From shows and music to food and beauty, Hallyu has taken over the Filipino ethos. Art by Chris Clemente
Culture Music

Wonder Girls, BTS, SONE, and a decade of riding the Hallyu wave

After getting hooked on “Nobody” years ago, this Girls’ Generation super fan fell into a colorful rabbit hole that took him from one fandom to another. There, he found a supportive community that is precious as it is mystifying.   
Erik Paolo Capistrano | Dec 18 2019

December is the last month in the tumultuous 2010s, a decade that saw the rise of new political heroes and villains, a changing of the guard in different sectors of society, the growing concern for climate change taking a more desperate turn, and an unending cacophony of opinionated people screaming into the Facebook void. In "The Last 10 Years," a series of pieces scattered over these last 30 days, we look back at what happened to try to figure out what comes next. 

 

There I was, at Super Show 8, seated at a lower box section, amazed at the KPop fandom’s enthusiastic cheers and screams as their idols took to the stage, lighting up the SM Mall of Asia Arena.

Super Show 8 is the eighth concert tour of Kpop group Super Junior. I’m not really part of ELF (Ever Lasting Friends, the group’s fandom), but I knew Super Junior rather well since they were the sunbaenims (seniors) of my own favorite idol group from the same company, SM Entertainment. That gave me a certain perspective on things that night.

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As I went through the same three hours of the concert with the rest of ELF, I felt validated about my own thoughts and feelings about this crazy phenomenon that swept Filipinos over and over again in the last decade or so. As Siwon, Donghae, Shindong, Ryeowook, Kyuhyun, Eunhyuk, Yesung, Leeteuk, and Heechul have articulated to their fans, there is a special kind of love that exists between Super Junior and ELF, and I believe there is something similar that exists in each and every KPop fandom’s relationship with their respective idols.

Super Junior had thirteen members during its peak, and was the best-selling Kpop artist four years in a row. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

In the Philippines, ELF is one of the oldest fandoms (or fan communities) in Hallyu, which is Chinese for “Korean wave.” Happee Sy and PULP were one of the first, if not the first, to bring KPop acts to the Philippines with Super Show 2 back in 2010. Being in the presence of my Philippine sunbaenims was a special occasion for me. Seeing a lot of these fans who have grown up with Super Junior—proudly calling themselves “tita fans” or “tita ELFs”—made me understand and appreciate why people like me fell in love with KPop.

In a way, I was the same. I realized that for the last nine years, I grew up and grew older with my favorite group, Girls’ Generation. For almost the entire decade, Girls’ Generation took me through some of the toughest and happiest times of my life.—and for reasons that I bet would be as varied as those of ELFs with Super Junior. I even put them in the acknowledgements of my PhD dissertation in 2015.

 

Small beginnings

Back in the day, it was all about the Wonder Girls. “Nobody” was a stupidly simple song, and yet it was so catchy. I remember hearing it on the radio several times a day, and being performed in one Christmas party and karaoke bar after another. It was nearly impossible for anyone not to have at least heard of “Nobody.” And then came the “In or Out” era of Sandara Park. When she rose to fame as a member of the YG Entertainment girl group 2NE1, Filipinos would swarm all over her. KPop was starting to take further root in the country.

Girls' Generation has won numerous accolades and is nicknamed "The Nation's Girl Group" in their home country. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

But before “Nobody,” there were already a slew of Asiannovelas being broadcast by local stations in the afternoon. While ABS-CBN had Taiwan’s Meteor Garden, GMA chose the Korean drama route, broadcasting the likes Autumn in My Heart, Winter Sonata, Hotelier, Full House, Jewel in the Palace, and Stairway to Heaven. It was just a refreshing alternative to the local and Western afternoon dramas, especially the Mexican telenovelas that were so popular but was so saturated at that time.

There were certain perceptional challenges that being a fan in those early days carried. Back then, if you are male and were a fan of these groups, you are branded either as gay (used maliciously here) or a “dirty old man.” It wasn’t until fandoms became a thing when a lot of us found each other and started to build bigger communities and better spaces where we can share our love for all things Hallyu.

