“Asia! Asia!” – Stephen Epstein at SOAS

Stephen Epstein had a busy week last week giving lectures in Cambridge, Oxford and London. He is on a lecture tour of Europe, using the trip as an opportunity to test various chapters from his forthcoming book with a critical audience. Friday’s lecture at SOAS focused on the portrayal of some of Korea’s Asian neighbours in the popular media. Monday’s talk in Cambridge – reviewed by Elizabeth Grace – examined the portrayal of North Korea.

Scene from Hanoi Bride
Scene from Hanoi Bride

Over the course of history, Korea has had a semi-dependent relationship with China, has been brutally colonised by Japan, and for much of the recent past has had a neo-colonial relationship with the US. It is only in the past couple of decades, with perhaps the 1988 Seoul Olympics being the first critical milestone, that South Korea has emerged and progressively become a powerhouse. Clearly not the most powerful nation in Asia, but a country which is among the leaders. Epstein’s talk focused on how the rest of Asia, and developing Asia in particular, is portrayed in popular culture. One of the things he noted was a change from the foreigner typically being presented as male and aggressive (the US GI, the Japanese soldier) to being female, exotic and traditional.

In particular, Vietnam was used by Epstein as a case study for how Korea regards the lest developed countries of Asia. Vietnam has a number of special aspects. As a Confucian country dominated by China throughout its history, Korea and Vietnam have some long-standing affinities. Indeed, Vietnamese Studies is a popular subject at Korean universities. But these feelings of affinity are complicated by the more recent feelings of guilt on Korea’s part for their involvement in the Vietnam War.

Epstein reviewed reality shows such as “Asia, Asia”, “Love in Asia” and “Meet the in-laws”. Such shows interview foreigners (typically migrant workers) and ask them who they most miss from their home country (the show then tries, visas permitting, to bring these people to Seoul for the next show); or they present couples representing successful international marriages, or the husband based in Seoul is introduced to the in-laws based in Vietnam: for one common trait in these shows is that the foreigner, particularly in the marriage shows, is female.

Hanoi BrideEpstein also examined some TV dramas, including Hanoi Bride. Significantly, this short drama screened over the Chuseok period, emphasising wholesome family values. Here, the Vietnamese lead female character is first seen wearing traditional clothes, in street scenes where bicycles and motorised rickshaws predominate, while in Seoul urban sophistication is emphasised.

Clearly there are the unacceptable sides of Korean attitudes to Asian women: the aggressive advertisements by marriage agencies for poor Korean farmers seeking overseas wives came in for much criticism in both Korea and elsewhere. “Korean princes, please take me home”, say the Vietnamese would-be brides in one Korean newspaper; “your Vietnamese bride can cook and won’t run away”, says the advertisement by the marriage agency.

An audience in Oxford got to hear how Korea currently portrays China in popular culture. Here the picture is more complicated given the long history where China has been Korea’s elder brother. But with Korean investing in and transferring technology to its neighbour, Korea is enjoying a brief period as the elder brother. For the full story, we’ll have to wait for Dr Epstein’s book to come out.

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