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Complicated Currents

Chapter 8



Sun Jung, Victoria University

Sun Jung completed her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2008. Jung’s doctoral research forms the basis of her forthcoming book with Hong Kong University Press, entitled Globalized Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption. Currently, she is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Victoria University where she is continuing her research on Asian popular cultures and transnational new media circulation.

On 5 January 2009, Boys over Flowers (Kkotboda namja), a Korean television drama series based on a Japanese shojo manga (girls comic), Hana yori dango, was first screened on KBS (Korean Broadcasting System). Within a couple of weeks, the drama had captured 25 per cent of the audience share, and F4 (Flower 4), its four main male characters, became iconic kkonminam (‘flower pretty boy’) figures in Korea.1 After the first screening of Boys over Flowers, some fanatic audience members began to upload each episode on various online user-generated content (UGC) websites (such as YouTube), enabling non-Korean audiences to follow the show, almost in real time.2 In addition, viewers created numerous English blogs and sites where fans from outside Korea could share reviews and news articles about the show and, in particular, discuss, praise and consume the various aesthetic features of F4. Indeed, on many Internet UGC websites and Korean popular culture fan sites, it is often evident that web users recognize and praise the appealing aesthetic features of Korean male stars. The best example might be Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK), one of the most popular Korean idol boy bands. In September 2008, DBSK released its fourth regular album, Mirotic. Since the release of the music video for the album’s title track on YouTube, the sexually attractive physical attributes of the DBSK members have become widely recognized by web users all over the world. These examples demonstrate the way Korean popular culture products have gained overseas recognition as part of hallyu (the Korean Wave). One of the biggest selling points of these products, I argue, is the ‘soft masculine’ visual image of the male stars, which is highly associated with feminine aesthetics. In other words, this particular masculinity, which I call ‘pan-East Asian soft masculinity’, represented by kkonminam images of such male stars as the DBSK members and F4 in Boys over Flowers, has resonated strongly with global web users.3

This chapter discusses the transcultural production, circulation and consumption of images of Korean male stars within the conceptual framework of the transcultural flows of chogukjeok (trans- or cross-national) kkonminam images, which are themselves closely related to bishonen (beautiful boy) images in Japanese shojo manga and anime (Japanese animation). In Recentering Globalization, Koichi Iwabuchi outlines a concept he terms ‘mukokuseki’ (‘non-nationality’ or ‘non-Japaneseness’), through which he emphasizes ‘culturally odourless’ aspects of Japanese consumer products such as the Sony Walkman or computer games. He argues that the cultural odourlessness of these Japanese consumer products is one of the main reasons behind their global popularity (Iwabuchi 2002). This concept of a lack of nationality can also be applied to Korea’s culturally hybridized popular culture today. In this chapter, though, instead of mugukjeok, the Korean equivalent for Japanese mukokuseki, I use the term ‘chogukjeok’ to describe the transcultural production and consumption of the hybrid Korean popular culture signified by kkonminam male stars.4 I choose chogukjeok (trans-national), because it not only refers to how popular cultural flows enable the ‘mixing’ of various cultural elements (both specific and global), which then causes those particular cultural elements to lose specificity, but it also implies how hybridity and non-nationality enable such culturally mixed pop culture products to easily ‘cross’ national borders.

A conceptual analysis of the transculturally constructed ‘chogukjeok’ pan-East Asian soft masculinity is critical to explaining the ways in which Korean popular culture travels freely across national and cultural boundaries. Given this freedom, in what senses can the ‘softness’ of this ‘soft masculinity’ be understood? In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Joseph S. Nye states:

Soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values, and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority ... It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioral terms soft power is attractive power. (Nye 2004: 6)

In The Secret of Hallyu, Lee Eo-ryeong, the former Korean minister of culture, suggests that ‘soft power’ (sopeuteu paweo) is one of the biggest driving forces behind the hallyu phenomenon (cited in Yu et al. 2005: 57–58). He then explains that ‘soft’ content, including images, design and characters, has gained increasing competitive power in the swiftly changing information technology era. According to Lee, soft popular content can easily be transformed and evolve, and freely crosses different industrial platforms such as cinema, music and animation. In addition, he also emphasizes the competitive power of ‘soft’ popular content using the example of Korean actor Bae Yong-jun and the ways in which his gentleness and feminine softness have been embraced by foreign – particularly Japanese female – audiences. Thus, the ‘softness’ of chogukjeok pan-East Asian soft masculinity can be understood at least in part through its transformability or fluidity and its feminine appeal to consumers.

