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Complicated Currents

Chapter 9



Gloria Davies, Monash University

Gloria Davies teaches Chinese Studies at Monash University. Her research deals mainly with issues in Chinese intellectual history and Chinese cultural studies. She has a particular interest in the role of critical inquiry in both the Anglophone and the Sinophone humanities. She also has research interests in globalization and gender studies. Her publications include (author/editor/translator) Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Rowman & Littlefield 2001); (co-edited with Chris Nyland) Globalization in the Asian Region: Impacts and Consequences (E. Elgar 2004); Worrying about China: the Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry (Harvard 2007); (co-edited with Vin d’Cruz and Nathan Hollier) Profiles in Courage: Political Actors and Ideas in Contemporary Asia (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008).

M.E. Davies, Monash University

M.E. Davies is a practising lawyer and Research Associate with the department of Chinese Studies at Monash University and holds a Master of Laws from Monash University together with Honours degrees from the University of Melbourne (Arts) and Latrobe University (Law). Research interests include critical legal theory, human rights and gender studies.

Young-A Cho, Monash University

Young-A Cho teaches Korean language at Monash University in Australia. Her research interests include language assessment, second language acquisition and language and culture. Her most recent publications include ‘Gender Differences in Korean Speech’ and ‘Advertisements in Korean’, in Korean Language in Culture and Society (University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

Following the regional economic crisis of 1997, developed and developing countries in Asia enjoyed a return to social and economic stability and success in trade and commerce. Part of that recovery can be attributed to the tremendous success of South Korean cultural producers in marketing their wares both within the region and globally. In this context, South Korea’s emergence as a leading cultural force is more recent than Japan’s, and can be traced to the rapid pace at which its culture industry has been developing since 2000. This has been achieved with the assistance of government funding and support after the huge success of the Korean blockbuster movie Shiri, (directed by Kang Je-gyu) in 1999. As a result, the value of the Korean entertainment industry jumped from US$8.5 billion in 1999 to US$43.5 billion in 2003, with exports in cultural products rising from insignificant amounts in the 1990s (too small to warrant government recordkeeping) to some US$650 million in 2003 (Onishi 2005). With Korean TV series such as Winter Sonata and pop singers such as BoA and Rain (Bi) attracting large audiences in the region and generating enormous profits, consumers were primed to be favourably disposed to South Korean cultural icons, thus altering the regional stakes for market competition in a field that Japan had previously dominated.

Indeed, the dominance of Japan and South Korea is reflected in the neologisms ‘Gross National Cool’ (in Japan) and hallyu (Korean Wave) that are now commonly used to refer to their pre-eminence as the two leading forces in present-day regional cultural competition. Billions of dollars of commercial profit turn on the whims of consumer markets, which are in turn systematically wooed by the best advertising and marketing efforts the (frequently multi-national) interests in the region can muster. These high stakes have induced a sense of national rivalry as well as anxiety within the region. For example, at the Korean National Assembly’s 2005 public hearing over the impact of Korea’s cultural boom on neighbouring countries, Lee Jih Jyen, the Chairman of Taiwan-based INSERIA, stated, ‘I hope the Korean Wave is not a one-sided flow of culture but a channel for interactive culture for mutual interest’. He went on to note that because the price of Korean TV dramas had risen dramatically from around US$750 per episode in 1999 to between US$15,000 and US$20,000 in more recent times (a more than 20-fold increase), ‘Taiwanese businessmen in the TV industry are having a hard time doing trade with Korea, bearing the costs’ (Park 2005).

The struggle for market power and consumer attention among Asian cultural producers was facilitated in part by the rapid deployment of media and Internet connectivity throughout the region which has, in turn, enabled the cultural marketplace to expand and diversify at a rapid rate. This growth is reflected in the enormous product variety now available in the popular cultural genres of manga, anime, television soap operas, music and dance, music video programs, film, and commercials, all part of the vigorous struggle among media organizations to gain market position.


