Reply 2002: A Hallyu Love Letter

pt2019_03_05_21_04_47_mh1551820947833When it comes to talking about KPOP and the global phenomenon that it really has become, we’re not telling the full story if we don’t mention the word ‘Hallyu’.

Hallyu is a word that means ‘Korean Wave’ and is used to refer to the exportation of Korean goods such as Daewoo shipbuilding and marine engineering, Hyundai Cars, LG and Samsung EVERYTHING as well as Korean cuisine and beauty products. But by far the most important out of all these things is my beloved KPOP.

What is KPOP? In short, it’s Pop music in the Korean language, but in actuality it’s so much more than that. KPOP is a way of life. And discovering KPOP at age 16 in the year 2002, fresh off the World Cup in Japan & Korea changed my life forever.

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Where does the Reply series come in?

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Reply 1997 is the first in a series created by Shin Won-ho and Rhee Myung-han about a group of 33 year olds from Busan in the year 2012 that are at a high school reunion. The overarching theme of Reply 1997 is the intense feeling of infatuation that comes with being a teenager. A lot is happening to the body and hormones are everywhere. Add handsome KPOP boys to the mix and chaos ensues.

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Our protagonist, Sung Shi-Won is the ultimate H.O.T fangirl. She was a Stan before Stan, and took her love for group member Tony to the max by even breaking into his house to catch a glimpse of him. What makes the show so great is that, through her love for H.O.T, Shi-Won developed her writing skills (through slash fanfiction) and was able to use those skills to get into university, which once seemed like a pipe dream, as she had no discernible transferrable skills before exploring writing.

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Reply 1997 is crafted much like the CBS Sitcom, ‘How I Met Your Mother’ in the sense that the audience is made to wait with baited breath to find out how we go from the year 1997 seeing Shi-Won the Stan, to 2012 with Shi-Won the working, married mother of 2 (she’s pregnant in the present day scenes).

Watching the series I immediately saw myself in Shi-Won. It was hard not to, as one of the main reasons why I even went to South Korea is because of my love for the singer BoA.

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It’s really incredible how one person and the machine behind them can have such a great impact on your life but that’s who BoA is for me.

So here I am, pitching Series 4 of the Reply Series: Reply 2002: Hallyu Wave.

Let’s go back to the…

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Much like the characters in Reply 1997, I do sometimes have a longing for simpler times. When I got into KPOP, it was at the tail end of the First Wave Idols like H.O.T, Shinwa, Sechkies, S.E.S. Finkl and Baby VOX to name a few.

A New Era had begun and SM entertainment alongside YG Family and JYP was taking KPOP into a new direction. The Era of the Group was gone, now was the time of the solo idol. In the year 2000 SM Entertainment debuted a 13 year old female singer called BoA.

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BoA is her real name but they capitalised the A for it to stand for Angel and Asia. So in some circles she’s known as Beat of Angel or Best of Asia. Both apply.

Without going into an entire history of BoA (there’s an SM DVD set for that), it’s safe to say that BoA helped herald a new, sleeker era of KPOP that still stands to this day. BoA’s imaging, dancing, music videos and fashion are literally the blueprint of KPOP and it’s actually high time more people put respect on this woman’s name. During this new era of KPOP music, YG Family would bring out their solo star Se7en.

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Se7en was in no way a rival to BoA, he was more like the Justin Timberlake to BoA’s Britney, or the Usher to BoA’s Beyonce. They complimented each other because they did different things and had a different fan base.

Me, being a huge fan of R&B immediately became a YG Family fangirl. I followed every artist they brought out, from 1TYM, Se7en, Perry, Wheesung, Gummy, Big Mama and Soulstar. I watched the inception of Big Bang through a reality tv show and I remember when YG would post videos of his latest trainees online: Gong Minzi, Lee Chaerin and longstanding YG trainee Park Bom. If these names sound familiar to you, it’s because these ladies would end up in YG’s second best girl group (after Big Mama) 2NE1. Sandara Park would join at a later date to complete the quartet.

You can thank 2NE1 every time you see a Girl Crush concept in KPOP.

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But let’s get back to BoA. Being a fan of KPOP back in 2002 wasn’t as easy as it is now, but I can tell you it was a lot more fun. First was overcoming the language barrier. Now this is something I’ve still yet to fully accomplish but I’m a lot better than I used to be. This was before Google got real snazzy with their translate service and this was long before smart phones-this was the glorious flip phone era!

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This meant that finding KPOP was incredibly difficult if you didn’t read Hangul. I remember buying a Korean dictionary from an acquaintance (now one of my best friends) just so I could learn to read Hangul. I remember trying my best to learn songs through Konglish (it sucks, just learn Hangul) and never quite grasping it the way I was able to learn BoA’s Japanese songs through Romaji. That leads me to another point: BoA is the first Korean National female artist to enter Japan and dominate year after year and actually get number one albums on the Oricon chart. In 2019, seeing your favs go to Japan is simply a rite of passage. They say you ain’t made it until you’re big in Japan and BoA, at the age of 15 going on 16 would release her first Japanese album ‘Listen To My Heart’.