Why, however, do I refer to this chogukjeok soft masculinity as pan-East Asian, not global? This is indeed my key research interest: seeking pan-East Asianness in the realm of transcultural production and consumption of kkonminam Korean male stars in the global entertainment market. In particular, the masculine images I am discussing here largely originate from the bishonen images of manga and anime. Such images have been developed, consciously and unconsciously, and pastiched by regional cultural producers and artists within various popular forms such as movies, commercials, music videos and television dramas. Through the repetitive and vigorous processes of pastiche, these images have become formulaic in signifying a type of pan-East Asian masculinity. The formula is evident from its contradictorily layered imagery of a girllike pretty look, a toned and sexy – but hairless – body, and a vulnerable heart combined with an inconsiderate and immature attitude (in short, TV drama kkonminam tend to be jerks). In this chapter, I discuss how chogukjeok pan-East Asian soft masculinity, represented in Korean popular culture products, freely crosses cultural boundaries, by focusing on two critical aspects: firstly, the transcultural influence of manga and anime in regional and global popular culture markets; and secondly, the new media consumption practices of trans-pop-consumers on fan blogs and UGC websites such as YouTube and ViiKii. This article draws on evidence from textual analysis of written, visual and aural materials, and empirical audience reception analysis. To carry out empirical research for this article, I employed methodologies such as participant observation and email interviews.5


Boys over Flowers centres around four extraordinarily wealthy and beautiful, yet spoiled boys, the so-called ‘F4’, and an ordinary high-school girl, with a focus on the themes of love and friendship. Some local media have criticized the drama’s unreflective portrayal of the Cinderella fantasy and its vulgar materialism. Some even consider it a ‘high-teen makjang (trash) drama’ which, according to local cultural critic Ha Jae-geun, caters to the ‘makjang fantasy’ of teens who desire a modern-day Cinderella story (Ha Jae-geun 2009; Lee Ji-hyeon 2009; Kim Eunyoung 2009; O 2009).6 Despite such sharp criticism, the show’s audience share rose dramatically every week. By 17 March 2009, when its 21st episode was broadcast, the audience share had reached 33.6 per cent (Im 2009). According to AGB Neilson Media Research, 66.7 per cent of the drama’s audiences is female, the majority in their mid-teens to thirties: 18.4 per cent, teens; 12.7 per cent, twenties; and 15.3 per cent, thirties (Bak 2009; Shin Yun and Kim 2009). Boys over Flowers spawned a socio-cultural phenomenon known as the ‘kkonnam syndrome’, which refers to the popularity of the series in general, and young female viewers’ fanatical obsession with F4 in particular.7 Within only a couple of weeks of its first screening, the male lead, Lee Min-ho, was enthroned as a blue-chip figure in the local advertising industry, having signed seven advertisement deals with high-profile consumer product brands such as LG Telecom, Signature Jeans and Dunkin’ Donuts (Ha Gyeong-hyeon 2009). Another male lead, Kim Hyeonjung, has also been contracted for various television advertisements and promotional events, adding up to US$4 million (Ha Gyeong-hyeon 2009; Gu 2009).8 News articles poured in every day, ranging from discussion of F4’s ideal types of girl to their lunch menus, and countless fan made UGC offering tribute to or parodying F4 amply indicate the nation’s obsession with these four pretty boys. Kang Hye-ran from Joongang Ilbo points out that such a phenomenon indicates the way ‘chick-lit power’ has merged with the UGC generation (Kang 2009), while cultural critic Kang Myeong-seok (cited in Shin Yun and Kim 2009) remarks that F4’s success signifies how Korean women now can express their desire for beautiful men and enjoy it.9

Outside Korea, the kkonnam syndrome is evident on many globally-oriented websites such as YouTube, ALLKPOP, K-popped, POPSOUL, SOOMPI, ViiKii and Dramabeans. Numerous video clips, news articles, drama reviews and user comments about Boys over Flowers appear on these websites. The web moderator of Dramabeans, for example, posts the latest articles on Boys over Flowers almost in real time as they are released by the Korean media, relying on her bilingual ability (as a Korean-American) and technological savvy to access, translate and post such entertainment news content. Every Monday and Tuesday night when the drama was broadcast, she posted a recap of each episode with photos of key sequences, usually attracting hundreds of user comments. While Dramabeans is a Korean drama specialized fanblog, ViiKii is a video-sharing website where the users not only post and share various video clips but also translate the video content. On ViiKii, currently, there are numerous video clips uploaded related to Boys over Flowers. ViiKii is popular among global viewers of K-dramas because it is one of the few websites where viewers can find promptly uploaded subtitled versions of new K-dramas.10