The drive to generate substantial profits through novel or even controversial packaging and presentation has also enabled groups and individuals identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (subsumed under the internationally recognized acronym GLBT), to become much more visible in commercial media across the world. The long-running and award-winning comedy series Will and Grace, together with drama and reality TV shows, ranging from the non-controversial but highly successful Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word to the decidedly more controversial There’s Something about Miriam, are illustrative of increasing popular curiosity about gender and sexual minorities in our time.

However inadvertently, or however much as merely a by-product of the pursuit of profit, whenever fierce competition ensues among companies for the delivery of new and ever more sensational ways of packaging their products, commercial interests can sometimes play a part in promoting the social inclusion of society’s pariahs. For one South Korean artist and performer, Harisu, there is no doubt that the profitability of this sort of sensational novelty has reaped benefits for her as well as the commercial interests she has represented. As a consequence of her success as a popular performer and recording artist, Harisu has promoted cosmetics and other beauty and feminine hygiene products. But what is of especial interest in this examination of social and commercial convergence is that Harisu (born male-bodied) is a transgendered woman, indeed one who has been ironically and enigmatically dubbed by the popular press ‘more beautiful than a woman’. As a successful transgendered woman she thus represents an exception to the experiences of many transgendered people who, as a minority, are no strangers to discrimination, non-acceptance and transphobic violence against them.

In this chapter, we argue that the success of transgendered individuals such as Harisu has had the generally positive effect of raising public awareness of transgenderism, enabling this otherwise severely marginalized minority to gain greater social acceptance. However we caveat these general remarks with the acknowledgement that the GLBT community is itself deeply divided as to how the transgendered or gender variant should be identified, defined and represented. Because Harisu’s presentation of herself accords with only some of a diverse range of ideological positions held within the wider gender-variant community, her celebrity status can also have the effect of marginalizing other positions she neither represents nor endorses. Nor has Harisu herself entirely escaped pariah status, as clearly attested by transphobic Korean Internet sites which direct bitter and bigoted acrimony towards her as a transgendered individual.1

The growing success of GLBT-themed television shows in the West stems largely from the spending power of openly declared and affluent First World gays and lesbians, which has fuelled the emergence of the so-called ‘pink economy’ in major cities across Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In this context, the marketing of gay, lesbian and gender-variant lifestyles – even as novelty – has the positive effect of undermining cultural intolerance, because the normalization of such lifestyles through constant positive representation enables a heteronormative public to view these social minorities as ordinary human beings rather than deviant pariahs. But it is also important to note that the commoditization of the lives of these gender and sexual minorities, as part of a new urban entrepreneurialism, creates problems insofar as such minorities risk further marginalization in a commercial media focus on ‘lifestyles’ that only the rich and successful can afford (see for instance Morgan 1998 and the critique of the ‘new homonormativity’ in Bell and Binnie 2004).

In the commercial cultures of the Asian region, GLBT lifestyles are much less visible than in the metropolitan centres of the West. This is not to say that gender and sexual variance have no novelty value since Asian audiences have access to imported and highly popular television shows featuring transgender, gay or lesbian celebrities (such as the shows mentioned above). But in urban China, South Korea and Japan, the continued dominance of traditional heteronormative values has led most gender and sexually variant people to conceal rather than to declare their difference. Thus, while there is growing awareness among Asian urban consumers of GLBT subjectivities and ‘lifestyles’ through Western media imports, within Asian public cultures ‘homegrown’ representations of such lifestyles remain limited.

The 2006 Korean film The King and the Clown is an exception in this regard, being arguably the first mainstream Korean-language film to deal openly with the topic of homosexual love and draw attention to that topic with its suggestive Korean title Wang-ui namja (lit. ‘the king’s man’; the film has been exhibited in English-speaking countries as The King and the Clown). Interestingly, although the film is proudly featured on the official website of the Korea Tourism Organization, no reference is made to the film’s explicit focus on homosexual love. The film attracted some 12 million viewers in South Korea, holding the national box office record for a local film (Shim 2006) until it was surpassed by The Host. The film’s popularity appears to have played a part in paving the way for greater social acceptance of not only homosexuality but also transgenderism. An article by Shim Sun-Ah quotes Lee Cho-rong, a male-to-female transgender activist based in Seoul, as claiming that the film helped to attract some 2,600 new subscribers to her website, Rush for Crossdressers. The same article also notes that ‘strong media coverage of transsexual stars like Harisu’ has made South Koreans more tolerant of transsexuals.


