Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

They learn Korean & travel business class: What Pinoy fans would do for their Korean idols

This is the story of fans who have fallen in love with Korean performers. Fans who scream with just a smile or a wave of their oppa's hand. Fans who buy business class seats for meet-and-greets. And learn to speak Korean so that they can watch their idols without subtitles.
Nikko Dizon | Jul 13 2019

It all begins with his role in the drama—and inevitably, you find yourself drawn not just to the character but the actor himself.

This is the story of fans who have fallen in love with Korean performers as the Korean Wave continues to invade our shores. Fans who scream with just a smile or a wave of his hand. Fans who learn to speak Korean so that they can watch him without subtitles—or send him letters written in Hangul. Fans who fly across the skies just to be able to see him in the flesh.

Actor Lee Min-ho's fan, @joyful_minoz, has collected his autographs through the years. Photograph by @joyful_minoz


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Fans like the IT consultant I recently met in Seoul and became my online friend. Last June, she didn’t hesitate to book a business class seat just to be as close as she could possibly be to South Korean actor Lee Min-ho. She has liked and followed Min-ho for 10 years now, starting when she saw him as Goo Jun Pyo on the smash-hit, “Boys Over Flowers” that propelled the Korean actor to Hallyu god status.

For her, that two-and-a-half-hour flight from Incheon to Taipei, where Min-ho shot a commercial film, was one of the most unforgettable moments she’s ever had with him.

@joyful_minoz has been an avid Lee Min-ho fan since 2009. She went with him to Taiwan last June where he filmed a commercial. She took this picture at the Taiwan airport. Photograph by @joyful_minoz on Instagram

“Tandang-tanda ko pa shape ng lips nya nung nag-thank you siya sa akin ng pabulong sa eroplano,” she told me. She was in the same row as Min-ho in the plane. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other. She pointed her gift to Min-ho and mouthed “For you.” The actor asked his manager to get it from her, and he gave her a soft, “Thank you.”

Min-ho, 33, is probably familiar with her by now. He may not know her name but it’s likely he recognizes her as one of his most ardent Filipino fans. She has been to quite a lot of his events.

Precious memento: The author's invitation and ticket to actor Ji Chang-wook's fan meet last May in Seoul, "Late Spring, Early Night", held just two weeks after his discharge from the army, completing his nearly two-year mandatory military service. Photograph by Nikko Dizon

“I think nare-recognize naman nya ako, kahit hindi ako yung tipong maya’t maya naka-follow. Ako lang may kakaibang mukha, haha! Never ako nag-reach sa kanya ng kamay na hindi nya ako nakamayan. Kadalasan din, binabanggit ko sa kanya na taga-Philippines ako,” she said. That’s a moment—no, a goal—every fan girl dreams of.

A business class seat is tough on my wallet, but I flew to Korea three times in the last six months just to see actor Ji Chang-wook. It sounds crazy, I know. But it’s fun to do something crazy sometimes. My fellow Chang-wook fans, in an effort to catch his attention after his fan meet in Seoul last May, found themselves screaming: “Ji Chang-wook, dito!” We die laughing every time we remember that. Another friend has in her office pen holders, calendars, pillows, folders—just about anything—with the faces of Lee Seung-gi, Park Hyung-sik, and other actors and idols plastered on them. She’s a math teacher.

Last April, more than 200 fans from different parts of the world welcomed Ji Chang-wook back to civilian life after his mandatory military service. Chang-wook is now preparing for a new drama called "Melting Me Softly" that will air this year. Photograph by Theresa Whymark

“I think everyone has an ‘ideal’ in a romantic partner and the celebrity crush may embody those qualities. So, it’s a fantasy. It’s ‘wish fulfillment’. It’s fun to encounter the celebrity crush in person or even just to know about the celebrity’s life because they are fairly public figures,” according to psychologist Liane Peña-Alampay. “It may also be that the celebrity crush has qualities the fan admires or desires for himself or herself.”

Fangirls declare undying love for their oppas—from Lee Min-ho to Ji Chang-wook; Park Bo-gum to Park Hyung-sik; Hyun Bin to Gong Yoo; Lee Seung-gi to Park Seo-joon; Song Joong-ki to Kim Soo-hyun. It’s a pretty long list.

Seeing actor Lee Seung-gi's smile on anything makes every fan's day.

“Na-gayuma yata tayo,” an advertising executive said in our Chang-wook group chat.

Our friend, a Bataan-based store manager, said that the Korean actors are “such good actors that they’re able to make us think their characters exist in real life.” Think of the late Eddie Garcia, or John Lloyd Cruz or Judy Ann Santos who transform into every role they played.

Actor Ji Chang-wook's fan, Michelle Guzman, made a "couple picture" with the Hallyu star. They're both wearing on their right wrists the identical red, black, and white friendship bracelets that Chang-wook personally handed to all his fans, including Michelle, who watched his fan meet in Seoul last May. Photo grabbed from Michelle Guzman Facebook

Min-ho’s fan said she loved how his Boys Over Flower role “became the knight in shining armor of Geum Jan Di and how his character transformed when he felt love.” From there, she became a devoted Minoz—how Min-ho fans call themselves. As @joyful_minoz, she’s followed by fans all over the world on Twitter and Instagram for her updates on the actor.

Even married fans or those in a relationship have no qualms showing their love—and living their fan girl lives. Some are lucky to have supportive partners, while it’s true that other men just can’t understand what the fuss is all about.

