Monday, 2 May 2011

I am handsome and my dad is rich

The Koreans are scary. Everything they create, people either hate or love. Lovers always buy and spread the word. Haters may not buy but still spread the word. Hence the ideal situation for someone who participates in an entertainment industry would be having as few people who neither hate you nor love you as possible. It may sound contradictory, but in the show business, trying to be safe will only put you at risk.

Take K-pop as an example. Are Koreans ignorant of how effeminate their male idols come across? I think they are well aware, but the mass adoption of Japanese shoujo manga, among other things, already hinted that Asian girls are attracted to "flower boys."

K-pop's timing was remarkable. At the end of the last century, there seemed to be a perception change in the West that caused Western teenagers to shift their taste away from the sweet guys and the romantic lyrics towards something they considered "less cheesy", something better captured in modern rock and the hip hop culture. While this tendency movement was happening in the West, the demand for more sugar pop was still unsatisfied among Asian teenagers. To make long story short, Super Juniors and Girls' Generation pretty much filled the void that Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls left behind. (This doesn't imply that K-pop is nothing but a clone of US/UK pop of the 90s. K-pop is innovative in a lot of sense, particularly fashion and choreography.)

As ubiquitous as it is today, K-pop wasn't what triggered Hallyu, the phenomenal Korean wave that swept across Asia, picking up fans like it's nobody's business along her way. K-drama did. Ever since 2002, when Winter Sonata was first broadcast by the Korean Broadcasting System, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese have been using the terms “Korean” and “romantic” more or less interchangeably in conversation.

The target audience for K-drama were still in high schools and colleges when Hallyu first started, but they have turned into mature adults who are about to be married or have already been married by now. As their central point of concern shifted away from romantic love into building a healthy functioning relationship and family, Hallyu decided to make a slightly different genre of dramas to serve these old fans. Temptation of Wife is only one among many recent television series that deal with adultery, mother versus bride, and young married couples in general.

Apparently one doesn’t create a surge in tourism and generate a handsome 4.5 billion US dollars annually with controversy alone. The Koreans succeeded by being extremely hard-working and market-driven. Hallyu accepted that her job is not to teach people about arts, but to entertain them. She understood how romance is perceived by Asian cultures better than anyone else in the industry.

How romance is perceived by Asian cultures anyway? In the most popular Korean dramas—Full House, Coffee Prince, Boys over Flowers, Winter Sonata, Goong, My Name is Kim Sam Soon, just to name a few—one can easily notice a “modern Cinderella” pattern, summarized as follows:

1. The female lead is cute and innocent. Her parents belong to the low or lower middle class.

2. The male lead is handsome and the son of a rich family.

3. The male lead is initially in a complicated relationship with a second female lead. This fantastic lady is what society would label perfect. She is gorgeous, visibly noble in public, has a successful career, and her parents are totally upper class.

4. The female lead on the other hand is worshipped by one or a number of cool guys. The whole point is to socially validate her attractiveness and introduce some competition. So you can get relatively flexible and creative on this side of the story.

5. As the female lead is so full of life compared to the second female lead, the male lead slowly falls for her playfulness and innocence.

6. The female lead is confused by the choices she has but eventually something hit on her head and she made up her mind.

7. After the competitors are no longer releveant, the male lead’s mother comes into play and messes up the scene. She is very annoying but that's okay. Somehow viewers like to be annoyed.

8. Now that all obstacles are overcome, someone will have cancer and die.

There are a lot of directions one can dig into in order to explain why Asians consider this particular pattern irresistibly romantic, but for the rest of this writing, we'll focus on why the male lead must be the son of a rich family.

I think there are three main reasons.

1. Money facilitates romance. We won't notice money at all precisely because money is never the issue when our couple spends time with each other. Asians tend to avoid talking about money, especially in relationships, but that habit only deepens their concern with it. When money is completely absent, they're unconsciously fascinated.

2. Money buys social status. Every girl dreams of a prince. The prince charming on a white horse is just another way of calling the son of the chairman of a large corporation.

3. The third reason is the least obvious but also the most significant: character and social class are strongly correlated. Social class affects your upbringing and choice of peers everywhere in the world, which in turn shapes your character, but this is especially true in Asia.

In Asia, how much your parents earn a month is all written over your face, the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you behave. When your dad is an assembly worker and your mom teaches in an average high school, you have that same gesture, that same awkward smile, that same negative philosophy about life. You approach girls with anxiety and inferiority instead of superiority and control.

But the real disadvantage is more psychological than behavioral. Suppose you are a guy raised in a typical Vietnamese academic lower middle class family, your parents are about the first generation to receive a higher education at a time when education was massively encouraged by the government. As a matter of fact, your parents were only able to work for the government and thus escape poverty all thanks to their certificates.

The combination of their slightly outdated understanding of the world and constant pressure from their peers lead them to forcefully limit your imagination. They will do their best to make sure you follow a path which, to them, is the only viable one. Chances are that they also keep reminding you which class you belong to, and how awesome the sons of their richer relatives are. When your self-esteem is repressed, you don't look for someone to enjoy life with—you look for one to suffer with.


The Americans constantly complain about how stereotypical Hollywood romance dramas are. Truth be told, these so-called "chick flicks" are so much more diverse than K-drama. I doubt this has anything to do with the creativity of the Korean script writers. I think they just want to refect the fantasy and satisfy the desire of their viewers. As long as their viewers want the same thing over and over again, they will make just that over and over again.

Thanks Anh Ton for her comments and discussions with me.

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