In this context, Harisu’s rapid rise as a pop cultural phenomenon, first in South Korea and then regionally, is an important sign of growing social acceptance of GLBT people in otherwise conservative Asian societies. If the term hallyu is more narrowly defined in terms of the soft power of Korean culture to influence consumption habits and cultural tastes in other Asian societies, then Harisu’s celebrity status clearly has little to do with hallyu in the sense of national culture as soft power, for the products she has endorsed and advertised are not specific to a national culture. Rather, as a transsexual celebrity who happens to be Korean, Harisu has the potential to facilitate social acceptance of transgender people across cultural, ethnic and national lines, rather than promoting Korean culture per se. In this regard, Harisu’s willingness to be open about her transsexualism has been approvingly noted by many Internet commentators discussing gender politics on transgender and transsexual web fora.

Harisu first achieved international success in 2001 as an advertising model for a Korean cosmetic company, Dodo, when she starred in the television advertisement for the company’s new line of facial powder, Palgantong Fania. Harisu has said of the advertisement that: ‘The concept of the commercial was transgender and I didn’t want to lose that chance to debut as a model. I don’t want to face people dishonestly. I won’t be able to hide it after all. It’s better to make it clear from the start’.2

The Korean beauty market is as burgeoning and profitable as that of its counterpart markets in Europe and the US.3 It is part of a global industry whose products play on the frets and worries of most women everywhere. Given the highly competitive nature of the industry, it is not surprising that priority should be given to novel and sensational ways of advertising beauty products since the industry is built on shaping the heteronormatively nuanced self-perceptions of women in order to encourage them to consume as many beauty products as their incomes allow.4

So what does it mean when a transgendered subject is introduced into this industry as part of a novel marketing strategy? In Harisu’s case, an implicit claim is made that the products being advertised have the magical power to transform even a ‘man’ into a beautiful woman. Thus, in a television commercial advertising women’s cosmetics, Harisu tips back her very feminine-looking face and swallows to reveal an Adam’s apple. Interestingly, this depiction of an Adam’s apple on Harisu is itself a computer-generated illusion, a fake, since Harisu has in fact a wholly feminine appearance. The incongruous Adam’s apple was a very successful attention-grabbing gimmick that deliberately played off her transsexual status in order to have the advertisement (and thus the beauty product) linger in the minds of consumers longer and be talked about more than its competitors’ advertisements.

The use of a transsexual theme to grab consumer attention is not new and has been employed in European commercials with mixed success. Dodo was initially anxious about this offbeat tactic to capture the cosmetics market, but it turned Harisu into an overnight star (Flinn 2004). Thus, even though Dodo aimed at creating a sensational advertisement to boost product sales, the company became an indirect and perhaps unwitting participant in a growing international movement: that of transgendered individuals and groups fighting for social acceptance in a heteronormative, bi-gendered (or alternatively ‘cisgendered’5) world. In other words, by hiring the transsexual Harisu to promote the company’s women’s beauty products, Dodo’s commercial concerns dovetailed with the socio-political agenda of transgender activists (many of whom belong to one or another local GLBT organization). Similarly, since Harisu straddles both commercial and communal domains, her celebrity status has ramifications for local GLBT politics and debates, whether she likes it or not.

The novelty value of Harisu’s transgenderism has brought her commercial success, and it was because of her TV debut in the Dodo advertisement that she was dubbed ‘more beautiful than a woman’. This type of commercial framing of the transgendered subject – as a person who not only conforms to, but fully represents, entrenched norms of feminine beauty – is vital to Harisu’s success. It is thus important to note that while Harisu has helped to make the idea of transgenderism more acceptable, she has also failed to resist or problematize the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, let alone champion the cause of those who do not visibly conform to the increasingly commercially idealized norms of this bi-gendered, heteronormative world.

