But Mr Prum isn’t aping Western fashion. Like many Asian youngsters, he considers the trends of North America (and Japan) to be insipid relics. “In Cambodia we watch Korean dramas, listen to Korean music, and take our fashion from South Korea,” he says. He names the South Korean singer Rain and the Korean soap opera “Full House” as his favourites. Next year he hopes to attend film school in Seoul, and eventually to bring more of their artistic nous to South-East Asia.Good job, Economist. And only a decade late.
The Koreans have a word for Mr Prum’s infatuation: hallyu, or the love of South Korean cultural exports. An international phenomenon, hallyu is driving Seoul’s nascent but growing influence across Asia. South Korean popular culture rose from relative obscurity in the late 1990s when, after decades of draconian internal censorship came to an end in the 1980s, its television dramas began to be broadcast widely in China, Japan and South-East Asia. Exports of Korean video games, television dramas and popular music (“K-pop”) have all doubled since 1999, while the total number of cultural products exported since then has increased almost threefold, to $1.8 billion in 2008. In terms of market share, these numbers still rank modestly against the Japanese comic-book industry, which dominates 80% of the worldwide market, but sales of Japanese manga have halved since reaching their apex in 1995.
Some scholars find an explanation for hallyu in the family-friendly, Confucian teachings typical of South Korean dramas; these values, they say, appeal to Asians more than does the usual Western fare. But this explanation seems to require imputing a uniform mentality to at least two billion people. Michael Shin of Cornell University argues instead that by their rags-to-riches storylines these dramas are able to speak directly to audiences who have lived the Asian economic boom of the past two decades. Popular characters often abandon monotonous middle-class jobs to seek fame, or a “dream job”—perhaps suggesting that many Asians feel dissatisfied with their careers, despite the prosperity that has come with growth.
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