Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Korean Wave and Women in Hong Kong, Singapore, & Japan

I've already written about how the typical Hong Kong Chinese response upon learning that I am Korean is to smile and shout, "Daaih Chuuhng Gam!"

This is, in its own way, a manifestation of the "Korean Wave," the term used to describe the proliferation of popular culture (pop songs, movies, TV shows) from South Korea to the rest of Asia in the past decade. For the Chinese-dominant part of Asia, the embodiment of this Korean Wave is "Daaih Chuuhng Gam" aka JEWEL IN THE PALACE (2003). For Japan, it is the TV soap WINTER SONATA (2003).

Indeed, the Korean Wave has been such a big phenomenon that it has already elicited its share of backlash in China, Japan, and Taiwan, in the form of published tirades, netizen attacks, rants from jingoist politicians, and even some local performers publicly lashing out against their South Korean counterparts. Chang Zhen-yue, a Taiwanese rapper, even has a song that excoriates Bae Yong Joon (the star of WINTER SONATA) and Korean boy bands.

I have just read a book called EAST ASIAN POP CULTURE: Analysing the Korean Wave (2008) edited by Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi. It is a collection of academic essays regarding the phenomenon approached from various academic angles.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

1)a) An essay that examines views of women viewers of Korean soaps in HK and Singapore revealed that 30% of HK women subjects thought there is some discrimination against women in Hong Kong, while nearly 50% of Singapore women believed there was discrimination against women in Singapore.

b) Given the statement: "I have to be married to be happy.", 39.1% of HK women subjects disagreed w/ this while just 10% of Singaporean women subjects disagreed.

**The author of the essay used a very small sample of women and did not try to draw big generalizations or conclusions. Still, the numbers are interesting.**

2) Women viewers of TV soaps in HK, Singapore, and Taiwan nearly unilaterally stated that they did not like graphic or overly sexualized scenes and situations portrayed in American TV shows like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and SEX IN THE CITY and cited the lack of such overt sexual content in South Korean TV soaps as one of the reasons they liked the shows.

3) Before the Korean Wave, Japanese TV soaps were very popular in many Chinese-speaking parts of Asia. Many TV programmers in Taiwan and other parts of Asia were initially drawn to Korean soaps in the late 1990s because they were cheaper to purchase than Japanese TV soaps. Japanese TV soaps have lost favor in many Asian TV markets since then.

As for the popularity of HK and/or Chinese-language soaps in non-Chinese Asian nations, to date, no HK or Chinese-language TV soap opera has been broadcast on network TV in Japan. (**There was no mention of it in the book, but my guess is that this is also true for South Korea.**) Various reasons are cited for this, but primarily, lack of production value.

4) Another essay examined the viewing practices of middle-aged women viewers of WINTER SONATA in Japan. This demographic of fans has often been derided and belittled for their outward enthusiasm in the mainstream press and by Japanese men in particular. I too shared this prejudice. Lonely women in their 40s and 50s swooning over a sensitive young soap star. The whole thing seemed rather silly to me.

But the essay, Winter Sonata and Cultural Practices of Active Fans in Japan: Considering Middle-aged Women as Cultural Agents, written by Yoshitaka Mori made me see this phenomenon in a totally new light.

Driven by this TV soap, many middle-aged women have taken initiative and have gone out in the world to do very cool things. They weren't merely passive viewers, who due to loneliness and misery, were being duped or manipulated by TV producers. Not at all. They were finding an active meaning in their life and in some cases, were duping the media. A subject cited in the essay stated how she'd hoodwinked the press by performing or acting the role of a zealous fan to get her photo in the newspapers.

Moreover, these women were taking initiative and expanding their mundane routines. Many had learned to use the computer and the Internet to learn more about the show and to interact with other women like them. Others had travelled, many for the first time, to South Korea, a country whose culture they did not know much about.

They did so not in search of cute young men, as they're often derided by the mainstream press, but to learn about Korean culture and to see things for themselves. This is after many decades of having a very biased and limited knowledge of Korea, given the already enmeshed and complex relationship that the two nations have of each other.

Not that any and all exchange of culture ought to be accepted uncritically as something transcendant and positive, but these middle-aged women were doing cool things and not simply being older versions of silly school girls. The essay even cited an example, in which these middle aged women viewers of WINTER SONATA were doing more to solve international political friction than conventional government institutions.

The point is, the relationship of middle-aged Japanese women fans of WINTER SONATA to the Korean Wave is much more complex and interesting than what has been usually described in the mainstream media in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere. In other words, don't mess with and don't underestimate middle-aged women.

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