SINGAPORE (AFP) ― Twelve-year-old Sabrina Kaur does not understand the lyrics of her favourite South Korean boy band Big Bang’s songs and, until recently, had never met Koreans in real life.
But that did not stop her from joining more than a thousand other Singaporean girls at an audition in the city-state in January to discover a new pan-Asian Korean pop (K-pop) band to be promoted by a talent firm across the region.
“I want to be the first Indian (Singaporean) girl to join a Korean girl group,” she quipped moments before stepping into the audition room, outnumbered by aspirants from Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority.
From pre-teens to retirees, millions of fans across Asia have transcended ethnic and age barriers to share a common obsession with South Korean pop music and dramas ― a phenomenon known as the “hallyu” or Korean cultural wave.
The industry is now trying to cement its hold on its fan base by creating non-Korean versions of the hugely popular stars and groups idolized by followers worldwide for their striking looks and slick productions.
“There is no turning back from here,” Eric Yun, CEO of talent search company Alpha Entertainment Korea, said at the Singapore audition, one of several planned for various Asian capitals.
Girls’ Generation perform during their concert in Hong Kong on Jan. 15. (AP-Yonhap News)
Alpha’s rival S.M. Entertainment ― which boasts South Korea’s biggest female group Girls’ Generation ― recently announced plans to hold similar auditions for pan-Asian K-pop stars in five different countries this year.
South Korea’s music industry held its star-studded Mnet Asian Music Awards in Macau in 2010 and in Singapore last Nov., breaking out of its domestic confines to further promote itself.
“After Asia, the next step is for Korean culture to conquer the world,” Yun told AFP.
The multi-million dollar-selling K-pop industry has also set its sights on the Western pop world.
Girl’s Generation headlined a sold-out K-pop show at Madison Square Garden in New York last year while Google has said it intends to set up a YouTube channel for Korean pop music.
South Korean popular culture first made major inroads into East Asian countries in the early 2000s with the widespread popularity of sensational romantic melodramas such as “Winter Sonata.”
Glamorous single-gender K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Super Junior and Shinee took the hallyu explosion in the region to the next level.
According to a survey conducted by South Korea’s cultural ministry last year, there were an estimated 2.31 million hallyu fans in Asia, based on memberships in official fan clubs alone.
Asia has already spawned other pop genres such as Bollywood song-and-dance routines and Hong Kong martial arts flicks, but hallyu is distinct from past fads, according to Singapore-based cinema researcher Liew Kai Khiun.
“The spread of Korean popular culture is exceptional as it was not founded upon the traditional factors of military and economic dominance that characterized that of Western imperial powers, or the diaspora networks of India and China,” said Liew, who has been tracking South Korean popular culture for almost a decade.
Liew cited the globalisation of American popular culture, which he said went in tandem with the U.S. “imperial expansion” in the 20th century, as an example.
However, the jury is still out on whether non-Korean K-pop performers will catch on.
“I have to admit that their look is one of the reasons that Thai people like Korean pop stars,” said Chanika Sriadulpun, editor for ‘The Boy Kimji,’ a Thai magazine inspired by K-pop.
The phenomenon does have its detractors who take umbrage at what they see as South Korea’s exhibition of soft power.
In August last year, thousands of Japanese staged rallies to protest against the Fuji TV network for allegedly “forcing” South Korean programs on its audiences.
“We cannot stand the fabrication of a boom any longer,” read one placard held by a protester.
But 62-year-old Tokyo retiree Emiko Shimizu is unfazed, professing her love of hallyu even though it might mean “dancing to the tune of South Korea’s export policy.”
In the Philippines, talent manager Chris Cahilig said he was worried that the Korean wave could seriously impede the growth of local talent.
He told AFP he was “deeply concerned” that “many of our youth have lost their Filipino identity and psyche due to their exposure and preference” for Korean entertainment.
Cahilig said that, compelled to capitalise on the Korean wave in 2010, he put together 1:43, an all-Filipino K-pop-inspired boy band that became an instant hit.
The band’s debut album became one of the best-selling in the Philippines the following year.
Liew, the Singapore researcher, rejected such worries and said that on the contrary, the K-pop phenomenon has had a positive impact on Asia’s entertainment scene.