Two of the most significant aspects of web user comments regarding Boys over Flowers are found in users’ appreciation of F4’s aesthetic attributes and their comparison of Boys over Flowers with the manga from which it was drawn, Hana yori dango, and/or the previous Japanese and Taiwanese dramas into which the manga has been made.11 Some video clips on YouTube contain images of Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean versions of F4, under which users debate which version is the prettiest, cutest and ‘hottest’:12

Korean F4 are the PRETTIEST and SWEETEST looking foursome! (sung10 on YouTube, 3 March 2009)

Korea has the best & hottest F4 guys ... specially lee min ho & kim bum^^ (kaorishae on YouTube, 3 March 2009)

omg. I’m totally obsessed over this drama~ kim bum’s so cute ... (haihoney7 on YouTube, 24 January 2009)

OMG! Kim Hyun Joong! Such a hottie! all the guys are cute. (radialvelocity on YouTube, 24 January 2009)

OMG I totally agree w/u. ji hoo is so cute ^.^ (iluvit [sic] when he smile [sic]). (Sarina058 on YouTube, 24 January 2009)

I love Hyun Joong so much~~! These guys are pretty [sic] than grils [sic] ... love them all~~! (phornmoon on YouTube, 24 January 2009)

[Jihoo] looks like a pretty girl (mymyanh on ViiKii, 3 February 2009)

The pretty boy images of Boys over Flowers clearly resonate well with viewers, with many who have read the original manga and seen Taiwanese and Japanese versions arguing that the Korean version of F4 best captures the manga characters. One YouTube user, juliaKgrl, states: ‘I have to say K-ver [Korean version] F4 is looks-wise by far the most comparable to the manga’. In particular, fans are often fascinated by how Lee Min-ho’s version of Gu Jun-pyo so effectively re-creates the manga character Domyoji Tsukasa, even to the point of having his ‘annoyingly’ curly hairstyle. Many are also pleased by Lee Min-ho’s physique, his height – 186cm – in particular, exactly the same as Domyouji Tsukasa. Some mention how Kim Hyeonmanga first emerged in the 1960s, jung’s eyes are big and beautiful just like the pretty boys from manhwa and/or manga.13 These user responses demonstrate the way F4 perfectly re-present shojo manga’s bishonen images through their being ‘slim and tall with long legs, oval faces, small jaws, huge round eyes, and [a] small nose’ (Miller 2006).

As many Korean journalists point out, female viewers in their mid-teens to thirties are the driving force behind this kkonnam syndrome (Kim Su-mi 2009; Bak 2009; Shin Yun and Kim 2009). In an interview with Segye Ilbo, a female viewer in her twenties states that in reading shojo manga and sunjeong manhwa (‘girls comics’ in Korean), she has come to harbour a yearning for a fantasy-like romance with young pretty boys (Kim Su-mi 2009). Indeed, the pretty boy syndrome long precedes the F4 phenomenon. The popularity of pretty boys can be traced back to a larger kkonminam syndrome which has been sweeping Korea since the early 2000s. The Korean term, kkonminam, is coined from a combination of ‘kkot’ (flower) and ‘minam’ (a beautiful man). Although the word’s precise origin is uncertain, it is generally agreed that it first was used in relation to the pretty boy characters from girls comics who regularly appeared against backgrounds filled with flowery patterns.

Kkonminam images first became notable in the Korean entertainment industry in the late 1990s.14 Television commercials, dramas and billboards have glorified pretty boys, with smooth, fair skin, silky hair, and a feminine manner, and they have come to replace previous images of tough and macho Korean men as characterized by Choi Min-soo, Jeong Woo-seong and Bak Sang-min. Choi Min-soo, an enduring icon of the ‘Korean tough guy’, consolidated his image as a tragic gangster in the television drama Hourglass (Morae sigye 1995). Bak Sang-min became popular playing a legendary gangster in the trilogy, The General’s Son 1, 2 and 3 (Janggunui adeul 1990, 1991, 1992), directed by well-known auteur Im Kwon-taek. Jeong Woo-seong rejuvenated the tough guy image in playing a rebellious young man in the 1997 film, Beat (Biteu). Since the late 1990s, however, these macho characters have gradually fallen from popular favour as cultural icons and kkonminam characters have flourished instead. Kim Yong-hee argues that ‘the kkonminam syndrome has developed not because males have become feminized but as a consequence of the deconstruction and the hybridization of female/male sexual identities’ (Kim Yong-hee 2003: 104). According to Kim, kkonminam are able to satisfy complex human desires because the kkonminam possesses both feminine and masculine attributes. Here, it is important to note that the concept of ‘beauty’ and ‘prettiness’ does not necessarily lie in the realm of femininity only. I am not suggesting or supporting a polarized view of gender. Nevertheless, unquestionably, in Korea, as elsewhere, there have been conventionally and stereotypically constructed notions of normative gender representations (for example, a tough guy and a pretty girl). Thus, the ‘feminine’ attributes of kkonminam I am referring to here should be understood within the normative paradigm of conventionally constructed images of feminine beauty.

