When Seungri’s sex scandal broke in March this year, K-pop’s image of innocence took a hit.
The BigBang member was charged with illegal distribution of pornography and was under investigation for several other illegal activities in relation to the nightclub he co-owned.
He and a few other celebrities named in connection with the case have quit show business since; Seungri cited that the “honour” of his band and the management company were in danger as his reason.
While this exposed the darker side of the South Korean entertainment industry – which was already smeared by news of celebrity suicides due to pressures of being in the spotlight – the momentum it has gained globally was not disrupted.
It still has a strong foothold in this region, and recently reached the West more forcefully thanks to the seven-member boyband BTS, that’s achieving all sorts of enviable accomplishments.
It got further boost in May, when director Bong Joon-ho received the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival for his film Parasite.
And all of these were accomplished in Korean, a language that’s not as widely spoken as English or Mandarin.
If anything, this serves as further proof that the Korean Wave, or K-wave, is a force to be reckoned with, boasting of extremely loyal fans. Case in point: Some BigBang fans initially refused to accept the reports on Seungri, dismissing them as fake.
A once-fan of BigBang, Nur Izzaty Shaifullizan recalled that she was shocked when she first heard the news about Seungri.
“I think we put a lot of trust in our favourite idols, that we can’t accept it immediately when something like this happens,” reasoned Izzaty, of her initial disbelief. “I have been a fan of BigBang for almost 10 years!”
Dr Noor Mayudia Mohd Mothar, a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Faculty of Communication and Media Studies in Shah Alam, has been following the Korean entertainment scene since 2004.
The 39-year-old said: “I understand why some fans stuck by Seungri; it’s because there’s always been some rumours swirling about certain idols. Most of the time, it’s not true. Even if it was, a true fan will forgive a mistake if their favourite idol does it one time and it’s a misdemeanour.
“But, when the news is verified and the mistake is a major one, then it’s a different thing.”
Izzaty may have given up on Seungri and BigBang, but she still loves K-pop music and continues to watch K-dramas.
“Now I just skip BigBang music whenever it pops up on my Spotify playlist and listen to Blackpink and my other favourite Korean groups,” added the 23-year-old UiTM student who boarded the K-wave train at the age of 14.
“I just finished watching the series Sky Castle, it’s so good.”
More than a ripple
The K-wave, or more fondly known as Hallyu, started around 1999, invading China and Japan first before hitting South-East Asia.
Malaysians started to get into it after the Korean romantic drama Winter Sonata aired on TV3 back in 2002. This was followed by other hit series including Autumn In My Heart and My Sassy Girl.
Nini Yusof, director of sales and strategy with Media Prima TV Networks, explained the K-drama phenomenon: “Malaysian audiences have always been receptive to foreign shows, be it Japanese, Spanish or Mexican series.
“Korean drama became especially popular with Malaysians because it knows how to connect with the audiences’ emotion and engage the fans with its relatable storylines and strong Asian values.
“It also boasts of excellent production quality as well as good-looking actors. Really, what’s there not to like?”
There was no avoiding the Korean craze by 2005 when YouTube came into the picture, propelling the industry further as K-pop music videos got the attention of music lovers.
Singer Psy, for example, truly benefited from YouTube as he amassed lots of views globally for his 2012 number Gangnam Style. (Apologies for putting this tune back in your head.)
We saw groups like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, BigBang, Wonder Girls and TVXQ rise to stardom in short periods of time, and in turn they influenced fashion and dance moves to the music scene among our youths.
As recent as last year, Malaysian singer Uriah See went to South Korea for a K-pop makeover to relaunch his music career with a brand new look, sound and moves.
Today, it’s the new normal that K-pop sleek music videos garner millions of views: BTS’ Boy With Luv music video has 444 million views in just two months while Blackpink’s Ddu-Du Ddu-Du music video has been viewed 876 million times over a one-year period.
Nini, 46, theorised: “Right now, the way we consume content is different from when K-wave started in Malaysia. There were only a handful of channels showing Korean shows; we had K-dramas on TV3, 8TV and TV9 and Astro had a few.
“But now, there are so many channels dedicated to Korean content. They’re also available on streaming services like dimsum and Netflix, so the fan base can only get bigger as the fans get to binge-watch a show at their own convenience and on various devices.”
Mayudia agreed: “The K-wave has become broader because fans have easier access to their idols now. If previously fans had to scour the Internet for information, today all they need to do is just open their Facebook accounts and the news about their favourite stars pop up.
“Many celebrities are reaching out to their fans personally as well through social media.”
Breaking the current
One of the reasons why BTS is so successful is because it has included its fans in its journey from the beginning.
