park started teaching basics of musical scales and codes from scratch and Choi reciprocated by doing chores.

To Park's surprise, Choi's learning curve took on an incredible speed.

"Yes, he had talent. But if you teach him one step, he would go day and night until he masters it. I think Sung-bong knew that he had to try ten times harder than the other kids," Park said.

Park also helped his determined apprentice who had always wished to attend something called school.

"I got into an art high school," Choi told judges during the pre-trial.

But that comment was deliberately deleted by the producers in the initial broadcasted version of the show, drawing doubts and sharp criticism of sensationalizing his story.

It turned out that Choi could not afford the extra fees required for lessons in school no matter how many part-time or overnight jobs he worked.

He ended up barely going to classes but the teachers gave him a graduate diploma anyway out of pity.

"He's got an incredible range of emotions. I mean who, how many of us have gone through what he's gone through?" said Kolleen Park, one of the three judges at the show. "Us as artists, we learn to express, search inside ourselves. Well he's got a whole basket full of ingredients, so much more than anybody else so he needs to learn the technique, really study hard, learn actually music and voice."

That's exactly what Choi is hoping for. But as of now, he is back to reality seeking once again a safe roof and a music master to teach the passion of his newfound life.

ABC News' Esther Kim and Yoon Gi Jang contributed to this article.