Story By Derek Ferrar
Photos By Sue Hudelson
A couple of years before, the so-called Hallyu, or “Korean Wave” of pop culture had begun flooding through Asia and even lapping on Western shores. Movies, TV dramas, video games and especially bubbly K-pop music—fans from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur couldn’t get enough of it, and it looked like the rest of the world might be ripe for a case of K-fever, too.
Dator talked about how government policies in Korea had been encouraging the export of entertainment as a major industry. Just maybe, he said, Korea has been pioneering a new post-information economy, where the driving force is not data but image. “Who knows?” he postulated. “Maybe Korea is on its way toward replacing Gross National Product as its measure of socioeconomic success with ‘Gross National Cool.’” I had no idea what that meant, but I sure liked the sound of it.
So here I am, sipping a pricey cocktail on the rooftop deck of RufXXX, an ultrahip bar and artists’ collective in one of Seoul’s swankest hilltop neighborhoods. With a few days to kill in Seoul after attending an international media conference here, I’m looking to soak up as much of that Korean National Cool as I can, and a plugged-in local friend pointed me here.
Down in the bare-walled performance space I take a seat on a bleacher fashioned out of bales of flattened cardboard. On the concrete floor, stone-faced musicians in classical Korean garb pound on traditional drums and gongs that merge with a synthesizer in skillfully crafted waves of sound that rise and fall through time—now ancient temple rhythm, now industrial techno. Crouched in a corner, a woman chants, screams and whispers half-intelligible syllables into a distorted mic. Naked, flashing light bulbs reveal the ghostly, contorted figures of a pair of dancers pulling lithe, posthumous-looking moves. I came looking for Korean Cool, and it looks like I’ve found me some.
The mastermind behind RufXXX is high-fashion photographer H. Nam Kim, who returned to Korea a few years ago after working for a decade in London. Joining me on the rooftop, Nam is a portrait of artistic intensity with his shoulderlength mane of hair, plain white dress shirt and air of gravitas. He tells me he started staging performance pieces several years ago and that the RufXXX shows are essentially test performances for works in progress, with the performers drawn mainly from talented regulars at the bar. Tonight’s piece, Dead Man Walking, is based on a traditional Korean shamanic ritual for communicating with the dead. Nam says he’s trying to pierce some of the superficial materialism he has seen accompanying Korea’s rapid economic rise. “There’s a lot of development here—it’s very fast-paced, but it’s not really coming into our quality of living,” he says. “I really love all the energy in Seoul, but I want some deeper communication as well.”
So not my thing. Instead I ask around whether there’s any kind of indie scene in Seoul, and a friend of a friend refers me to a posse of 20-something teachers who graciously agree to let me tag along on a foray into their more alternative version of Cool Seoul. I meet up with a couple of them over a barbecue dinner of kalbi short ribs and strips of bulgogi beef sizzling over a coal grill built right into the table, with the usual dizzying array of side dishes and dipping sauces—and of course kim chee—scattered across the linoleum.
Elise and Esther are gyopo, as people here call ethnic Koreans born overseas. Both from the state of Georgia, they first met at a Christian community group working with disabled kids. Esther, whose style runs to ironically cutesy Tokidoki characters with dark, skeletal overtones, has been in Seoul for a couple of years, working at a British-run international school to earn money for grad school back home. Elise is vacationing here for a couple of months before heading back to Georgia to get a PhD in psychology.
The conversation turns to the fashion scene. “How you dress and look is a huge thing in Korea,” says Elise, who’s sporting freshly dyed lavender hair. “How you present yourself is the thing—first impressions are really important here.” But there is a dark side to all the materialism and obsession with trends and looks, they say. For one thing Koreans have collectively run up one of the highest levels of credit card debt in the world, averaging around 150 percent of their annual disposable income. There’s even a slang term, doenjang-nyeo, or “bean paste woman,” referring to conspicuous consumers who scrimp on food and other essentials to splurge on luxuries.
Then there’s the nation’s well-known fixation with plastic surgery, as star-mad youngsters seek to emulate the latest looks of their favorite Hallyu idols. An estimated one in five Korean women—and a growing number of men—have had some kind of work done, with the most popular procedures involving widening the eyes, raising the bridge of the nose and even rounding square cheekbones — altering the classic Korean facial characteristics that are now considered unattractive.
“It used to be a hush-hush thing,” Esther says. “All the stars would always say, ‘I’m a natural beauty,’ until the truth came out about all the surgery they’d had done. But now it’s more out in the open — some K-pop stars even joke about it.” The other day, she says, she overheard two high school girls talking. “What are your getting you for graduation?” one had asked. The reply: “A new nose.”
