Korean pop culture is coming in waves

News, World — By on October 14, 2012 4:56 PM


Australia is under threat of being hit by a huge wave.

But it’s not a wave coming from the sea –  although it is approaching  from across the ocean.

This wave heading towards us is a cultural one, an inundation of artistic and entertainment products from South Korea.

It is been called the Korean Wave, or the Hallyu Wave by Koreans themselves, and it has been sweeping across Asia since the 1990s.

But now, it is seemingly descending upon the West, and is largely driven by Korean pop music (or K-Pop as the genre has come to be known).

The wave’s chill was felt by dinner-goers and passers-by one cold Friday night in September, when in the middle of Adelaide’s Central Market a Gangnam Style flash-mob suddenly assembled.

Gangnam Style is a now world-famous K-Pop single, the brainchild of South Korean rapper, Psy.

The hit has achieved unbelievable success in the West, especially in Australia, triggering scores of similar flash-mobs and becoming one of the most viewed and talked-about videos on Youtube.

After having reached number 2 in the Billboard Hot 100 in the US (and number 1 on our ARIA charts), the song’s immense popularity has been heralded as the triumph of the ‘Korean Wave’ reaching the West.

The organiser of the Central Market flash-mob, Emelia (Millie) Williams, explained the song’s success as a long-awaited breakthrough in K-Pop penetrating Western markets.

“Psy has managed to do what Korean artists have been trying to do for years– to be able to break into the American market and get on the US charts,” Millie said.

“There have been a couple of [Korean] artists who have crept up the charts, like Wonder Girls and Girls Generation, but none have been quite as explosive as Psy’s Gangnam Style.”

Millie also explained that K-Pop is virtually carrying the Korean Wave on its shoulders, by exposing fans to other forms of Korean entertainment.

“Because K-Pop completely encaptures Korean culture, a lot of [K-Pop] fans get involved in watching Korean dramas and movies.”

“Celebrities in Korea are so big and they participate in TV shows and movies and all this stuff and we’re exposed to all of it,” she said.

David Park, the Manager of Culture and Media Innovation at the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney, agrees.

While he says South Korea has intentionally tried to expand its cultural ties overseas through promoting its entertainment,  cuisine, and tourism initiatives, it is K-Pop that’s been its most successful export.

“The Korean Wave itself stems heavily from a big export from Korea which is currently K-Pop,” David said.

“This … was initiated through YouTube and various social network sites like Facebook etcetera, which attracted an international audience.

“[It] spread through European areas and South American areas and then up to North America and it’s just beginning to hit Australia now.”

One doesn’t have to look past Youtube almost single-handedly facilitating Gangnam Style’s success to see interest in K-Pop being proliferated through social media.

But this is also occurring through Facebook and other sites and forums devoted to K-Pop, such as ‘Soompi’.

Millie herself is an event organiser and administrator of the ‘Adelaide K-Pop Fans’ Facebook group, which is how she came to organise the flash-mob.

“The group itself is very young – it was formed last October, around the same time Australia had its first K-Pop concert, which was the Sydney Super K-Pop Concert,” she said.

“At that time, the leader of the group got together with some friends and just decided to form a group and they didn’t expect it to be very big.

“But in a few months it had a few hundred members, and at the moment I think there’s about 730.”

Looking over discussions on the group’s page, though, it seems there are concerns that the Gangnam Style craze is a fad, and the real K-Pop remains underground.

G G Alan Bindig, a member of the ‘Adelaide K-Pop Fans’ group, echoed this sentiment, commenting: “[the] [p]roblem with the song is it’s seen as gimmicky, a one-hit wonder.”

“If one or more other K-pop groups break through with a song that doesn’t have obvious humorous viral-video-style content, then we’ll know K-pop has truly arrived in the West,” he added.

This begs the question: to what extent has the Korean Wave hit Australia – are are K-Pop and Korean entertainment a niche market here?

David Park thinks the Wave is still in the process of hitting our shores.

“Well compared to Europe, like in France, and America [the Korean Wave in Australia] is still growing,” David said.

“It’s still a niche market, but we are seeing evidence of flashmobs popping up for K-Pop, our events are getting packed and more members are joining the Korean Cultural Office each day, which means there’s plenty of potential and avenues for people to embrace Korean culture and the Hallyu Wave.”

David thinks the Australia’s recent exposure to Korean culture is  thanks to programs set up surrounding the 50th anniversary of relations between Australia and South Korea.

“Since the 50th year of friendship between Australia and Korea, initiatives have been made to expand our bonds, culturally,” he said.

“This has worked fantastically with the Korean Cultural Office being established in 2011 in April, which contributed hugely to the Hallyu Wave to Australia, providing events and various other cultural alternatives for the public to engage with Korea.

“Prior to the establishment of the Cultural Office, there were events of sorts but they were very niche and interest for those events was mainly in Korean residents residing here.”

The Cultural Office has been organising classes and events promoting Korean culture to Australians, with or without Korean or Asian backgrounds, since 2011.

These events have included Korean Art exhibitions, cultural classes about Korean language, cooking, craft and dance and Korean film nights.

Yet two of the Cultural Office’s events have really been helping Australians engage with Korean culture.

The first is the huge K-Pop concerts and music festivals it has organised or helped organise.

These include the Sydney Super K-Pop Concert, mentioned by Millie, and the K-Pop Music Fest, both which attracted thousands of guests.

The other is the Korean Film Festival held annually in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

The artistic director of the film festival, Kieran Tully, says interest has grown immensely since it began in 2010.

“Our numbers last year tripled and this year so far [have] doubled,” Kieran said.

“So there really has been such great interest and that’s why we’ve been able to expand to three cities in just three years – because of just the pure demand for it.”

Kieran also runs the weekly film night at the Korean Cultural Office and extols its success too.

“It’s done really well – it’s grown tremendously since when we opened in April last year and we average about 60 to 70 people a week.”

“Considering our theatre only holds about 70 or 80, that’s really good numbers.”

However, outside the events hosted by the Cultural Office, Kieran admits Korean cinema still very much appeals to a niche audience.

“The [Korean] films that get released here are often just a limited genre – they’re often genre films, crime thrillers.”

“So people can’t try a Korean comedy for instance; if you want to watch one, down at your local store, you can’t get access to it.”

Nevertheless, he feels confident the Wave will grow, at least when it comes to cinema.

“There’s definitely more demand there [for Korean cinema]; people are hopping across from the dramas.”

“A number of major Korean film directors [are] going into Hollywood now … making English language films with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicole Kidman.

“People maybe won’t know that they’re watching a film from a Korean director but maybe they’ll eventually find out and … it’ll spark more interest in going and watching and discovering Korean cinema.”

But not everyone agrees with Kieran’s optimism.

Earlier this year, The Korea Times reported that six out of ten foreigners feel that the craze over Korean pop culture will decline in the next few years.

However, it cited a survey – conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange – of only 3,600 people in nine countries.

Nevertheless, K-Pop fans in Australia will continue to support and promote Korean entertainment, Millie believes.

“I think for a lot of people, [Gangnam Style] is just a novelty, it’s just something weird from Asia that they’ve seen,” she said.

“But, I think a lot of K-Pop fans – because there are a lot of them – are not going to let this popularity go; they’re going to grasp this opportunity to make everyone realise how big K-Pop is getting.”

While the Hallyu Wave may not be as close as some are saying, the penetration of Gangnam Style and K-Pop as a whole, through language barriers and into Western markets, is exposing our tastes to Korean culture.

The Korean Wave is rising, so don’t be surprised if it just ends up hitting our shores for good.

Image by Flickr – Clement Soh

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