A Hawaii native’s journey into K-pop

By Nadine Kam I

It’s not every day that you’ll find a K-pop star willing to talk about their experiences in the cutthroat industry, but that’s what happened when Rebekah Kim, Bekah of After School, gave a talk on “My Journey into K-pop” at the University of Hawaii on March 28.

During her talk, she inspired audience members with her message of being willing to take chances to achieve one’s goals, starting her talk with gifts from Korean beauty company Aritaum for a handful of people willing to share their personal goal.

By the end of her talk, some fans were in tears, while others—awestruck—struggled to move their feet to approach the star, who lingered to pose for selfies.

Bekah graciously posed for selfies with guests following her talk at the University of Hawaii, From top: Titus Y.H. Chong, myself, Bekah, Michelle Chun, Sarah Replogle.

The event was sponsored by the Asian Studies Program and the Center for Korean Studies School of Pacific and Asian Studies. The Hawaii native recounted the jubilation of being recruited in 2008 for After School’s original lineup, to her abrupt exit three years later for health reasons. After School’s concept had been cynically created to deal with the arrival and departure of members, chalked up to the school girls’ “graduation.”

There’s still excitement in Kim’s voice as she talks about the early days, that became more reflective and somber as reality kicked in, the loneliness, the lack of sleep, the criticism, the harsh antis, that we have come to associate with K-pop.

Kim’s journey started with being scouted while at a Korean church volleyball game. Members of Pledis Entertainment had been in town hosting auditions at the Ilikai Hotel. At the game, Kim was invited to the auditions.

She said that she was fine with showcasing her dancing skills, but had never sang in front of people. Upon hearing that she should be prepared to sing two songs, her first response was that she wasn’t going to do it.

“I was scared,” she said. Her sister suggested singing a couple of contemporary Christian songs within her comfort zone, and she was invited to a second audition for the company’s boss, who flew in to Honolulu a few days later. Until that point, she was unaware of their thoughts or plans, but as she was about to leave, he told her, “See you in Korea.” A pinch me moment.

She was 16, a student at Moanalua High School accustomed to hanging out in the parking lot of Wendy’s, Salt Lake, not the glitz and glam of K-pop stages, although being of Korean ancestry, she was familiar with the music, and a fan of H.O.T. and S.E.S.

Her training in those early days was casual, 8-hour days taking place during school breaks when she was able to travel to South Korea. While she was attending school in Hawaii, the company hired instructors to work with her.

After School with Rebekah Kim at lower right.

The real training began the following year when she graduated and moved to Korea. At that time, she only had six months to prepare for the group’s debut. In a sense, it was a good thing because it spared her much of the anguish others go through. Many trainees spend three to five-plus years of training without knowing whether they will ever debut. Her schedule at this point was 12-hour days of practicing singing and dancing.

In the beginning, she said, “It didn’t faze me. Every day felt like fun.”

The magazine shoots, the fashion shoots, red carpet events, was everything many girls dream of, seemingly, the perfect celebrity life. After School did well after officially debuting in January 2009. In April that year, the group won the “Rookie of the Month” award at the Cyworld Digital Music Awards. One of After School’s biggest hits, “Because of You,” was released in November that year, and became both a commercial and critical success, winning a “triple crown” on SBS Inkigayo.

But with fame and success came scrutiny, and Kim found herself criticized for her weight, saying, “I tried so hard,” to be like her reed-thin bandmates.

In light of her unlikely journey from Hawaii high schooler to the glitz and glam of K-pop, Rebekah Kim now encourages others to pursue their dreams. — Nadine Kam photo

Criticism was compounded by loneliness to the point that her manager suggested that she “get a boyfriend,” which shocked her, given the K-pop industry’s notorious slave contracts that often include no-dating clauses to keep the members marketable, playing into fan’s hopeful, romantic fantasies. She said that foreigners in K-pop are given more leeway than the Korean members.

She exited the group in 2011 to pursue interests in art and fashion, and still keeps in touch with her former bandmates. After School has been inactive since 2015 while members also pursue separate careers in music, acting and modeling.

Dance diary: A walk through Black Pink’s ‘As if it’s Your Last’ and BTS Home Party

By Nadine Kam I

Through this dance class, dated Jan. 12, 2019, I wanted to share the process of learning and creating a formation to show that it’s not a scary endeavor at all and to encourage any closet dancer to come out and take a chance on learning something new.

