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Korean TV soaps strike a chord in US

A growing number of Americans feel the soaps are a compelling and wholesome alternative to the usual US daytime television fare.

india Updated: Mar 17, 2006 12:03 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

It's become a daily ritual for Gayle Stephens. She laughs and cries while getting her daily fix inside the privacy of her home in suburban Ewa Beach. She's even tried to get her family hooked on her latest addiction - Korean TV dramas. Stephens is among a growing number of Americans with no ties to Korean culture who say the shows are a compelling and wholesome alternative to the usual US daytime TV fare.

"I like the fact that they're cleaner, they're not as smutty as the American dramas," said Stephens, who is 32 and grew up in Durham, North Carolina. "I didn't think I would enjoy watching, but I really got caught up in it."

Mainstream commercial outlets also are joining in the Korean craze, with TV dramas becoming South Korea's hottest export since cell phones, women golfers and kimchi. The craze, which includes music and film, has swept through Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore and most of Asia and is now making its way across the United States.

"It's just a small peninsula nestled between Japan and China, but they've just hit it right," said Tom Larsen, general manager of YA Entertainment LLC, a major North American distributor of Korean dramas. "They know how to put together a good drama that their neighbors in Asia are eating up."

Now, more Americans are saying hello to "hallyu," or the so-called "Korean wave" that Larsen said has come to encompass "all things Korea."

"It stopped in Hawaii, built up some momentum and reached California shortly after and is continuing to spread across the states," he said. "The mainland is three, four, five years, behind Hawaii."

Korean soap operas, once sold only in Asian specialty stores, have gone mainstream with English subtitles. In Hawaii, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Borders, Blockbuster and Tower Records offer Korean drama DVD sets for $60 to $120 (euro50 to euro100), and the DVDs are sold in mainland cities with large Asian communities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Since opening in 2003, San Bruno, California-based YA has seen revenue triple in each of the past two years behind strong sales of its top sellers: the tearful love story "Stairway to Heaven" and historic drama "Dae Jang Geum," named after an imaginary woman court physician in the 16th century. YA plans to release 22 titles this year.

Fans say the Korean shows, centered around relationships and family, focus more on story lines than special effects and are a refreshing change from American programming they see as too violent and too racy.

Annette Marten, a 69-year-old nurse from Kailua, said Korean soaps depict love in a more romantic and artistic way, without steamy bedroom scenes.

"I'm not prudish in any way, but it's so lovely how they express themselves. I get all excited if they get a hug," she said. She added, though, that she also enjoys the handsome actors - "I like the young heartthrobs."

Many Korean dramas have themes similar to American soap operas - love triangles, forbidden love, evil mothers-in-law and corrupt business partners. But a key difference is that Korean series usually end after 16 to 20 hour-long episodes, no matter how popular they become. In contrast, CBS's Guiding Light has been on the air since 1952.

"They go from one bed to the next and everybody ends up with someone else's husband and it never ends," said former daytime TV fan Yolanda Kala, 48, of Waianae. "It's like 20 years and they still have the same problems. At least with the Korean stuff, you start and you end."

KBFD-TV in Honolulu, the nation's first FCC-licensed station dedicated to Korean programming, had primarily Korean viewers at first. Today, less than 10 percent of the audience is Korean and ratings are higher than ever, said Jeff Chung, the station's general manager.

"Why is hallyu a recent phenomenon? It's because of the production level, the quality of the writing and acting," Chung said. "It's greatly improved in recent years."

Now, Korean dramas are part of Hawaii's entertainment landscape. There are blogs, chatrooms, a weekly column in Hawaii's largest daily newspaper, even tours to Korea to visit filming locations. And Korean restaurants, shops and language classes are filled with curious non-Koreans.

Music plays a prominent role in Korean TV dramas, and there's a lot of crossover in acting and singing, such as pop stars Jung Ji-hoon and Eric Mun. Jung, featured in the hit romantic-comedy series "Full House," is better known as the singer "Rain" who gave two sold-out concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden last month and played to 40,000 fans at Beijing Workers Stadium in October.

There are even fan clubs devoted to the dramas and individual stars. Gerrie Nakamura and Nora Muramoto, both of Japanese ancestry, founded the Hawaii K-Drama Fan Club in 2002 with about 20 people, but the group has grown to 400 members, mostly middle-aged women, with only about 5 percent of Korean heritage.

Nakamura, a high school teacher, said she sometimes recommends the dramas to her students to learn about family values. "We grew up with Leave it to Beaver and The Waltons, but today's kids don't have that," she said. "They see extreme whatever reality TV and naked girls on MTV."

Margie Okuhara, a 62-year-old retiree, said she feels like a teenager again when the Hawaii drama club meets to swoon over the Korean stars.

"My kids call me a groupie," she said. "I say, 'That's OK, when you get to be my age, you can do whatever you want."'

First Published: Mar 17, 2006 11:48 IST

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