If South Korea's Pop Culture Can Make It, What About Hong Kong?

If South Korea's Pop Culture Can Make It, What About Hong Kong?
Photo Credit: Republic of Korea @ Flickr CC BY SA 2.0
What you need to know

If Hong Kong’s popular culture was once a sharp sword, does its society have any interest in sharpening the rusty weapon?

On a fierce snowy evening last year, I stumbled into a small family restaurant in Tokyo. What followed was a pleasant surprise – the waitress greeted me in Cantonese. Upon a brief conversation, the young lady shared with me her passion for Hong Kong: she visits Hong Kong every year and is learning Cantonese. She is evidently diligent, as she carries her Cantonese notes around, even to work.

As a Hong Kong native, I was curious about her passion for my hometown. She said, with an embarrassed smile, “I was a huge fan of Jackie Chan back in high school, but I know you Hong Kongers don’t really like him.”

The young lady struggled to not mention the classic Hong Kong movies – “Police Story,” “Project A,” and “Who Am I?” – all of which I barely have any memory.

“You’re probably too young. These are really old movies. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become more and more difficult to find Hong Kong movies in Japan. I also don’t have much opportunity to practice my Cantonese, except for the two to three hours of lessons every week and vacations in Hong Kong.”

Many of my friends were surprised to hear this story and they could not comprehend how this young lady became enchanted by Hong Kong – to the extent of studying Cantonese – merely because of Jackie Chan.

Yet, this young lady is not one of a kind. Fans of Hong Kong movies are all over the world, even in Africa and South Africa. Not long ago, Hong Kong’s popular culture was a considerable soft power, spreading the city’s image to tens of millions of people around the globe.

Who has global fame across East Asia?

In Forbes’ Global Celebrities 100 List, which ranks celebrities by their total income in the past 12 months, Jackie Chan was ranked number 23 in 2016 and number 39 in 2017. Forbes lists Chan’s country as China, his nationality as Hong Kong, and his residence as Beijing. In both China and Hong Kong, Chan was the only one on the lists. Despite flaws in Forbes’ methodology, Chan’s appearance on this list – regardless of recognition from Hong Kongers – demonstrates his “market value” in the global entertainment scene.

On the other hand, South Korea had one representative on Forbes’ Celebrities 100 List in 2016 — the South Korean boy band Big Bang was ranked number 54, with a total income of US$44 million in the past 12 months. The group was ranked above Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and even Robert Downey Jr. Across the pond, Japan’s tennis player Kei Nishikori is the only Japanese national on Forbes’ list in both 2016 and 2017, ranking number 82 and number 92 with US$33.5 million and US$39 million respectively.

In 2016, Big Bang was the first South Korean entertainment act to enter the Forbes Celebrities 100 List, so the Forbes ran a feature dissecting K-Pop. As an American media company, Forbes focused on the popularity of K-Pop in America, which was a relatively new phenomenon. Yet, for the Hong Kong or other Asian audience, South Korean entertainers attending events overseas – and having majority of fans aged between 18 and 24 years old – would not be considered as news.

For Japan, Kei Nishikori is not an entertainer. Although he occasionally appears on TV programs and advertisements, the focus of his work is on tennis. Moreover, Nishikori is now based in the U.S. for training, and Japan is only one of the countries in which he is active.

This leads to a profound question: why doesn’t the Japanese entertainment industry have anyone with the same global influence as Nishikori? Japan’s population is more than double that of South Korea’s population, and K-Pop was influenced by J-Pop. So, why did a South Korean idol group make the list, while Japanese ones haven’t?

South Korean music acts entering Japan with a Hong Kong tactic?

Although Japan is keen on preserving traditions and has a vibrant entertainment scene, the products of South Korean entertainment acts – CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays and a wide range of side-products – have in recent years often occupied the most prominent spaces in shops in Japan. The number of South Korean singers who place on Japan’s music charts and hold tours in the country is also increasing rapidly.

A Japanese website recorded the Top 100 Music Sales (including singles, albums, DVDs, Blu-Ray, and online sales) from 2011 to 2016. The data shows an average of 9.3 South Korean music acts each year, nearly 10 percent. In terms of concert attendees, in 2016, seven out of the top 50 music acts were from South Korea. Big Bang, who topped the list that year, drew 1.86 million attendees – almost double the 939,000 attendees drew by Japanese band Arashi, which placed second. Between 2013 and 2015, an average of 7.3 acts, or 15 percent, in the top 50 were from South Korea.

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As for total revenue, since the major entertainment agencies in Japan are not listed companies, their financial information remains undisclosed. Hence, I was unable to compare the South Korean music acts’ income in Japan with that of Japanese music acts. Nonetheless, sales statistics indicate that South Korean music acts’ incomes in Japan are in tens of billions of yen, surpassing the sales results of many Japanese music acts. In contrast, few Japanese music acts have similar sales power or influence in South Korea.

Why is Japan a key market for South Korea?

The simplest reason is geographical proximity. Flying from Seoul to Tokyo or Osaka is as convenient as flying from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Hence, exchange between these two countries is naturally frequent.

On top of that, Japan has the second largest music market in the world. In 2008, Japan and the U.S. each accounted for 50 percent of the global music market. Furthermore, Japan has a higher population density than countries in Europe and North America, which creates an environment conducive to entertainment sales.