For a year, I’d been inviting some sedentary friends to come keep me company and get some fun exercise, but a little aerobics is one thing and dance is another. Dance tends to make people feel intimidated. And videos are the bane of dance teachers. On the one hand, they love to show their work and accomplishments, partially as a way of enticing people to come out and dance. But when people see the end result, their first thought is, “I can’t do that.”

It’s the same way I feel at the start of each class. Every time I’m shown the K-pop videos, I think, “I can’t do that.” But rather than stopping there, my second thought is, “Oh well, let’s give it a try.”

Each teacher, here Sarah Replogle, is able to break the dances down into bite size chunks, so non-dancers will be surprised how much they can actually do when taking it slowly. K-pop dance is one form in which anyone with no dance background can jump into without risk of injury.

Alas, I used to invite friends to also join me in beginning ballet, modern and jazz classes, but it’s weird to say that even though I’m still a novice in all these forms, I’ve advanced in a year to the point that they could not join me in the same classes, at risk of hurting themselves without a foundation in technique.

The one thing I’ve learned through ballet is that the exercises never end. Even the pros continue to perform the same exercises as we do as beginners to maintain their form and balance, and build strength.

This video shows how slowly we walk through the moves to get to the end.

A slow walk-through of Black Pink’s “As if it’s Your Last” chorus after about 30 minutes of learning the choreography. I don’t care that I’m lagging in this first attempt at a formation.

? Watch: Black Pink “As if it’s Your Last”

Around this time, because of all the modern dance I had been doing, I was feeling more confident and when I watched this BTS Home Party dance practice video featuring J-Hope, Jimin and Jungkook, and other of their raw practice videos, I felt like if I were in the same room with them, I would be able to pick up choreography just as quickly as they do with their 10-plus years of dance and stage experience, often putting 11 to 16 hours a day into rehearsals vs. my four or five hours a week. Of course they are far more brilliant in their presentation than I am as a beginner much older than them, but their process is the same and watching them helps me set goals.

I am in no way a natural dancer. I move in strange ways and am totally uncoordinated, but I always felt as if anyone could learn choreography. It’s looking good doing it that’s the problem. It takes a lot of strength and technique to achieve the long, clean lines, posture and balance that Jimin maintains, plus a lot of flexibility to arch and flatten your back.

I didn’t have much of a problem with flexibility when I was taking nine classes a week and stretching daily, but now that I’m down to about four classes weekly, weighted toward the end of the week, I can feel how the body contracts and stiffens in the downtime. I don’t know how I lived 20 years as a couch potato when I feel the difference now after just three days of non-movement. Lol!

Because I never moved since childhood, and had no dance training, all the moves felt unnatural a year ago, but over time, movement grows on you. When I watch casual, personal videos of the K-pop stars, I notice they are always a second away from showing dance moves or dance hand gestures. I’ve noticed the same thing happening to me when I sit down to eat and hear music. Movement is starting to come more naturally as a matter of everyday life.

Anyway, I’ve pretty much done every move BTS does in this dance video, including hitting the floor with the kick in the air, but the longest segment of choreography I can commit to my brain is 1 minute. Dance is a challenge of memory as well as physicality. I am working to build new neural connections. In a way, I guess you could say if your strengths are elsewhere, dance makes you smarter.

Dance diary: SHINee’s ‘Everybody’

By Nadine Kam I

Through Jonghyun, SHINee is the first group that brought me to K-pop and on Jan. 5, the boy group dance we learned was SHINee’s “Everybody.”

It’s a dubstep-electro house-complextro song, so comes with all the mechanical, industrial sounds of a roomful of machinery and robots.

The song, released in October 2013, was accompanied by a dance and music video that had the boys performing as wind-up mechanical toy soldiers, at times gone haywire.

It’s a fun dance to watch, and I wish I could learn the whole dance, but alas we only spend an hour on each song, spliced together here to include some of the most iconic parts of the dance, so it doesn’t sync fully with the actual choreography. It would have been great to start with the intro of waking up and winding up though.

SHINee “Everybody” is a fun dance and the moves have stuck with me.

Compared to SHINee, it looks like we have low energy when dancing it, but trust me, we put everything into it and it was FAST. All the K-pop dances are extremely fast, and if you don’t think so, I dare you to come out and try it. The dances leave little time to think about what move comes next.