The feminine attributes of pretty boys are often accentuated through bishonen images in Japanese shojo manga, a genre written especially for girls which normally describes the lives of teenage girls at school and their romantic relationships with bishonen boyfriends. According to The Bishonen Guide,15 bishonen (represented in manga and anime) refers to ‘a young man of extraordinary beauty, often extremely capable, at times mistaken for a woman in appearance’. Laura Miller explains that the bishonen images of shojo manga have clearly influenced the contemporary constructions of an ideal masculinity. She then further argues that those bishonen images have greatly influenced the visual styles of some J-pop artists such as Gackt and Hyde, stating ‘the blue hair of J-pop boys is modelled not after ancient Anglo-Saxons but after Japanese manga characters’ (Miller 2006: 152). It is thus evident that formulaic notions of bishonen, glorifying feminine aesthetics in men, have developed through various popular culture products including J-pop artists and shojo manga. A genre similar to shojo manga also exists in Korea, where its name, sunjeong manhwa, shows up in such conventional expressions as, ‘pretty as the male lead of a sunjeong manhwa’. In both shojo manga and sunjeong manhwa, the female protagonist is often an ordinary girl (such as Jan-di in Boys over Flowers), while her male counterpart is an exceptionally good-looking boy. These pretty boy characters share similar features – tall, with slim feminine faces, long hair and sweet smiles. Such typical bishonen imagery may be one of the most significant legacies of Japanese manga, whose enormous influence on contemporary East Asian popular culture is readily demonstrated by the way the Korean actors reproduce the F4 characters. During this process of transculturation, chogukjeok pretty boy images are created. Of course, Korean kkonminam have their own unique attributes, distinguishable from those of Japanese bishonen, because transculturation processes are inevitably accompanied by localization and indigenization practices. Hence, in this article, I do not argue that Korean kkonminam are an exact copy of Japanese bishonen; rather, Korean kkonminam soft masculinity differs from the Japanese original in many ways (e.g. demonstrating such attributes as purity, innocence and politeness), that underlie the regional popularity of many Korean pretty boy stars.16

Such chogukjeok kkonminam soft masculinity has been portrayed in many Korean television drama series including Full House (2004), Princess Hours (2006) and The First Shop of Coffee Prince (2007). Interestingly, all these dramas are based on Korean sunjeong manhwa, and have been fairly popular among non-Korean – mostly Asian – audiences.17 The kkonminam characters in the above-mentioned dramas are, I argue, actively embraced in many Asian countries, including Japan, because their images reflect the ‘odourless’ and ‘hybridized’ aspect of a pretty boy; that is, they largely strip these male characters of identifying national characteristics and instead speak to the emergence of a regionally privileged male ideal. In addition, because of the global penetration of manga and anime and new media technology-driven popular culture diffusion, such images are becoming more and more recognized among global popular culture consumers beyond the East Asian region itself. One obvious piece of evidence is the number of Spanish-subtitled video clips of Boys over Flowers on ViiKii (178 out of 204 clips) as well as the numerous user comments written in Spanish on YouTube.

At the beginning of this article, I briefly mentioned that I chose the term pan-East Asian, not global, pointing out the regional popular cultural influence of Japanese bishonen aesthetics. Here, nevertheless, I would like to emphasize that soon this new form of masculinity will need to be discussed within the notion of chogukjeok ‘global’ soft masculinity. As the increased number of Spanish-speaking user comments suggests, this new form of East Asian masculinity has already begun to travel to broader cultural markets. This is because all cultural forms, including masculinities, are transformable and transforming through transcultural flows and interminglings. This point is clearly evident in the term by Arjun Appadurai (1996: 35), ‘mediascapes’, which refers to the capabilities of mass media in producing and disseminating information and images through transcultural flows. F4’s chogukjeok bishonen image also taps into Appadurai’s notion that the collective experience of mass media creates ‘sodalities’ of worship and taste, and enables communities or cultural groups to participate in a ‘shared imagination’ (1996: 8). Likewise, transcultural media influences between various East Asian countries create chogukjeok – culturally acceptable – images of pretty boys. The consequences of mediascapes, popular cultural flows, cultural mixing and hybridization all combine to create a chogukjeok image of the pan-East Asian (global-to-be) pretty boy. Furthermore, such cultural mixing and hybridization are reinforced by new media technologies, especially through the transcultural flows on video-sharing websites such as YouTube and ViiKii.