At Bo-gum’s fan meet a few weeks ago, the couple in front of me was a tag team. She took the videos while her boyfriend took photos of the actor, of her while she was screaming her heart out, and their couple selfies.

Park Bo-gum had great connection with his fans at his recent fan meet, "May Your Everyday Be A Good Day", co-produced by ABSCBN, Ovation Productions, and his agency, Blossom Entertainment, last June 22. Here he talks to a fan who won the diffuser he made onstage. Soooo close! Photograph by Nikko Dizon

I asked my friend, the math teacher, if it’s okay with her husband that she crushes on Hyung-sik and Seung-gi. “I think so,” she said. “I have pillows with me when I sleep. Basta daw may damit ang pictures, haha! Nagugulat lang siya pag nagigising siyang nasa harap niya mukha ng lalaki!”

From reel to real, fans get to know the celebrities through their fan meets, interviews, and the variety shows they join where it would be difficult to fake reactions. And there are social media platforms like Instagram, where some celebrities share their private lives, establishing a more personal relationship with their fans.

EXO fan, Ledie Quilit, bought a Tommy Hilfiger hoodie to twin with EXO idol, Chanyeol. Here she also holds up her EXO doll named "Yeol", shortened version of Chanyeol. Photograph by Ledie Quilit

A Makati-based accountant who’s also a Chang-wook fan and a follower of the K-pop band, EXO, said that as she learned more about them off-screen and off-stage, “their personalities match their visuals and talent.”

“How they love their family most, friends, and their fans, [how] they don’t tolerate the wrongdoings of their fans, how they really inspire with their sincere hearts, [that they’re in the business] not for exposure and money only,” she said.

Fans organize themselves into clubs and even create a global community with other fans from different parts of the world. They all keep each other updated about their idols and help each other get tickets to concerts, fan meets, and other events. It’s not uncommon for them to do outreach programs in the name of their idols to make their fangirling more meaningful.

EXO fan, Ledie Quilit, keeps her tickets to the EXO concerts here in Manila. Photograph by Ledie Quilit

When you hear a fan describe her oppa (which means older brother in Korean, but has now evolved into ‘boyfriend’) as “caring, humble, generous, kind, loving, funny, honest, they value friendships,” it’s advisable not to question her because she can give you instances when he demonstrated that quality.

@joyful_minoz has seen Min-ho show genuine concern for a fan at one event when she almost hurt herself while following him.

A few months ago, a Vietnamese fan left her purse by mistake in the gift bag she gave Chang-wook. The next day, she received a text message from the Gangnam police, informing her that her purse had been returned and she could pick it up. She found in her purse a note from Chang-wook, written on a sheet of paper torn off from a notebook. “Were you scared?” he asked in Korean. He reminded her to be careful of her things next time. He thanked her for her gift and for watching the Army musical that he was part of.  The fan posted Chang-wook’s note on her Instagram account, informing the fandom of his kindness. Suffice it to say, Chang-wook earned another million pogi points.

My friend, the math teacher, said she’s learned so much about Hyung-sik and Seung-gi that “at this point, even if they portray a particular character, I am able to see the real them beyond their roles in dramas.”

Park Hyung-sik makes a finger heart, sending his love to his Filipino fans at a recent fan meet in Manila sponsored by Bench. Photograph by: Nikko Dizon

@joyful_minoz lent a sober voice to all the loving and the pining for our oppas: they are human, too, like the rest of us. They have their own weaknesses and shortcomings. “They’re normal people,” she said. 

How to behave—online and when your idol is right before your eyes—can be a challenge to fans. There are those who really can’t control themselves. In Korea, they’re called the “sasaeng” fans—those who border on obsession and stalking, bothering celebrities.

Her Private Life is a recently aired rom-com where Hallyu goddess, Park Min-young, played the role of a museum curator who was secretly an avid fan of a K-pop idol. If you want to understand the life of a fan, this is one Korean drama that explains it. Most of all, Her Private Life reminds every fan that they all have their personal lives, too, like their oppas and idols.

Alampay said fan admiration can be “worrisome” when it “exceeds certain boundaries.”

“In Psychology, we define a pathology as behavior or characteristics that are maladaptive—meaning, they prevent the person from pursuing or meeting goals at work and relationships and life in the real world. If the ‘fantasy’ or fandom behaviors interfere with real life goals, then that may be problematic and symptomatic of issues in real life,” she explained.

Actor Lee Min-ho's fan, @joyful_minoz, has collected his autographs through the years. Photograph by @joyful_minoz

My math teacher friend said she makes sure she attends to her responsibilities at home and at work. “K-drama is more for wellness. Pambawas stress,” she said.

Korean celebrities are actually not much different from Filipino stars. In fact, the latter could be more accommodating than the former. Here in the Philippines, it’s a lot easier to take a selfie with our favorite artista.

But as a Hallyu follower even for just a year, one thing has stood out for me: Korean performers always publicly pledge hard work before their fans and colleagues and ask to be forgiven if they had fallen short of people’s expectations. They say it onstage when they receive their awards, they say it in interviews.

My friend, a mom of two, went to see Park Bo-gum’s recent fan meet in Manila—the first she’s ever been to. “I was more impressed with how much he put himself out there. In the US, artists promote their albums, their movies, their make up or clothing line. But Bo-gum promoted himself,” she told me. She’s a Park Hyung-sik fan, by the way.

She added: “[Bo-gum] committing to his craft for his fans shows his passion to entertain people. His message that ‘I’m here for you, I’m here because of you,’ really came across.”

And that makes our oppas and idols our happy pill.