We usually start the dances at 50 percent speed, then go up to 75 percent, when it actually feels like 100 percent. By the time we get up to 100 percent, it feels like the song is sped up!

It was during this session that, after watching the video—never mind that I lagged at the end—I decided that if people were going to video each class, I’d better start dressing up in more than boros. So these days, if I know what dance we’re learning, I will try to dress appropriately. It’s a little hard because we do one boy and one girl song back to back, often with totally different vibes.

Whenever we dance SHINee songs, I think, Jonghyun did this!

? The official video:

? The beauty of SHINee live:

Let’s talk dance

By Nadine Kam I

If you read my origin story, you’d know that my interest in K-pop started with dance. After being a couch potato for most of my life, I started feeling weighed down, so when a couple of friends suggested taking a K-pop dance class and I said OK.

This was in February 2017. It was like entering an alternate universe where they spoke a foreign language and grownup women were positively giddy about their favorite groups and singers. When my own friends said all of American music sucks compared to K-pop and told me of their plans to move to Korea and marry a K-pop star, I just thought they were crazy and delusional.

EXO dances are challenging because they are very sharp with dozens of details in just a few seconds. Learned a few seconds of “Call Me Baby” up to the point I stopped, on Dec. 13, 2018. Finished up to the music video ending the second week.

I didn’t know any of the groups or their songs, so when ever it was my turn to share which song I wanted to dance to, I was a blank. I would just say “I don’t care, I don’t know anything about Kpop. I’m just here for exercise.”

To make a long story short, I became a super fan of SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun four months after his suicide, and that was the start of my spiraling into the cult of K-pop.

And about the dance. As can be expected for someone new to the world of movement, I sucked. I continued flopping around for about three months until deciding I had to go back to the basics. So from one class I moved on to about eight a week, halting K-pop in June and instead taking up more foundational classes of beginner ballet, hip-hop, jazz, modern, Afro-Caribbean and heels dancing.

Then three months ago, with the addition of a new teacher Sarah Replogle to the lineup of Star Fitness Hawaii, I returned to K-pop dance and since I’ve been videoing the dances since that time, thought I’d share my journey here, because it’s been eye-opening.

I probably assumed from the start that dancing was purely a physical pursuit, but it’s also a mental challenge that I haven’t quite figured out. At first I blamed poor memory for my inability to deal with choreography, until I realized that isn’t the entire reason because most of the dances are so quick that if you rely on memory alone you would be left behind. The moves have to be ingrained in the body so that it flows in the same way as singing a song, where I don’t have to pause to remember a lyric. I just always know the next line without stressing or thinking about it, so I can sing while doing anything, yes, even dancing. If I could only get the moves right.

I also relate the experience to my learning to play the drums. I have great rhythm from being a singer, but my drum teacher had me learn by reading notes. Again, in reading notes there’s that pause to make sense of it before the information is relayed from brain to limbs, and I had trouble with that type of momentary synapse lapse. It was only after quitting lessons, ditching the song sheets and playing with other musicians that it came together naturally and my skills rapidly improved.

I’m hoping for a similar miracle with dance because teachers haven’t been able to help me with that mind-body-visual connection. They can’t understand my difficulties because dance teachers tend to be naturals, who started at an early age and never had difficulty moving. So how can they be expected to understand the trials of a non mover?

It’s not easy, but I’m hoping anyone interested in dance can identify and share any tips and advice or commiserate.

I will try posting a couple of my videos each week until I’m all caught up. So first up is about 8 seconds of EXO’s “Call Me Baby,” all we could learn in an hour because EXO delivers so many moves, like 8 or 9 just in the first 4 seconds!

We spent two weeks on this only to get to the end of their music video clip as shown, about 12 seconds. I never filmed the second week because I didn’t have the confidence to keep up.

Watch the fifth position plié, pelvic thrust and chest thrust. Fun to do!

But the move that really got my attention in this dance was the one that puts Xiumin (in baseball jacket) in the center toward the end of the segment.

The song is about a guy who’s a bit full of himself in asking a girl to “call me baby” and “don’t wait too long” before he simply moves on, and the move is particularly rude and aggressive.

It starts with a ballet fifth position plié that results in that diamond shape in the legs, followed by a pelvic thrust, followed by a chest thrust. It cracked me up doing it. Do try this at home and see how that feels! It is so rude, but pretty damn cool!