Rather, Harisu’s success is contingent on her capacity to ‘pass’, not only as a woman, but as a beautiful woman. Furthermore, as part of hallyu within the cultural flows of North East Asia, Harisu’s success may also be aided by the long-standing tradition of ‘female impersonators’ within Peking Opera and Kabuki. Prominent actors of female roles in these traditional theatrical forms with all-male casts have earned both popular praise and critical acclaim for their ability to transform themselves, as men, into paragons of feminine beauty. The existence of such a respected tradition may have opened the way for regional audiences to perceive and accept Harisu as a former man who ‘acted’ convincingly as a beautiful woman and then transitioned permanently into that gender. Harisu’s regional success can also be attributed to the fact that from the very start, her career was transnational, traversing both Korean and Japanese scenes of pop culture.

Harisu (or Ha Ri-su) was born and named Yi Kyung Yup (Yi Gyeong-yeop) in 1975 in Seongnam, a city southeast of Seoul. From the various online biographies produced by avid fans of this Korean dubbed ‘The Kylie Minogue of the East’ by EMI in Taiwan, it is clear that, despite being registered at birth as male, Lee never thought of herself as a boy. Nonetheless Lee attended an all-boy high school and in 1995 took the compulsory physical for military service but was excused due to light build and body weight. Harisu’s transition to her ‘innate’ female gender began at this point, and by 1997 she had, through hormone replacement therapy, effectively transitioned into a full-time female gender role as a pre-operative transsexual.

She moved to Japan to study hair design at the Tokyo Design School. There she underwent complete gender re-assignment surgery,6 including breast augmentation, and began performing as a female singer. In 1999, now a post-operative transsexual, she was spotted while performing at a Japanese nightclub by a Korean-Japanese talent scout, who introduced her to a management agency.In 2001, she formally changed her name to Ha Ri-su.7 Some reports on the Internet claim that the name Harisu is a Korean adaptation of the English phrase ‘hot issue’, which is commonly used in Korea, and is most likely aimed at playing up the controversial aspect of her public image. Fan biographies report that her relationship with her parents was the most difficult aspect of her life after her gender reassignment surgery but that family members seem now to have accepted and affirmed her female gender identity.

Harisu’s eye-catching first commercial with Dodo in 2001 created a huge sensation in Korea and thereafter she became one of the most sought-after models in the local advertising business. That same year, Harisu also released her first album, Harisu 1 – Temptation. Later, she played the role of a transsexual woman in the semi-fictional movie Blonde Hair 2 (Norang meori 2) and went on to release two subsequent albums and make numerous appearances on television. Harisu has gone from strength to strength, as adoring fans in South Korea and throughout the world attest.Websites set up by fans often feature a poignant quote from Harisu: ‘Even if I fail, I have no regrets. I will have done what I’ve wanted all along, and as a woman. I will have no regrets’ (see, e.g. Park Soo-in 2006).


As noted earlier, the sensationalism of commercials involving Harisu has produced mixed outcomes. Dodo has ambitions to succeed in the cosmetics industry not just in Korea but throughout Asia, and exploiting Harisu’s transgendered status for the goals of commerce has drawn the attention of not just Korean but other advertising companies within the region. When Taiwanese advertising company UFT was commissioned to devise a television commercial for sanitary napkins, it chose Harisu to provide a celebrity endorsement. There is deliberate irony in this marketing strategy since Harisu, as a transgendered woman, clearly has never had a need for that most sensitive of feminine hygiene products. Its success, however, is reflected in the W100 million (approximately US$100,000) per commercial that Harisu was paid for the three months that the campaign ran in 2004 (Hwang 2004). Such commercials render transgenderism visible but only within the aesthetic constraints of conventional feminine beauty and with the effect of accentuating the ‘normality’ of a bi-gendered world. In this context, it is necessary to explore the implications of the terms transgenderism and transsexualism, together with the gender politics that accompanies their use.