We meet up with their posse at their Hongdae “home base,” a small upstairs joint called Ride ’Em Cowboy. No, it’s not what you’re thinking; Ride ’Em is a “flair bar,” meaning that the bartenders put on high-flying shows with the booze, à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Elise tells me that Ride ’Em’s head bartender, a chiseled hunk who goes by the name Waichi, is big on the competitive flair bartending circuit. “He’s the best in all of Korea,” she says when she introduces us. “All of Asia!” Waichi reproaches, and a shelf full of trophies backs him up.
With the sound system blaring familiar rock and dance hits and laser bolts shooting through clouds of smoke, I play darts with a Vietnamese posse member from San Francisco named Victoria, who’s decked out in indie hipster uniform: skinny jeans, a funky vest over an orange T-shirt and a beat-up private-eye fedora.
“Basically, I’m here because of K-pop,” she tells me. “I first got hooked on it a couple of years ago, I don’t really know why. It’s so bubble-gum and cutesy, but somehow I just got obsessed by it, so I came here on vacation and stayed.” Now she works as an English teacher and at a café, she says, “to support my K-pop dance class addiction.” I ask what she thinks the essence of K-pop dance style is. “It’s all about the ‘S-line,’ the curve of a woman’s body,” Victoria says. “It’s about being super-feminine.”
As soon as we start talking K-pop, everyone jumps in. They talk about the “star factory” system of big Korean entertainment companies that scout goodlooking young kids and shape them into prepackaged idols. “If you’re really pretty or have some kind of look they want, they might just come up to you on the street,” Esther says. “And they start really young.” Lately, they tell me, there’s been an alternative backlash to the idol system. Bands with names like Busker Busker are making it cool to play acoustic guitar, write your own songs and earn cred by playing out on the street in Hongdae.
Suddenly the music pumps up even more, and everyone crowds toward the bar. It’s time for the flair show. A few of the junior bartenders do warm-up runs, then comes the main attraction: Waichi. His six-pack rippling under his T-shirt, the champ juggles and tosses bottles, catching them improbably on the back of his hand or upside down in a glass. For the finale, he twirls a fire wand of joined flaming bottles and blows a mouthful of high-test spirits to send a plume of flame across the bar. The crowd goes wild, and not just because the person who cheers the loudest gets a free cocktail.
Around 1 a.m. the posse is ready for stage two, so we hit the street. Neon bathes the roving bands of college revelers packing the lanes in down-style skinny jeans and shorts. Bands with studiously disheveled hair and oversize hipster glasses play on every corner—a little Jason Mraz-y folk, a little distorted alternative guitar, even a combo playing only their iPhones. We cruise past the line stretching around the block to get into the hot dance club of the moment, Cocoon. At the entrance, blasting techno and a sidewalk fog machine advertise the club’s It-ness. But the posse’s having none of It.
“I went in once,” Victoria volunteers. “It really is like being in a cocoon—you’re just enveloped in people. It’s supposed to be a dance club, but you basically wind up standing immobile because the place is so packed.”
Eventually we find ourselves in the metaphysical hub of the Hongdae scene, a small playground near the main entrance to Hongik University, which is famous for its art school. The small park is jammed with partyers. A deejay in the picnic area is pumping hip-hop, and the crowd circles around a pair of break dancers spinning on cardboard. The wall of a senior center by the park is bombed with some serious spray murals, and its sign has been punked to read “Booze Center.”
Looking around at the mostly genericlooking revelers, Elise admits that Hongdae might be a little past its prime as the nonconformist place to be … but where is next? “For now,” she says, “this is still the only place in Seoul where I really fit in.”
I’m out with Dr. Yongseok Seo, who did his poli sci doctorate under Jim Dator at UH and in 2004 co-authored a paper with Dator for the Journal of Futures Studies on their “Korean National Cool” idea. He says that since then the Korean entertainment wave has waxed and waned somewhat in Asia but now seems to be entering a new worldwide phase. “That’s one thing that’s different from the early 2000s,” he says. “The Korean entertainment companies now are aiming at a global market, not just Asia. And at the same time they are bringing in producers and content from all over the world, so that is a very different phenomenon from earlier.”
We’re joined at the table by the imposing figure of Jake Nho, a columnist for the Korea Times who knows Yongseok and bumped into us in the restaurant by chance. Impeccably suited and coiffed, with an upper-crust Oxford accent from his days in swinging London of the ’70s, he’s a daunting dinner companion at first. But after a few glasses of soju liquor, Korea’s great social lubricator, Jake’s inner rocker emerges. Suddenly he’s tellingly me passionately how Dire Straits is the greatest band ever, and Knopfler totally blows away Clapton, Page and all the rest of them.
