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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

The reign of K-pop

Japanese pop culture gained a foothold in Singapore first but Korean pop culture has now overtaken it
The Straits Times - April 26, 2012
By: Melissa Kok
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The reign of K-pop K-pop boyband Super Junior at the Mnet Asian Music Awards held in Singapore last year. -- PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Before Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, washed over Singapore, there was Japanese mania.

It hit Singapore hard in the 1980s and 1990s, first with singers and actors such as Seiko Matsuda and Momoe Yamaguchi, followed by the likes of SMAP, X-Japan, Speed and Namie Amuro. Their posters and laminated photos sold briskly at retail outlets catering to idol-loving hormonal teens and young adults.

Oshin, about the travail and triumphs of a Japanese woman from childhood through motherhood, was among the first huge Japanese drama successes in Singapore when it aired here in the 1980s, long before Korean matinee idol Bae Yong Joon was a twinkle in the eyes of his housewife fans here. Subsequently, Japanese drama serials such as Beach Boys (1997) and GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka (1999) fired up the small screen, even if it was in a language most Singaporeans could not understand.

These days, from Girls' Generation to Lee Min Ho and Kim Hyun Joong, it is almost all about Korean pop culture with Singaporeans - and it has taken only a decade for K-pop to not only erase Japanese pop culture's 20-year headstart, but surpass it considerably.

What happened?

Part of the answer lies in the example of Japanese rock band L'Arc-En-Ciel holding their first-ever concert in Singapore on Saturday only after 20 years and selling 40 million records.

The quartet - among Japan's biggest bands - told Life! they never came to Singapore before simply because they had no idea they had a following here. And it is quite a sizeable following too - a few categories of tickets to the concert at the Singapore Indoor Stadium are already sold out.

Although local supporters say there is no official fan club established here, some of them are passionate enough about L'Arc-En-Ciel that they have flown all over the world to watch them perform at concerts.

According to Warner Music marketing director James Kang, the fact that J-pop stars have always been more 'distant' and insular compared to K-pop stars played a part in the Korean takeover.

He says even at the height of their popularity, girl group Speed, boyband SMAP, pop queen Namie Amuro, visual rock group Glay and current hot group Arashi gave Singapore shores a miss - so no fan meets, no concerts, no showcases.

Japanese rock music fan Fabian Soh, 22, has also noticed that big-name Japanese singers and groups do not tour here as often as as their Korean counterparts - a probable reason why they are not as popular.

The library office administrator says: 'You can definitely find people in Singapore who are crazy about J-pop now, but it's not easy as finding people who are very vocal about K-pop.'

A fan of underground J-rock bands such as Tokyo Pinsalocks and Sakanaction, Mr Soh says he would probably have to travel to Japan if he ever wanted to see them live because there is 'pretty much no chance of them ever coming here'.

In contrast, K-pop stars are less shy about stepping out of their country. To be frank, they are all too eager to promote themselves. Sometimes, it seems they are willing to go anywhere in the world for even the opening of an envelope, as long as it is an opportunity for more publicity and the price is right.

Indeed, K-pop acts tour Singapore more often than the Japanese, with popular groups such as Girls' Generation, FTIsland and Beast having recently performed here.

Not enough material for a full-length concert? No worry, there is always this thing called a ticketed fan meet. Last December, K-pop boyband TVXQ were in town for a two-hour fan party at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, where they sang a few songs, autographed merchandise and took photos with fans.

Later next month, Korean idol Kim Hyun Joon, who played the princely Yoon Ji Hoo in the idol drama Boys Over Flowers (2009), will also be in town for a fan meet at the Indoor Stadium.

More recently, the Mnet Asian Music Awards, one of the biggest star-studded annual K-pop awards events, was held here last November. It is still the clearest sign that the K-pop market has a strong foothold in Singapore.

Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun of Nanyang Technological University, whose research areas include television dramas and popular music in South-east Asia, partly attributes the Hallyu revolution to the Korean government's push to promote all things Korean abroad.

He says: 'Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the Korean government and the media industry invest significantly in promoting the K-wave in the world as part of the efforts in strengthening the republic's soft power.'

In Singapore, the Korean government has previously organised and co-funded Korean pop concerts, and has supported the Korean Film Festival, which has been held here annually for the last five years.

