Sunday, July 11, 2004

Among the popular Korean serials creating a stir with Hawaii viewers is "Sweet 18."

Addicted to love

Soap operas from South Korea
are catching on with non-Koreans
in Hawaii and the mainland

On television

You don't often hear the word "love" used without irony when speaking about a TV station, but viewers of the local Korean-language KBFD truly love that station with all their hearts, specifically when it comes to serial dramas.

Ever since Kea Sung Chung started the independent UHF station in March 1986, KBFD's viewership, thanks to the growth of cable, has stretched beyond its intended Korean audience to include non-Korean female fans of English-subtitled dramas such as "Stairway to Heaven," "Phoenix," "The Marrying Type" and "One Million Roses."

Chung's son Jeff and daughter Yun Hee now manage the station, and fans have found the Chungs friendly and approachable whenever they've visited the downtown TV station.

So popular are these shows that KBFD also markets DVDs of earlier series here and throughout the mainland (more on that later), as well as CDs of the dramas' original soundtracks.

Korean dramas reach millions of daily viewers in China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Seoul government estimates that 200,000 Asian tourists visited South Korea last year to see the studios and locations where the shows are shot. Several series were sent by the Korean government to Iraq to preserve the morale of Korean troops stationed there.

U.S. audiences for Korean television drama, while small, are vocal and devoted. In addition to KBFD, stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City offer several shows daily.

Among the popular Korean serials creating a stir with Hawaii viewers is "Phoenix."

"We knew that most viewers of the dramas were first-generation Korean Americans, but we worried about the second generation, who were losing the language," said Kwang Dong-jo, vice president of the Chicago station. "We started subtitling to reach those younger people, and we asked viewers a year ago for feedback to see if they liked the subtitles.

"We got nearly 500 e-mails from English-speaking Americans," Kwang said. "We never expected non-Koreans to write, and it was a shock to us. I know these dramas are becoming popular even in Latin America - but in the U.S.? We are still surprised."

HARD-CORE LOCAL FANS refuse to take phone calls or speak to family members while their favorite dramas are playing.

Cheryl, from Kalihi (no last name, please, but she will say she's of Japanese ethnicity), was channel surfing one day several years ago when the English-translated drama "Propose" caught her eye.

"I started to tell my friends about the show, and a few became interested as well," she says, "and through the KBFD Web site and message board, I became more interested when I met more people through the message board group."

When asked how American soap operas fare against the Korean serial dramas, the responses were all the same.

American fans of Korean soap operas say they are glad for the absence of sex and violence in the storylines. Above is the recently concluded "Stairway to Heaven," which will be released on DVD in the fall.

"I can't watch American ones anymore," Cheryl says. "They don't have an end to their stories. Also, American soap operas have a lot of violence, and, of course, they have sex. That's not common in Korean dramas, plus I like the fact there will be an end to the story."

TO A MULTIETHNIC population here in the islands, ain't no big thing. We all share the stuff of our native cultures with one another with a sense of aloha - so why not TV dramas?

The community of Korean serial drama fans eagerly share their views with each other via KBFD's message board on its Web site, meet quarterly as part of the Hawaii K Drama Fan Club, learn more about the language and culture through special classes and, like their Asian counterparts, go on specialized South Korea tours that address their No. 1 passion.

The buzz on Korean serial dramas can be heard by men and women in offices, shopping malls, supermarkets, hair salons. And to think it all started with the airing of one English-translated drama, "Paper Crane," on KBFD back in 1988.

"We did it at first for better understanding of what Korea is culture-wise," says Jeff Chung. "Our dedicated viewers have always been the former Korean nationals, who only make up 2 percent of the population. But the overall popularity of our dramas started blooming three to four years ago. That's thanks to finding the right people to translate these dramas, which at times can be difficult because they have to have an understanding of both the culture and language."

In addition to the Chicago station, Chung says, "any subtitled dramas that are airing on the mainland more than likely came from us. No doubt, subtitling started in Hawaii. What has also helped with the growing popularity of the dramas here is that we're basically a free, local UHF station. On the mainland, Korean programming is aired either on strictly cable channels, pay channels or leasing time off a local channel.

"One Million Roses" airs daily on KBFD in Hawaii and will conclude later this month.

"Here, it's come to the point where we consider requests from the serial drama fans. And our ad income has been steadily growing to include clients apart from the usual Korean businesses, thanks to the additional number of viewers these dramas pull in."

Pam Amii, a First Hawaiian Bank employee, says that family values are stressed in the Korean dramas, "as opposed to the torrid romances on American shows. Also, the romances are portrayed very slowly - it takes what seems ages for the couples to hold hands and get a peck on the cheek, which can be frustrating at times for an American audience."