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This was a full Japanese album featuring songs like ID; Peace B, Listen to My Heart and the iconic No1 that were originally in Korean. But there were also a lot of original Japanese songs added like Kimochiwa Tsutawaru (that would be later translated into Korean) that gave the album a very distinctive JPOP feel.

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BoA, SM and Avex Entertainment essentially re-branded BoA as a JPOP teen star and it worked. She would spend years on end in Japan working tirelessly to get on the same level as artists such as Utada Hikaru, Amuro Namie and Hamasaki Ayumi, the latter two being incredibly famous for their amazing tours. BoA would go on to become equally as prolific, releasing album after album and tour after tour in Japan. She worked so hard in Japan that fans in Korea became anxious and were worried they’d lost BoA to the JPOP industry.

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The year 2004 would put those fears to rest and would also be a very important year in KPOP. Firstly, more solo singers like Rain and Lee Hyori (formerly of Finkl) were dominating the charts and the Neptunes sound of R&B would finally push through to the mainstream in Korea. BoA came back swinging with the full-length album ‘My Name’ (this is back when full-length albums were still a thing in KPOP). From the video, the choreography, the amazing 3 piece outfit to the song itself, My Name would help modernise KPOP even more with Western sounds bleeding more into the overall production. 

2004 is also the year a new group called Dong Bang Shin Ki (동방신기) would debut. You may or may not have heard of them…

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In the Fall of that year they released their first album, Tri-Angle and who did they get for a guest feature? BoA!

I’m choosing to pause at the year 2004 for a moment, because my own life had already changed so much for the better due to my obsession with Asian pop music. After leaving High School in 2002, I felt incredibly lost, I had no direction and quite frankly if it wasn’t for the discovery of the world of Asian Music, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

I know that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there’s really something to be said about those formative teenage years where everything seems so amplified. Very small things seem huge and the future doesn’t really seem like a possibility-only the present was important to me back then. Growing up in the 90s wasn’t the easiest at the best of times. My Mom tried her best to make us happy, but because she wasn’t happy with her personal life, it sadly leaked out into everything she did. Growing up with a mother with severe mental health problems taught me a lot at a very young age about how fragile my parents really were. Thankfully my Mom is okay now after seeking help. But these memories stuck to me like glue and I developed a disdain for the 90s because of all the abuse I experienced growing up. I was obsessed with modernity, everything had to be new and up-to-date.

Looking to Asia was my way of staying present and very much alive. I grew up in South London in the food industry as my parents opened a Jamaican restaurant when I was 11 and I worked there every weekend until I finished High school. As a result of growing up behind the counter, I became a very jaded, snarky girl who rarely entertained foolishness. Imagine Daria being from a crowded city in the 90s and instead of growing up in a big house with her own room, imagine her sharing a double bed with her two sisters in a two-bedroom apartment/flat. That was me. We were poor and I was constantly angry about it.

My dream was to become an author for children. I carried this dream within me throughout the horrible years of primary and high school and it was only until I finished high school and worked at our family restaurant full-time that reality seemed to set in and the world came crashing down around me. 

To be honest, all those years taught me was that my Daria persona obviously came from somewhere real. I was incredibly bored and unimpressed by the Eurocentric nature of my surroundings and while I was connected to my Jamaican culture, at that specific time, it wasn’t enough. I lived and breathed being Jamaican, so it wasn’t fancy or new to me. Spanish-Language music was appealing and the Latin Wave was great, but outside of classic artists like Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe I did not see anything I could latch onto (although Shakira would give me a run for my money). Please bear in mind this is the era of Britney, NSYNC* and Destiny’s Child/Beyoncé. I’m very good at multitasking so I still was a fan of those artists too. The same year BoA released the albums; My Name (Korea) and Love & Honesty (Japan), I would also wait 3 hours in line outside of Virgin Megastores to meet Destiny’s Child who were back after a 3-year hiatus (in which Beyonce would rise). I did get to meet them and they signed my CD single of ‘Lose My Breath’-very good memory.

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What can I say? I’m a fangirl to the highest order and I’m not ashamed of that.
Getting into Asian pop at that age and that specific time was very necessary to my overall development as a person because it helped me to see the world from a different perspective. I began studying Japanese and Korean. I would eventually fall off from studying Korean for a while to focus on studying Japanese. Once Japanese got ‘boring’ I would go back to studying Korean. It would be a total lie if I said that I’m now able to focus on one language and culture. Nope, I’m still the same flip-flopper who also likes to get into music from China, The Phillipines, India, Indonesia and many other countries. I will always be the perpetual fangirl.

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Much like Shi-Won in Reply 1997, I cut my tooth writing re-imaginings of classic stories and fan-fiction about everything from the TV show ‘The Tribe’, to ‘Harry Potter’ to of course, every SM Entertainment artist big from the years 02-05. I was obsessed with writing and music. Again, I can’t say much has changed.

When I watched Reply 1997 I felt like someone had been watching my life. Aside from the whole love and marriage elements, that is my life on screen.

