In exploring his Korean roots, writer Jonathan Chan uncovers Singapore's long historical links with South Korea. It's a journey that has led to the Republic's decade-long obsession with the East Asian nation's cultural exports, a wave that keeps rising.
“We know of no country in the world which has attracted less notice than Korea. Not a single junk, unless cast away by stress of weather, goes to Korea...
A Korean looks a very grotesque figure. Besides the enormous hat which covers a pointed cap, he wears a pair of sleeves of the moderate dimensions of a sack. This is quite in contrast again with his shoes made of canvas, which fit most closely to his feet, and he is as proud of their smallness as a Chinese lady. The males are remarkable for their symmetry, the females for their extreme ugliness, and they appear here to hold the rank of beasts of burden.” - The Straits Times, 1838
“Singapore President Halimah Yacob has asked South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to consider allowing more flights between the two countries, noting that there is strong demand for travel from both sides.
‘He told me that in a survey they did, when Koreans were asked where they would like to go when borders are open, they said Singapore,’ she told The Straits Times.
‘So I said that the reverse is also true. When Singaporeans are asked where they would like to go, they put (their) number one (choice as) Korea.’” - The Straits Times, 2022
I remember when it became cool to be Korean in Singapore. It was the early 2010s and I had just begun secondary school.
Many a Singaporean housewife had started to swoon over Bae Yong Joon in “Winter Sonata”and be dazzled by Lee Young-ae in “Jewel in the Palace”. Hallyu, or the ‘Korean Wave’, would begin its slow engulfment of their children. My seniors and classmates would change their profile pictures on Facebook to their favourite members of Girls Generation or SHINee, declaring their unabating love for their legs or their looks. Boys would skip class to watch HyunA shake her ass on the library computers. My own cousin, who had debuted in a Korean boyband in 2008, would be chased by eager fans in hired vans whenever they came to Singapore.
Part of me wanted to capitalise on this coolness, this intense allure generated by Korea’s cultural exports. This was the particular way my adolescent insecurity had chosen to make itself apparent. On Facebook, I would host giveaways of albums signed by my cousin’s group. In school, I would gravitate toward Korean friends, only to be held at an occasional distance because I wasn’t fluent in Korean (one even called me a hybrid Korean because of my mixed parentage). And on trips to Seoul to visit family, I would buy shirts, pants, and glasses, hoping to take advantage of the aesthetic connotations that came with being Korean. Ethnicity became ancillary to style.
The particular ubiquity of Korean cultural products, especially with their more accessible and familiar cultural and social values to Singapore’s ethnic communities, has led to recreations of scenes from “Descendants of the Sun” and “Crash Landing on You” by army boys and people watching “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” on their phones on the MRT to work. Such is the power of the Korean Wave that “Minari”, a Korean American film set in Arkansas, US, was marketed in Singapore as if it were a K-drama. Once, at a friend’s place, his father stood up after he had finished dinner to return to watching his drama. Upon hearing my friend proclaim that I am half-Korean, he promptly did a 180-degree turn to share his newfound fascination with the shows.
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