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The Koreans Are Coming

When I lived in Seoul a decade ago, I was regularly subjected to a soap opera that had been sponsored by the government and was intended to promote the legend of King Sejong.

This King was certainly a heroic figure who supervised the creation fo the Korean alphabet, the revitalization of the Mandarinate and numerous other wonderful things. The soap opera, alas, was almost indescribably tedious. A typical scene featured several dozen grey-suited officials filing into the dining hall in rank order and then sitting down. All wore identical grey uniforms. One hundred dishes were then set slowly and silently before them. Rice wine was poured slowly into each cup by equally silent servants.

The officials then sat and waited, along with the audience, until the king or prince or whoever was sponsoring the gathering also arrived. The king, invariably, would be struck by intense melancholy or stress or angst or something and, instead of encouraging his men to get stuck in, would indulge in several minutes of introspection and close-ups. Then, all officials would leave – not a single cup or chop stick would have been disturbed. This was good for the budget, of course, but neither believable nor, frankly, watchable.

A decade later and Thai MTV is full of Korean boy bands, television regularly shows Korean soap operas on banal but hugely popular boy-meets-girl in the royal setting contexts and the shopping malls are full of Korean barbecue or shabu-shabu restaurants.

This is not an isolated phenomenon; Taiwan has already given us F4 – a boy band of ghostly beauty and equally intangible talent – while Japanese media fills the television screens from what appears to be incomprehensible manga animation to the relentless TV Champion program, which rotates living on one dollar worth of food per week with competitive eating by diminutive Japanese women.

Of course, Chinese culture has long been popular, as would be expected from the presence of the many millions of ethnic Chinese migrants who have settled here over the course of centuries. Food and religion are one thing, industries where money may be made are quite another and, to date, popular media generally arrive from Hong Kong rather than the mainland.

The Hong Kong media shares with its Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts (and would do with Singaporeans had they freedom to act) the ability to switch between drama, romance, horror and slapstick comedy in successive swiftly transitioned scenes that is seemingly popular throughout the whole region. Westerners generally find this difficult to appreciate, although in truth a contemporary Shakespearian performance would have shared a number of features. However, in the centuries since then, Shakespeare and similar authors have seen their performances reduced in size, scale and scope and one of the best ways of doing this is to focus on a single mood or theme and to cut out anything that detracts from that. East Asian media productions are very often different from this; a Bollywood film shows a similar tendency to try to include a range of different emotions and situations but it too betrays its origin and the generally stultifying effects of cultural censorship throughout the Sub-Continent. ASEAN shows can juxtapose a tender love scene which crosses class boundaries with the sudden eruption into horror as a protagonist is revealed to be a demon or a tiger spirit or some such thing. Then it is back to the slapstick and the short bald men slapping each other in the way that Benny Hill made famous decades ago.

The big cities of ASEAN and the middle-class urban populations are joining the international, global urban elites who are able to enjoy the best retail and leisure opportunities the world has to offer. Hanoi is full of Starbuck’s coffee shops and Kuala Lumpur has Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel outlets in full measure: yet this trend is far from witnessing western brands opening up to market to ASEAN consumers. It is at least as important a phenomenon that East Asian brands are regionalizing their value propositions to the people of the region, quite successfully too but in the presence of domestic wannabes as well. American and EU officials are generally the most visible in seeking to open ASEAN markets but, the more they do so, the more they produce opportunities for which their compatriots are not really ready.

The gorilla in this room, of course, is as it so often is, China. To date, mainland China has produced few if any brands able to compete with mass media or popular media brands. It seems unlikely that this lack of awareness will continue for long.

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