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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 18:47 GMT
Taiwan: Sold on Seoul
Hsimen, one of Taipei's trendiest areas
Korean culture is taking centre stage in Taipei fashion
By Helen Leavey in Taipei

South Korea will be on everyone's lips later this year when it hosts the football World Cup with Japan.

But it is already attracting a lot of attention across East Asia as its pop culture, including music, films and TV shows, is all the rage.

A scene from the film Friend, one of the most popular Korean films last year
The Korean film Friend was very popular (Star TV)
From Beijing to Hanoi, from Singapore to Taipei, what the Chinese call "hanliu", or "Korean stream", is gaining in popularity.

Boy bands like NRG and girl bands such as Baby VOX have been singing and dancing up a storm, and soap operas such as Sparks - also known as Fireworks - have widespread appeal.

The Korean National Tourism Organisation (KNTO) is using this new interest in its country to promote Korean culture.

Soap fever

Park Choong-Kyung, director of its Taipei office, says it all began with exporting soap operas.

"This was followed by Korean pop music and movies, and has even spread to industries such as animation, cosmetics, food, electronics and automobiles."

CDs on sale in Taipei
Sales of Korean music have risen by 50% over the last year
One bonus has been a growing number of tourists. KNTO figures show 442,000 people from mainland China visited South Korea in 2000, a 122% increase over the previous five-year average.

The soap opera Sparks, or Fireworks, is just one of many Korean TV shows which is becoming increasingly popular in Taiwan. Hundreds of thousands of fans tune in regularly to find out how a love affair develops between a plastic surgeon and a TV actress.

Korean language craze

Taipei TV researcher and soap fan Jung Wang said some of her friends were so engrossed by the imports they had started to learn how to write in Korean.

"We hope that if someday we face the actors personally, we can talk to them in the Korean language and they will begin to love us," she said.

Many soap die-hards have even gone on organised tours to South Korea to find out how their favourite programmes are filmed.

Professor Yu-fen Ko, who teaches cultural studies at Taipei's National Chengchi University, said Korean popular culture is doing well because it manages to successfully combine two dominant cultural forms in Asia - Western and Japanese.

She said: "Taking Korean rap as an example, it takes out the racial meanings and substitutes teenagers' painful experiences of the Asian education systems and also the young love stories that all Asian youth experience."

Sales of music by Korean bands are on the rise - one manager of a music chain store in Taipei said sales had risen by 50% over the last year.

Lucrative business

Marketing managers are also hard at work trying to cash in on this success by developing Korean talent as much as possible.

Jennifer Yao, from film production company Central Motion Picture Corporation in Taipei, said: "They have a very healthy and complete process.

"They find talented people and put them in a TV series; the people are maybe singers, and after the TV series they produce CDs - and the next step, they make films. The government supports this system."

All of this is challenging previous top-dog Japan in the realm of popular culture.

It certainly seems that Seoul is at the heart of all things cool at the moment.

See also:

24 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
China bans Taiwan's Madonna
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