SEOUL - Patients in hospital gowns crowded
in with their intravenous poles. Visitors pressed
against glass doors to watch. The crew hovered
with lights, camera and microphone.
... cue," the director barked, then filmed the
scene of a young widow undergoing tests to give a
kidney to her mother, who had abandoned her as a
On location at Chung Ang University
Hospital, the crew from Be Strong,
Geum-Soon on the MBC network was filming the
latest installment of a hot South Korean export:
television dramas. Like the ardent horde at the
hospital, millions of fans across Asia began
tuning to South Korean soap operas in the late
1990s. Now, the dramas are winning over devotees
in the United States.
As Americans flee
network television in droves, Korean dramas are
grabbing audience share. In the San Francisco Bay
Area, Dae Jang Geum, or Jewel in the
Palace, aired this spring, dubbed in
Mandarin on the
Chinese-language KTSF. For the finale, more than
100,000 fans tuned in, handing the show higher
ratings in that time slot than ABC's Extreme
Makeover, the WB's Starlet or PBS'
Live From Lincoln Center.
"Korean wave" of pop culture - known in South
Korea as hallyu - is a point of national
pride, helping introduce the country to the world
and breaking down historical grudges with its
neighbors. The soaps have also boosted the
popularity of South Korean movies and singing
Business leaders are betting on the
wave to sell other products, and the government is
promoting the trend to attract tourists. Travel
agencies in California and across Asia offer
package tours of filming sites, which government
figures show attracted 200,000 visitors in 2003.
Last year, exports of South Korean programs –
mostly dramas – totaled US$71.4 million, up 70%
over 2003, according to the Ministry of Culture
South Korean dramas arose
when the country began deregulating its economy in
the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As
entrepreneurs remade the entertainment industry,
academics say, creativity blossomed in the arts.
Along with television dramas, South Korean
movies are gaining recognition in the US. The
gritty thriller Old Boy earned the 2004
Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It played
at the San Francisco International Asian American
Film Festival earlier this year, along with other
South Korean movies now popular on the art-house
The television dramas often start
in the childhood of the main characters, who face
love triangles, deadly disease, family intrigue,
class differences and other obstacles. Most last
20 or 30 episodes, instead of enduring the endless
plot twists of US soaps. They tend to have less
violence and sex and to emphasize longing and
delicate flirtation culminating in a kiss.
In South Korea, fans can get their fix of
popular shows twice a week, often on consecutive
weeknights, and episodes are rerun on weekends.
Viewers can also download episodes from the
Internet, and show producers monitor online fan
postings, which can influence the plots.
"Koreans are the number one drama lovers
in the world," Lee Byung Hoon, producer of the
popular historical epic Jewel in the
Palace, said over a green tea shake at a Seoul
cafe favored by politicians. "Korea is surrounded
by powerful neighbors. Throughout history, [we]
have suffered and endured. Koreans keep hope
inside and never give up."
Jewel in the Palace include an evil court
lady's plot to hide a bad luck charm in the
kitchen to turn the queen's unborn child into a
boy; a competition on how to cook whale meat; a
doctor using his acupuncture kit to save a woman
who ate poisoned berries.
Produced for $15
million, the tale of an orphaned kitchen cook who
went on to become the king's first female
physician 500 years ago has pulled in $40 million
worldwide since it first aired in 2003. After
reaching as much as 57% of viewers in South Korea,
the series spawned a theme park and restaurants in
Hong Kong that serve dishes featured on the show.
At the Korea National Tourism Organization
in downtown Seoul, a new team of five marketers is
selling the Korean wave, organizing events for
overseas fan clubs and appointing actors as
"tourism ambassadors". Last month, the government
launched the website www.hellohallyu.com, which
lists information on celebrities, television
dramas, movies and filming locales – in English,
Korean and Japanese.
In the Korean
Entertainment Hall of Fame, Midori Mizoguchi and
Yumi Yamada, two sisters on vacation from Japan,
giggled and took turns posing in front of a huge
photo of Bae Yong Joon, the star of the mega-hit
Winter Sonata. His sensitive look is
replicated on billboards, notebooks, knit socks
and other products throughout Asia.
thought [South Korea] was a very inflexible or
constrained society," she said. "But I find the
people kind and enjoyable.
culture naturally circulates among neighboring
countries, that flow was disrupted in East Asia
for decades after World War II. Bitterness among
other Asian countries over Japan's invasions
hampered cultural exchange, and China, isolated
under communist rule, cut off cultural influx from
the rest of the world. Only in 1998 – more than 50
years after the Japanese occupation ended – did
South Korea gradually lift its ban on cultural
imports from Japan.
Greater exchange is
likely ahead. "Once that is achieved, people who
live in the region are able to gain a better
understanding of how other parts of their region
live and think," said Michael Kim, an assistant
professor of Korean Studies at Yonsei University
Su-jin Chun, 28, television
columnist for the English-language edition of
JoongAng Daily, one of South Korea's biggest
newspapers, cautioned that the world portrayed on
Korean soaps reflects only a part of society.
"Still, it's good that it's hit it big,"
South Korean dramas air in the
Bay Area, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Chicago, New York
and Washington, DC, and can be seen nationally in
the US on cable channel AZN Television.
San Bruno's Yesasia.com sells 20,000 to
30,000 English-subtitled Korean dramas every
month, a figure it says is steadily growing. In
the first six months of this year, the retailer
sold more Korean dramas than in all of 2004.
In Hawaii, the Honolulu Advertiser prints
synopses of the shows, which are broadcast there
subtitled in English. The University of Hawaii
held a conference last year on how South Korean
dramas have influenced pop culture worldwide.
The Internet also abounds with bulletin
boards, where fans from different countries
discuss what happened and what they missed, and
can view English-subtitled video clips they've
"I love this drama," writes
user "clockworkhorror" in a bulletin board devoted
to South Korean soaps available in California.
The fan, who describes herself as a
"Hispanic girl who likes to watch Korean/Japanese
shows," was writing about My Lovely
Sam-soon, South Korea's version of Bridget
"Kim Sun Ah is great. I'm glad
she isn't the typical leading lady. And Hyun Bin's
acting has improved a lot. I can see why it's
kicking butt in the ratings!"
In the Bay
Area, South Korean soaps attract fans of both
genders and various ages and ethnicities.
Cecilia Chang watched Jewel in the
Palace with her husband, Dan, who praised the
show in a column for Sing Tao, one of the Bay
Area's largest Chinese-language dailies.
"This is a gentle, feminine woman who is
upholding her principles and beliefs, without
alienating her family and friends," Chang, 54, of
Fremont, California said in describing the
heroine. "She has all the virtues of a woman
brought up in Confucian society."
Lo, 25, shares their love of the series. "I was
almost dreaming about it, every day anticipating
the next episode, " said Lo, who is Chinese
American, adding that she often discussed the show
with her mother. "I can't think of a single
American show that has that sort of pull for me."
"My mom said, "Who knew Koreans were so
refined and sophisticated?'" the University of
California-Berkeley graduate added. "She thought
they were copycats of Chinese people."
Kevin Roe, 51, a San Jose, California
attorney, appreciates the rich photography,
character development and emotionally interesting
stories of South Korean dramas.
sort of overlooked before," Roe said, "but now
it's worth investigating."
Hua is a staff writer for The San Francisco