We listen to their songs, follow their dramas and turn to them for style inspo, making South Korea clearly the tastemaker du jour of Asia. So just how did we become so enamoured with all things Korean?

This story was first published in the April 2017 issue of CLEO. 

Big Bang. Goblin. Running Man. BTS. Ombre lips. Aegyo-sal. “TT”. Descendants of the Sun. Unless you’ve been living under a pop culture rock for the past couple of years, chances are, you’d know exactly what all those words mean. From music to TV to beauty to fashion, most of us in the Asian region tend to consume a lot of Korean pop culture. But why is that so, considering the cultural and language barriers?

The K-Wave

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It all began with Korean TV dramas like Winter Sonata, Jewel in the Palace, Full House and Stairway to Heaven in the early ’00s. This was before streaming video sites were a thing, so most Singaporeans watch the dubbed and subtitled versions on our local channels. Then, in the next decade or so, came the proliferation of K-Pop bands and their carefully curated members, like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, Big Bang and Wonder Girls. Their music videos were on YouTube, so pretty much anyone with an internet connection could listen to their favourite songs over and over again with the click of a button.

And suddenly, the whole of Asia fell in love with South Korea. From housewives to working adults to youths, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been exposed to some form of K-Export these days. The media named the sudden boom of Korean pop culture the K-Wave – also known as Hallyu (which means “flow of Korea”) – and the rest is history. But what’s puzzling about this phenomenon is that, despite being in a foreign language and culture altogether, it has managed to captivate a wide audience outside of Korea. It’s not like Western pop culture, where we can consume its exports directly, no subtitles needed. What gives?

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In an interview with CNN, Sung Tae Ho, a senior manager from the Korean Broadcasting System, pointed out that because of similarities in Asian cultures, there isn’t much of a cultural barrier. “Even though the languages are different, we share an Eastern mentality. We respect the father and mother, a very hierarchical society and Confucianism,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by Dr Liew Kai Khiun, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

“Media and popular entertainment flows are generally very porous in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in multicultural societies like Singapore,” he explains.

He adds: “While Singaporean programmes may appeal to local sensibilities, it has lost out to intensely competitive Korean counterparts, who have also upstaged the Japanese in trendsetting modern lifestyles and values in Asia.”

Mass appeal

For 25-year-old HR administrator Delight Ng, her gateway to K-Culture was SHINee, a five-member boy band with an infectious hit called “Ring Ding Dong”.

“I wondered who were these men dancing in sync and singing in Korean, mixed with a smattering of weird English lyrics that made no sense,” she recalls.

“What caught my eye was that the band was packaged so perfectly, like a product to be marketed to the masses. They could dance, sing, and rap all at the same time and they were handsome as well!” she adds. That was eight years ago – the HR executive now speaks fluent Korean and even studied in Seoul for about a year.

Much has been said about the pop music factory that is South Korea. The story of how bands are produced is familiar to those who have the slightest interest in the K-Pop scene: talents are recruited into agencies from as early as 13 years old, presented with airtight contracts that don’t leave room for the slightest misdemeanor, and put through a grueling training system that can last years before their debut.

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Given the immense reach of K-Pop and the tried-and-tested formula for producing pop stars, it’s no surprise then, that the three biggest Korean entertainment agencies – SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment – have gone beyond South Korea in their talent search. BamBam from GOT7 and Lisa from BLACKPINK are from Thailand; Fei from Miss A and Victoria from f(x) are from China; TWICE’s Sana, Mina and Momo are from Japan; SNSD’s Tiffany, f(x)’s Amber and Krystal, and Jay Park are from the US; while BLACKPINK’s Rosé is from New Zealand. Although, it’s interesting to note that talent recruited from overseas are all East Asian.

Pretty sells

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On the K-Drama side of things, Dr Kai Khiun pointed out that there’s a conscious marketing of Korean entertainment to female audiences, who are becoming an increasingly affluent demographic.

“Many Korean dramas focus on the struggles of women in the households, workplace, and even in the highest political office. And to whet the audience’s fantasies, there are usually dashing males around to help them pull through life. And, of course, these extraordinary men on screen – some even come with supernatural powers – are meant to be completely different from the mundane boyfriends and husbands in real life, which is the draw of Korean dramas,” says Dr Kai Khiun. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see why women would turn to Korean dramas as a form of escapism.

