Thailand’s K-Pop obsession

The popularity of Korean culture in Thailand continues to grow apace fueled by soap operas and for the young the excitement and verve of the K-Pop scene.

By | Fri 29 Aug 2014

For a foreigner, it’s easy to compare Asian fanclubs – more specifically Korean and Japanese – to the “Beiber Fever” of western tween girls’ fame. Images of these young pre-pubescent girls discovering sexuality and believing that super feminine men with an arrogant personality are true husband material come to mind. In Thailand it’s similar; but these fans often include people in their twenties, thirties…even forties. Though most fans are harmless enough, there have been a few incidents involving uber fans, which have taken a more sinister turn. A recent report on a popular gossip website in July was shared on Facebook and got my attention. A photo of a girl’s arm, cut up to her elbow, to show her anguish when a certain pop idol announced that he had a girlfriend, caused great outrage on social media. This disconnect between the fantasy and the reality seems to becoming more and more prevalent. And it isn’t just Thailand, in April this year a Chinese father hacked his 13 year old daughter to death over her Korean pop obsession after she shouted, “I love the stars rather than [my] parents.”

The popularity of Korea and Korean culture has been growing steadily and relentlessly since the turn of the millennium, with numerous soap operas and pop groups taking a firm hold in mainstream pop culture. Sociologists explain the Korean Wave as “a popularity of Korean culture abroad; a Korean life style, filled with genuine Korean culture.” This in itself is not a problem, but could this casual interest turn to unhealthy obsession?

This wave of Korean pop culture – K-Pop – has fully engulfed Thai youth society with a proliferation of popular music, drama, language, technology, cartoons and cuisine. The saccharine perfection of Korean pop drew people in fast, mostly young females. The more recent boom supposedly started in 2006 with TVXQ, a Korean boy band, who created a sensation among Thai teens, with their songs topping the charts for over four weeks and setting new records.

Thai authorities have now almost given up their battle against the Korean influence… but not without a fight. Initial warnings over Korean fashion being dangerous flooded the media. Big-eye contact lenses came with warnings about the increasing spread of AIDS and other dangers relating to cheap plastic surgery were everywhere. Even a rise in dengue fever was blamed on Korea, with authorities claiming mosquitoes were drawn to the dark hues of the once popular Korean fashion statement; black hosiery.

But now a newer phenomenon has emerged, following trends started in the motherland of fandom, of mass fan clubs with truly obsessive behaviours. Yet in true fairness to this story, this behaviour is not exclusive to Thailand, nor even Asia. In fact, you can argue, there are large amounts of celeb-crazed fans worldwide. However, living in Thailand means you are not far away from something Korean; curiosity got the better of me and I had to understand what all the fuss was about.

It took me all but ten minutes to hunt down a Korean pop band fan who was willing to talk about her experiences. Kacha, a 23-year-old barrister met me at a local coffee shop. Young for her age, she looked like a schoolgirl minus the uniform, an image she obviously cultivated as a super fan. Yet she was surprisingly open and willing to talk about her obsessions which began when she was only seven. Her obsessions today have grown with her age, and turned slightly lustful at times, with re-occurring dreams of two members of the same band entering a homosexual relationship. Turns out it’s a common theme online, though due to the young age of the majority of the fan base, most idolisations remain asexual.

She continued to explain to me the key aspects of her life as a self-acknowledged super fan. “Fans who focus on Korean pop bands have one or two main bands that they adore. These are referred to as Idols.”

Every self-confessed super-fan will have a “main”. This “main” is one specific band member that fans decide is the best looking or has the best voice. For Kacha it is LeeTeuk – the lead of Super Junior, a boy band that formed in 2005 with a staggering twelve, all male singers – choices choices. These “mains” become their personal idol, and often an imaginary boyfriend.

The etymology of the Thai word for boyfriend or girlfriend in fact comes from the English word fan itself. So the lines between a real life boyfriend or girlfriend and that of a pop fan, have become blurred.

