Opening Up a Wider World

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Opening Up a Wider World


Korean pop culture is a fresh wind sweeping through the Chinese speaking countries of Asia: the record stores of Beijing are crowded with people buying the latest hits by Korean pop singers and the Korean restaurants are filled to overflowing; Korean TV dramas are recording high ratings in Vietnam, Mongolia and Taiwan and fans from those countries are coming to Korea as tourists to visit the shooting locations; and the Korean computer game Lineage is a big hit in Taiwan. Now with China making it to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals, to be co-hosted by Korea and Japan next year, the fever for things Korean looks like it's going to heat up.

In China, Korean pop music is at the height of popularity with Korean songs accounting for half of the Chinese top ten. Chinese teens like the Korean dance groups NRG, Baby Vox and HOT while people in their 20s and 30s like the fun sounds of groups such as Clon. In Korean pop music competitions, Chinese teens dress up like their favorite Korean stars and sing their songs. The local concerts of Korean singers are all sold out and members of the audiences can be seen screaming and holding up posters and photos of their idols.

The current fever for things Korean, known as the "Korean wave," was first triggered by the TV drama "What is Love?" which was very popular with viewers in Chinese-speaking countries. "What is Love?" has since been followed by a string of hits such as "Autumn Tale,?" "Stars in My Heart,?" "Model" and "Sunflower," creating a rage for Korean dramas among young TV fans. "Autumn Tale," a plaintive love story, has been repeated on TV many times and over 200,000 copies of a tie-in book have been sold. Since the broadcasting of "Model" in Vietnam, many fan clubs for the star Jang Dong-geon have been founded and a local advertisement featuring the female lead Kim Nam-ju, has eight times the recognition of the advertisement of another company, which was produced at ten times the cost.

It is the same with Korean movies. Bichunmu, a love story about a Korean warrior and a Yuan Chinese girl is making it big at box offices in China. Movies that were hits in Korea such as Christmas in August, Swiri, Gas Station Hold Up and Happy Ending have also been big hits in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result, events are often held where the local fans can meet the stars of those movies, and such events are often reported on Korean television.

The Korean wave continues with musicals as well. Subway Line 1, which was praised as being better than the German original when it was performed in Berlin last year, has also been a huge success in Beijing and Shanghai in China. It was performed to a full house, something that had only happened two times before in Chinese concert history. The media and others who had been moved by the show called producer Kim Min-gi "the Balzac of Korea" and compared him with the Chinese hero Sun Yat Sen.

On the computer game front, Lineage, made by the Korean venture NC Soft, is popular around the world but especially in Taiwan where within a year of its introduction it has captured 80 percent of online gamers. While Lineage is proving big in Taiwan, Legend of Mir 2 is the most popular game on the Chinese mainland. Within four days of commercial service start up, the martial arts playing game had reached over 50,000 Chinese gamers. The success of these games is making the path smoother for Korean telecommunications companies such as KTF and SK as they try to enter the local IT industry. Samsung Electronics' mobile phones are already among the most desired phones in China and LG Electronics' products are popular also.

Korean fever is hitting the Chinese fashion industry as well with Korea's top designers, including Andre Kim, holding a series of fashion shows in China. According to a survey of adults in seven cities in China carried out by Samsung Art and Design Institute, Korean fashion ranks fourth in popularity after the fashion of China, Italy and France. Fashion brands such as Deco, Wolsey, Lancy and Lee Kwang-hee have already entered the Chinese market, which is boosting the strength of Korean names in the total beauty market, including mass-market clothing, hair, makeup and beauty items, and jewelry and accessories.

At lunchtime, the 600-seat Korean restaurant Yensa Scene of Sorabeol in Beijing is crowded with Chinese people who are fans of the hot and savory flavors of Korean food. The Korean snack Choco Pie is No. 1 in China in terms of sales, and brand reputation and recognition. The hot and spicy taste of Shin Ramyeon instant noodles is overpowering Chinese brands that have a weaker flavor. Miwon is becoming known in the market for artificial seasoning and Korean infant formula is also making its mark on the Chinese market.

Along with the teens visiting Korea to see their favorites stars, many others from different age groups are also visiting Korea for a variety of reasons. On the day of the World Cup final draw, the Chinese, including some 8 million soccer fans, were pleased to find out that the Chinese team would be playing in Korea rather than Japan. Korea is not only closer geographically but also in the sensibilities of the people. It is anticipated that the number of Chinese visiting Korea this year will dramatically jump thanks to the event.

These days it is gratifying to witness a meeting between Koreans and Chinese who are bent on exchanging greetings: the Koreans congratulate China for making it into their first World Cup finals and the Chinese express their best wishes for Korea's successful hosting of the World Cup.

The Korean wave that is hitting China and Southeast Asia is not just a one-way phenomenon. The Chinese are not the only ones opening up to a new culture. Young Koreans too, both online and offline, are busy learning about China and its culture. Ahn Jae-wook, the Korean star most popular in the Chinese-speaking nations, is an example. When the Taiwanese suffered from floods, he began providing 3 million won a month to help them.

At the heart of the Korean wave is the warm give and take of neighborly sentiment. Korean culture is popular among the Chinese because the sentiment and sensibilities of the two countries are similar. The dramas are innocent enough for three generations - grandparents, parents and children - to watch them at the same time and in subject matter they are very closely related to everyday life. In the case of popular music, hip hop is popular among the young because it is not American style hip hop, but a softened version that better suits Asian sensibilities. The Choco Pie advertisement that is popular in China (the "Good Friends" episode) is based on the concept of jeong, a Korean word that covers many feelings from love to friendship. In this vein, the Korean wave is a soft wind that carries friendship.


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