Nia Tam Kwai Ting is an ordinary university student in Hong Kong with glasses and her black hair dyed brown. She studies journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Almost every day after class, Nia runs back to her dormitory with one goal in mind -- to watch Sungkyunkwan Scandal, a Korean love story set in the Josun dynasty. Nia usually downloads Korean dramas from movie-downloading software PP Stream. Although she has been watching three dramas simultaneously, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is her current favorite.
Nia loves Korean dramas. She has been watching Korean dramas since high school, and it has become part of her routine. One time, when she watched an entire season of a drama series (with approximately 16 episodes with each lasting for about 45 minutes) in only two days. "It is like a drama-watching marathon," she says. "The drama is so exciting that I'd sleep less to finish it."
Nia has a circle of friends who are equally enthusiastic about Korean dramas and celebrities. They all take Korean language courses at their university, and some even change their Facebook language to Korean. Nia says that some of her friends would even travel to other parts of East and Southeast Asia to see the Korean celebrities in concerts: "One of my friends went to Taiwan last summer for the sole purpose of seeing the Girls' Generation in concert."
Nia shows her passion for Korean dramas by taking trips to the locations where they are filmed.
"When I visited Korea last time, I went to the coffee shops where [2010's] Secret Garden was shot," she says. "I'm planning to go to Korea this summer. There are some tourist spots which become more worthy of going because the stars have been there. I feel more familiar with the place and I would think about what they did there in the dramas."
Nia is not alone in her Korean drama addiction. Korean drama has become enormously popular in Hong Kong in the last few years. The popularity was coined hallyu, which means Korean wave. Dae Jang Geum, a 2003 drama about the life of a cook-turned-doctor in the imperial palace, was voted the best foreign drama when it was shown in Hong Kong. It was watched by more than half of all TV viewers, after it was broadcast on TVB (Television Broadcast Network), the territory most-viewed free local TV channel, in 2005. In addition, Lee Young Ae, the leading actress of Dae Jang Geum, was voted woman of the year in 2005, according to a poll conducted by RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong).
Since then, the Korean wave continues to sweep across Hong Kong. A series of successful Korean drama such as My name is Kim Sam-soon, Lee San, and Koong. TVB, building on the Korean hype in HK, established a new TV channel TVB-J2 in 2008, a station which devotes hours of airtime just showing Korean dramas. Another local free channel, ATV, shows Korean dramas in prime time five days a week. In addition, according to scholars in Seoul, more Hong Kong people have started dressing up in Korean traditional costumes.
Lee Young Ae posing with Hong Kong elementary school students imitating Little Jang Geum
Along with dramas, Korean music has also captivated audience in Hong Kong. The Korean group Wonder Girls staged a concert in Hong Kong in December of 2010, which generated much enthusiasm because of their widely played hit song "Nobody." Their fan club website has received 174,590 hits to date. Another popular group, the Super Junior, has also recruited over 20,000 members for their HK fan club.
Around 2004-2005, when Dae Jang Geum was riding high in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post observed a 10% increase of HK tourists to Korea, mostly visiting the shooting sites of Dae Jang Geum. The number of Hong Kong tourists travelling in Korea has continued to increase in recent years. \
According to Professor Yun Jung Sook, who teaches Korean language at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the number of Hong Kong students enrolled in her course has increased ten-fold since she first started teaching in Hong Kong in 1997. She attributes it to the Korean wave, and she says many of her students come to discuss Korean celebrities with her. Professor Yun believes that the beauty of Korean dramas accounts for its popularity, beating its counterparts in Japan or Taiwan. She says Korean people are diligent and place great emphasis on quality.
And, in addition to the breathtaking shooting sites, the cast members must be beautiful as well. "If Hong Kong dramas have more beautiful people, they will be more popular," she says.
Indeed, Korea is known for producing handsome actors and beautiful actresses, with the men tending toward thick eyebrows and strong features, and the women having light, clear skin and big eyes. The beauty of the cast is certainly an advantage for the hallyu wave. "I won't watch Korean dramas if there isn't any beautiful cast members," says Nia.
Janice Ji is a Hallyu enthusiast from the mainland China. She loves watching Korean dramas because of the romantic elements in the storyline.
"Korean drama has lots of romantic stories that attract women," Ji says. She adds that they are popular because they depict many real-life situations, unlike dramas produced in the China. "Korean drama shows the real stuff, which Chinese dramas doesn't show because of the central government's censorship."
Professor Amy Chan, an honorary ambassador for Korea Tourism, says that the traditional family values portrayed in the Korean dramas coincide with those treasured in China. For instance, filial piety thrives in Korea, which is also taught by Confucianism. While Hong Kong people do not view family as importantly as they did in the past -- "When your parents hit you on the head, you do not fight back," she explains. "At certain points, you have to kneel in front of your parents to beg for forgiveness." -- Professor Chan says Hong Kong people are impressed by storylines that present such values, as nuclear families dominate the Hong Kong society.
Korea is trying to take advantage of the enthusiasm of fans like Nia by actually promoting travel to the country. Professor Chan said the Korea government has been working with some Korean provinces to facilitate tourists to travel. For example, Chinese and English directional signs have been put up to indicate the shooting sites of Korean dramas. The government also encourages travel agents to arrange packaged tours primarily featuring movie-shooting locations, like cafes and theme parks. In addition, Korea Tourism Organization has been using Korean drama characters, like Bae Yong Jun, to help promote tourism.
Korea drama producers aim higher. Professor Chan says that Hong Kong is a small market for them. They are looking for audiences in China, Japan and Taiwan. However, she believes the Korean wave will stay for a long time in Hong Kong.
"There are still people who have not been exposed to Korean dramas," sayd Chan. "Once they are exposed, they become addicted."
Jacqueline Choi, Raymond Chan, and Edith Liu are students in the Journalism Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.