Kacha has attended every single Super Junior concert in Thailand and freely admits that her obsession is quite beyond the norm, spending all her savings on concert tickets and merchandise. Each concert so far is on for three nights and she has attend every single one. Tickets sell out in less than an hour but she manages to get them every time, yet at 5,000 baht a ticket, it’s not cheap.  “On their 4th tour, I was holding a sign with his [LeeTeuk] name on it and he was singing and pointed right at me…I knew he was pointing at me, and it made me feel so good, I could have died right then.” She laughed. “I spend every concert staring at my “main”. I’m not even that bothered about the music except from a few hits. It really sucks if you get stuck behind a big sign or a tall person.”

In days gone by, fans would crawl web boards in search of new updates that had been painstakingly sourced and translated into Thai by other fans. These days however, Twitter enables fans to follow their idols directly. “Nobody needs to update a webpage to tell us what our star is doing, we can follow him right there on Twitter.” Kacha said, beaming.

The Super Junior Twitter fan club in Thailand has almost 35 thousand followers, and with updates every hour, fans can easily stay on top of what their “mains” are doing. Recent updates include a Choco-pie the singers were eating and an update that Siwon, another member of the band, had gone on a bike ride and cycled hands free. Riveting stuff.

Another side to Korean cultural obsession – K-Cult? – is that of soap operas. Often with a much tamer fan base; older women choosing to watch Korean dramas over poorly produced Thai soaps that are the norm on Thai television every evening.

Since the late nineties, Korean films and dramas have swept across the globe, dramatically altering popular culture wherever it lands. Korea is one of only three countries in the world where the market share of local films is greater than that of Hollywood’s.

One super fan is Gift, a Japanese language teacher in Chiang Mai, who has recently taught herself Korean as a direct result of soap operas and has subsequently made several visits to the country, her first in 2008. Now she adores all that Korea has to offer, primarily enjoying dramas such as Coffee Prince and Secret Garden. Amazingly, learning Korean with an aim to understand soap operas has become increasingly popular across Thailand with hundreds of schools having opened nationwide to accommodate these super soap fans who either can’t wait for their favourite soaps to be dubbed into Thai, or are Korean purists, needing to watch these dramas in their original languages. The cost for 32 hours of study can be as low as 3,750 baht, making it a very reasonably priced investment.

Vivie, a young teacher of Korean here in Chiang Mai gave me some insight. As a scholar in Korean language from the Prince of Songkla Univeristy (the first place in Thailand to offer Korean as a degree some 40 years ago) and with a master’s degree in Sociology (taken in Korean) from a Korean university, she certainly knows her stuff. She joked and explained how Thais refer to these super fans as “Ting Gaolee” – referring to young teen girls who cut their hair so short you can see their earlobes (ting), mimicking young Korean school girls, and the fact that they are mad about Korea (Gaolee).

Vivie went on to explain that many of these fans want to copy Korean culture, be it the language, music, fashion or plastic surgery. A large part to play in Korean influence is that of familiarity. Vivie wrote in one of her theses that “[Thais and Koreans] have the same way of living, which is why so many [Thai] people are more likely to watch Korean dramas or movies rather than American.”

A 2007 research in Bangkok interviewed 400 Thais who were avid Korean drama followers and discovered that the most common imitative behaviour for fans is that of brand purchasing. Not surprising when looking around any market with stall after stall packed with cosmetics and knickknacks only fans could identify – K-Pop is big business. Plastic surgery is also big business in Korea and many Thais now fly to Korea for their nipping and tucking needs. There is a joke going around that many Thais get into trouble at passport control in Seoul because their passport photos look nothing like their new faces.

Many post-op Korean idols have bright white clear skin, long legs, a tall and slender body and are highly attractive. It is this white perfection of Asian features which draws in the fans who dream of imitating their idols, an image seen as more relatable and achievable than those of western celebrities’.