The two terms are frequently used interchangeably but are also used as ways of marking two distinct identities among gender-variant people: namely, those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery and those who have not. On the whole, it is much easier for post-operative transsexuals like Harisu to gain legal recognition in their chosen gender while pre-operative transsexuals and transgendered people generally encounter greater difficulties. Recognizing this distinction between transgenderism and transsexualism is important because it has become highly politicized in the Euro-American context. There are those who seek to restrict the term ‘transsexual’ to people who undergo, or plan to undergo, gender reassignment surgery. However, in Asia, the distinction between transgenderism and transsexualism is not as sharply drawn. Furthermore since gender reassignment surgery is very expensive, it is well out of the reach of the vast majority of Asia’s transgendered individuals.

Some might argue that Harisu, for example, was merely a ‘transgenderist’ until she proved herself on the operating table and became a ‘true’ transsexual. This is a difficult and turgid debate with different interest groups each defending their own preferred sets of definitions. For the purposes of studies of Asian gender variance, we defer to Sam Winter’s Asia-focused definition as the most appropriate. Sam Winter heads the Transgender ASIA Research Centre, an institute run by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, alongside medical and legal experts with an interest in the phenomenon of transgender, as well as the socio-economic and political circumstances in which transgendered individuals live in Asia. The research centre offers a descriptive definition of the transgendered as:

[T]hose males or females of any age who are unhappy living in the gender identity ascribed to them at birth. They have perhaps assumed a full-time alternative gender identity. Alternatively they intend to do so, or would do so if circumstances allowed. The essential feature here is identity; the sense, for example, of being born male but feeling female (or indeed a member of a third gender). Sexual preference is irrelevant. Used in this way the term transgender is broadly synonymous with transsexuality. Others might use the phrase Gender Identity Disorder. (Winter 2006)

One of the institute’s goals is to offset the Euro-American bias that presently dominates transgender and transsexual studies, and to point out the effects of differing socio-economic contexts in Asia, which leave the frequently poorer Asian transgendered individual far less able to fund his or her transition either in the form of hormone replacement regimes or gender reassignment surgery. The incidence of gender variance in the general population is a contested topic, but several transsexual activists and scholars have argued for an estimate as high as one in 500 individuals suffering from the underlying gender dysphoria that frequently manifests itself as a compelling desire to live in a contra-gender role (see for instance Conway 2002).

Harisu describes herself in Korean as teurenseujendeodeu (transgendered), thus reflecting an indifference to any distinction between transgender and transsexual as well as to the debates over these terms in related Anglophone discussions. She has, however, publicly discussed difficulties she faced prior to her complete transition: ‘I couldn’t get a passport, visa or even my own bank accounts because I was legally a man’ (Shim 2006). She also noted that she felt less welcome when performing in China than in South Korea, attributing this to the more conservative nature of contemporary Chinese society (Shim 2006).8

In the West, with surprising rapidity, attitudes have moved from condemning gender variance as blasphemous and abhorrent behaviour that should be dealt with using the death penalty to debates over the provision of state funding for gender re-assignment surgery. The most profound change in the common law world occurred in Australia when the Federal Court made its landmark decision in the 2001 Re Kevin case giving transsexuals the same right to marry as any other citizen (see Family Court of Australia 2001 and summary by Walton 2003).9 The Australian court set a powerful legal precedent that had an impact on judicial reasoning around the world and was a significant element in the speed with which the UK developed the UK Gender Recognition Act (2004), which lays out the processes for legally changing sex in Britain today.10

In Harisu’s case, she applied for and was granted an intercessory change to her identity details in 2002 and has since carried identification as a woman. To date, however, no legislation covering the plight of the transgendered in Korea matches the advances made in the UK and to some extent Australia, and very few South Koreans have been granted legal change of gender status.11 In this context, regardless of differences between Harisu’s own self-perception and that of other transgendered and transsexual individuals, the impact she has made and continues to make is likely to help shift public opinion towards accommodating the need of such individuals for legal gender reclassification.

