MAMA and Hong Kong's Role in Spreading South Korea's Popular Culture

MAMA and Hong Kong's Role in Spreading South Korea's Popular Culture
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

To the surprise of many, Hong Kong also has an unique and critical role in spreading South Korean popular culture.

There has been a lot of speculation on where the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) 2017 – the annual South Korean music award ceremony that is broadcast live in over 15 countries and draws over 20,000 audiences – will be held. MNET, the South Korean media conglomerate and organizer of MAMA, has announced that the venue is yet to be confirmed.

While the audience can only wait until MNET makes its final decision, it might be worthwhile to review why MAMA’s organizer chose to hold the K-Pop award ceremony in Hong Kong for the past five years.

The first MAMA (then named MKMF) was held in Seoul in 1999. Back then, MKMF was a music video ceremony solely broadcast in South Korea. A decade later, MKMF was renamed as MAMA, and it was broadcast live in Hong Kong, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia for the first time.

Building on the positive reception of the first MAMA in 2009, MNET brought MAMA to Macau and Singapore in 2010 and 2011 respectively. From 2012 to 2016, MAMA was held in Hong Kong and broadcast live in dozens of countries. The star-studded ceremony became a mecca for K-pop fans all over the world.

Why did MNET move MAMA overseas?

Steve Chung, a lecturer of South Korean culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that holding MAMA in foreign cities facilitates the globalization of K-pop, which seems to be MNET’s goal.

A recent report by the Reuters Institute indicates that across different regions in Asia, televisions are still the main news source for at least 20 percent to 30 percent of citizens. Hence, live-broadcasting was an inevitable first step to enhance MAMA’s international influence.

A logical second step would be to hold the ceremony overseas to foster direct interaction with foreign audiences, which MAMA has successfully accomplished. Between 2010 and 2016, MAMA attracted around 20,000 attendees every year, and the number of countries where the show is broadcast live has more than doubled.

Why Hong Kong?

MAMA’s venue has always been one of the top discussion topics among K-Pop aficionados. Some observers suggested that MAMA is held in Hong Kong for three reasons: the city’s strong demand for idols, abundant financial resources for the lavish show, and South Korean stars’ emotional ties to Hong Kong.

As a matter of fact, prior to the political row between China and South Korea in 2016, China’s TV stations frequently cast South Korean stars in their programs, which could easily cost millions of U.S. dollars. Moreover, China’s demand for concerts, events and reality shows with South Korean celebrities are more than abundant. In comparison, the financial capability of Hong Kong’s TV stations is not nearly as strong as their Chinese counterparts. Hence, in terms of demand and capital available for supporting MAMA, many first-tier and second-tier cities in China would fare as well as Hong Kong, if not better.

Regarding South Korean artists’ attachment to Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, it might be best to keep the organizer, MNET, in mind. MNET is a media conglomerate, and the performers – regardless of their superstar statuses – are guests. The performers can, at most, control their performances on stage. If the relationship between the entertainers’ management and MNET sours, the performers would not be able to attend MAMA. Hence, despite many South Korean stars’ fondness of Hong Kong, MAMA’s venue is not in their control. Ultimately, the final decision lies in MNET’s hands.

Therefore, the aforementioned goal of expanding K-pop’s international influence is likely the reason of holding MAMA in Hong Kong. An often-overlooked fact is that Hong Kong houses the most Asia-Pacific headquarters of international media outlets. Despite some departures to Singapore, Hong Kong’s proximity to China has helped to retain a fair number of media. As a result, Hong Kong offers more opportunities for MAMA to connect with the global audience than Singapore or Macau does.

In other words, Hong Kong enables MAMA to live-broadcast or stream their content in more countries globally and reach a larger audience. To a certain extent, Hong Kong’s infrastructure serves as a springboard for K-pop. This highlights the global perspective of South Korean media and music industry.

South Korea’s global perspective and Japan’s diminished soft power

In recent years, the “world tours” of Hong Kong singers mostly visit cities with a large Chinese population, such as some second-tier cities in North America. In comparison, the world tours of South Korean music acts usually cover major cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, and most of the audience are not of Korean descent or Korean-speaking. South Korean agencies aim to maximize the influence of K-pop, in addition to their own profit. Again, if profit was the only concern, China would undoubtedly be the most convenient choice.

On another note, various critics have noted the decline of Japanese popular culture over the past decade. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese media were keen on exporting music and television shows all across Asia, and Japanese popular culture had a massive following. However, in the 2010s, Japan’s throne of soft power has been superseded by South Korea.

One of the main reasons is Japan’s perverse copyright policies. While not all Japanese talent agencies are as extreme as Johnny & Associates – who forbids the use of their artists’ portraits on any medium that is not their own, including official websites of films and drama series casting Johnny’s actors – Japanese TV channels and music labels are generally reluctant to share material on free platforms such as YouTube. Hence, a lot of loyal fans of Japanese popular culture rely heavily on pirated works uploaded by voluntary “translation teams.” This does not only hamper the agents’ profits, but the Japanese entertainment industry also loses the benefits and influence of social media.

Unlike Japan, globally-minded South Korea’s talent agencies are very keen on cultivating their YouTube channels and social media platforms, which are the most cost-efficient distribution channels in the 21st century. The viral music video for “Gangnam Style” by Psy currently has over 2.9 billion views on YouTube and was the most viewed video on the platform for over four years. Yet, in the past five years, Japan has barely produced any material with the same reach and influence. NHK’s Year-end Song Festival was very influential and was broadcast all over Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, but nowadays its influence and audience size both lag behind that of MAMA’s.

Fundamentally, Japan’s talent agencies are clinging to production formulas from the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, every song would have a fixed costume and choreography, and all members in groups would dress in the same outfit. Unfortunately, these mechanical productions can no longer satisfy the desires of new, as well as old, audiences.

A major reason for the success of South Korean idols is the constant surprises they bring in every appearance. While Japanese idols and group performances are only adjusted for special occasions, such as the Year-end Song Festival, South Korean idols have a new costume and different stage setting for every performance. While “Gangnam Style” has been performed hundreds of times, Psy’s costume, choreography and stage setting for every performance is deliberately redesigned. In stark contrast, Japan’s colossal singers are still keen on reiterating their performances from 30 years ago.

The short-sighted 'Hong Kong spirit'

Creativity and persistent dedication on expanding its sphere of influence are the cornerstones of South Korean popular culture’s success. To the surprise of many, Hong Kong also has an unique and critical role in spreading South Korean popular culture. Instead of being a mere consumer, Hong Kong is a springboard for K-pop. The ability to connect with an international audience might also be the city’s last remaining value.

It is ironic that South Korea is most active in utilizing Hong Kong’s infrastructural advantage for exporting soft power. The success of MAMA in the past five years has proven that Hong Kong possesses all the resources needed for a world-class cultural event. Nonetheless, after over a decade of focusing on China's market, if Hong Kong were to leverage the springboard like MAMA does, it might be a real difficulty to find suitable performers.

Hong Kong has always cherished the spirits of “profit-maximizing” and “time-saving,” and China’s 1.4 billion population is undoubtedly a gigantic market. However, the global market which South Korea accesses via Hong Kong has 7 billion people. Which market is bigger and more sustainable? This might be a worthwhile question to ponder on.

An earlier edition of this article was published on The Initium in Chinese.

Editor: Olivia Yang