“They keep telling me that the so-called Korean Wave is gaining so much popularity in Europe and the United States,” he says, “but I think it is really only popular there among certain segments of society. It’s not like the entire culture is adapting to our K-pop; this is really not the case.”
In his youth, Western bands like the Beatles “took over the world almost,” he recalls fondly, “but K-pop is not that kind of thing. Sure, it’s a presentation of quite lovely people who are dancing around and singing and so forth. But it’s not the kind of thing like Jim Morrison; he had depth. John Lennon had depth.”
I ask Yongseok if he still believes Korea could be pioneering a new kind of economy of dreams and icons. “I do think government and the private sector have recognized that an important source of economic growth could come from stories, image and experience,” he replies. “For example, if you look at a company like Apple, people are buying not just its hardware, but Apple’s story, image and experience. I think this is what a lot of companies in Korea and everywhere are understanding now.”
“Hongdae,” I think to myself. “West Village by day, Jersey Shore by night.” I hop up onto a low wall and belt a few out from the old-timey repertoire of my ragtag outfit back home, Hamajang. Before I know it there’s a crowd. Cameras are snapping. Parents are having their kids pose with me. A TV crew comes up and does an interview. A beautiful woman snaps a shot and tells me I’m gorgeous. You know, I think I could get used to this town.
At one point a speaker at one of the craft booths starts pumping a dance anthem by the quintessential K-pop idol band Girls’ Generation. Out of nowhere, young women converge from all over the park and start working the S-line in unison, executing move-for-move the glam choreography they all know by heart.
The songs ends and the women disperse. I play a few more tunes and soak up the adulation until I’m finally muscled out, volume-wise, by a couple of deejays livemixing techno from their iPods at one end of the park and a drum circle at the other.
Jungbo is a buffed-up guy in jeans and a dress shirt, with a shiny shaved head and even shinier smile. His radio show on the national Educational Broadcasting System is called English Go Go, a relentlessly upbeat educational talk show that helps listeners improve their English by dissecting and riffing on unusual phrases from a news item or piece of writing—talking to guests about it, doing little listener quizzes, taking audience calls.
“People get enough of negative news that never seems to end,” Jungbo explains. “We try not to be heavy at all, but light, fun … sometimes even a little ridiculous.” “I can do ridiculous,” I assure him.
The EBS network has the most powerful signal in the country, he enthuses, so tens of thousands of people should be listening all over the nation. The station even reaches parts of North Korea, he says, and I get a little shudder. He says they want to focus on a piece I wrote for Hana Hou! a couple of years ago about surfing at night. And what’s more, they want me to play an ‘ukulele song live.
Jungbo’s studio is in a wooded complex of older buildings out toward the edge of town. I meet the show’s hosts: Sun Kim, a tall, golden-voiced EBS anchorman who tells me somewhat exhaustedly that he hosts three radio and three TV shows every day, and Peter Bint, a British-born, part- Korean color commentator who helps break down the English phrases for the audience. Sun and Peter banter back and forth lightheartedly— partly in English but mostly in Korean—as they joke about the nuances of colloquialisms from my piece, like “subculture,” “cosmic” and “snag.”
The moment comes for my interview, and we rap about surfing, playing ‘ukulele and life in Hawai‘i. “How do you deal with sharks?” Sun asks in his big radio voice. “My main tool is hope,” I confess. “Sun, do you surf ?” Peter inquires. “I surf the Internet.”
Sun invites me to play a tune for all the listeners out there, so I swallow my jitters and manage to get through a passable rendition of Poi Dog Pondering’s faux classic “Aloha Honolulu.” When I’m finished playing I get a standing O from the control room: It’s a win!
I angle in next to Fernando at the table, and he tells me that he was born in Korea, but his family moved to Mexico when he was ten. After he came back, he won the slot on Gag Concert by auditioning along with two thousand other hopefuls and wowing the judges with his over-the-top impressions of Gollum, Heath Ledger’s Joker and other global Hollywood exports.
I figure sitting next to Fernando is about as close as I’m likely to get to real Korean Wave cool, so I pop him the question: What does the phrase “Korean National Cool” mean to him?
“Korea is a small country, but we have a lot of creativity and talent,” he says. “I think with the Hallyu wave, we’re giving the rest of the world a chance to see what we can do. And in comedy, I want to believe that it’s my turn now. So I guess when you say ‘Korean Cool,’ I think, ‘That’s me.’” Dude, that makes two of us.