Later on, it became a little worse when silly accusations of being “unpatriotic” and “unnationalistic” were being thrown at us, blaming us for the “decline of OPM” because we were all “puro nalang KPop at KDrama,” and dismissing our passions for it by saying, “Hindi naman ninyo naintindihan niyan a, bakit ba baliw na baliw kayo dyan?” and “Hindi naman kayo kilala niyan e, nagtatapon ka lang nang pera.”

 

Wonderful escape

But over time, we had more and more reasons to love Hallyu. It didn’t matter if we didn’t understand a word of Korean, or knew the meaning of the songs. Watching KPop music videos filled with brightly colored backgrounds and synchronized choreography was so refreshing. It was something that distracted us from a world that was growing more and more overwhelming to face. Some of us took it even a step further, mimicking our favorite idols, dressing up as they did, and making cover dances to their songs. Not only did it become a form of escape, but it also became a form of expression.

For me, it was a source of wonder and awe. I am amazed that a large group such as Girls’ Generation are able to execute their performances so professionally on stage, but be silly and down-to-earth off it. They’ve helped me through stress and tough times. I remember dreading about a term paper deadline. For some reason, I hit a wall, not being able to even think of a good topic for that class. I gave up and started watching Girls’ Generation music videos for the next 30 minutes. Three days later, my paper was done, with a week to spare.

It was obvious though that the development of the Internet in the Philippines had a lot to do with helping fans become more enabled to embrace KPop and KDrama more. The present generation of KPop idols like BTS, EXO, Red Velvet, TWICE, and BLACKPINK have all thrived on millions upon millions of video and audio streams. YouTube provided us with a vast wealth of videos, clips, and sometimes even full English subbed episodes of our favorite drama and variety shows.Even before Viu and Netflix came about, we were already so engrossed in YouTube alone. It was our lifeline to our much sought-after Korean content. It gave us the chance to gush over cheesy lines, now in its original, unadulterated language.

Also called the Bangtan Boys, this group became the youngest ever recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit from the President of South Korea. Photograph from @TheChainsmokers on Twitter

Beyond bandwagoning, I believe that fandoms today are only stronger. Whenever the opportunity arose, I find myself closing ranks with not only members of my fellow SONE (Girls’ Generation’s fandom name, pronounced as “so-won”), but with members of other fandoms. I contribute whatever I could to fan projects. In 2013, for example, I helped distribute banners and light sticks to fellow SONE attending the Deam KPop Fantasy Concert at the MOA open grounds. This was the first time the group performed in the Philippines along with EXO, infinite, Tasty, and Tahiti. When Girls’ Generation came back here two years later with Super Junior, Red Velvet, and BTOB at the Best of Best Concert, I helped prepare and distribute LED balloons.

And I am not the exception; poke around Kpop communities and you will see many who will readily contribute resources, effort, and time whenever the opportunity arose. We would get together for these events, and for meetups over samgyeopsal, bibimbap, kimbap (rice rolls), and the various jigae (stews). I’m willing to bet that this was what actually started this Korean food crazy.

When air fares and accommodations became more affordable, it didn’t take long for many of us to finally tick an item off our bucket lists. For me, that meant finally seeing Girls’ Generation in their solo concerts in Bangkok (2012), Hong Kong (2017), Taipei (2018), and Seoul (2015 and 2017). The Korean capital was the ultimate destination, where anything and everything that meant Hallyu was there for the taking.

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After Super Show 8, I had to haul my weary body back to my car and travel north. During the long drive, I reflected on the craziness of the night. These people are in the Philippines once or twice, a year. And yet everyone was acting it’s as if they are a part of this one huge family.

And every Hallyu fan would tell you that it is worth going through all that trouble. That connection between Hallyu stars and their Filipino fans is something that cannot be broken down easily and readily. The connection is that special. Its hook is that inexplicable.

 

Erik Paolo Capistrano, PhD. is an Associate Professor of Operations Management and Management of Information Technology from the Department of Business Administration, University of the Philippines, Diliman. He is also a Principal Investigator of the University of the Philippines Korea Research Center. He earned his PhD. in International Management from National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, where he also got to indulge in his love for Girls’ Generation, having attended three of their concerts there.