In 2006, a website was even set up by the Korea Tourism Organisation which combined cast details of popular Korean dramas with information about filming locations to attract visitors.

Another sign that Japanese pop culture has loosened its hold on the region: Boys Over Flowers is a popular Japanese manga series that started in 1992 which got overshadowed in East Asia, first by the Taiwanese TV adaptation of it in 2001 (Meteor Garden), and in 2009 by the Korean TV series also called Boys Over Flowers.

Sandwiched between these two versions was the Japanese TV series which never achieved the same level of interest in Singapore.

Industry veterans say there is another reason why the Korean Wave eclipsed the Japanese mania in the early to mid-2000s: the high cost of bringing Japanese content into Singapore.

When Mr Man Shu Sum was the executive director of the Taiwan office of Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp), he brought in Korean dramas for local television in the late 1990s because they were a cheaper alternative to titles from Japan.

According to him, Korean drama serials back then cost around US$800 an episode, compared to up to U$15,000 an episode for a Japanese drama.

'We decided to acquire Korean drama, which looked very primitive in production value but the faces were refreshing and the story lines were quite engaging,' he says.

It worked. Singaporeans became hooked on K-drama. Popular shows would easily attract a viewership of more than 200,000, notes Mr Man, who is now managing director of Raintree Pictures. Some of the memorable Korean dramas that emerged from that time include the love story Winter Sonata (2002), which starred Korean television heart-throb Bae, and the weepie TV series Autumn In My Heart (2001).

Currently, at least 24 Korean dramas are airing weekly in Singapore on several cable TV channels such as VV Drama, KBS World, ONE, E City and tvN.

Asst Prof Liew says of the appeal of Korean dramas to Singaporeans: 'With the melodramatic family-friendly scripts in both historical and contemporary soap operas, K-dramas seem to be more universally appealing to local audiences. J-dramas, on the other hand, are more realistic of the portrayal of small family households, and in recent years, seemed to place less emphasis on historical dramas that regional audiences enjoy watching.'

Marketing communications staff Leow Si Wan, 30, says: 'Japanese dramas are too subtle in the way emotions are expressed and the plot development can be slow. K-drama is more dramatic and allows you to immerse yourself in a make-believe world.

'Also, for the series Boys Over Flowers, the Korean version of the four guys is also definitely better looking than the cast in the Japanese version.'

Even in music, Korean material seems more attractive, says Warner's Mr Kang.

He says Japanese content 'was getting stagnant' while K-pop 'was starting to evolve with a fresher young pop sound'.

'Their music videos started to be striking and creative, and the stars are more exciting in image and music.'

Indeed, the Korean stars do not just perform watered-down versions of their concerts back home. When Girls' Generation and Super Junior staged their concerts here at the Indoor Stadium, they were grand, lengthy affairs with elaborate stage designs - even if the bigger stages meant selling fewer tickets.

Even J-pop fans are converts

Mr Kang adds: 'Unfortunately, J-pop has been slow in its growth to produce fresh sounds and superstar idols. Ever since the peak popularity of Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru in the early 2000s, we have not seen bigger stars with 'idol influence' emerge from the land of the rising sun.'

Even J-pop fans have become K-pop converts. Operations associate William Neo, 30, a J-pop fan since his teens, really got into Korean girl groups After School and T-ara last October.

He says: 'Their music is nice, performances are very good and all the girls are quite pretty - the whole packaging is good.

'I used to listen to Namie Amuro, Ayumi Hamasaki, but then I lost track of them. In Singapore, they never promote their albums and you seldom hear about them on the Internet unless you really go and search for their songs.'

Mr Jason Ng, 31, arelationship manager in an investment bank, says he prefers the idols from Korea to Japan in recent years because of the 'difference in quality', which he attributes to more money and time being spent on grooming Korean idols.

He thinks that a Japanese girl would be able to debut in a girl group such as AKB48 almost immediately 'if she met the basic criteria of age and looks'.

'But the girls in Girls' Generation, I believe, spent about five years training their vocals and dancing after they had placed highly in a talent competition.'

But die-hard J-pop fans such as National University of Singapore law student Alan Koh, 22, is optimistic that J-mania will survive the test of time.

He says: 'The interest in K-pop is just a passing phase. I think K-pop will always have its devotees, and the J-pop fan base has relatively lost its strength, but it's okay when everyone's not fighting with you for tickets to a J-pop concert.'

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