A Great Plague: K-Ferver

 |  March 30, 2010

By 2012 the outbreak of K-Fever is expected to be of such global magnitude it is perhaps conceivable that typical British armchair addicts may be considering substituting their daily fix of Coronation Street and Eastenders in favour of an altogether different kind of soap opera: drama arguably less heady, but whose propensity for reeling in punters is undeniable. These soaps are not only abominably dubbed, but the cast and script in a compos mentis world could perhaps be equated with the word ‘prepubescent’. American kids, high on hair sprays and lip gloss made in Ulsan (Korea’s new industrial capital), may no longer sing along to sultry anthems by bad girls like Bitchy Spears but exercise their imaginations while listening to bathetic hand-holding numbers sung by love-struck souls from Seoul. Korean Fever, commonly referred to as a pop-virus, has the world by the throat. From Finland to Ghana, from the banks of the Ganges to the arid plains of Iran, the K-Cash Cow has been a busy beast, leaving smitten citizens Korea-delirious. English language newspapers and websites in Korea often boast of how their cultural exports are taking over the world. And it’s irrefutable, ‘Korean Fever’ is now a certified (pop-) pandemic.

Thailand, with its close proximity to the land of soju and 187 variations of kimchi, was one of the first countries hit by K-Fever. Since My Sassy Girl, (a rom-com which literally translates ‘That Bizarre Girl’, dubbed the ‘Korean Titanic’) with her mesmeric ‘big eyes’ and incorrigible whacky slant, charmed the pants off most young Thais at the beginning of the millennium, Korean pop culture has surfaced on Thai shores with as much vehemence as a barbarian invasion under orders of expedition. If you’re a Thai teen that is not familiar with pop groups such as DBSK, Wonder Girls, Super Juniors, 2 PM, Girl’s Generation, or haven’t yet sat down with the soaps: Dae Jang Geum, Full House or Princess Hours, then your teenage ego is hardly worth airing in public. Cosmetic make-up brands like Etude and Skin Food, both of Korean descent, are the height of fashion in the Thai university milieu, while ‘big eye’ contact lenses and spiky hair cuts have been de-rigueur on the glossy sleeves of pap mags for some time. One Thai journalist in an online article writes that K-fever is “entrapping” Thai youths, inferring that the mass marketing of Korean PC holds sway on Thai teens’ spending habits. The writer goes on to say that the Korean wave is an “inter-Asia advertising medium” that works on many levels, promoting Korean pop culture and consequently accelerating sales of Samsung, LG and other K-products in Thailand.

The popularity of Korea’s pop culture and mass export of products, along with a robust (in some part due to the former) tourist industry, is said to be making millionaires by the day, in a country that post Korean War was on the verge of collapse, and up until the late 80s was as coup d’état prone as Thailand. The country has long since unanchored itself from pervasive poverty and muzzling dictatorships and has enjoyed massive economic fortune (now the world’s 8th largest exporter), earning Korea the moniker ‘The Miracle on the Han River’.


Rock ‘n’ Roll could be said to be symbolic of things like liberty, sexual deviance, idealism; you might say Punk was the musical epitome of skepticism, aggression, rebellion; New Wave: confusion, eclecticism . . . self-abasement. But what about K-pop, what generalisations can we draw from this, a new epoch in our cultural history? The ‘scene’ certainly comes packaged as every scene should, with everything from hairstyles, clothes, to rhythms of speech and finger gesticulations. The Thai expression accorded to this imported style is ‘ab beaw’ which means something like pretty and fresh, inviolately cute, and always with a dash of infantile predisposition.