Elsewhere, I use the term ‘trans-pop-consumer’, citing the Singaporean fan group of Korean singer/actor Rain as an example (Jung 2008). This term describes the group’s key characteristic of engaging in the transnational consumption of Asian popular culture through the mobilization of capitalist power to obtain leisure and entertainment in addition to material goods and social services. In short, trans-pop-consumerism only exists under preset conditions of a high penetration of new media technology through which soft pop cultural content flows with ease transculturally. Without the Internet, today’s hallyu surely would not exist. Recently, it has been reported that many entertainment management companies use YouTube to promote their artists (Lee Ju-yeong 2009; Jo Hyeon-il 2009). For example, when BoA made her US debut in 2008, SM created an official channel, ‘BoAmusicUSA’ on YouTube.18 In August 2008, JYP also created the ‘wondergirls’ channel to promote its idol group, Wonder Girls, to the English-speaking market.19 It is, however, the active voluntary participation of fans (web users/viewers) that initially and effectively enhances the transcultural circulation of Korean popular culture. According to Henry Jenkins, ‘fan culture is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon, inviting many forms of participation and levels of engagement’ (Jenkins 1992: 2). As such, participatory fandom refers to the active involvement of fans with various activities including the creation, circulation, and consumption of cultural products. For instance, a search for ‘Boys over Flowers’ on YouTube on 4 March 2009 yielded 6570 results, while 3420 results appeared for its alternative title, ‘Boys before Flowers’; and 2410 results appeared under its romanized Korean title, ‘Kkotboda namja’. One of the first clips from episode one achieved a total hit count of more than 778,000 – with over 380 user comments attached.20 Many comments express abundant gratitude towards HarueKorea, the user who uploaded the clip, while others express their need for translation (subtitles), and in turn evoke kind responses from fellow fans telling where such material can be found, for example on ViiKii.

ViiKii is a coined word that combines ‘video’ (or visual) and ‘wiki’. According to its introductory statement, ‘The ViiKii Story’, the ViiKii system was created to break down the language barrier through building a web-user volunteer translation community. There have been many fan-subbing groups and websites, beginning with anime fan-subs (fan-subtitled content) during the explosion of anime production in the 1980s. More recently, many Asian drama series, movies and game shows have been fan-subbed as these products have gained international recognition. Thus, fan-subbing is not new or unique to ViiKii. However, ViiKii has moved a step further in creating an advanced web-translation system and community where ‘any website user’ can easily participate in subbing even if only a couple of lines, meaning that subtitling occurs much more quickly.21 It also means that more diverse languages can be subtitled, as ‘ViiKii supports subtitles in more than 100 languages’. The translation system ViiKii pursues, therefore, should be explained through the notion of ‘web-subbing’, distinguished from ‘fan-subbing’. The web-subbing system ViiKii has put in will (if it has not already) have a revolutionary impact on trans-pop-consumption practices. Remarkably, sometimes a program’s subbing can be completed within only a couple of hours of its broadcast.22 Thus, the emergence of ViiKii has significance for analysing how the online participation practices of trans-pop-consumers reinforce the transcultural flow of foreign media content.

As observed earlier, due to its chogukjeok attributes, kkonminam star-related content often easily crosses national borders with the help of new media technologies. This travelling chogukjeok soft masculinity is evident in the YouTube popularity of the television drama series The First Shop of Coffee Prince. A romantic comedy, Coffee Prince describes a pseudo-homosexual love story between Eun-chan, a girl masquerading as a man, and Han-gyeol, the good-looking heir of a big food company.23 The drama is based on a sunjeong manhwa, and Eun-chan and Han-gyeol epitomize the kkonminam characters of that sunjeong manhwa. In particular, Eun-chan comes to serve (ironically) as a perfect embodiment of kkonminam soft masculinity: ‘his’ slim feminine face, dewy skin, silky hair, and sweet smile are features that resemble those of a pretty male lead in a sunjeong manhwa. The drama was very successful in Korea, achieving a audience share of over 30 per cent. In particular, the drama gained the fanatical attention of female viewers because of these two kkonminam characters, and their tantalising (pseudo-)homosexual relationship. Outside Korea, even before its official DVD release, the drama attracted many overseas viewers through fan-blogs, including Dramabeans, and YouTube clips; one YouTube clip of a kiss scene between Eun-chan and Han-gyeol had achieved almost one million total hit counts by March 2009, with over 350 user comments attached, many expressing how adorable this kkonminam couple is.24 Regarding the popularity of this ‘pseudo-gay’ kkonminam couple, though, some media critics point out that the couple was well received because they are pretty but not actually gay (Jeong Deok-hyeon 2007; Jeong Gyeong-hwa 2007; Go et al. 2008).

