Richard S. Ehrlich on: Why Thai youth are obsessed with South Korean culture

Richard S. Ehrlich on: Why Thai youth are obsessed with South Korean culture

Restrictions on speech and a list of other social taboos are the driving forces behind "K Fever." The only thing likely to change anytime soon are the haircuts

Richard S. EhrlichHybrid human mutations are hatching in Thailand, with imported South Korean heads implanted onto young Thai bodies, enabling some to speak Korean phrases while their souls yearn for Seoul.

Meet Thailand's new kids: eagerly absorbing pop culture and other ephemeral thrills from South Korea, thanks to boredom, slick marketing and restrictions on Thailand's indigenous creativity.

These globalized youth are not alienated punks, loutish skinheads, delirious hippies or entranced slackers. Their icons are cutesy, cartoonish, coy, healthy, sanitized, giggling, syrupy and bouncy.

Known as "K Fever" and "K Pop," the ongoing craze for South Korean pop culture willingly embraces the gloss and sheen of Seoul's processed commercial media, meticulously polished for export and family-friendly consumption.

Girls wear sporty outfits, appearing to mix cheerleader gear with doll clothes and other colorful, casual, sexy fashions. Boys go for a slick suit look, similar to John Travolta's in "Staying Alive," emphasizing a slim, urban, metrosexual, yuppie image. Extra extremes -- such as a "heightened" nose, rebuilt "oval" facial structure or liposuctioned thighs -- are much more expensive.

But for most Thai fans, a slightly longish haircut -- often permed, even for males -- is all you need to project the ultimate symbol of coolness. Thais who are obsessively following the fad are easily identified by the puffed-up, coiffed, unisex hairstyle, which self-consciously sweeps long straight locks diagonally down across half of the face. 

Anything resembling North Korea's dorky-looking dictatorial dynasty is definitely avoided. The fad and look are called "Korean," but it is manufactured in modern, wealthy, U.S.-backed South Korea, which has wedged itself onto Asia's cultural stage by poking its chopsticks at Japan and Taiwan, the two previous pop role models for many young Thais.

For South Koreans, the financial rewards are great, with more Thais traveling to their country than ever before. South Korean TV soap operas, films, and actors are cashing in, after creating a big demand in Thailand for their shows. South Korean boy and girl groups are also making appearances in Thailand.  A live concert at Bangkok's Impact Arena on November 13, for example, featured the Wonder Girls, 2PM, BEAST and 4 Minute.

All of this broadens young Thais' understanding of the world around them, allowing freedom from the insular aspects of their society, which Bangkok's panoptic Ministry of Culture desperately tries to homogenize and package in an endless repetition of traditions -- real and imaginary. As a result of Bangkok's restrictions on free speech and a list of other taboos, Thais are now getting their kicks elsewhere.

Super JuniorSouth Korean boy groups like Super Junior have earned a huge following in Thailand. Previous attempts were often stifled. During the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand was in a twist over long-haired hippies who arrived from the United States and Europe on backpacking pilgrimages across Asia.

"We don't think that the hippie style will become fashionable here, because it is too crude and dirty for Thai people," declared the Interior Ministry in 1968 after ordering Thai embassies to refuse entry visas for hippies. The Foreign Ministry agreed, and called scruffy backpackers "crazy people."

In those days, while U.S. troops were based in Thailand during the Vietnam War, many Thai women tried to resemble American females, and teased their hair into "bee hive" bubbles while considering breast and nose implants.

More recently, many Thai youngsters focused on Japan's manga and anime comic books and films, plus their pop music groups. Japan's fads inspired 21st century Thais to attend cosplay gatherings at Bangkok's shopping malls and elsewhere, with boys and girls dressed as a samurai, ninja and other characters.

But many Thai cosplay fans later switched to dressing like South Korean characters. The northern peninsula's fame in this tropical land got a big boost in 2005, when Bangkok's Channel 3 TV broadcasted "Jewel in the Palace" (Dae Jang Geum), a South Korean historical soap opera which hooked Thai eyes and emotions, opening the way for more shows.

Many Thais were impressed with the relatively well-crafted stories, clever camera angles, sweet soundtracks and complex characters, compared to simplistic Thai soap operas where actors shout, pout and stare their way through confined, boring, domestic stories.

Unfortunately, many Thais are not so appreciative of other Asian cultures. Laos, for example, is occasionally ridiculed as if its people are hopelessly old fashioned, inferior, slow-witted and somehow out of it, resulting in public spats between Bangkok and Vientiane when a Thai celebrity or politician mouths off in a negative way about someone being too Lao.

Cambodians, meanwhile, are seen by many Thais as scary, steeped in black magic, sly and prone to violence based on the country's recent traumas during Pol Pot's "killing fields" regime. Myanmar is Thailand's traditional enemy, and doesn't really register in Thai youngsters' pop cultural fantasies.

But some Thai teens are already wondering which country will produce the next big wave for them to ride. Mongolian rock, anyone?

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Richard S. Ehrlich.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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