HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Koreans are Coming

No, not those Koreans...
There is a pop-culture phenomenon sweeping across the globe right now, but there's a fair chance you've never actually heard of it. Hallyu means 'Korean wave', and it refers to the growing obsession with South Korean pop prevalent among younger generations in many countries. The popularity of South Korean movies, music, and food is blindingly obvious in classrooms here in Saigon. 'Kpop', as this rampaging behemoth is commonly called, is giving American pop culture a serious run for its money in terms of popularity in the under-25 age demographic. It is so dominant that Vietnamese simply refer to music and food from 'Korea', blithely ignoring the fact that there are actually two Koreas. (This must annoy the DPRK, whose motto is 'North Korea: Best Korea.')

Most of my students would probably struggle to find South Korea on a map, yet they know what kimchi and bimbap, two types of Korean food, are; and they can name dozens of singers, actors, and musical groups hailing from cities like Seoul and Busan. If you teach teens, you will quickly come to know the names Super Junior and Big Bang, two massively popular Kpop boy bands. Once, I walked into my classroom after a break only to find hearts drawn all over the board, with Super Junior written into each one. These groups consist of thin, good-looking young Korean guys, and their music videos are slick, brash, and full of opulent displays of wealth. And lots of dancing. Don't you dare forget the dancing. Examples:

These young men have become sex symbols to girls, and idols to boys. G-Dragon and TOP, two members of  Big Bang who are branching off as a rap duo, are particularly popular at the moment. Their outrageous hairdos are mimicked by teens and 20-somethings all over Saigon; and girls in my classes swoon at the merest mention of their names. 
For a more global example, take the popularity of Rain, the singer/actor who has won the online voting for Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People three out of the last five years. Screw Obama and the Dalai Lama!

The musical styles of Kpop bands borrow from American hip-hop, European techno and house, and simple Asian pop - sometimes all in the same song. They also regularly feature catchy English choruses, while the rest of the song is in Korean. While I find most of these tunes stomach-turning, they are infectious to the ears of many. For example the video for "Gee", by Girl's Generation, has been viewed 56 million times on YouTube - 13 million more than the latest Lady Gaga video. That same song was also the first by a non-Japanese group to reach number 1 on that country's charts. 

These young South Koreans aren't just conquering Asia - they're probably coming to a shore near you, too. A Korean rap group recently collaborated with Kanye West (who is a gay fish), and Girl's Generation played at Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago. The music videos put out by the companies that manage Kpop groups are eye-catching, stylish, and of a production value right up there with American videos. The tones of such videos vary widely, depending on the personality a given group is trying to portray. For example, some the of the female groups prefer the giggling innocence of naive young Asian women:
Other groups, notably the hugely popular 2NE1, are arrogant and bold; trying hard to play the role of 'sexy bad girls'. Just watch this video, which includes machine guns, a Mercedes supercar, and baseball bats. And a poodle.
It's not just in the world of music that Kpop dominates. If I turn on my TV, no matter the time of day, I can guarantee that I will find a Korean soap opera, dubbed into Vietnamese, on at least one channel. These shows feature extremely attractive men and women, and they are of much higher quality (technically speaking, at least) than anything made by the Vietnamese TV industry, which still languishes in the world of bad editing and poor sound quality. The same goes for films: thanks to South Korea's economic success, studios can afford big-budget movies that are just as exciting as the stuff coming from Hollywood, all while maintaining an Asian cultural sensibility that is easier for Vietnamese to understand.

The popularity of Kpop is something I've never heard mentioned in the U.S., but it is a cultural monster here. Young Vietnamese seem keen to emulate the incredible last 20 years that South Korea has had - two decades that rocketed it towards the top of the global economic ladder, all while keeping its culture from becoming too Westernized. Vietnamese singers, actors, and films are obviously popular here, but groups and movie studies simply don't have the money of the Koreans. Therefore, the glitzy, bright extravaganzas emanating from the southern half of the Korean peninsula will only become more popular in the coming years. If the North really wants to be "Best Korea," Kim Jong-Il better start taking up rap and break dancing lessons.


  1. Speaking of Korea. Will you plan to travel to that country someday?

  2. I would love to visit Korea, not sure when I'll have a chance. It will probably be one of the countries I look for work in whenever I decide to leave Vietnam.