Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Advent of Korean Wave in Africa: Cultural Connection or Fascination about Material Modernity?

Out here in rural Africa, cinemas are non-existent and TV access require expensive satellite dishes that few people can afford.  To entertain themselves during their free time, locals tend to buy cheap pirated DVDs for computer gaming, or more commonly, drama series and movies.  Carts and shops selling these DVDs exist not just in market towns but even some bigger villages, allowing common people to access some of the latest visual entertainment from the outside world at quite affordable prices (if not the best of quality).

In the past few months, the DVD shops in this little rural Tanzanian town has witnessed a gradual yet noticeable change.  The plastic packets of pirated DVDs adorning the walls and wooden cabinets of these concrete hole-in-the walls used to be overwhelmingly made up of Hollywood blockbusters, Chinese kung fu flicks, mixed in with low-budget local stuff.  But in the recent days, the composition of these shops' collections are changing, with more and more Korean dramas on offer.  Some of the stuff is classics from the 1990's while others are surprisingly new and up-to-date.

Even the TVs in front, used by bigger shops to play samples of their best selections as advertisement, are now frequently blasting Korean music videos or drama segments, in Korean with Swahili or English subtitles.  It must be quite interesting for local villagers to hear some exotic, incomprehensible Asian language being blasted into the air on full volume from these little shops.  But clearly, had this strategy not worked for the operators of these DVD shops, they would not be wasting precious electricity doing it in the first place.

What the author is mostly interested in seeing Korean cultural products in this part of the world is exactly how and why locals accept them as they are.  Past writings have contained many expressions of pessimism on how creators of Korean pop culture do not understand how it can be manufactured with a global audience in mind.  But the fact that pirated DVD shops in Tanzania are pushing these things as their core products to attract customers, it can be fairly assumed that they can no longer be considered pure niche products, but indeed have potential to be, if not already, widespread.

Two theories come to mind on why Korean dramas and music can be accepted by locale at large scale.  First is the shallower of the two: the materialistic modernity portrayed visually in these products.  The sights of beautifully dressed people walking among paved roads (so lacking here except when it pertains to white elephant projects), skyscrapers (non-existent even in the "big, modern" city Dar es Salaam), and subways (the nearest system is half a continent away in Cairo) are certain to mesmerize viewers who probably will not see such things in their entire lifetimes.

But the explanatory power of the above theory can be a bit limited.  After all, Hollywood movies show these "modern" elements just as much, and cultural products of other developed countries can also show the same. So why aren't people here watching European movies or music videos, especially considering they already have such strong attachments of European soccer leagues?  The theory is further weakened by the fact that some Korean dramas sold here are not even about modern Korea, but ones portraying the peninsula's imperial past, where physical modernity certainly weren't present.

The better theory, maybe, as difficult to believe as it can be, some sort of cultural linkage between the values portrayed by Koreans and those held by local people here.  Korean dramas tend to emphasize concern for the family and the community (despite the fact that in reality, modern-day Korean youth are blatantly individualistic).  And Korean culture do prefer interpersonal harmony and non-confrontational behavior.  Both of these are traits shared by Tanzanian culture, and can be polar opposite to Western values embodied by Hollywood films and NGO professionals they meet.

Either way, it is interesting to see the Korean Wave hitting a place that their creators and promoters probably have never intended it to be.  After all, these cultural products are created to make money, and rural Africa, by any measure, is not an ideal market (certainly they will not earn a penny from those pirated DVDs).  But who knows?  Maybe one day, the Korean Wave here will be big enough, and the locals rich enough, for some Korean entertainment companies to ship over a few of their newly created girl-bands or boy-bands for money-spinning concerts.  That will be the day that the African consumer will finally be noticed by the world.  

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