Hallyu, the Korean Wave

I first noticed it when I was in Asia two years ago. I had been on the road for several months, traveling the world in an eastward direction. My last stop was Hong Kong. I was idling the afternoon away shopping along the Tung Choi Street. “Man man kan~” (shop at your leisure) was the common greeting. As I picked up one particular pair that interested me (light gold, high-heeled sandals with intricate beading) the shop girl came up to me and squealed, “Ooh, those! You must try them on, they just came in today from Seoul!”

Oh. Thanks. Uh, came in today you say, from Seoul, Korea? Caught off guard, I clutched the sandals tightly. When did my culture become so trendy that the shoes’ Korean origin (and most likely, manufacture in China) would compel the shop girl to recommend them so highly to a random customer? Dare I feel that being Korean may hold some cultural currency, these days? Perhaps I was getting carried away but I wondered; Is this how it feels to be French or Italian? To be chic just because of your nationality?

I ended up buying the pair; they are still among my favorites, a perfect accessory to a summer white dress. I’d forgotten about this encounter when I returned to New York in the fall. Here, European influences in cuisine, literature, style, were still paramount.

But the Korean-chic trend, begun in Asia, has been steadily gaining influence in America. That’s right; things that are Korean have crept into popular consciousness. Koreans refer to the popularization of South Korean culture among non-Koreans as Hallyu, the Korean wave. It’s become such an established trend in Asia, that there is even a backlash against it called Hating the Korean Wave.

Since South Korea emerged from the turmoil of the Korean War in ’50 and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, it has attained the 10th largest economy in the world. Its thriving film and entertainment industry has produced immensely successful films and soap operas, which, in Korea, regularly out sell Hollywood blockbusters. The soap operas, Winter Sonata and Autumn Fairy Tale, which explore the theme of traditional Confucian values regarding love, career, and family in a rapidly changing world, are more culturally relatable to the Asian audience, than say, Baywatch or Sex and the City. With the popularization of the soap operas, the fashion, music, and actors have also become very desirable in Asia. Seoul has become the epicenter for cool. But how has Hallyu made inroads into America?

Soovin Kim

In increments. Non-Koreans may be surprised at how many Korean names they’ve become familiar with: Secretary-General to the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, classical musicians Soovin Kim and the Ahn trio, golfers Se ri Pak, Birdie Kim, actor John Cho from Harold and Kumar, comedians Margret Cho and Bobby Lee, and sports celebrities Park Chan Ho, Hines Ward and Will Demps. Rain, a Korean pop music sensation has also gained a following in America. R&B singer Amerie is another one. There is a new crop of second generation Korean-American celebrities like Brenda Song of The Suite Life and SuChin Pak from MTV well known among the ‘tweens. Just to name a few.

The New York Times has made note of the inroads being made by Korean culture several times in the past year. First the articles were food related; then they celebrated Korean-inspired spa culture, writing at length about a three-story bathhouse with jade igloos and ginseng pools in New Jersey. A more specific sampling of the New York Times include articles extolling the virtues of the Korean method of frying chicken (seasoned with either a sweetish garlic-soy glaze or a hotter red-pepper sauce), while another article was dedicated to Pinkberry, the new Korean taste sensation edging out Tasty Delight and Coldstone ice creams. Outside the chains of tarty frozen yogurt stores dotting the landscape of Los Angeles and New York, lines regularly form around the block at each establishment, the clientele increasingly more ‘American’ than Korean.

In New York, Korean restaurants have been popping up everywhere in the trendy downtown areas such as the East and West Villages, Soho, and even the Upper East Side. A quick search on Chowhound, a site where foodies can give their own “two cents” reviews on dining options, will find thousands of posts on Korean restaurants in New York alone. Suddenly Koreatown, a place of late night restaurants, spas, and karaoke, is the ‘it’ place to be in New York City, drawing in celebrities and club kids alike. Koreatown was also featured in an episode of Sex and the City as a date spot for Carrie Bradshaw and her beau, sparking a wave of copycat dates.

