Darren Southcott finds the Korean Wave alive and kicking in South-East Asia
Had I heard of the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, while I was in the UK I would probably have assumed it was an Asian take on a Central American football terrace tradition. The closest I ever came to being subsumed by it was when hiring a copy of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring from a North Liverpool Blockbusters. A good film it was, but it hardly seemed at the forefront of a pop-culture tsunami hitting the shores of Asia.
When I moved to Korea my ignorance matured into scepticism. In the Land of the Morning Calm, where everything from the genes to the ginger are considered the best in the world, you learn to take things with a pinch of salt – even the MSG. Recently, however, after moving to South East Asia, my Wave-scepticism has begun to lift.
I was sitting in a Kuala Lumpur coffee shop when it first hit me; jangling away, the tune took a while to ring any bells. I turned to see a group of fashionable twenty-somethings sipping their mochas. The jingle didn’t abate and a girl reached into her handbag in a bid to silence it. It was as her triumphant phone-clasping hand emerged that it hit me – ‘Oh, oh, oh, o-ba-leul sa-rang hae. Oh, oh, oh, man-hi man-hi hae’! It made me Korea-sick in a homesick kind of way.
That was the first of many Wave moments on my journey through South East Asia. As long as the phones kept ringing, Girls Generation et al wouldn’t stop singing. K-pop-by-mobile is more unpleasant than you’d imagine.
It’s hard to describe just how popular Korean culture is in South East Asia. Go to any market from Phnom Penh to Vientiane and visit the DVD sellers – photocopied sleeves piled high, the poor quality techni-colour screams ‘pirated in China,’ It takes no small amount of courage to hunch over and penetrate these shaded grottos, shielded from the sun and prying eyes. Amongst the digital harvest there will always be at least one side dedicated to Korean films, and at least two to the music; then there are the dramas.
Dining in a noodle bar it is not uncommon to see three generations sat round a DVD player, watching the latest dramas of the Seoul socialites. Turn on Thai TV and be hit with daily, hour-long specials on Korean music, with live rundowns from Seoul every week. Walk past comic book stores, deep with lurking Manga maniacs, and eye the racks of pop-culture magazines, sporting names such as Seoul and K-Idols, adorned with collages of The Wonder Girls and Big Bang. If this is the Wave on its retreat, its advance must have been frightening.
What explains this continuing Asian zeal for Korean pop-culture? Amongst the teeny boppers, haircuts and (pirated) DVD sales, does the Wave have a deeper significance as we begin what many commentators believe will be the ‘Asian century’?
A Chinese revolution
The Wave began in the late-90s when a compilation CD of that name was released in China. The name was picked up by Chinese media and it stuck. It wasn’t long before Korean ‘maniac groups’ were formed to emulate their idols and Korean music was the only foreign representative in the Chinese charts. Korean actors topped popularity polls and the mania spread throughout East and South East Asia.
During industrialisation, the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies initially looked to the West and Japan for their cultural icons, but with growing confidence the cultural flow over the East Sea has arguably reverted to west-east, something the Koreans and Chinese may claim is a reversion to type.
Korea now seems to have usurped Japan as the arbiter of cool in the region and there is increasing interest in Korean food, language and culture. Korean teacher, Kim Young-Il, a one-time journalist with the Choson Ilbo and long-time South-East-Asian resident has seen the changes around him.
“As Korea developed people became more interested in our language and trade. I have seen it in Vietnam, Thailand and now Laos. More recently there has been interest in our culture, too,” he said, proudly. “Here in Laos the main cultural influences are Thailand and Korea.”
Letting the rabbit out of the hat?
As the sleeping tiger (or is it a rabbit?) has awoken, everywhere from Shanghai to Singapore has begun playing to the Korean cultural tune. Seoul, amongst the youth of South East Asia, is seen as a glamour capital, rivalling Tokyo in the fashion, movie and music stakes.
The tendency to look to the West has decreased and a modernised, self-defined Korean identity is being expressed. Korea may offer Asia something to relate to in the way the West, or even Japan – with its colonial legacy – cannot.
As a teacher in a (Korean-owned) Vientiane language school, it is hard not to notice the Big Bang pencil cases and K-pop paraphernalia that accompany students into the classroom. I asked students why there was such a strong identification with Korean pop culture.
“It just seems natural for us to listen to Korean music. I don’t know why but it seems more accessible than American pop. We like American pop, but we more follow K-pop,” one said.
Another, more mature, student, said that she has seen the change and feels the Korean stars are better role models for the younger generation than most pop stars.
“I quite like Korean music and the groups are good role models so I let my children listen,” she said. “We can see Korean influence in many places today. Many people buy Korean make-up and get Korean hairstyles.”
K-Wave paves the way
The Wave may be defined by pop culture, that most throwaway of exports, but it isn’t stopping there. The whole of Indochina is, even in this age of austerity, feeling the finger of Korean investment.
Drive down Cambodia’s country-dissecting rural expressways, and keep your eyes peeled for Korean factories. Once you hit the suburbs you’ll see the expected Hyundai car dealerships, then once downtown the banks start popping up.
Korea set up Cambodia’s newly opened stock exchange and is currently leading the investment in its Lao equivalent. Investment by Korea in what are known as the CLMV ASEAN countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) has risen exponentially in the last decade.
Alongside being the number one foreign investor in Cambodia, Korea has been among the top investors in Vietnam and Laos in recent years, according to most sources. Japan, so long the regional powerhouse, ranks below Korea on most measures of foreign direct investment in the region, although it remains top in terms of donor assistance.
This regional expression of cultural and economic power is certainly intriguing to those of us who feared the hegemony of Westernisation and although it may only be a matter of years before China starts to flex its cultural muscles, the success of Korea may give hope to CLMV countries.
It is Korea’s unique path to development that can in some ways serve as a role model to neighbouring nations, prompting admiration and hope, rather than fear. A Cambodian NGO worker, Sophat agreed,
“The appeal of Korean development is that they have gone from being least developed to rivalling the top economies in the world. We can relate to them for that and we want to emulate their growth,” he said.
It was in November 2009 that Korea officially joined the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and as such became the first country ever to have graduated from a receiver of aid to an official donor within the OECD. Teacher Kim Young-Il also believes that such economic growth is inextricably linked to cultural resurgence.
“The Wave seems to be steadying now, but we can see a growth of Korean investment on its back. It is almost like one helped the other. People come to know Korea through our music and dramas, so they are more willing to do business with us. This is certainly true for teaching Korean. All of the girls in my class were inspired by Big Bang, or some other group,” Kim said.
The fact that Korea has become a leading cultural and economic light in Asia is not to be lauded for its own sake, but when an Asian identity is only going to strengthen in the coming decades why shouldn’t Korea be at the forefront of what it means to be Asian in the 21st century?
Suffice to say, the next time I hear The Wondergirls plead ‘tell me, tell me, t-t-t-t-t-tell me,’ rather than mutter my dislike for bubblegum pop, I might just tell them “thank God you’re not Girls Aloud.”