While Joyce Lee, of Kaneohe, admits to watching the occasional episode of "The Bold and the Beautiful," "if I had a choice, I always watch the Korean one. ... The story lines are really good, we non-Koreans learn about the country's cultural background, plus they've got handsome guys and beautiful girls. I even got my friend's 65-year-old husband hooked by lending him my tapes."

This form of cultural outreach is made possible through accumulation of personal libraries of DVDs and CDs, attendance at special concerts, and meet-and-greet sessions with beloved stars here or in South Korea. The Hawaii K Drama Fan Club is an offshoot of longtime fan Phyllis Aana's original club for "Propose" star Ryu Shi-won.

The ethnically Chinese Aana might be considered an honorary Korean because of her love for the dramas and music.

"I love the music," she says. "I buy a lot of Korean CDs, even though I don't understand the language. My friends and I even go out to local Korean activities, because of the TV ads.

"I've befriended the staff at my favorite Korean restaurant, Sorabol on Keeaumoku, where one of them has become my hanai grandson. In fact, on our tour in October, we're going to Inchon, where I'll finally meet his family."

Yong Ho Song, foreground, and Jun Hyon work in KBFD's production room. The station provides subtitles for the popular soaps, a task that can require several hours per show.

THE LEADER of the tour is one of the six translators on KFBD's staff. Crystal Suh also teaches adult-education classes in "Learning Korean Through Korean TV Drama" at Moanalua and Farrington Community Schools.

"Translating is very time-consuming and labor-intensive," she says. "In my case, each episode of 'The Marrying Type' that I work on takes about 212 hours to complete."

Even though the translators have been lauded by fans for their work, Suh says that "some things cannot be translated, like some of the verbal nuances. But the classes help them better understand the culture. I think we've received the most feedback here because these family-oriented dramas brings out more emotions in people."

Fan club member Janet Oi said Suh "taught us how to understand the honorifics, and she tried to teach us some of the alphabet and the common terms and phrases. We also got to watch a drama without subtitles, and I've come to find out that Korean is really, really hard to learn."

Luckily, basic human emotion can be easily understood on a visual level.

"I'm Korean American myself," says Amii, "I learned a lot about my native culture through these dramas, since I was brought up more American as a third-generation Korean. My mom and all my aunts from church watch these shows. ... They're very addictive and habit-forming."

Take, for example, her breathless description of the just-completed "Stairway to Heaven," a viewer favorite. (Be warned that the following is without the all-important emotional nuances.)

"It's about a girl and her stepbrother who grew up together, and the gal is mistreated by the stepmother, and, years later, the villainous stepsister accidentally runs the girl over with her car, which leaves the girl with amnesia. And her stepbrother, her former first love, is engaged to the stepsister, but he can't forget her. The stepmother gets diagnosed with eye cancer, and in the process of donating one of his eyes, the stepbrother dies. The girl is now married to someone else, but then she gets sick and dies at the end."

And somewhere in there, Amii says, there's a beautiful love story.

Sandy Matsumoto, secretary by day and serial drama enthusiast by night, knows Amii and says "her brother's girlfriend is from Korea, and I watch these dramas more than her. It seems that everywhere I go, like the hairdresser's or out shopping, I hear how these dramas have caught on through word of mouth. You can end up watching four different shows a week. And when my family makes fun of me sometimes, I tell them, 'Well, at least I'm home!'"

Fan club member and teacher Karen Sonstegard, of Mililani, says she's a romantic at heart and appreciates the chasteness of these serial dramas.

"They're clean, pure love stories, with good-looking actors and actresses that talk about family situations and true-to-life things. I admit that I don't care for some dramas, but my friends say I'm picky because I've been watching these shows for 12 years now, and the story lines sometimes are so similar to one another, and there's always a love triangle.

"But I've become so addicted to these dramas that my older son calls me a groupie for some of these handsome actors," she says with a laugh. "So many of us schedule our activities around these dramas, to the point that if I'm asked if I want to go out any particular evening, I tell them I have to be home to watch my shows."

Sonstegard also speaks for all the other fans when she says, "I want to thank KBFD for giving us the opportunity of discovering these dramas."

F.N. D'Alessio, of the Associated Press, also contributed to this story.


On television

Chae Si-ra and Lee Jong-won from "Conditions of Love."

Korean English-subtitled serial dramas air on KBFD, channel 32 (channel 4 on Time Warner Oceanic Cable). For information,

call 521-8066 or go online at All dramas have contemporary themes, except where noted:

"One Million Roses": 10:25 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, repeating 12:25 p.m. same days

"Conditions of Love": 7:10 p.m. Sundays, repeating 2 p.m. Mondays

"Phoenix": 7:50 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, repeating 3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays

"The Marrying Type": 7:50 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, repeat noon Saturdays and Sundays

"Hearts in Bali": 7:50 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, repeating 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays

"The Age of Warriors" (historical costume drama): 9:25 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, repeating 1 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays

"Papa" (encore presentation): 9:25 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

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