Birdie Kim

Recent Korean films have also made inroads throughout the world. One example is the ultra violent, ultra-haute triptych by Park Chanwook: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and Oldboy. But the growing popularity of Korean films is not limited to the horror genre; Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring… won major international film honors and his Somaria won first prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. Korean movies are also being remade into American counterparts, such as Il Mare, which was remade in 2006 to The Lakehouse starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

The true crossover moment in Korean cinema came in the form of Host, which was released earlier this year. This film had critics proclaiming it the best monster flick ever created. Combining much Hollywood ado yet maintaining its Korean culture, a great moment in Host is when its humorous eye is directed towards Americans, since the premise of the film is that a ravenous mutant monster is created due to American military’s careless dumping of toxic chemicals in the Han River. It also self-deprecatingly pokes fun at Korean culture; showing several spectacular displays of Korean histrionics when family members mourn the deaths caused by the monster. It exaggeratedly but accurately depicts the Korean sense of tragedy and dedication to family.

Lest we think that all we known of Korean culture has been exported from Korea, we have an American TV show which shows a unique interpretation of Korean through the lens of an American eye. Lost, the esoteric series detailing the adventures of marooned passengers in a mysterious island, enthralled many American television viewers. There the story of a Korean couple, the seemingly submissive Sun and controlling and terse Jin, was quite sensitively told (though with some liberties and exaggerations, it’s television after all). The couple is played by two Korean actors – one very famous in Korea, Yunjin Kim (recently featured on the front cover of Maxim), the other a Daniel Dae Kim, Kyopo (a Korean person born and raised abroad with the implication that they may identify more with the country of their upbringing more than Korea). Several episodes were dedicated to exploring the relationship between Sun and Jin, thereby adding to American pop culture lexicon, the gender politics inherent Korean culture; womens’ yearning for freedom and equality, and the surprisingly delicate male machismo. Other ‘American-born’ depictions of Korean culture include Team America, where the comic backdrop of the film was based on the reduction of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who became an infantile tyrant with a pronunciation problem.

So why Korea, why now? Is it merely chronological destiny correlating with the immigration timeline, since Korea is the most recent of the East Asian countries to have a wave of immigration? First China, then Japan, now Korea; chow mein, teriyaki, kimchi?

That Korea is still a country divided, the Korean war merely at a ceasefire while North Korea maintains a nuclear weapons program, may contribute to an ongoing political interest in Korea, but it does not account for the country becoming trendy or stylish. It’s also true that Samsung and LG are now leaders in the cellular and electronics market, and this may unconsciously familiarize the American public to Korean products and thus, in some way, Korean people – but this fascination is not limited to technological advancements. The World Cup was hosted in Seoul in 2002, and that may be another contributing factor — that Korea beat Italy surely only increased the fascination.

John Cho and Kal Penn in

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

But perhaps Korea’s growing popularity may have more with the fact that Korean-Americans are now a purchasing power to be reckoned with, and therefore must be catered to with acknowledgment, representation, and appeal. According to the 2000 Census data, made available by Center for Korean American and Korean Studies, there are 1.08 million Korean people living in the US, approximately 44 percent in California and 20 percent in the New York and New Jersey combined. Koreans are among the top three in educational attainment and household income among the immigrant populations. That pop cultural exchange works both ways.

Hallyu was much discussed by the Korean community at a panel discussion at the Korean Cultural Society in New York. Some attendees thought Korea should take advantage of this trend, and create a “Han brand” to export more of the culture elsewhere, I hopes to expand tourism; others were more skeptical of the longevity of this trend. Still others debated the “quality of light”, if you will, this trend turns on Korean culture. The discussion was inconclusive, as most good discussions are when diversity of opinions is equally well presented. Only time will tell what will change, and for whom, in this cultural exchange.