As a jobless college student, Annie Wang is close to broke most of the time. But that doesn’t stop the avid K-pop fan, an international student from China, from spending $300 on a concert ticket to see Korean pop singer Taeyang in Vancouver this September.
And it will not be the last time she spends money on Korean popular music – “K-pop” – businesses.
In recent years, there has been a wave of K-pop concerts in Vancouver. At the same time, many businesses like dance studios and cosmetics stores have profited from this growing interest in K-pop to tap into new audiences.
However, some local Koreans claim these businesses commercialize only select pop-culture forms of entertainment, instead of the broad range of Korean culture. As a result, people of Korean backgrounds face stereotyping from non-Korean K-pop lovers.
Korean culture becomes a commodity in Vancouver
K-pop started gaining popularity in North America after the release of K-pop single Gangnam Style in 2012. It exceeded YouTube’s view limit, forcing the website to raise the maximum to more than nine quintillion.
University of B.C. Korean studies professor CedarBough Saeji says that foreigners’ love for K-pop has given Koreans a lot of pride. Consequently, Koreans re-evaluated K-pop, which had been seen as something only interesting for teenagers, and turned it into a national cultural export.
“K-pop stars are expected to be representatives of the country,” said Saeji. “They have clean images because they are commodities that are used for advertising, which drives Korea’s international success.”
Many advertisements that K-pop stars appear in are from Korea’s cosmetics industry.
In 2016, Statistics Canada recorded that B.C.’s imports of Korean skincare products totaled $363,070 – a 500-per-cent increase from 2015. In summer 2017, B.C saw its first branch of a Korean chain beauty store open in Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre. Aritaum carries carry popular skincare brands like Laneige and Iope.
K-pop fans are excited about Korean skincare stores in Vancouver.
“I always buy Korean skincare products from brands that sponsor my favorite K-pop group,” said Annie Wang. “I feel like I’ll be beautiful like them after using these products.”
Dance studios in Vancouver have started to offer K-pop-style dance lessons. At Flying Dance Studio in Richmond, there are four K-pop dance lessons per week.
Studio founder Ying Ying says that more non-Koreans are learning K-pop dances. Even at a cost of $20 per class, the studio’s hour-long lessons have proven to have high appeal.
Booming businesses have unintended consequences
But the success of K-pop-related businesses has some negative effects.
Korean-Canadian student Sean Kim thinks that these businesses promote only perfect images of K-pop stars, and he doesn’t like being compared to them.
Kim explains that, since he grew up in Canada, K-pop is a way for him to connect with his Korean heritage and culture. But there’s a downside.
“My non-Korean friends see handsome K-pop stars on cosmetic products and in music videos at karaoke bars, then they ask me why I’m not hot even though I’m Korean,” said Kim. “It makes me self-conscious about my looks.”
Kim is not the only Korean who has noticed the increasing number of K-pop stereotypes. In a Facebook post, many say that they have experienced K-pop stereotypes.
“I love Korean women, you are all so beautiful,” – that’s the kind of response that student Jae Shin said she experiences when she tells people she has Korean heritage.
“I get that that K-pop looks very cool, and many Koreans might want to live in that world too,” said Shin. “But it is far away from the accurate representation of Korean people.”
Educational initiatives try to combat stereotypes
Local Korean culture advocates are looking at ways to reduce the stereotypes by examining Korean culture through K-pop.
Korean student Jayden Hwang started a radio show at UBC in December 2016 called K-Pop Café.
“I hope to introduce not only K-pop, but different aspects of Korean culture and Korea itself to the Canadian community,” said Hwang. He has covered topics like traditional Korean clothing and modern lifestyle.
Saeji teaches a class at UBC about K-pop, Korean Popular Music in Context, and uses K-pop to examine different aspects of Korea.
“I don’t spend time talking about who’s their favourite member of what group,” said Saeji. “I cover topics like sexual objectification, the changing music market and nationalism and relate them to music.”
Saeji’s class is popular among K-pop enthusiasts. Members from UBC’s Korean entertainment club K-Wave often take Saeji’s class with the aim of understanding aspects of Korean culture that are not shown in K-pop music videos.
K-Wave’s newly launched program, Konnect, pairs club members with similar interests. They hope to stimulate conversations about Korean culture at large, said Jasmine Kan, K-Wave’s junior events co-ordinator.
“I believe, through the entertainment scope, we could educate people on other aspect of the Korean culture.”