Being in, or taking photos to Thailand’s generation net seems inseparable from day to day life, as natural, intrinsic, as say, breathing, making a practiced ab beaw photo pose indispensable amongst the fashionably young. A typical ab beaw pose might consist of girls looking innocent but slightly wry, while men should uphold a façade of penetrating sincerity and exhibit an air of femininity. The two-fingered salute (similarly adopted by the Punk movement, though antithetic in meaning and so best not practiced in the UK) is a prerequisite, as is – usually for women only – an errant tongue and perhaps for the more hardcore ab beaw a twisted facial modification that might be said to resemble a child with some kind of cerebral cortex malfunction. This, along with massive black pupils (women), lacquered hair (men) and a fairly garish get up (both sexes), and you have the aesthetic down. But what about the statement? What is K-pop’s message to the masses?

“It’s lovely . . . it’s cute,” says Ohm, a 22 year old Far Eastern College business student who looks like she has the ab beaw style perfected. “It’s so fascinating, so outstanding,” says her friend Best, a 4th year philosophy student from the same college, “no other country in the world has something like this, Korean style looks so cool.” All agreed that the Korean ‘scene’ was simply supreme . . . in a cute kind of way . . .

It would be an understatement to say that the word ‘narak’ figures heavily in why K-Fever is so omnipotent in modern Thai culture, though underlying the superficiality of ‘cuteness’ and ‘loveliness’ is something significantly less dippy. Lauding the Korean soaps for their realism, naturalness and acting capabilities Fai, another K-aficionado explains: “In the Thai soaps the females are all beautiful, but they are stupid, in the Korean soaps the girl is strong, she wants success, she wants something out of life.” Best then interjects to say that in the Thai soaps if a woman is powerful then she is a bad girl, and adds that the Thai girls are over the top, crying all the time, while the men are also apt to irrational histrionics. The Korean soap portrayal of men, the girls explain, is one of warmth and deep emotions, while in the Thai soaps, “the men are all closed and cold and can’t express their feelings.” Spiky Haired New, one of the males in the group admits that he has a predilection for the Korean girl in the soaps but for him, he’d rather have a homegrown girl. “I like the actresses in Korean soaps too, but I like the stupid girl in Thai soaps. Stupid women are easy to cheat and manipulate. Korean women are too clever!” Surprisingly New’s bold comment arouses no animosity between him and the girls, to the girls it seems, being Korean is just wishful thinking. Korean pop music, the group agree, rich in sentiment, with its lustrous charm, is years beyond the Thai pre-realism ode to heartbreak sonnets. “You can believe them,” says Ohm about Korean lyrics, and admits that she would like it if life was more like the soaps, if Thai men could be more sincere and open up a little, if women were stronger and less prone to breakdowns, though subsequent to this admission she resignedly accepts that she is perhaps not a candidate for a Korean girl’s soap operatic independence and ‘power’, rather she is a Thai girl and like it or not the role she plays is the role society cast her in.

Alicia, a charming young Korean girl working in Chiang Mai selling – needless to say – Korean fashion items and accessories, is quick to state the reason why she thinks K-Pop is so vital to much of Thailand’s telly generation. “Koreans show their feelings, show what’s on their mind” she says, “Thais can’t do that, they are very emotional, but they must suppress their feelings.” She adds that this is maybe the reason why some Thais ‘look up’ to Korean pop culture, because the portrayal of people in music and drama is more expressive, more human. She thinks that the younger generation finds this expressiveness interesting, refreshing, and perhaps want to emulate it. Alicia’s sister teaches Korean in one of the Korean language schools in Chiang Mai, and explains that she has met girls who are literally mad about Korea as a result of chronic pop exposure. “They learn Korean, even go to Korea, sometimes they come back and speak to me in my own language, it’s quite funny,” says Alicia, adding that they “want to be just like the people in the dramas”.

“Business is good,” she says smiling, explaining that Korea, in a fashion sense, is one step ahead, and being Korean she attracts a lot of customers who want the real deal. Since she set up two years ago another two Korean fashion shops have opened up in the CMU market area. Though even if Korean fever were to burn itself out she says she would stay in Thailand, explaining that while some Thais are learning to open up their feelings she has learned – through repeated exposure to the well-known Thai strain of reservedness – to sometimes rein in hers.