Gay kkonminam characters and their homosexual relationships have been frequently seen in recent Korean films and television dramas. Some cultural studies researchers have criticized this increased visibility of homosexuality in mainstream media production for commercialising homosexuality and stimulating female sexual fantasies towards unrealistic masculine images of gay kkonminam (Yang 2007; Kim Hui-won 2008; Kim Heon-sik cited in O 2008; Kim Hyeon-jun 2009). Despite such criticism, this recent phenomenon shows positive aspects as well: this increased visibility of kkonminam homosexual men in popular cultural products reinforces the deconstruction of dominant macho masculinity and strengthens the reconstruction of soft masculinity. Cultural critic Kim Heon-sik also suggests that ‘the recently produced kkonminam homosexual-themed media content can be understood within a framework of a transient phenomenon which overcomes the pre-existing negative images of homosexuality’ (cited in O 2008). Due to the nationwide success of the historical drama The King and the Clown (2005), its kkonminam male lead Lee Jun-ki has become a national icon. In the film, Lee Jun-ki plays a young man who takes on female roles in comic dramas at the royal court and becomes an object of affection to both the king and a fellow clown. The bestselling independent film of 2006, No Regrets, is also about a gay romantic relationship. It especially drew the attention of young female viewers; some fans claim to have watched the film more than forty times (Kim Mi-jeong 2007).

It has been suggested that behind the popularity of these films that contain homosexual themes and kkonminam masculinity is the pre-existing female fandom of yaoi, a subgenre of shojo manga (Kim Hui-won 2008; O 2008; Lee U-in 2008; Bak Hye-myeong 2008).25 Yaoi portrays unrealistically pretty boys and their homosexual relations. In Korea, the yaoi subculture draws most of its membership from young females in their late teens to early thirties (Bak Hye-myeong 2008). Cultural critic Kang Myeong-seok argues that these young females are familiar with consuming the feminine aesthetics of kkonminam characters as they have enjoyed yaoi and fan fiction since the early 2000s (cited in Shin Yun and Kim 2009). In fact, the focus of yaoi on male homosexuality is often employed in the writing of fiction by fans of kkonminam idol bands. Such fan fiction is frequently based on the sexual fantasies of teenage girls who evidently prefer that these stars, whom they refer to as their oppa (‘big brother’, a term of affection frequently used by a female to refer to a male in young Korean heterosexual couples), desire each other rather than other girls (Kim Cheong-hwan 2008).26

Among the most frequently reappearing male stars in yaoi fan fiction are the members of the idol band Shinhwa. Since Shinhwa made its debut in 1998, much fan fiction devoted to its members has been published on various websites.27 It is particularly interesting to observe their case because the band members appear to respond to the fan fiction, as they often pair up like gay couples in interviews and concert clips, kissing and touching their partners in accordance with the various couple combinations that the fans create.28 One can observe three stages in the construction of these gay kkonminam couples. First, the fans create yaoi stories that employ the two as kkonminam characters. So far, the coupling of members Eric and Hye-sung has been the most in demand and in much fan fiction this combination has been described as the best couple. Second, members of the band seemingly respond to this fan interest: Eric and Hye-sung act like a couple in front of the media and are often seen kissing and biting each other or holding hands and touching each other’s buttocks. Third, the fans put together collages of such images as tributes, further fuelling the imagining of the two as a couple. These tributes can be easily found on Internet UGC sites. On YouTube, for example, it is evident that many non-Korean (mostly Asian) fans also produce and consume these tributes. Some also even write yaoi fan fiction featuring the Eric–Hye-sung coupling for their fan sites. For instance, one Chinese language fan site is completely devoted to Eric and Hye-sung as a couple.29 Again, such transcultural production and consumption of yaoi tributes demonstrate how the online participation of fans, fostered by high technology, reinforces the transcultural flows and circulation of pan-East Asian soft masculinity.

Similarly, ever since the kkonnam syndrome, countless media works parodying F4 have been created by fans of the drama. There are over 30,000 fan-made UGC found on the Internet portal site, Freechal (So 2009). One of the most popular is the parody ‘Boyfriends before Flowers’.30 In this UGC, Yi-jung (Kim Bum), replacing Jan-di, is in a love triangle with Jun-pyo and Ji-hu. This UGC precisely embodies the yaoi-inspired sexual fantasies of young female fans. The production and consumption of this UGC demonstrates the ways in which fans enhance the soft masculine attributes of kkonminam stars via transforming, re-producing and consuming their sexualities within new media technology-driven participatory fandom. Soon, this fan-made UGC began to be transmitted abroad through K-pop and K-drama websites, and an article, ‘Boyfriends over Flowers Parody is Hot Stuff’ circulated on K-pop fan-blogs.31


