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Korean TV stars shine behind Bamboo Curtain

Country influenced China's TV, pix, games, fashion

SHANGHAI — South Korea’s TV stars have taken China’s teens and twentysomethings by storm, another sign that the country is opening up to foreign influences.

Other evidence: The hottest discussions aired on Chinese webs are about developments in Korean drama; interviews with actor-singer Jae-wook Ahn run and rerun on major cable stations; and posters of actress Hee-sun Kim covering walls in street corner cafes.

The “Korea Current,” or “hanryu” as it is called locally, started in 1998 when Korean rock group Clon hit Taiwan. Korea fever spread to mainland China and Hong Kong, carried through TV, movies, games, food and fashion.

The biggest contributor, however, is television drama. China began importing Korean shows in 1995, and the number has increased steadily since then. In 2000, the value of imported programming was $1.97 million. This year it will rocket thanks to the Korean drama fad.

Almost all of South Korea’s top TV shows are now available behind the Bamboo Curtain, including runaway hits “Autumn Tale” and “Soonpoong Obstetrics.”

And the Chinese government agreed last month to change the law restricting Korean content to 15% of TV airtime and end regulations that made it difficult for Korean celebrities to enter the Chinese entertainment market.

This is a sea change from a year ago when the government banned Koreans from holding concerts in the country for six months after a group of entertainers canceled their live show at the last minute.

Jin-hong Chung, professor of communications at the Korean National U. of Arts, says: “The main reason for this trend is that Hong Kong, which was once the culture base for all of China, is no longer functioning as such. Korea just stumbled into the niche market.

“I think the Chinese find comfort in Korean celebrities because they don’t look very different from them and often display sentiments (in dramas and movies) that they can relate to.”

That Korea fever is hot and growing is most obvious in a very unlikely sector: tourism. Huge numbers of Chinese female fans pour into Seoul to see their favorite Korean actors and actresses.

In early August, 250 fans from eight countries, including China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, came to South Korea for the Ahn Jae-wook Forever Summer Camp to hang out with the singer-thesp famous for dramas including “Star in My Heart” and “Goodbye, My Love.”

On Aug. 18, 500 teens from China flooded Seoul to attend the Korea Wave Music Camp, organized by entertainment company Star Korea. The celebrities on hand include Ahn plus rock groups NRG and Position.

Similar events are wildly popular in China, where recently established branches of companies including Star Korea stage regular concerts, almost always to full houses. Favorites at these shows include actors Dong-gun Jang and In-pyo Cha and singing groups Baby Vox and Clon.

Meanwhile, China’s favorite Korean celebrities Ahn and Kim have been cashing in on their popularity. Ahn recently modeled for a TV monitor company and boosted sales by 150%. The actor is also scheduled to star in a Chinese drama for $8,000 per episode, a royal sum by mainland standards.

Kim, who starred in last year’s summer blockbuster “Bichunmoo” and drama “Mr. Q,” signed a two-year contract in early August to become the face for a major Chinese mobile phone company, TCL, reportedly receiving about $1.5 million for the job.

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