For a while, it looked as though hallyu, the craze for all things Korean that swept across the region about a decade ago, was finally on the wane.
Few - if any - box office hits from South Korea in the past couple of years had replicated the earlier local success of Shiri (1999) or My Sassy Girl (2001). Stalls on Ladies' Street in Mong Kok had stopped selling DVD box sets of Korean TV dramas. Idols such as Bae Yong-joon, Lee Byung-hun, Jang Hyuk and Jun Ji-hyun no longer triggered the mass hysteria they once did. Korean pop, or K-pop, was mostly relegated to videos played in television showrooms.
But just before it could be written off as a thing of the past, the so-called "Korean wave" - a term coined on the mainland to refer to the surge in popularity of South Korean entertainment and culture worldwide - has returned with a vengeance, and riding high on the crest is a new breed of K-pop stars.
When Yoon-A, of the popular group Girls' Generation, came here recently she was mobbed by hundreds of fans at the Hong Kong International Airport and later in Wellington Street in Central, where the leggy 22-year-old went on a shopping spree. Just a week before that, boy band SHINee arrived for their first Hong Kong concert. A fan who had won a chance to pose with her idols broke down in tears before collapsing when the photo session was cancelled due to the boys' hectic work schedule.
K-pop concerts have been dominating the local events calendar since summer: KBS Music Bank in June, bands T-ara and 2AM playing in September, SHINee last month, the Mnet Asian Music Awards (Mama) ceremony this Friday - where global phenomenon and rapper Psy of Gangnam Style fame will perform, a day after appearing at Club Cubic at Macau's City of Dreams casino - and Big Bang's Alive Tour in December.
Ellen Kong, whose company ELF Asia started organising K-pop concerts last year, has to date brought in popular acts such as 2PM, 2AM, ZE:A, f(x) and miss A, and her upcoming Big Bang concerts at AsiaWorld-Arena will be a highlight. Fans reportedly started queueing a week before tickets went on sale and when the box office opened on September 20, all tickets were snapped up within an hour.
Kong attributes the popularity of the hallyu phenomenon to the groups' hard work - and meticulous online marketing. "Korean idols are not just young and good looking - the key to their success lies in their training. They have to undergo years of strenuous vocal and dance training before they can even stand on stage," she says. "Long-term strategic planning sets the standard and what has made the K-pop phenomenon go viral has a lot to do with social media."
Kong points out that talent agencies are quick to exploit online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging app Kakao Talk to promote their artists, allowing the latest photos, news and music videos to be sent directly to fans' smart phones. "They get informed about what's going on with their idols [immediately], greatly shortening the time lag for fans wanting to know about the singers," Kong says. "What has surprised me is that the idols are also penetrating China by setting up accounts on Weibo [the mainland's top microblog interface]. The idols may simply upload messages in Korean with no Chinese or English translations, but they still attract large crowds of followers."
Communication with fans has been crucial in the success of K-pop - the idols make constant appearances online and attach great importance to understanding what their fans think. "When idol groups launch a tour, their programmes are often tailor-made for the countries they are visiting. 2AM sang a hit song by local star Eason Chan Yik-shun in Cantonese during their Hong Kong concert. G-Dragon of Big Bang wore a traditional Indonesian sarong during their Jakarta tour. The idols try hard to speak local languages when greeting their fans," Kong says.
For the upcoming Big Bang concerts, about 35,000 people are expected to flock to the three shows at AsiaWorld from December 8 to 10, breaking the record for the size of the audience for K-pop concerts in Hong Kong.
"Big Bang are not only an idol group, but also trendsetters and fashion icons," Kong says. "They have successfully distinguished themselves from their fellow idol groups with daring styles and extravagant outfits."
While K-pop is all the rage, Korean cinema - which heralded the whole hallyu phenomenon - has taken a back seat. It's been almost 15 years since Christmas in August became the first major Korean box office hit here in 1998. While local moviegoers soon developed a keen interest in Korean films, they were also overwhelmed by the sheer amount of releases brought in by the Korean wave.
Audrey Lee Yuk-lan, general manager in distribution and acquisition of Edko Films, remembers the time when eight Korean movies were released in the same month. "Audiences simply could not digest them all. The situation worsened when Korean TV dramas started to air. Audiences preferred to watch TV dramas instead of going to cinemas to watch their favourite Korean actors. We had to adjust our strategy by reducing the number of Korean imports," says Lee.
She says there are also other factors that indicate Korean cinema is on the decline in Hong Kong. "People have the wrong impression that Korean movies are like those cliched and formulaic TV dramas. Many Korean film buffs are now parents busy looking after their children, [while] the young generation is attracted by K-pop instead of Korean movies. This has all resulted in a drop in the local audience for Korean films."
For example, South Korean movie The Thieves broke box-office records at home this year with more than 12 million viewers, but tanked in Hong Kong in September. Despite its star-studded cast, lead by Jun Ji-hyun, it only managed to bring in about HK$3 million, slightly below Lee's expectations of HK$4 million to HK$5 million.
Still, Lee remains optimistic about the future of Korean cinema - production standards remain high - and believes the genre will always have a healthy following here. One of Edko's upcoming purchases is Kim Ki-duk's acclaimed art-house favourite Pieta, which Lee hopes will do well locally.
South Korean consul (for culture and public relations) Han Jae-heuk is equally positive, saying his country's offerings are based on its 5,000 years of history. "With its openness and diversity, Korean culture [will] continuously develop and flourish. I hope that more and more people around the globe [will] understand and enjoy it."