A conference at the University of Hawaii this weekend attended by both academics and fans looked at the popularity of Korean soap operas worldwide. "Romance in Paris," depicted in this advertisement shown at the conference, was one of the Korean dramas attendees discussed.

Korean soaps get
academic treatment

A UH conference explores the
dramas’ cultural influence

It used to be Gerrie Nakamura's little secret.

But four years ago, the Leilehua High School teacher revealed herself as a super-fan of Korean soap operas. And ever since, she's regularly finding others who watch the shows religiously, too.

"It's every profession, every age, every nationality," she said, with a laugh. "It's really a phenomenon."

Nakamura, a founder of the "Hawaii K-Drama Fan Club," was one of more than 100 Korean soap opera enthusiasts and academics from Hong Kong to London who participated in a University of Hawaii conference this past weekend that examined how Korean dramas have influenced popular culture worldwide.

Conference organizer Joon Yoo, a UH assistant professor of history, said there was "a lot of resistance" to the topic by some scholars, who insisted that the popularity of Korean soap operas in Hawaii and elsewhere was not an issue worthy of serious study.

The conference is believed to be a first for the islands, organizers said. But they also said a few institutions have held similar forums to examine the role soap operas -- not necessarily Korean ones -- play in modern culture.

UH global media professor Wimal Dissanayake, who compared Korean dramas to those in India and Japan during his presentation, said he's an "avid fan" of Korean soaps.

"I think they are very significant cultural texts," he told attendees, who responded with laughter. "We should study them very seriously even as we enjoy them."

Other talks included in the conference, called "Korean Drama in Global Media Culture," centered on the influence of Korean soap operas on people and societies, and how the dramas have changed perceptions of Korean culture and even strengthened relations between Korea and Japan.

There were also episode screenings of two Korean soaps, "Yellow Handkerchief" and "Romance in Paris."

The forum was kicked off Friday afternoon with UH-Manoa Chancellor Peter Englert calling Korean dramas "a true intercultural phenomenon."

"We cannot ignore the fact that many of the shows ... are entertaining to watch and a diversion or distraction from our own real world daily crises," he added. "I've even watched some of these dramas."

KBFD-TV airs Korea's most popular soaps in Hawaii, and has seen an increase in viewership.

Jeff Chung, the station's general manager, said it's not just Koreans watching the soaps. Thirty-four percent of his viewers in Hawaii are Japanese, 18 percent are white, 18 percent are of Hawaiian or Pacific Island ancestry and 13 percent are Filipino.

He said his station started adding subtitles to Korean dramas in 1988, but their popularity really started to grow in the late '90s.

"I'm positive we haven't peaked yet," Chung said, adding that the conference illustrates the impact "of Korean dramas globally and politically." He also said that many viewers "are embarrassed to advertise" that they watch Korean dramas.

Nakamura agreed, whispering that state schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto has admitted to being a closet fan.

Nakamura said the club she helped found in 2002 for Korean soap opera viewers has grown to more than 100 members. The group meets monthly to chat about plot developments in their favorite shows.

She also said 26 Hawaii soap fans couldn't attend the conference because they were in Korea, visiting the sites where different dramas were filmed and meeting soap stars.

"What this shows is the kind of global implications that Korean soap operas seem to have," Dissanayake said, adding that golf pro Tiger Woods has signed on to star in a Korean drama because his mother is a fan.



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