The previously mentioned girl who cut herself up to her elbow in grief, did so when she discovered that her “main”, Baekhyun, the lead singer of the boy band EXO, was dating Tea-yeon, a member of the super-famous girl group Girls Generation. What was more shocking however, was that many fans worldwide empahised and even sympathised with her actions. It was only after the news went viral, that negative comments started to appear. It was clear that the fact that Baekhyun had a girlfriend was devastating to many fans.

Boy and girl bands seem to lap up this massive fan base, some would say even exploiting them, with overpriced merchandise and concert tickets. Concerts are almost exclusively filled with hard-core fans, bearing neon signs and all forms of whistles and flags to get their favourite singer’s attention. In the case of the unknown girl who allegedly cut herself, this attention seeking hit new lows. Her online image tagged the artist Baekhyun himself and was shared alongside quotes that, although sound extreme, highlight just what pain she was going through:

“From the beginning you shouldn’t even think of other girls, your heart should be with your fan club only.”

“Fan club girls have hearts too. I know you have the right to choose who you want, but what about us? All of us have to sit, depressed, sad and upset with this news…you said you would only date when you were 35! LIAR!”

“You want to see all your fan clubs die? I hurt so badly, I really hurt. I’m not angry at you for doing what you have done, but I should have known…I shouldn’t have ever trusted those sweet words from your mouth…LIAR!”

I showed this to Kacha, my Korean fan-girl guru, and asked if she understood this, accepted this, or even agreed with this. To my surprise she did. She explained to me that “the feeling we have is almost like we are their girlfriends. We follow them day and night and check up on them like they are our actual boyfriends.” Kacha checks up on LeeTeuk every morning, evening and night. “I don’t have time for a real boyfriend” she giggled. Kacha then reasoned with me and explained that in the past this singer had promised to his fans he would not date until he was 35. A rather unrealistic promise I thought, yet it was clear that to some this was a true promise with serious ramifications if broken. Despite this, Kacha did agree that cutting was a bit of an extreme reaction.

Although she insists that many fans know that they are not real girlfriends of these “mains”, their overall feeling are of “if I can’t have him, nobody can.” She told me that she personally thought it was unacceptable for any Korean artist to have a girlfriend.

Fandom has gone to such lengths that housekeeping staff in hotels where the bands stay, whether in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Bangkok or Singapore, are often bribed to find any traces left from their favourite bands. There are blogs dedicated to this with old t-shirts, used Kleenex, shampoo bottles, and – gasp! – even pubic hair being auctioned and sold off to fans.

Quite often these bands fade as quickly as they rise. Fans often change their preferences but according to my sources, true fans will often hold out till the last moment, hoping that their idolised Korean star makes a surprise comeback. These days it’s hard to say whether these hard-core fans will ever grow out of their obsessions as this is still a reasonably new phenomenon. However, what is apparent is the obsessiveness does dissipate turn into a more reasonable interest with age. One fan who asked to remain anonymous says that for him, his pop following years were his best, where he and likeminded fans travelled Asia following their “mains”, sharing laughter and friendship. “I have outgrown it now,” he said sadly as he is nearing forty, “but they were great memories.”

While Thai fans run the gamut from the charmingly adorable to the obsessive, Korean fans themselves are not exempt from similar behaviour. Home-based fans take even greater steps to follow their favourite singers, with taxi services specifically set up to chase singers down highways and several reports of human blockades being set up to prevent singers from leaving their concerts.

When I first started this article, I felt a sense of superiority over this cultural obsession, until a rather humbling moment of epiphany made me realise that I am not much different from these fans myself. After all, I am not Thai but I do live in Thailand, and if I am honest with you…I am pretty obsessed. I even decided to study Thai at university for four years so I could move out here and start a new life. Now with a Thai girlfriend, an apartment, a car, and endless Thai concert ticket stubs and band t-shirts in my cupboards, I realised I had it bad for T-Pop myself. I’ve paid through the nose for concerts, merchandise (and my language degree!) and I love Thai cinema, in its original language of course. If there was such thing as a Ting Thai, I would be it…