Harisu’s popularity is evident in the fact that, in 2006, there were some 37,775 members of the Korean-language Harisu Internet fan club Harisu Café, as compared to the 3415 members of a website set up specifically to oppose Harisu Café.12 More significantly, an article written by Park Yoon Ah, a high school student at the Bundang Youngduk Girls’ High School, published in the Korea Times in July 2006, at a point when The King and the Clown had sparked public interest in issues of gender and sexual variance, amply illustrates how Harisu has changed Korean public opinion about gender-variant individuals:

‘Even though there were transgenders before Harisu, she, in particular, stands out because of her strenuous activities in show business. Her attitude and activities impressed viewers and enabled them to have a new perspective toward transsexuals’.

Park also observes that ‘the strong wave of transsexual-oriented media’ in recent times has helped teenagers like herself ‘become more familiar with the issues of transgenders’ and cites the ‘unexpected popularity’ of The King and the Clown as further evidence of growing social acceptance of gender and sexual variance in Korea. She also attributes the Supreme Court of Korea’s recent decision to allow ‘transgenders to change their sex and names in their family registers’ to its having been ‘influenced heavily by human rights advocates and spurred by the idea that Korean society has matured enough to manage such social revolution’.13

Interestingly, Park links such decisions to the general expansion of women’s rights in an otherwise male-dominated Korean society, noting that, ‘Women especially, including my classmates, have more affirmative viewpoints toward transgenders than men have in Korea’. Despite displaying a clearly positive attitude, Park nonetheless also reflects a conservative moral opprobrium towards transgendered and transsexual individuals when she implies that they are sexually promiscuous and a cause of the increase of AIDS infections. She writes (implausibly) of ‘the fatal danger of venereal disease infected by the sexual relationship between transgenders [sic],’ citing as support the increase of AIDS cases by 40,000 in the US each year.

Overall, Park’s article, which possibly received editorial treatment, indicates that social acceptance of gender-variant individuals in Korea remains contingent on their willingness to conform to the bi-gendered structure of a heteronormative society. In other words, those suffering from gender dysphoria must choose to become either a man or a woman in the fullest anatomical sense through extensive re-assignment surgery. They are not allowed to inhabit a third (or alternative, or ‘mid-way’) gender status. As Park puts it, ‘Mass media only tries to shoot a spotlight to the successful transgender cases. After the surgery, however, considerable transgenders still have difficulty establishing their sexuality. If spreading out as a new fashion with strong show business in our society, transsexuals will create big chaos for sexual identity [sic]’.

Park’s remarks can be read as representative of a popularly informed Korean public and supports the points we raised earlier regarding Harisu’s conformity to bi-gendered heterosexual norms as a key ingredient in her widespread popularity in South Korea and within the East Asian region. In the Korean media, she has described herself not only as fully a woman but as seeking to live up to the traditional Korean ideal of womanhood. Thus, a year before she was married, she claimed, ‘Naneun namchinege jeonhyeongjeogin hyeonmoyangcheo’ (‘To my boyfriend, I behave as would be expected of a “wise mother and good wife”’) (Star News 2006). A year later in June 2007, she expressed her hope to adopt four children. An article noted that despite numerous well-wishers, many members of the public felt that it was inappropriate for Harisu to become a mother (Lee 2007).

‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ was a Japanese slogan of the early 1900s that was introduced into Korea. Since Korean culture has always emphasized motherhood, the expression was accordingly inverted into ‘Wise Mother, Good Wife’.14 Descriptions of Harisu in the Korean and international media have also tended to focus on her feminine appearance. For instance, an Australian news report about Harisu’s wedding displayed the headline ‘Top transgender beauty ties the knot’ and begins the article by noting that Harisu had pledged ‘to be a sexy and caring wife’ to her husband (Courier Mail 2007).15 In this regard, Harisu offers little comfort to those who wish neither to be in a heteronormative relationship nor to choose between male or female identities. Harisu’s own self-perception and the media’s focus on her femininity has the effect of marginalizing those who regard themselves as ‘neither/nor’ or ‘either/or’ gender, or members of a third gender, who do not intend to undergo exhaustive surgery to conform to heteronormative expectations of appearance.

