Chatham House Korea Discussion Group
China’s ‘Korea Wave’: National Branding, Piracy, Idols and Fans
Speaker: Dr Rowan Pease, 6 December 2006, 1:15pm
If ever you get the chance to hear Rowan Pease talk on her chosen subject of the hallyu in China, drop everything and go to it. Even if you’ve heard some of her material before, there will always be something fresh and new. And even if you’ve heard all of it before, it’s still entertaining to hear her quotes from teenage Chinese chat-room frequenters.
Her opening remarks at her Chatham House talk earlier this month had the assembled company of academics, diplomats and city slickers completely embarrassed at their disconnection from popular culture. When did any of us last go to a McDonalds? Because if we had bought a Happy Meal during November anywhere in the UK we would have encountered a new piece of Korean cultural content. A funky, friendly little character called Pucca (left) would have greeted us, a little cutie who has travelled all the way to our shores from the distant East, without being invited by UK content consumers — film & TV drama fans — and without being pushed by the Koran cultural promoters. Ronald McDonald, after breaking with the Disney empire following the Super-size-me fallout, is looking for other global cultural icons to ride, and picked up on this Korean invention. She’s kinda pan-Asian, apparently. She lives in a Chinese noodle shop, she has a Japanese ninja boyfriend, but she herself is resolutely Korean. And she throws the occasional English phrase into her dialogue, to enhance her wholesome educational value. Pease’s daughter summed it up: “she’s a funny Japanesey girl. She’s a bit pointless, which is why she’s so funny.”
But she sells burgers. And Hodder & Stoughton publish books about her (right). And you can find her likeness on clothes at New Look. If you read the guff put out by the western marketing suits, she’s “the funky Korean fashion and lifestyle property.”
She’s the invention of a small Korean media company with only 24 employees. She’s a typical example of how Korea, in response their manufacturing competitive advantage being lost to lower-cost countries, are promoting creativity and content as a replacement. There is still a long way to go though, with 2004 film exports amounting to around $130m — a huge increase on previous years — and bigger than, say, the shoe industry, but way short of the export earnings of Hyundai1.
Earnings could obviously be better. In China, the measure of success is not how many legitimate sales you make but how many different pirated versions are available: the illegitimate versions will be on sale before the authorised ones, and according to one estimate pirated versions amount to more than 90% of sales. So the money has to be made out of promotional activity, and merchandise related to the shows. And from a Korea Inc perspective, the popularity of her cultural products has increased the level of foreign tourism (and the new Dae Jang Geum theme park should help.) Tourist maps are available with all the prominent soap locations marked, while the official Winter Sonata tour has been joined by ones for most other popular soaps. And Rain has now been appointed “goodwill ambassador for tourism in Seoul”.
The popularity of some of Korea’s cultural products is undeniable. Dae Jang Geum (above left) achieved 49% market share in its final episode in Hong Kong, and somehow someone estimated that companies saw a 10% drop in earnings that day. The first showing of Winter Sonata in Japan achieved 20% market share despite being on at 11pm at night. BoA has been top of the charts in Japan (and number two globally) while Rain (right) is one of the world’s most influential entertainers.
But we should not get too carried away. In China, Korean cultural imports are fourth after Hong Kong, American and Japanese products. In China, people don’t seriously rate Korean music as better than American or Japanese: they tend to compare it with Chinese music.
What makes Korean content popular in China? The answer to this depends on who you ask. A shared Confucian heritage; content less “foreign” than Japanese or American. To some, Korean stars are more genuine (they cry on stage) and less commercial than Chinese stars. And undoubtedly the success of acts such as CLON in Taiwan rested on their cool dance moves — and now the academy of Lee Soo Man’s SM Entertainment have been focusing on drilling would-be stars in their dance moves for a number of years now.
Korean content also stands out in general for its lack of sex and violence. In Asia it’s been the user-friendly face of Yonsama and Dae Jang Geum which have won soap fan’s hearts; while the pop-stars are clean-living: when they appear in dramas there’s never a full-on bedroom scene.
But the audience is encouraged to fantasize. With some relish, Pease gave an enticing description of some of the highlights of “Full House” (above right): Rain’s naked torso in the shower; Rain washing himself down in the plane’s lavatory (after his goofy girlfriend had managed to puke on him — where else have we come across vomiting sassy girls I wonder) — in fact any excuse to show off his six-pack. But that’s as far as it went. If he had any physical contact with his on-screen other half, it was the sort of contact the whole family could be comfortable watching.
There are elements of the audience who don’t need too much encouragement to give full rein to their fantasies. Pease referred us to the many sites devoted to the fandom of the Korean boy bands in China. One of the features of these sites is the artistry of the netizens in creating erotic — often homoerotic — images of the various stars. Here’s a couple of images of Kangta (from H.O.T) and Hyesung (from Shinhwa) from the site DeviantArt (say no more – especially the one to the right).
But maybe Pease’s daughter has another suggestion as to why Korean content is popular. Pucca is Japanesey. She’s Asian, but not from any identifiable country. She’s “culturally odourless”, in Pease’s catchy phrase. But for every theory there’s a counter-example. You can’t get more Korean than Dae Jang Geum.2
Being multilingual? BoA’s (left) ability to sing in Japanese as well as Korean certainly helps her sales across the East Sea. Having stars from different Asian countries? Film companies are trying to make that work. But again it can’t be too blatant. Pease reported the wails of protest when SM Entertainment, who run the successful TVXQ boy-band, proposed adding Chinese and Japanese singers to increase cross-border appeal. Netizens petitioned President Roh at this blatant example of commercialism. So SM had to back down. Realising that what the punters wanted was cute boys, and lots of them, SM created Super Junior (below). TVXQ contains five, Super Junior has a dozen of them. And then SM went one better still: Pease treated us to the video of the joint venture between Super Junior and TVXQ — brim-full of young male eye-candy. “Look, isn’t it sweet? They’re all sleeping together,” observed Pease. As ever with these acts, the music itself was pretty unremarkable, but the visuals made up for it. Judge for yourself below. [Update: the original video posted here has now been taken off YouTube. But here’s another official SM Entertaining video featuring TVXQ and Sunior]
Chaste but mildly suggestive; funky but educational; pan-Asian as long as it’s not too obviously commercial. There’s a fine balance to be drawn and no magic formula. The cynics will say that good looks will always sell. Maybe they’re right. Chatting about it is a great way to spend a December lunchtime in London.
- Dae Jang Geum theme park official site
- A collection of Super Junior photos
- Korea makes big strides in global character industry, Chosun, 21 August 2007
- And still not of very good quality: the 2006 numbers are way down
- Pease reported that one commentator explained its popularity in Hong Kong thus: “of course we love it: it’s all about food and medicine.”