Its members Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, Jin and Jungkook post something on social media platforms every day, and this has resulted in a strong, devoted international fan base called the Army.
There’s no doubt Army’s devotion contributes to BTS topping Billboard charts, winning accolades at the People’s Choice Awards besides the impressive album, merchandise and concert sales.
The fans have even gone one step further – they pay for ads at subway stations (not only in Seoul but in New York City as well!), and even reportedly raised more than RM4mil for a campaign run by Unicef and BTS to end violence against children and youths.
This form of fervent following has caught on with the Malaysian fans as well. It’s not uncommon for local fans to donate money in the name of their favourite stars, have a get-together at a coffee place to celebrate the idol’s birthday or start an interesting project.
“When Blackpink came down in February, the local Blackpink fan club, called Blink, collected money from fellow Blink to buy the members baju kurung,” shared Izzaty, who managed to attend the girl group’s concert in Kuala Lumpur.
Some fan clubs are so strong and well-connected that a Malaysian fan who has no way of buying tickets for a concert in South Korea or Japan, can find a friend to help them out.
It’s not uncommon either fo fans to contact each other and travel together, following their favourite idol.
Lyanna Tew, a senior general manager with Mah Sing Group, follows three acts ardently: Kim Jae-joong, Kim Junsu and TVXQ.
Over the past six years, she has travelled to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore numerous times to attend their concerts.
The 42-year-old said: “My group of K-pop lover friends do the tracking for me, but once we decide to go I’m generally the person who secures the tickets.
“I’ve certainly racked up a lot of air miles flying everywhere for shows. One year, I flew off on the third day of Lunar New Year instead of spending CNY with my family ... Luckily my husband is very understanding, and I managed to catch eight musicals in that five-day trip.”
Tew continued: “The K-wave has been honed to a fine money-making machine ... I don’t mind watching the same concerts multiple times, because different venues would have a slightly different production, and even for the same concert series in the same venue, they would make enough changes to keep it interesting for attendees.
“For example, I attended TVXQ’s Circle concert in Impact Arena, Bangkok in August 2018 and June 2019, but the group had changed seven songs in the setlist, as it had released new singles/albums in the interim.
“Jae-joong has done a series of concerts where he got the audience to follow a different dress code at each venue.”
Rolling in the deep
Unfortunately, K-wave has also gotten a bad rep for its over-the-top followers or better known as Sasaeng fans.
They are defined as “obsessive fans who stalk, or engage in other behaviour constituting an invasion of the privacy of, a Korean idol or other public figure”.
Mayudia believes the Sasaeng fan is not a true fan. She said: “If you are a real fan, you wouldn’t do things like book a hotel just so you can see your idol, and terrorise them.
“You’d respect their privacy, support their work and appreciate them as individuals. A real fan will protect their idol, Sasaeng fan will literally invade their lives.
“Sasaeng fans have been around since the 2000s in South Korea. But no thanks to the Internet and social media, the international fans are emulating this behaviour too.”
According to her, how K-wave develops in the next few years depend on how the fans behave.
“It will only stay strong if the fans are genuine, otherwise at one point it will burst. Of course, it won’t disappear because it’s a money-churning business, but for it to be around for a long time, the artistes need to feel safe and the fans need to be genuine in how they support these artistes.
“I find older fans more loyal, while the younger ones will ditch loyalty for a newer, shinier idol, easily.
“The effort an artiste puts into honing their craft is no joke. They give it their 100% and a genuine fan appreciates this effort,” Mayudia clarified.
Nini figures the Korean phenomenon is stable on the drama and film fronts. She said: “From the content viewpoint, we have to acknowledge the Korean drama and films have a firm presence. The industry is constantly coming up with better and original productions.”
Mayudia concurred on this matter: “I have noticed there is a change in how women are portrayed in the newer dramas. I am watching this series Search: WWW where the women are the ones driving the story, while the men play supporting roles.
“Although South Korea is a modern country, they hold on to many traditional values. Some are good, exemplary even, like respecting the elderly and working really hard to be successful, but some things are still frowned by the older generation like an unmarried couple holding hands.
“The younger generation is more open, and this is changing some set perceptions especially those involving women.
“I believe you can create change through media, and I am glad to see women shown as successful and strong on current TV shows.”
The spill-over effect from K-wave is a reason why this market will keep growing, said Nini.
“The South Korea government is totally behind the entertainment industry and this has worked to their advantage. They saw it as a form of soft-selling whereby what is featured in dramas influences what the audiences will buy and consume.
“South Korea has become a favourite holiday destination for Malaysians because of the beautiful sceneries we see in K-dramas. So you have to acknowledge the power of K-wave.”