Such expectations are typical in Internet postings about Harisu. For instance, in a 2006 Internet weblog post, digitally enhanced publicity shots of Harisu are unfairly contrasted with unflattering snapshots taken of ordinary transgendered people in China, with the sole purpose of ridiculing the latter. The post, titled ‘Korean Transvestites vs. Chinese Transvestites’ indicates the writer’s ignorance of the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’. More importantly, the comments included in the post, written by Asian men (with several using Singaporean English) reveal not only an indifference to the plight of people suffering gender dysphoria but an intent to ridicule gender-variant individuals who are not ‘beautiful’ like Harisu. For instance, one person comments, ‘How can Korean men be so beautiful! But for the Chinese ones ... Well, have to ask them to try harder lah or give up and jump into the sea’. The comments range from poking fun at ‘ugly Chinese trannies’ to lewd remarks about Harisu’s sexual desirability. One commentator wrote that he wished all ‘trannies’ in the world ‘would look like the China trannies’ because ‘at least that way’ they would be visibly different. He then revealed his fear of picking up a ‘really pretty local girl’ only to find that ‘she (or rather he) has a larger penis’ than himself (Xes 2005).

Violence, whether verbal, physical, or both, is frequently legitimated against gender-variant people on the grounds that they are ‘freaks’ or ‘deviants’ who pose a threat to the normative social order. Male-to-female trans-individuals are a particular target of violence with many brutally murdered each year across the world.16 Thus, given the plenitude of insulting comments about ‘trannies’ in the aforementioned weblog post, it is all the more offensive that the page also includes the statement, ‘This post serves no insult to any transvestites [sic]. Please don’t beat us up when you see us on the streets’.


Cultural flows are an ancient process and represent the osmosis that occurs between cultures everywhere. They are a natural consequence of inter-societal interactions and have historically stimulated and enhanced the spread of scholarship and sciences, as well as religions and ideologies (for example, via the Silk Route).

But cultural flows have also served a second function: as a narrative route for fabulous tales of ‘the Other’, ‘news’ or stories of strange lands and even stranger creatures: from Herodotus’s gold-gathering ants to stories of sea monsters, sirens, hermaphrodites and all manner of denizens of the enchanted world that rumour, gossip, local belief and its attendant xenophobia generate in the imaginations of communities everywhere. In that regard little has changed except the speed of these cultural flows and their increasing accessibility by ‘you’ and ‘me’, the ‘masses’ of humanity, who rally around cultural forms and histories to affirm our own sense of identity – if not, more sinisterly, to decide the repugnant ‘otherness’ of those deemed not normal or ‘outsiders’. In the era of the Internet and new media, cultural flows travel at electronic speeds and are attended by batteries of corporate producers building economy-sustaining markets as they engage in aggressive competition. However, tales of the fantastic, of the Other, are proliferating in these flows at a pace that perhaps renders the representation of ‘otherness’ merely a momentary phase along the path to ‘normality’.

It could thus be argued that even though Harisu’s celebrity made the ‘otherness’ of transgenderism and transsexualism more visible and less repugnant to normative values, it has also reinforced an essentialist and heteronormative view of feminine beauty, one that Harisu herself endorses. As a ‘sexy and caring wife’, Harisu also reflects the new sensualism of the ‘Wise Mother, Good Wife’ paradigm that has gained ground in Korean popular culture in recent years.

In this chapter, we have sought to draw attention to the complex ways in which commercial and social agendas become intertwined in cultural flows. In using the example of Harisu and cultural flows to explore a growing acceptance of transgendered and transsexual people, we have also discovered the extent to which, even in the twenty-first century, we remain in thrall to the prevailing metaphysics of a bi-gendered heteronormativity – itself a powerful cultural flow. Harisu’s willingness to conform to that metaphysics is a crucial ingredient in her success. For other transgendered people who fail to exhaustively conform to that same metaphysics, social acceptance, let alone commercial success, remains distinctly remote.