Seungri scandal is not a K-pop scandal but systemic in Korea

By Nadine Kam I

You can’t call yourself a K-pop fan without having heard about the Seungri (Lee Seung-hyun) and spycam sex scandals.

To make a long story short, the youngest member of Big Bang is being investigated for charges of incidents of prostitution, drug use and bribery that took place in a nightclub, Burning Sun, where he claimed to be a publicity director, although it has been reported he is a part owner.

Due to the investigation, he recently announced his retirement from the entertainment industry, and has severed his ties with Big Bang and the agency that represented him, YG entertainment.

As if all of this wasn’t sordid enough, the investigation also ensnared other entertainers accused of drugging and raping women, as well as employing spycams to capture other sexual encounters without the womens’ knowledge.

Seungri in better days, on left, with fellow members of Big Bang
before they enlisted in the South Korean military for mandatory service.

What I hate most about all of this is that the whole scandal is being framed in the media as a K-pop sex scandal. It is certainly not limited to a single industry but instead puts a spotlight on depraved, misogynistic conduct that permeates South Korean society. The scandal is widening to include investigations into police bribery and collusion among high-ranking politicians and businessmen.

Meanwhile, everyone acts shocked, when prostitution is part of the art of the deal, standard business practice throughout Asia, if not the world, as the matter of what happened with our own United States president in a Russian hotel room is among topics of investigations at home.

It may be most visible when public figures get caught, but while tongues wag, let’s not forget it happens throughout society. Consider the prevalence of sex travel adventures set up for those who can afford to pay for boys or girls, or whatever their fetish may be, outside the watchful eyes of their own societies.

It happens wherever there is an imbalance of power between men and women, and where the rich and poor meet, as long as there are people willing to do anything for a shot at fame and money, and people willing to pay.

These are typical Hollywood casting couch stories, and would likely be more pervasive in the United States if we had the same technology as Korea. It can affect anyone as perpetrators in Korea record footage on their phones using selfie sticks up stairwells or held close to the ground to record up women’s skirts, or from cameras installed in bathrooms. Footage is then uploaded and shared on social media and porn sites.

The kind of incidents reported are every day occurrences and Seungri and his friends just happen to have been famous, and caught. They make easy scapegoats and gossip fodder. Among the fallen are actor Jung Joon-young who was let go from several productions, Choi Jong-Hoon of the group FT Island (charged with police bribery after a drunk driving incident from 2016, revealed in chatroom conversations) and Yong Jun-hyung, a rapper the K-pop group Highlight, who both announced their retirement from show business. Lee Jong Hyun of CNBLUE was also part of the shared video network, but is currently serving in the South Korean military.

It’s all the more disrespectful when considering Jung, who admitted to making videos involving 10 women in 10 months, is a star who could probably get a woman anytime without resorting to drugs and rape, making all this seem just like a game to him and his friends.

In the past, the investigation might have ended with only Seungri and his friends taking the fall, but this has wider ramifications for Korean society. For one thing, it has reignited a #MeToo movement that started last year yet amounted to little change about workplace sexual harassment of women.

Little has changed in the way business is conducted in South Korea a decade after actress Jang Ja-Yeon committed suicide following years of sexual abuse.

The investigations have also sparked a “Justice for Jang Ja-yeon” campaign 10 years after the actress took her life after writing a 7-page suicide note detailing being pimped out by her agent to 31 entertainment executives, politicians, CEOs and journalists. None of their names were ever released and her agent was sentenced only to one year in prison. Although Jang had gone to the police and prosecutors several times over the years, it was always her word against that of powerful men, so her allegations went nowhere. It’s worth noting that three other actresses from her company also are reported to have committed suicide attributed to depression.

The industry did not change following Jang’s posthumous revelations, but citizens are now demanding the names be revealed, and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in reopened her case on March 18. We can only hope that in this time of greater transparency that justice is served, that the powerful can no longer buy their way out of trouble, and that the men in South Korea heed the warning that enough is enough.

Then try repeating the message stateside. But as I said, human depravity is limitless and has been with us since the beginning of time. Things may quiet down for a while, but Seungris abound, likely even living next door.

The timeline: https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8503818/burning-sun-scandal-timeline-seungri-jung-joon-young

Jang Ja-Yeon: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/apr/01/south-korea-entertaiment-jang-jayeon