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Media: Hello to Hallyu

Hawai‘i is crazy for Korean dramas, and even played a role in introducing them to Mainland audiences.


Above: From the series Dae Jang Geum. Below: Nora Muramoto, left, co-founded The Hawai‘i K-Drama Fan Club with Gerrie Nakamura, right.
photos: top, courtesy Ya Entertainment. bottom, Heidi Chang.

When Lee Jeong-Gil, one of South Korea's most recognized actors, recently visited Hawai'i, he was blown away by the reception he received from Island fans.

More than 200 members of the Hawai'i K-Drama Fan Club were thrilled to greet the 61-year-old star, who turned out for their New Year's membership meeting at Tree Tops Restaurant in Manoa. All have been swept up in the Korean Wave, known as hallyu, which refers to the Korean pop culture–including Korean dramas (televised soap operas), cinema and music–that's developing an international following.

Hawai'i's KBFD-TV has played a pioneering role in sparking interest in Korean programs in the United States. "Hallyu in Hawai'i would not exist if it weren't for KBFD's subtitling a lot of the Korean dramas into English," says Jeff Chung, general manager of the Honolulu station. In 1989, KBFD was the first station in the world to broadcast Korean dramas with English subtitles. (Founded in 1986, KBFD was also the first Korean TV station in the U.S.) The station also provides subtitles to other Korean broadcasters all over the world and for DVDs.

Chung's father came up with the idea to provide English translations to help second- and third-generation Korean-Americans maintain their cultural heritage. But soon, the Korean dramas began attracting a wider audience. These days, 87 percent of KBFD's audience is non-Korean. Chung credits the drama Winter Sonata, which was extremely popular in Japan and Honolulu, for helping inspire the Korean pop culture craze.

From the show Winter Sonata. photo: courtesy KBFD.

Globally, another huge hit has been Dae Jang Geum, or Jewel in the Palace. The historical drama is based on the true story of a cook, who overcomes great odds to became the king's first female personal physician.

"The cooking scenes were fantastic. People were drawn to the characters and intrigue of the court," says Jun Yoo, Korean history professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, who helped organize a week-long symposium devoted to Dae Jang Geum, as well as a groundbreaking Korean drama symposium at UH last year. Partly due to the increasing popularity of these dramas, Yoo says it's now "cool and hip to be Korean."

The rest of the country is taking notice, too. The Mountain Apple Co., which has focused on selling and producing Hawaiian music for decades, never imagined it would be selling Korean drama DVDs, but finds the demand is there.

"It's been an absolute phenomenon in how fast they're selling," says company president Leah Bernstein. Since Mountain Apple began distributing Korean DVDs with English subtitles last August, its K-drama DVD sales have jumped 600 percent. In Hawai'i, Mountain Apple supplies Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, Longs Drugs, Borders Books & Music, Barnes & Noble and Tower Records. (And supplies those last three stores listed on the Mainland, as well.)

Members of the Hawai'i K-Drama Fan Club came out to hear Lee Jeong-Gil, one of South Korea’s most beloved actors. photo: Heidi Chang

So what's the appeal? "Great movies, like good music, cross cultural and ethnic boundaries," says Shelley Coscina, Mountain Apple's vice president.

"We connect with the stories, beautiful people, music and scenery," says Gerrie Nakamura, who co-founded the Hawai'i K-Drama Fan Club with Nora Muramoto. "The morals and themes are family oriented. And they're Asian heroes."

The show My Lovely Sam Soon has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary. photo: courtesy of Ya Entertainment

As the Hawai'i K-Drama Fan Club's meeting wound up, Ronald Ajimine was elated to take home the grand prize–a roundtrip ticket to South Korea. "The thing I like most about Korean dramas is the acting is so artistic. They don't have to do all these mushy love scenes to get the feeling. It's kind of like Shakespeare; it goes deeper into philosophy," says the 67-year-old retired electrical engineer, who got hooked on watching K-dramas with his wife.

When Ajimine goes to South Korea, like any true fan he plans to visit the film locations of his favorite dramas.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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