1   See for instance, Harisu Café at and Anti Harisu at

2   Cited in several online articles about Harisu, including an online English biography, Ha Ri-Su, at, as well as the lengthier entry on Harisu at, which includes links to Japanese websites that Harisu has authorized. It is also important to note that the issue Harisu was hoping to clarify is among the most difficult of human subjectivities to understand – that of the transsexual. Later in her career, and referring to the same commercial, she has also said ‘I am not transgender ...’, which is best understood as a plea to be seen as the ordinary everyday woman Harisu regards herself to be. Her apparent vacillation is better viewed as a symptom of the dichotomy of stealth or disclosure that haunts most transsexuals who face the problems of blending into society.

3   Indeed, weblogs such as James Turnbull’s The Grand Narrative feature an enormous number of articles and commentaries that discuss the importance of beauty within contemporary Korean society and a noticeable Korean obsession with plastic surgery. See

4   The international cosmetics market is truly huge. According to figures published by Woman’s Wear Daily 2003, the industry’s highest earner worldwide, France-based multinational L’Oréal, alone enjoyed sales of more than US$15 billion in 2003, while in the same year, the top 100 cosmetics companies worldwide generated aggregate sales in excess of US$100 billion. South Korea is home to five of these top 100 earners, which together enjoyed national sales of more than US$1.9 billion in 2003 (Chang and Rugman 2006).

5   ‘Cisgendered’ is a politically nuanced term and literally means on this side of the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex (see Matthews 2006).

6   When Harisu told her mother that she would have gender reassignment surgery, her mother said that she would commit suicide (see Kim 2002).

7   Her name is sometimes spelt Ha Ri-Soo, and she is known as He Lixiu in Chinese. On numerous Chinese websites, attention is drawn to Harisu’s transsexual (chaoxing) status, but some refer to her as a ‘delightful Korean beauty’ (kele Hanguo meinü); others simply call her ‘the tranny Harisu’ (renyao He Lixiu). The term renyao, which literally translates as ‘human monster’, is an unflattering but generic Chinese term for transgenders and transsexuals.

8   The question of whether Chinese society is more conservative than South Korean is open to debate, as some argue that Chinese Communist rule has eroded the influence of Confucianism to make China less conservative than Korea.

9   The decision was appealed by the Australian Commonwealth attorney-general but upheld in the Full Court (see Family Court of Australia 2003).

10  See the discussions at the UK-based Press for Change website at

11  One news article reports that by 2006, 25 people had been successful and 26 denied in their applications to change their legal gender, with three individuals appealing the court rulings at the Supreme Court in Seoul (see Shim 2006).

12  The websites are Harisu Cafe; Anti Harisu

13  Park uses the term transgender in the way that TransgenderASIA does – as an umbrella term for the different identity categories of transgender and transsexual, and inclusive of non-, pre- and post-operative states of being. However, the Korean Supreme Court’s recent decision is restricted to individuals who have undergone gender reassignment surgery to become post-operative transsexuals.

14  This is the view presented in popular Korean language accounts such as ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ at See also Cho (2002: 170–172), who discusses the maternal symbolism of Korean grandmothers.

15  More broadly, Harisu’s public image as both a caring and a sexy wife reflects a distinct sensualization in contemporary Korea of the traditional ‘Wise Mother, Good Wife’ (hyeonmo yangcheo) ideal. See Cho (2002).

16  Trans-activists have established websites to commemorate transpeople who were brutally murdered, together with the establishment of an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (held in 2007 on 20 November). See, for instance:


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Cite this chapter as: Davies, Gloria; Davies, M E; Cho, Young-A. 2010. ‘Hallyu ballyhoo and Harisu: Marketing and representing the transgendered in South Korea’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 9.1–9.12.


©Copyright 2010 Gloria Davies, M E Davies and Young-A Cho

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita