Riding the Korean wave

Like impressionable, image-conscious students everywhere, 19-year-old Nguon Dalen invests sweet time in his appearance. Much of it goes on his multilayered mullet; the teenager’s lovingly sculpted coif looks pretty high-maintenance.

"I like Korean hairstyles,” he shrugs. “I’m young, so I dress modern. I especially like Rain's style.”

Nguon Dalen has been into Korean fashions since high school. And he’s not alone. Many young Cambodians are likewise seeking to emulate K-Stars, as they’re colloquially known.

It seems that, having flooded Asia’s airwaves and swept away the hearts of fans region-wide, ‘the Korean Wave’ – the pop culture phenomenon also dubbed ‘Hallyu’ – has swept onto Cambodian shores.

“The reason many youngsters strive to adapt to new, foreign pop cultures is that young, influential Cambodian singers and film stars have followed the examples set by Korean singers and film stars,” says Vong Emsaman, sociology professor of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“We cannot stop the behaviour of those young people,” he advises.

But why should anyone want to? The professor says that the revealing ensembles favoured by Korean starlets have a bad influence on good-mannered Cambodian girls in their traditional dress. His answer reveals a generational divide that has caused strife between parents and teenagers since Elvis first wiggled his hips on American network television.

Youth subcultures – from flower-power-spouting hippies in the sixties to the phlegm-gobbing punks of the seventies – mutate over time but the nature of the conflict they bestride remains constant. It’s well established that rebelling adolescents seek to distinguish themselves from the ‘squares’ using fashion and pop-culture tropes as weapons of choice.

But the Korean Wave has proved pervasive; a pan-Asian obsession with staying power. Fans from Saigon to Shanghai await visiting K-Stars amid airport scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania. This is curious, especially when one considers the language barriers necessitating subtitles for non-native fans of Korean media. So…how so?

The inception of ‘Hallyu’ is tied in with the march of capitalist culture into Asia in the early nineties. Korea – as one of the era’s economic tigers, with close ties to Western culture and a rapidly emerging IT base rivalling Japanese techno-wizardry – was well placed to take advantage.

Newly minted giant trans-national media corps broadcast slickly produced Korean pop videos starring whiter-than-white (often cosmetically modified) stars. Meanwhile, TV soap operas promoted ultra-modern, ‘middle-class’ lifestyles, starring sensitive male protagonists who made (Asian) women swoon with the flutter of a lazy eyelid.

Perhaps as importantly, South Korea wasn’t as politically loaded as Japan or the US. Audiences thus felt freer to embrace comparatively neutral K-Star power; a ‘soft’ force rooted firmly in the material realm, non-threatening and easy to aspire to.

China and Taiwan were the first converts. The message spread like wildfire through Southeast Asia, the Asia-Pacific – even the Middle-East. Korea is now an intra-Asian byword for pop-culture style (though the phenomenon is now long enough in the tooth to have faced nationalistic backlashes in both China and Japan). 

Who are the protagonists? As any K-pop devotee would attest, no one embodies Hallyu more emphatically than Jeong Ji-hoon – better known by his stage name, ‘Rain’.

Riding the crest of the Korean Wave, Rain’s meteoric rise saw him in 2004 become the first-ever winner of the ‘MTV Asia Grand Slam’, scoring top honours in every MTV Asia region. By 2006 he was being listed in Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World’ and selling out gigs in Vegas and at Madison Square Garden.

Rain’s march has been hindered recently by legal wrangling but there’s no doubting the impact he and his ilk have made across Asia. A Thai concert promoter, for example, ran a competition where the prize was a night’s stay in Rain’s Bangkok hotel suite after he’d checked out – but before the maid had cleaned up. (The winner presumably spent a rapturous night alternately sniffing and sobbing into Rain’s rumpled towels.)

Jaruwan Supolrai, 26, of Bangkok’s Thai Volunteer Service, admits that, “many Thai teenagers are crazy for ‘Koreanization’, especially city dwellers.

“They’re big fans of Korean singers, stars and fashion – and, of course, that makes them want to be like their idols; to dress like them. They want to have white, slim, beautiful faces like Korean stars. Some of them even have plastic surgery on their faces,” she adds.

And these days, of course, what’s fresh off the catwalk in Milan one minute causes rioting in Tokyo’s boutiques the next, as Jaruwan says: “I think the influence of Korean culture on Thai kids is because of globalisation, media like the Internet, magazines and newspapers, CDs, VCDs and DVDs.”

While Jaruwan doesn’t see anything wrong with the K-craze – she believes young people are always eager to learn new, challenging things – the Thai worries that some have forgotten their roots, diminishing the value of their own cultures and traditions.

Across the Cambodian border, Nguon Dalen doesn’t share Jaruwan’s concerns. He feels free to worship his Korean idols – assured that fandom of such doesn’t compromises his heritage. "I never forget Khmer traditions," he claims.

His elder and wiser Vong Emsaman concurs. "I lived in Japan for seven years,” says the sociology professor. “And I saw that many women in that country may be dressed in sexy clothes but they are still in considered good in their society.”

He adds that the solution is to set appropriate dress-code regulations at school. Trust the powers-that-be to spoil kids’ fun. Some things never change.

 -- Published by the Phnom Penh Post, 2009 / See the PDF layout


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