The Seoul within

Lalitha Suhasini | Updated on October 12, 2014 Published on October 12, 2014

Book: The Birth Of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture Author: Euny Hong Publisher: Simon & SchusterPrice: ₹599


A book on the Korean cultural phenomenon or hallyu (wave), written with great detail; and its hero isn’t just the rapper Psy, but all of South Korea

This may or may not be the best time to pick up a book on South Korea given how you feel about Indian boxer Sarita Devi’s shocking loss at the Asian Games. But journalist Euny Hong’s book will help us understand, among a lot of other things, the Korean feeling of han – an untranslatable word that can only be loosely associated with rage and hatred.

Hong has her own explanation for han in the book: “The neuroses the current generation (of South Koreans) endures is because of the suffering of their ancestors.” While Hong wrote about han with reference to four different invasions of Korea over 5,000 years and the more recent Korean invasion by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945, she also states in the book that “random people in your life can spark the flame of han”.

To me, han could also be the only plausible explanation for the decisions that were taken at the Asian Games in South Korea.

An ambitious nation

The book begins in the mid-1980s. This was the time when the author, raised in America and living there until she was 12, moved back with her family to Gangnam, one of the plushest districts in South Korea and central to rapper Psy’s rise to fame.

In some ways, South Korea of the 1980s and 1990s was similar to South India of that time. Corporal punishment, the stress on academics, learning by rote, coaching classes or hakwons as they are known in South Korea, incomprehension of the concept of dating and music talent shows are some subjects that a generation of South Indian kids will relate to, but South Korea took all of it to the next level.

Hong writes about memory honing practices and an instance where she saw a kid who went to a “concentration academy”, slice several pairs of chopsticks with a visiting card, without denting the card. Readers are left as disbelieving as the author who saw this happen.

Hong manages to highlight South Korea’s flaws as engagingly as she draws us to its ambition, her witty, easy narrative not flagging once. Like a fantastic piece of reportage, the book benefits from both Hong’s memories of growing up in South Korea and thorough research.

Hong has interviewed members of several key organisations including the National Institute of International Education (NIIED) and the Korean Ministry of Culture to trace the country’s success story. She’s spoken to chefs, K-pop bands, critics and film-makers to tell a layered and compelling story of how Korea refashioned itself.

A lot of the storytelling delves into the psyche of a South Korean. Take, for instance, the chapter on food where Hong talks about the transformation of kimchi, from the humble cabbage snack, usually served free as an appetiser, to a pricey dish on the menu at a hotel in New York.

Hong gets into how kimchi, which was the source of national shame for Korean immigrants in America, became the pride of a Michelin star hotel in New York. Again, the similarity to Indian food is striking here. Hong has spoken to Hooni Kim, a well-known Korean American chef based in New York, who says, “I still don’t think Korean food is fine dining. I think the best food in Korea is cooked by mothers and grandmothers.”

Having said that, Kim set up Danji in New York, which offers a fusion of French and Korean cuisine, an ambitious venture that earned him a Michelin star no less.

Neurotic journeys

Hong makes another interesting observation about how South Korea rebuilt itself. She writes: “If Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a neurotic, with both an inferiority and a superiority complex.” The latter is definitely a result of the likes of Psy, who charted his way up to success finding a place on Billboard Hot 100 for his song “Gangnam Style”, released in 2012.

The rapper made a breakthrough in the American music industry, and even snagged a performance at Madison Square Garden with Madonna. While it’s surprising that Hong didn’t land an interview with Park Jae-sang aka Psy, the biggest symbol of Korean cool today, she manages to sketch an accurate profile of the rapper. It’s the lesser known Kim sisters, who were South Korea’s first musical export to America and one of whom Hong managed to interview, who make for a better story. Her interview with Park Chan-wook, the father of Korean cinema, is another coup.

When Hong speaks of cookie-cutter K-pop bands bound by strict 13-year contracts drawn up by ambitious music labels, the parallel to Indian music labels is hard to miss. It’s never been a secret that the Korean music industry functions like a talent manufacturing factory.

The Indian pop industry had its share of bands that were put together by labels (remember Models, an all-girl band launched by Biddu) and music channels (Viva and Aasma formed by Channel V) but that phase was too short to be compared to Korea. While South Korea invested billions to nurture its “creative economy”, Indian labels preferred to feed off Hindi film music than any other genre.

Of course in India, it is an open secret. While some leading Hindi film composers such as Pritam have rubbished the claim that they’re bound by multi-film contracts with labels such as T-Series, some others in the music industry are willing to swear that the practice exists, on condition of anonymity, of course.

There was one missing link, though. The chapter in which Hong speaks about the Korean TV hallyu or wave seems inadequate, especially if you’re a reader in India. Hong mentions nothing of Arirang TV’s influence on India, even as she speaks of Korean soaps spreading to China, Vietnam and as far as Cuba.

Arirang TV, one of the biggest networks in Korea, is a rage in all of the North-East. Besides streaming Korean soaps, it is also the biggest source for K-pop in India. In fact, young fans in Nagaland sing K-pop songs word-for-word and adore artists such as VJ Isak, who was an anchor on Pops of Seoul, just like all of America bows to Taylor Swift.

In fact, most youngsters in the North-East, especially in Nagaland, are so taken up with Korean actors and musicians that they will go to great lengths to look like them. Of course, they don’t take it to the extreme that Koreans do. Hong calls South Korea the capital of plastic surgery, in terms of procedures per capita, and most procedures are done because hero worship is of a fanatic kind in South Korea.

But it may be a long while before Manipur tunes into Arirang TV again. Korean dramas may have filled the void after the ban on Hindi films in the state in 2000, but we have our own karma to deal with now.


Euny Hong is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The New Republic, among others. Her debut novel is Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners.

(The reviewer is the Editor of Rolling Stone India)

Published on October 12, 2014
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