Thanks to KPOP, the once directionless teenager, who kept everything locked within became a focused, optimistic person with a strong sense of direction. I decided I was going to become a writer and made sure I finished college, went to university and graduated with honours (trust me, that wasn’t an easy road either).

Throughout this time I had BoA, Se7en, Wonder Girls, Rain, Big Mama, Wheesung, Drunken Tiger, Yoonmirae, Fly To The Sky, Big Bang, Brown Eyed Girls, SHINee, Girls Generation, 2NE1 and much more riding with me through the highs and lows of life. They kept me centred and kept my eyes on the prize. It didn’t matter how many meals I had to sell, toilets I had to clean, jumpers I had to fold or how many tables I had to wait on. No matter what happened in life, I was going to end up in Asia.

During this time while working various jobs in the service industry, I would meet a group of people who could only be described as Otakus on steroids. I started going to weekly Japanese parties and met all types of people just like myself. There were many pockets of different groups and there were groups within groups. I found myself gravitating towards other Black girls at the party and it felt good to finally meet people who had similar interests. We formed a Korean group at the Japanese party (yes…I know, we were ridiculous) and even went as far as performing KPOP songs at the Japanese Karaoke night. I’m serious, here’s footage for proof:

A year after this video was shot I got to see SHINee live at the Odeon Theatre in London for the 2011 London Korean Film Festival. Hallyu was finally reaching England!

Sadly the fun from those times would come to an abrupt end as most of the people were from other parts of the world and eventually they all left and went back to their countries. The hardest times was saying goodbye to the people in our group who were leaving to live in Japan, Korea and China. I was sad because they were leaving but I was also riddled with jealously. I realised I had to stop playing around and continue to work on my goal of moving to Korea to teach.

In 2013 I finally made my dream come true. I applied for EPIK and got into their Seoul program and I was based in GANGNAM of all places (Gangnam Style came out in 2012). I attended Dream Concert, met idols, took a liking to an actor who I would then go on to meet and fall in love with. This particular actor was a foreigner like myself and epitomised everything I wanted to be, he spoke Korean, he had an affinity for learning about other cultures and most importantly, did not reject his own culture for Korea. Living in Korea made me very proud to be Jamaican and I made an effort to teach my students as much as I could about the West Indies.

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The first day I walked from my apartment to Cheongdam station (Exit 7) I saw a huge Missha poster advertising makeup, and who was their model? Of course it was BoA.

When I’d get to the top of the steps in the Express Bus Terminal who did I see? 2NE1 advertising cameras. Girls Generation were advertising luxury watches (amongst everything else) and Big Bang were telling you to fly via Incheon Airport.

Kpop was everywhere in Seoul.

Even writing this makes my heart flutter and my stomach turn over with butterflies because KPOP is hard to describe, but it’s easy to feel.

It’s a feeling that anything is possible, that there is a whole world out there waiting for you to grab it by the horns. KPOP feels like Saturday morning cartoons, or like the whoosh of excitement you feel when the trailers come on before a movie you’ve been dying to watch. KPOP is community, it’s active, it makes you want to dance and sing. It makes you want to create and inspire other people. It made me want to live in Korea, on my own, with minimal teaching experience, to teach hundreds of Korean children. KPOP to this day reminds me to be passionate about whatever I do.

I left Korea in 2015 and moved back to London. The disdain I had for the city became even more apparent and several times I had to be warned by well-meaning friends and family to stop glaring at everything with such disgust. For the first few months I stayed around Korean friends and only ate Korean or Jamaican food, but then I slowly re-integrated myself into London life-which really meant doing as many West Indian things as possible. I saved up all my wages to go to Barbados to experience Crop Over (their annual carnival) and in Barbados I was reborn. I came back rejuvenated, a new me. And what did I decide to do? Link up with my good friend April and start a KPOP Podcast of course! It was only right.

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And here I am today, much like the characters in Reply 1997, I am in my 33rd year of life and I do sometimes sit with family and old friends and reminisce about the past. Nostalgia is a powerful thing; hence why we have so many reboots and re-imaginings of TV shows and films constantly coming out. And while it’s nice to look to the past, it’s very important to stay grounded in the present because the future is yet to happen.

Hallyu has been very pivotal in the shaping of my overall personality and I’m very proud to be a part of this movement. While there are times that I yell at clouds and tell the new KPOP fans to get off my lawn, I’m very happy that the wave continues to get bigger and that Korean culture has become more accessible to the world at large.

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Reply 2002: Hallyu needs to be a thing. It needs to exist for the kids like myself poring over sheets of Hangul, just so they can read their favourite artists’ names. It’s for the kids who lost whole weeks of their lives holed up in their bedrooms watching KDramas. It’s for the kids who learned Tae Kwon Do as a way to connect to anything remotely Korean and kick ass at the same time. It’s for the ones who, in the very early days of youtube, were the only non-Asians doing KPOP dance and song covers. If anyone wants to know if Hallyu is real, take a look at the world right now.

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We’re currently riding atop of the largest wave. And what a beautiful sight it is to see.

-Girl Davis

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