The Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong’s book about the Korean Wave or hallyu, which only appeared to take place overnight. It seems that all of a sudden we’re aware of Samsung phones and Psy galloping his way to gazillions of YouTube hits. However, Hong describes how South Korean’s influencing world culture, not just pop culture, was a few decades in the making.
In just over 250 pages, Hong documents developments in South Korean music, movies, technology, and food. Ms. Hong, a Korean-American who has also lived in France and Germany, is our tour guide through modern South Korea. She maintains a balancing act where she shares her experiences living in Seoul’s Gangnam district as a teenager and reporting South Korea’s aspirations of worldwide cultural dominance.
Hong documents the many factors influencing the South Korea of today: Korea’s relatively recent emergence as a modern democracy, emphasis on Confucianism and nature fetishism, the concept of “han,” and the South Korean government pushing for culture. Hong narrates with a breezy, cosmopolitan wit, but much of the humor comes from the are-you-kidding-me-this-country-is-weird facts and anecdotes.
The South Korean government took drastic measures, especially during the 1990s Asian financial crisis, to allow for industries to flourish. Hong documents the improved fortunes of Samsung and the construction of South Korea’s entertainment industries. There’s much criticism about American singers being “pre-packaged,” but in South Korea that complaint is their necessity due to cultural and historical factors. Music companies get their charismatic girl groups and boy groups and get away with churning out talent.
Yes, South Korean dynamo Psy is profiled early in the book. During the brief biography, Hong takes the opportunity to discuss what Koreans consider scandalous: disrepect of parents and their authority. One of Psy’s pre-Gangnam Style hits is an ode to his father. Hong notes that a Western star wouldn’t devote a song to their parents, but Tupac Shakur would disagree.
South Korea apparently has banned content that’s too sexual or violent, but has Hangover, Psy’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg, played there?
Birth also goes over South Korea’s relations with North Korea and Japan. While North Korea flexes its self-proclaimed muscular might, South Korea prefers to sashay its soft power. Hong reports that an interesting South Korean exercise in bridge-building: a TV show that features attractive female North Korea refugees (the South’s preferred nomenclature over “defectors”). In regards to Japan, Hong documents the ongoing Liancourt Rocks dispute, the misguided spectacle of hosting the World Cup in both countries, and other examples of historical tensions.
A documentary clip about South Korea’s TV showcase of North Korean defectors:
If you didn’t have a clue that South Korea and Japan aren’t alike, you will after reading Birth.
The Birth of Korean Cool is not only a guide to South Korean culture, but an examination of the Korean character. Getting a good education is a very harsh experience with restrictions on tutoring, hellish preparations for college exams, and a major emphasis on iron-fisted teachers. American corporal punishment, which wasn’t unheard of when I was growing up, may be a slap on the wrist compared to South Korean teachers having a free pass to physically and psychologically torturing students. The author herself couldn’t fully assimilate due to attitudes against bilingualism.
Hong also extensively covers han, which seems to be a buildup of all the anger, bitterness, and other stresses Koreans have endured over centuries. As an African-American who is aware of the “echoes of slavery,” I was piqued at the thought that a group of people having hard-earned success and triumphs.
The book also explore some tech-related angles. There’s a chapter about how Samsung went to crap-making chumps to consumer electronics champs. It’s true that Apple may still use Samsung microchips in spite of rumors suggesting Apple may go with someone else in the near-future. Samsung’s strategy of having their products cover every price point while showcasing their high-end stuff effectively gets their products in many hands.
Video games are discussed, but it’s not a deep analysis. It’s known that Koreans are so StarCraft 2-crazy some will risk their or their children’s lives for some real-time strategy bliss. That said, it’s too pat for Hong to say that Americans and Japanese are fixated on realistic graphics as games have carved distinct niches that aren’t about cool visuals. For those who want a thorough history of South Korean video games, check out Hardcore Gaming 101’s History of Korean Gaming by Sam Derboo.
I should either thank South Korean MMORPG game developers, curse them, or both for leading the way in the free-to-play, but pay-to-win-or-bling-out scheme.
Birth is an informative, one-stop resource about current-day South Korea. The book’s persuasive about South Korea entering the big leagues of world culture. Those curious about the country or Koreaphiles will find much to enjoy. Now, I can get a certain friend to read this…
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