Japanese and Korean languages also share similar grammar rules. South Koreans can learn Japanese much more easily than Chinese or English. Their cultures are relatively similar as well. So it is much easier for South Korean artists to enter the Japanese market – such as singing in Japanese and attending Japanese programs – than venturing into other markets.

From an economic perspective, analysts have pointed out that the depreciation of the Korean Won in 1997 and 2008 has made the Japanese Yen relatively stable, attracting South Korean companies to invest in Japan.

More importantly, South Korean popular culture generally carries a positive and innovative image, which differs significantly from the traditional culture in Japan. This stark difference is another reason South Korean pop culture has drawn a huge following in Japan.

Conscious of the positive impact of South Korean popular culture on the country’s image, South Korean government’s subsidiaries – organizations such as the Korean National Brand Committee and the South Korean Cultural Production Institute – invested 1 trillion Korean won between 2011 and 2015 on promoting South Korean popular culture, including K-pop and other products, in different parts of the world. These public policies also name Japan as a major target area.

How do South Korean entertainment agencies enter Japan?

The first criterion is knocking down language barriers. When South Korean music acts enter the Japanese market, they usually release albums in Japanese and also attend promotional events using Japanese. This resembles how some Hong Kong singers use Mandarin versions of their Cantonese songs to enter the Taiwanese market and how they go on Taiwanese TV programs speaking Mandarin. In Hong Kong, the most recent success with this tactic is probably Eason Chan (who is already half-retired).

Some might cite Khalil Fong as another example. Yet, Khalil’s music has always been in Mandarin, so he is not exactly entering the Taiwanese market as a (linguistic) foreigner. As for Ellen Loo, Yoyo Sham, and Denise Ho, all of whom have earned fair success in Taiwan, they spent extensive periods of time in Taiwan, blending into the livehouse culture on the island and collaborating with local musicians. They are not transplanting or exporting Hong Kong’s popular music.

In South Korea, the “trainee” system of entertainment agencies has expanded significantly in the past decade. Nowadays, English and Japanese language training is compulsory for teenage trainees, on top of their vocal and dance lessons.

This is a relatively new development. Five to ten years ago, the South Korean musicians who entered the Japanese market all debuted in South Korea, and then spent several months in Japan to brush up their Japanese skills and do recordings and promotions. Although Japanese and Korean share some linguistic similarities, a considerable amount of resources is needed to equip the singers with the language skills for performing, interviewing, and attending entertainment programs in Japan. They are willing to make this investment, because they are deeply aware that it would be impossible to enter the Japanese market without conquering the language barrier. Nonetheless, in Japan – not to mention, Hong Kong – barely any agency has a comparable vision and dedication.

The strategic value of popular culture

The vast investments of South Korean government and entertainment agencies highlights the strategic values of popular culture.

In 2016, South Korea launched “K-pop attacks” on the border with North Korea, which is one of the most impressive methods of attacks in recent history. South Korean government chose to use K-pop as a “weapon,” because South Korean popular culture highlights the social difference between South Korea and North Korea.

While the North Korean populace (officially) can only accept information approved by government agencies, the civil society of South Korea can (relatively) freely produce and consume all kinds of entertainment. Regardless of whether the North Korean society appreciates South Korea’s popular music or not, these entertainment products are meant to inform them of the freedom in South Korea. In other words, the difference between South Korea’s open popular culture and North Korea’s conservative image is a sharp sword.

As for Japan, why aren’t they using popular culture to build their identity and status? As the influence of South Korean popular culture in Japan strengthens over time, what can the Japanese local culture do in response?

Going back to my encounter with the Japanese waitress, it is not difficult to see that Hong Kong’s popular culture has also left a strong impression on foreigners. Regardless of whether Hong Kongers still watch Jackie Chan’s movies, and whether Jackie Chan is still interested in Hong Kong’s market, millions of people outside of Hong Kong still think of him as a symbolic Hong Konger.

Nowadays, my peers spend a lot of effort studying Korean and Japanese, just to be able to watch television programs without subtitles. The waves of popular culture drive the sales of Japanese and Korean food and beverages, and countless fans flock to Korea or Japan for “pilgrimages” during holidays.

Similarly, people of age in South Korea and Japan are also enchanted by dim sum and wontons, simply because of Hong Kong’s popular culture. As Professor Simon Shen pointed out recently in an article, South Korean superstar Jun Ji-hyun is a huge admirer of the late Hong Kong singer Leslie Cheung. South Korea’s entertainment programs and television dramas also often pay tributes to classic Hong Kong movies. Their “national first-love,” Suzy, also shot her music video in Hong Kong, because she is fond of the movie “In the Mood for Love.” On top of all this, Japanese television dramas and films are very keen on using Hong Kong as their backdrop.

Through South Korea’s case, we can see that popular culture can represent an identity, and the strategic value of a cultural identity is precisely what Hong Kong needs now. However, when even Japanese people acknowledge that Jackie Chan does not represent Hong Kong, where is Hong Kong’s popular culture going? In Hong Kong, is anyone – from the government to entertainment agencies to the general public – reflecting on the image built by Hong Kong’s popular culture? If, in retrospect, Hong Kong’s popular culture was once a sharp sword, does its society have any interest in sharpening the rusty weapon? Or is Hong Kong merely pushing the sword deeper into its body?

This is the first of two articles in the writer’s “Examining South Korea” series. The Chinese version of this article was previously published on The Initium.

Editor: Olivia Yang