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But wait, you ask, what has that got to do with us having more spending power? Well, consider this: Jun Ji Hyun’s character in You Who Came From the Stars – which features eye candy in the form of Kim Soo Hyun – was frequently seen sporting YSL’s Rouge Pur Couture in No.52 Rosy Coral, and as a result, the lipstick shade was not only sold out at YSL counters in Seoul, but around the rest of the world as well.

And when LANEIGE spokeswoman Song Hye Kyo whips out her two-tone lip bar or BB cushion to touch-up before a date with Song Joong Ki in Descendants of the Sun – guess what? Yup, something in us stirs and suddenly we need to have those in our cosmetics pouches too. On top of that, you have Krystal from f(x) as the face of ETUDE HOUSE and Miss A’s Suzy fronting campaigns for THEFACESHOP.

Just like we see in Western celebrity culture, whenever these pop stars and actresses make an appearance, it’s not uncommon for fans to ask where their clothes are from, and which shade of lipstick they’re using.

The forms of media we’re exposed to have a huge influence on our fashion and beauty choices. So, very predictably, because we love K-Pop culture, we love K-beauty too. This partly explains why South Korea is also a juggernaut in the beauty industry, and increasingly in the fashion stakes too.

Dollars and sense

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Besides some clever business strategies from the content producers and entertainment companies, the government has also had a hand in elevating Korea’s status as a heavyweight pop culture exporter. In a The Straits Times report, an expert from Ernst & Young pointed out that the South Korean government invested 1.4 percent of its Budget – that’s a whopping approximate of US$5.2 billion – in culture and media last year. This year, the government plans to increase it to 2 percent – or US$7.8 billion.

These hefty investments have paid off. The Straits Times reported that according to data from the Korea Creative Content Agency, the content industry’s exports, which include music, games and broadcasting, increased from US$43 billion in 2011 to US$58.3 billion in 2014.

Just looking at the number of Korean artistes in recent memory who are holding world tours, overseas concerts, and overseas fan meetings, it’s safe to assume that Hallyu is making a significant contribution to South Korea’s economy. And it’s not just in the form of direct sales – it also helps to increase tourism dollars too. In the same report, tourism promotion officials estimated that around 10 percent of tourists who visited South Korea in 2015 were there “purely because of Hallyu”.

“Being a K-Pop fan for so many years has made me appreciate Korean culture as a whole: the food, the etiquette, the language, and so on,” says business development manager Valenisha, 26. “It was only natural that I started learning the language and visited the country for long holidays, not only to see the artists in real life, but also to experience for myself what Korea is like.”

World domination?

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While K-Wave exports do very well regionally, it still remains to be seen if it will take off in the US market. A handful of Korean artists have tried breaking into the US mainstream – including CL, Girls’ Generation, Rain, Se7en, Wonder Girls and Big Bang – but none of them have become household names in America yet. So far, the only K-Pop act that has made a considerable dent in the American consciousness is Psy.

“The American market has generally been prejudiced against Asian-based popular music, which it considers to be too manufactured… Gangnam Style was popular as Psy’s unrestrained awkwardness projected some authenticity that playfully subverted the constraining politeness of daily living,” says Dr Kai Khiun.

“However, this is set to change with the increasingly popularity of some personalities in the West, like G-Dragon from Big Bang and CL from the recently disbanded 2NE1,” he observes.

K-Pop songs like “Nobody” by Wonder Girls and “Lifted” by CL have charted on the Billboard Hot 100, as have all of Psy’s post-“Gangnam Style” hits. Actor Lee Byung Hyun had major roles in Hollywood films like G.I. Joe and The Magnificent Seven, while Rain played the leading role in Ninja Assassin, which raked in more than US$13 million during its opening weekend in America, and even earned him an MTV Movie Award.

But the reality is, waves ebb and flow. Before the rise of Hallyu, the Asian region went gaga for Taiwanese pop culture (remember Meteor Garden, My MVP Valentine, 5566 and F4?).

And before that, J-Pop culture also enjoyed a period of popularity within the Asian region. Which prompts the question – will the K-Wave recede over time? Not for the next decade at least, says Dr Kai Khiun.

“For me, signs of decline and reduction in public interest comes when the turnover rate of productions and celebrities start to slow down… with new K-Pop groups and celebrities still being churned out, it’s unlikely that the fad will fade in the next decade or so.”

Image: 123RF.com/kakigori