In this chapter, I have examined pan-East Asian soft masculinity as represented through the kkonminam images of F4, Coffee Prince and Shinhwa. Firstly, using the example of F4, I have discussed how these kkonminam stars embody the bishonen characters of manga and anime, whose personification reinforces the construction of chogukjeok soft masculinity. Due to the transcultural flows and the wide circulation of these pretty boy images, largely represented in manga and anime, global audiences now harbour the ‘shared imagination’ of pan-East Asian soft masculinity. Secondly, taking yaoi, fan fiction and representations of East Asian gay masculinity as an example, I have examined the way advanced new media technology enables fans to transform and/or reinforce the soft masculine aspects of kkonminam stars. It is also evident that online participatory fandom and the new media consumption practices of trans-pop-consumers on video-sharing websites including YouTube and ViiKii lie at the core of the transcultural flows of pan-East Asian soft masculinity.

As Kang Myeong-seok suggests, young Korean females are used to consuming the feminine (and sometimes putatively gay) features of kkonminam stars due to the recent influence of yaoi and fan fiction. Because of the active transnational popular culture flows through new media technology, such influence is now often detected in the larger popular consumer market and is indicative of how global popular culture consumers are beginning to share in the imagination of pan-East Asian soft masculinity. In short, the chogukjeok characteristics possessed by Korean pretty male stars enable their image to travel across cultural boundaries, especially through Internet UGC websites. Pan-East Asian pretty boys are now crossing cultural borders not only because they are ‘damn pretty’ enough to attract global popular consumers, but also because they are increasingly familiar to these consumers.


1   According to Bak Jeong-yeon (2008) (personal information) from AGB Neilson Media Research and Han Ji-Suk (2006) from Digital Times, the ‘television viewing rate’ refers to the percentage of televisions tuned into a particular program out of all televisions with viewer reporting devices.

2   User-generated content (UGC), also known as Consumer Generated Media (CGM) or User-created Content (UCC), refers to various kinds of media content that are publicly available and produced by end-users. The term entered mainstream usage in 2005 after appearing in web-publishing and new media content production circles. It reflects the expansion of media production through new technologies that are accessible and affordable to the general public. These include digital video, blogging, podcasting and mobile phone cameras.

3   For further details on DBSK, its representation of pan-East Asian soft masculinity and new media circulation, see Jung 2009.

4   The two words – mugukjeok and mukokuseki – share the same Chinese characters

5   The empirical research includes participant observation on the above-mentioned websites for more than one year between September 2007 and March 2009; and email interviews with ten Boys over Flowers fans during February and March 2009.

6   The literal meaning of ‘makjang’ is ‘a blind end in a mine gallery’. In contemporary South Korean society, makjang is often combined with other words to create an implication of the ‘shallowness’, ‘trashiness’ and ‘vulgarity’ of certain products, incidents or phenomena. For example, ‘makjang gukhoe’ (‘makjang National Assembly’) refers to a session of the National Assembly where members cause mayhem and even attempt hand-to-hand combat.

7   Kkonnam is a shortened nickname taken from the drama’s title Kkotboda namja.

8   In the South Korean entertainment business sector, contracts with high-profile products act as a barometer to measure a star’s popularity and commercial value. Thus, artists and their management companies often compete for contracts.

9   ‘Chick-lit power’ here refers to the buying power of single women in their twenties and thirties who demonstrate a high propensity to consume culture and entertainment goods. During the first half of 2008, one stage production in South Korea sold 501,000 tickets, among which 50 per cent of the ticket purchasers were in their twenties, while 34 per cent were in their thirties; 65 per cent of the purchasers were females (Kang 2008).

10  ‘K-drama’ refers to South Korean television dramas and ‘K-pop’ usually refers to South Korean popular music in the overseas market. According to Stevens (2008: 16–17), ‘J-pop’ is widely used by East Asian audiences to describe music from Japan overseas and has become so integrated in a wider East Asian consumer market that this terminology has recently been transformed to describe other Asian pop cultures: ‘K-poppu’ [K-pop] (Korean popular music and culture) is another trend seen in both Japan and other international markets.

11  The manga has been made into five television drama series, two feature films and an animation, including the Taiwanese television drama Meteor Garden [Liu Xing Hua Yuan] (2001) and the Japanese television drama Hana yori dango (2005).

12   Selected video clips (accessed 23 February 2009):

13  Similar to manga, manhwa is the Korean rendering for comic book.

14  There have been many beautiful men and pretty boys in the history of global entertainment. Some obvious examples include Alain Delon, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt. Although these foreign celebrities have been popular in South Korea, only after the late 1990s has the tendency to idolize pretty boys become a major cultural phenomenon.


