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Korean pop culture creates waves, draws tourists from across region

Korean pop culture creates waves, draws tourists from across region

A farm, even a fake one, is cold this time of year, so the Japanese retiree had some trouble wriggling his many layers into the king's costume. His wife, in a matching get-up, primped excitedly for the photos.

Like many Japanese and Chinese visitors, Takahara Uetani and his wife, Kaiko, traveled to this television theme park on the edge of Seoul for the chance to don royal Korean robes, wander the set of their favorite soap opera and savor a culture that suddenly enchanted them.

"We like this show much more than the Japanese dramas," Takahara Uetani said, looking every bit the 16th Century Korean king, save for his bifocals.

In a surprising sidelight to Asia's evolution, the hottest thing in Asian pop culture these days is Korea. Even as China grows in stature, the cult success of South Korea's television shows, movies, online games and pop music abroad is generating billions of dollars in annual trade and drawing an unfamiliar spotlight on a culture colonized or overshadowed for centuries by its brawnier neighbors.

The Korean Wave, as it is known, is popular among some unlikely audiences. A crowd of Japan's reliably understated middle-aged women caused a near-riot in excitement last year when a Korean leading man set foot in Tokyo. Chinese brides are choosing traditional Korean robes for their wedding photos. And even the president of China, known for his formality, reportedly gushed to a South Korean dignitary that he was chagrined to have missed some soap opera episodes.

The Korean recipe is clear: sweet, sometimes melodramatic plots and lyrics, high-gloss productions and a heavy dollop of wholesome Confucian family values. That feel-good family-friendly message has struck a common chord across a disparate region anxious over its embrace of the West and the social costs of dramatic economic change.

"The Japanese feel like they have only an instant, express kind of life," said tour guide Myo-soon Song. "There are a lot of short relationships today: meet, maybe go to a hotel, and that's it. But in dramas they see long-term love affairs. It reminds them of their 20s and 30s."

The Korean Wave - known as "Hallyu," from the Chinese words for a cold snap - reflects changes in the Asian landscape of power and influence. Until not long ago, Japan and China viewed Korea as either a minor colonial outpost - Japan ended its occupation in 1945 - or an industrial wasteland scarred by war. But after catching the world's attention with the 1988 Seoul Olympics, this country of 48 million poured government and private investment into pop culture, developing soap operas and soccer stars, hip-hop groups, boy bands and date movies.

Those exports began to attract tourist traffic from across Asia, drawing more than 1 million people a year to television-themed destinations such as the park in Yangjoo, tourism officials say. In 2004, film and television program exports, along with merchandise and tourism earned South Korea US$1.87 billion, according to the Trade Research Institute, a government think tank.

That cultural trade not only relied on Korea's new image as a democratic, high-tech success story but also tapped Asian appetites for alternatives to Western movies and celebrities. In much of Asia, Korea has become a byword for cool. In Beijing, young people say the chic mobile phones come from South Korean-owned Samsung and LG. In Taiwan, television executives are paying more for Korean soap operas than for once-popular Japanese programs.

The success of Korean culture also owes something to deeper political sensitivities among the three dominant Asian countries. China and Korea share a longstanding animosity toward Japan for war crimes committed by its army before and during World War II. That is one reason mainland China and Taiwan have been eager to promote Korean programs and stars as a counterweight to Japan's cultural influence.

When the dramatic series "Dae Jung Geum," or "A Jewel in the Palace," about a royal chef who rises to become the king's physician, ran on Hong Kong television this year, it drew more viewers than any program in 25 years; nearly 50 percent of Hong Kong residents said they watched it.

Chinese newspapers have chronicled young women and men traveling to Seoul to get plastic surgery that lengthens and accentuates their noses, which they believe makes them more like Korean screen stars and pop musicians. And after Chinese President Hu Jintao recently met with a senior South Korean politician, Chosun Daily newspaper reported that Hu said, "It is a pity that I have been too busy to see every episode" of the palace drama.

For serious fans of "A Jewel in the Palace," the ultimate pilgrimage is to this royal courtyard and farm set, which draws 120,000 foreign visitors a month. Japanese office worker Takahiro Oyabu, who crouched earnestly in a fake prison cell while his wife, Atsuko Oyabo, snapped a photo of him, said the drama has transformed the couple's sense of Korea.

"Before watching it I wasn't very interested in Korean history, but this piqued my interest," he said, adding after a pause, "And my wife likes Yon-sama very much."

"Yon-sama" is the affectionate title that Japanese fans have bestowed on 33-year-old Korean actor Bae Yong Joon, after his portrayal of a gentle amnesia sufferer with tortoise-shell glasses in the 2002 drama "Winter Sonata." Most popular among middle-aged Japanese women, Bae's visit to Tokyo in late 2004 drew a throng of more than 1,000 fans, who jostled for a better view, sending several Yon-sama fans to the hospital with light injuries. Faced with success like that, other countries' industries are struggling to compete.

With the Korean Wave continuing to ripple as far away as Uzbekistan, Malaysia and Vietnam, its success has even provoked a backlash from governments and stars who vow to improve their own offerings. Zhang Guoli, one of China's top television actors recently dismissed the Korean Wave as a "cultural invasion" and urged his countrymen to support homegrown productions. The criticism has left South Korea's long-ignored culture czars in the unusual position of downplaying their success.

"It is not cultural imperialism," Kang said. "They chose us; we did not target them."

Updated : 2021-06-20 08:57 GMT+08:00