'Korea Fever' Sweeping Asia's Pop Culture Scene'

by AP, The Associated Press

By Dean Visser, Associated Press Writer

SINGAPORE (AP) -- Call it "kim chic."

All things Korean -- from food and music to eyebrow-shaping and shoe styles -- are the rage across Asia, where pop culture has long been dominated by Tokyo and Hollywood.

Not long ago, Korea's best-known cultural export was kimchee, the pickled cabbage and chili dish known for its fierce, pungent spiciness.

Now, its TV shows, films, pop stars and fashions are even hotter -- or cooler, as Taiwanese TV executive Amanda Yang put it when talking of the "K-pop" bands S.E.S. and Shinhwa.

"They look like street gangs -- so cool that you want to punch them," said Yang, who's with the island's Channel TV.

A South Korean TV tear-jerker series, "The Autumn Story," was such a hit in Taiwan last year that fans from there took group tours to the South Korean city of Sok Cho, about 90 miles northeast of Seoul, where the story's imaginary lovers grew up and met again after years apart. The series ended with the main female character dying of cancer.

In Vietnam, South Korean TV dramas provide the tightly controlled communist country with an enticing glimpse of the outside world. The shows are so popular that fans sometimes have to choose between two aired at the same time -- on Hanoi's total of four channels.

In the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, fashion-conscious young Vietnamese have adopted the darker makeup colors, thinly shaved eyebrows, body-hugging clothes and square-toed shoes of Seoul fashion.

Even in Japan, long Asia's fountain of cool, South Korean pop culture is invading the airwaves and box office. Japanese media are zooming in on any tiny bit of Seoul as the two countries prepare to jointly play host to the World Cup soccer tournament later this year.

Japan's hottest record label, Avex, has signed distribution deals with several South Korean pop acts, including the five-member boy band Shinhwa and S.E.S., a female trio.

The concept of Koreans as two warring peoples split by barbed wire and ideology is a recurring theme in Korean films, and seems to fascinate people across cultures -- maybe partly for its analogy of forbidden love.

The film "Swiri," about two spies from North and South Korea who become lovers, was a surprise hit in Japanese theaters last year.

"Joint Security Area," another huge hit in Korea and elsewhere in Asia, depicts tension and friendship among four South and North Korean guards at the truce village of Panmunjom, which straddles the north-south frontier -- the world's most heavily armed border.

South Korean entertainment has also gained a foothold in Hong Kong, whose mass-produced films and choppy, hard-edged Cantonese pop music have been staple exports to the rest of Asia.

Hong Kong's tabloid magazines feature South Korean movie starts and singers, and Dicky Tsang of the city's P.O.V. Square bookshop says sales of South Korean video CDs have surged by about 30 percent this year.

Despite Hong Kong's reputation as a shopping mecca, some of its residents are now making forays into South Korea's malls and markets.

"Seoul is great for shopping for girlie stuff," said an assistant editor on a Hong Kong newspaper who gave only her surname, Yau. "The styles are cool and they are cheaper than Japanese goods."

The Chinese are talking about "Hanguo re" -- literally, "Korea fever." Walk into a Beijing fast food restaurant and you're likely to see a South Korean boy band warbling and dancing on a TV screen.

"In the '80s it was Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong singers and movies, but now Korean is the thing," said Zhang Jianhua, 24, owner of a Beijing video and music shop that stocks Korean products.

Korean pop culture is seen as fresh and edgy, but non-threatening because "they're Asian and they look like us," Zhang says. "So it's easy to identify with them."

Sociologist Habib Khondker agrees. The Korean fad is part of a region-wide "reassertion of Asian identity," he said.

"It's kind of a pan-Asianism ... You can look for alternative cultures, not necessarily European or American," said Khondker, a university teacher based in Singapore, the latest Asian country to be hit by Korea fever.

Korean restaurants are surging in popularity in the wealthy, food-obsessed city-state, and subtitled Korean TV dramas have become all the rage the past few months.

South Korean films also are drawing attention because they're getting better, said Philip Cheah, director of the Singapore International Film Festival.

One of the best is "Joint Security Area," he said. "It's very polished, and it's very entertaining."

Not all Asians are happy with the "pan-Asianism" idea, however.

One of Vietnam's state-controlled newspapers included the dominance of South Korean and Chinese TV programs in its list of Vietnam's "10 most embarrassing cultural events" of 2001.