In the cramped space of AsiaStar Fantasy, a video store that specializes in Chinese cinema in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, DVDs of flashy Korean soap operas like “Jewel in the Palace” and “Greatest Hits of Korean Drama” have been edging their way in.
“People just love these Korean soap operas,” says Mr. Luo, the store’s proprietor. “In the past year or two, they have really become so popular.”
“Jewel in the Palace” stars a fair-skinned, royal chef-cum-first woman physician in the Korean palace. The soap has gathered such a huge following among Chinese that the set has been turned into a theme park where fans from all over East Asia come to see their favorite show up close.
Luo devotes an entire display to Korean soap operas and television series in his store, which has more than 100 different Korean titles.
Since 2002, South Korean music and television have dominated youth culture in China and Taiwan. Korean pop singer Rain sells out concerts in Chinese cities and New York; Korean sitcoms dubbed in Chinese such as “The Marrying Type” and “Jewel in the Palace” are shown on television in China and Taiwan. Korean hip hop and fashion are widely imitated by young people there.
In 2002, 30 Korean soap operas were aired in Taiwan, where they received some of the highest ratings. In Hong Kong, “Jewel in the Palace” was the most-watched of any program in the last 25 years.
But lately, the popularity of Korean soap operas is causing a backlash against Korean pop culture imports. Rising economic tension in the region and competition between Korean soaps and those produced in China and Taiwan finally came to a head last week as the Chinese and Taiwanese governments announced measures to curb the “Korea wave.”
Taiwan’s Government Information Office announced on Jan. 10 that it is considering limiting foreign television shows during prime time, reported the Taipei Times.
In December 2005, China’s State Administration for Radio Film and Television, which controls programming on Chinese television stations, announced that it will decrease the air time for popular Korean television shows by half. Local TV programming directors told the People’s Daily that stations want to cool down the “Korean fever.”
One reason is that Korean shows are cutting into budgets for Chinese shows. A television programming director in Hunan province told the People’s Daily that Korean soap operas have become so hot that the station is spending more money on purchasing Korean programs than developing its own shows.
Additionally, Taiwanese television stations import more South Korean soap operas than they sell to South Korea, according to Darson Chiu, an associate research fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. In an editorial for the Taipei Times, Chiu said that banning Korean soap operas from prime time is “merely an attempt at making an unequal situation more fair.”
While relations between China and South Korea have expanded in recent years, South Korean and Chinese export products compete against one another. According to a Korea International Trade Association report, South Korea is lagging behind China in global market growth, and many of its key exports, including cell phones and computers, are in direct competition with China.
Some disagree that the economic tension in the region is contributing to the anti-Korean sentiments.
“Competition is heating up between the two countries,” says David Kang, visiting associate professor at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. But the economic interaction is “much more ‘squabbling’ than anything else,” Kang says.
However, competitive and nationalistic sentiments over the soap operas are creeping into the Chinese media. A well-known Chinese actor, Zhang Guo-Li, was quoted as saying that the growing anti-Korean sentiments made watching Korean soap operas an act of national subterfuge.
China’s media is traditionally state-owned, and its purpose is to maintain social stability and instill nationalism, according to Ling Chi Wang, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
“From the point of view of China, an excessive amount of Korean soap operas will undermine national prestige, self-confidence and nationalism,” Wang says.
The allure of Korean soap operas caught many media watchers by surprise. For years, Japanese culture imports were popular in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But Korean soap operas, with their Confucian values and sleek production, appealed to Chinese viewers. They found Korean culture easier to accept than that of the Japanese, whose war-time crimes are still rooted deep in the hearts of most Chinese.
History aside, viewers explain their attraction to Korean soap operas simply.
“Chinese soap operas are outdated and boring,” says Rachel Wang, a 27-year-old Chinese immigrant and Bay Area resident. Wang watches “Jewel in the Palace” and likes the show’s segments on cooking and Asian herbal medicine. “Korean soap operas have attractive actors and fun story lines,” she says.
China and Taiwan may be trying to cool down the wave of Korean pop culture imports, but in the end, the rampant copyright infringement in Asia might make the governments’ attempts meaningless.
When asked what she will do if television channels stopped showing Korean soap operas, “Jewel in the Palace” fan Rachel Wang shrugged and said, “I can get the shows on pirated DVDs anyway.”
Eugenia Chien is a writer and editor for New America Media, an association of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic media.