16  One of the most notable pieces of evidence is the amount of verbal and physical violence and sexuality present in different versions of Hana yori dango; the Korean version portrays images of F4 that are rather less sexually explicit and contains relatively less violence than the Japanese versions. Also, one of the biggest driving forces behind the popularity of Bae Yong-jun, an iconic kkonminam, in Japan is his polite masculine image (Jung 2008).

17  For instance, Full House recorded the highest viewer ratings in several Asian countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore. In the Philippines the drama’s highest viewing rate reached 50.5 per cent on April 17, 2005, and in Thailand it reached 64 per cent when the drama’s last episode was broadcast in August 2005 (Kim Tae-eun 2005; Lee Eun-jeong 2005).



20  Formerly available from: (Accessed 28 Feb 2009.)

21  The more established fan-subbing system depends largely on groups of fan-subbers who work as volunteers within a pre-arranged community or team. On the other hand, ViiKii suggests a new way of subbing in which any web user can easily participate.

22  Of course, distribution of such fan-subtitled content is problematic because it violates copyright laws in most countries. I will discuss this controversial aspect further in a separate paper on “ViiKii: Web-subbing, Free Labour, Collective Creativity and Copyright”.

23  The plot summary of Coffee Prince is as follows: Go Eun-chan (Yun Eun-hye) works many jobs to pay off debts and gives up her feminine image to work at a cafe owned by Choe Han-gyeol (Gong Yu), the heir of a big food company. Han-gyeol’s grandmother wants him to settle down, so she arranges many dates for him. After Eun-chan bumps into Han-gyeol, Han-gyeol decides to hire Eunchan, whom he has mistaken for a boy, to be his gay lover in order to avoid the dates arranged for him by his grandmother. Desperately in need of money, Eun-chan accepts. Han-gyeol’s grandmother, in an effort to make Han-gyeol more responsible, puts Han-gyeol in charge of running a filthy coffee shop that is in danger of being closed down. Eun-chan begs to work at the coffee shop, and not long after, feelings develop between Eun-chan and Han-gyeol. Han-gyeol, however, now has to struggle to understand his ‘homosexual’ feelings.

24  Formerly available from:

25  When shojo manga first emerged in the 1960s, many of these stories dealt with girls’ dreams and fantasies. Fantasy is the shojo manga’s stock in trade, and the more fantastic, the better; portraying male homosexuality is one way to reinforce female readers’ fantasy (Aoyama 1988: 189). Since the 1970s, the theme of sexuality, especially male homosexuality, has been incorporated into the stories of shojo manga to form a subgenre, often referred to as ‘BL’ (boys love) or ‘yaoi’ (Ito 2005: 456).

26  This fan fiction subculture first flowed into South Korea from Japan during the late 1990s, when a few earlier idol bands such as H.O.T. and Sechs Kies gained nationwide popularity among teenage girls (Yang 2007). In recent years, not only idol bands but also many kkonminam actors, such as Kang Dong-won and Jo In-sung, have become the objects of yaoi fan fiction (Bak Hye-myeong 2008).

27  Some of the most actively operating fan sites are:;;; and

28  There are various couple combinations such as the coupling of Eric with Hye-sung (the Ric-Syung combination), the coupling of Min-woo with Hye-sung (the Min-Syung combination) or the coupling of Eric with Andy (the Ric-Dy combination). The term ‘coupling’ refers to the homosexual pairings that are created by fan fiction writers who pair the band members in differing combinations depending on their own individual desires. There are various combinations that can be created between the six Shinhwa members. The fans refer to the different couple combinations by combining the initials of coupled members. For example, in the case of the Eric and Hye-sung couple, the fans refer to this coupling as Ric-Syung (Ric from Eric and Syung – a cute way of calling Sung – from Hye-sung). Also, the person whose initials come first is seen by the fans as the one who plays the dominant sexual (penetrative) role in the coupling. Thus, in the case of the Ric-Syung pairing, Eric is seen to play the dominant male role in the heterosexual sense while Hye-sung is seen to play the subordinate female role.


30  This parody UGC is created by a netizen called Jeokhyeolyahwa. See:

31  See for example: parody-is-hot-stuff. On YouTube as well, many users show their delight in the parody; for example Philippine user tongtoi, who comments, ‘man-love!! I love ^^’. See


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Cite this chapter as: Jung, Sun. 2010. ‘Chogukjeok pan-East Asian soft masculinity: Reading Boys over Flowers, Coffee Prince and Shinhwa fan fiction’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 8.1–8.16.


©Copyright 2010 Sun Jung

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita