If you follow Korean culture, you’ll eventually arrive at the mukbang.
Mukbangs started out true to the meaning of the word that translates as “eating video,” based on early variety TV shows that had hosts following guests on eating adventures. They took off in South Korea because of its highly social culture. In the absence of friends or family, people found they were a comforting way to vicariously enjoy a meal with others.
These days, mukbangs have become more commonly associated with the trainwreck spectacle of watching people gorge on massive piles of food on par with competitive eaters.
Food is one of the first subjects people tend to think of when they hear the word “Korean.” When I mention K-pop, people often start making associations and talk about K-dramas and how they make them hungry because the characters are always eating. That is part of Korean branding. Its democratic government knew South Korea would never achieve power through might, so they pushed soft power, winning people over with their food, music, entertainment and culture. It worked as interest in such soft subjects has boosted South Korea’s economy through interest in its electronics, food and beauty products, its tourism industry and enrollment in Korean language schools.
K-pop stars have to continuously come up with ways to keep fans entertained and one of them is through eating segments on their live feeds, travelogs or video diaries. BlackPink’s Rosé is one of the cutest eaters, maybe because of her chipmunk cheeks. I need to watch and learn from her!
I am constantly in restaurants because I write about them for a living, so mukbangs were a natural extension of what I was already doing. Bringing them back to their original form, the intent is to introduce some of Hawaii’s new restaurants, popular and trendy places, holes-in-the-wall venues that people may miss, and high-end restaurants that some may not be able to afford but still want “to experience” through the camera lens before deciding whether or not to commit their hard-earned dollars to a firsthand visit.
My latest was a visit to Don E Don restaurant at 919 Keeaumoku St., which is best known for red pepper pork spareribs and sea salt spareribs, differing from many Korean restaurants that tend to focus on beef.
It’s a relatively small space that tends to fill up quickly at peak lunch and dinner hours, but worth checking out.
I wanted to dance BTS’s “Black Swan” choreography ever since they debuted it in the United States on James Corden’s “Late Late Show” on Jan. 28.
After putting in my request at our beginner K-pop dance class, I finally had the opportunity to learn the last chorus during a Hawaii Dance Bomb class on Feb. 10. I was hoping we could get to the end of the song but unfortunately we couldn’t. I was hoping for a follow-up class, but that looks unlikely.
We took so much time to learn just a brief segment that we ran out of time to record the dance as a class as usual. Afterward I wanted to film a reaction to the video with one of my friends in the class, and when we finished we decided to give the dance one more try and see how much of it we could remember. It’s funny how so much is forgotten the minute we walk out the door, and after no more than a half hour we struggled to remember which parts came next.
? We tried a little bit of the last chorus at the end of this vid:
Anyway, because BTS performed the dance barefoot, I went barefoot the whole class—which was pretty typical every time I took a modern or contemporary dance class—and continued to dance it barefoot on the concrete outside.
I was afraid it might be painful but because it is more of a modern dance piece there were no jumps that might have caused pain. A few weeks ago I tried to learn Dawn’s “Money” by myself, and even on a wood floor it became painful because of all the jumps he does.
? BTS “Black Swan”
Just watching the dance ahead of time, I knew it would be painful in other ways, such as trying to match their wide and low stance. The flexing of their backs made me realize it was an area I had to work on because my back is too stiff to get the arch and flow of their swanlike stretches. I spent about three days trying to stretch and flex my back without the help of an exercise ball, which I really should get. I also kept up my plies and tendus, adding squats, just to prepare for a few minutes of dance! Even though classes are an hour long, about 15 minutes is spent in warmup and socializing, and much of the time we are walking through the moves. We are only dancing at 100 percent for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Yet … a day after class my muscles were aching, from my core to back of my thighs. I mean, BTS puts a lot of rigor into the dance but I hadn’t felt pain after a dance class in a long time so I thought I had done enough prep. That just shows how grueling BTS choreography continues to be. I haven’t hurt for a long time after many of the other boy dances that call for a lot of powerful and rapid movements. When I look at the video of myself, I see I’m putting in a quarter of the energy BTS puts into their performances.
I know the millions-strong ARMY already respects and admires BTS, but if they tried their dances they would respect them even more.
Miss Trot Hawaii Concert 2019 When: 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 15 Where: Hawai’i Convention Center Tickets: $35 to $250 at eventbrite, Palama Supermarket, Fabric Mart, 88 Supermarket, Tournet Hawaii or call 808.922.1122.
Miss Trot Hawaii is coming to town. It’s a concert featuring Song Ga In (featured in the promotional photo), the winner of the popular South Korean entertainment survival show, “Miss Trot,” plus five runner-ups voted by judges in the “American Idol”-style show. Joining Song will be Jung Mi Ae, Hong Ja, Jung Da Kyung, Sook Haeng and Kim So Yu.
By now you may wondering what is trot. It’s a form of music that originated in Korea in the early 20th century under Japanese colonial rule, when elites tried to mimic the latest Japanese styles due to forced assimilation and trot emerged as a melding of Japanese and Western music. As a matter of survival, Koreans had to pretend they didn’t like more traditional forms of art, music and dance. At this time, many Korean elites also adopted Japanese names. It was a sad time in Korean history, and current political friction stems from an inability to forgive Japan for atrocities dating to 1910.
In Korea, trot is known as ppongjjak, recognized by its repetitive rhythm and distinct vocal inflections. It continued to be popular into the 1960s, but became passé with the rise of K-pop, that made it feel like your dad or granddad’s music.
It has a really old-fashioned, dramatic vocal style that sounds its age, at nearly 100 years old, but what makes it interesting and topical is that Miss Trot winner Song Ga In recently collaborated with controversial artist MC Mong on his comeback album, “Channel8,” and she’s come under fire for that association.
? Here’s the MV for “Fame” with Song’s vocal dominating the end:
Mong has been persona non grata in South Korea for eight years because he had pulled out half his teeth to avoid mandatory two-year military service. Apparently, those with poor health, including those without a minimum number of teeth, are exempt from service. For evading the draft, he was sentenced to a six month suspended jail term, one year probation, and 120 hours of community service. To date, his attempts at a comeback has been thwarted by negative sentiments and protests of anti-fans who have managed to block his appearances.
Will this time make a difference?
Well, online comments regarding his latest attempt has been just as negative as ever, with statements like, “All these thugs are the same … they come crawling out like cockroaches once they run out of money” and “Ok. We’ve seen it. You can go back now.”
But perhaps young listeners who don’t know his back story will have more say. His title track, “Fame,” is ranked No. 1 on Melon and “Channel,” featuring Park Bom (who has also come under fire for her participation on his record), is ranked No. 2.
The fusion of genres in his song, “Fame” (about regret and guilt, with the message to be humble) is really cool so I can see why Song wanted to do it, to reach a whole new audience that otherwise would not be interested in trot. I think the TV show became popular for that reason. Today’s young generation is just not used to hearing that kind of powerful vocal so it sounds fresh compared to the high-pitched, nasally whine of so many K-pop girl groups.
I thought the EXO in Hawaii chapter was over when the group’s photobook “PRESENT; gift” was released in April.
Now a second 204-page Hawaii photobook, “PRESENT; the moment” is set to be released on Sept. 10.
SM has already teased a handful of photos. The last outing featured picturesque destinations. The teased photos showed the more mundane, with Chen and Suho pictured inside humble Kaimuki Laundromat, and D.O., Sehun, Kai and Baekhyun standing prettily in silk lei on a residential street. Shades of “EXO Next Door!” If I knew they were on my street I would run out of the house.
I did get a friend’s shared picture when we just so happened to make ourselves useful by hand-delivering bento lunches to EXO while they were at Kualoa Ranch. Unfortunately, they couldn’t hang around because they were headed to Secret Island Beach, and as soon as we got there a staffer grabbed the lunches from us to load onto their boat.
There was only room for a small crew, so they left about 30 other crew members behind. As they were heading out, my friend took a few photos, and below is one of them. I like to say this was the first time my future husband Chen saw me waving him off. LOL!
It’s not like I’m a stalker; I just wanted to see what they look like, how tall they are IRL. D.O., Baekhyun and Chen are pretty short. I think they heighten in their bios. Otherwise they look the same as their photos. The only surprise was D.O. I don’t care much for his looks in 2D—of this group Chen is my bias; if you include Lay it would be Lay—but in 3D D.O.’s features just pop and he is really good-looking.
That said, the second book comes along just at the time EXO-Ls may be missing our EXO members in the military Xiumin and D.O., and this keeps them at the top of our thoughts.
It’s rare for Hawaii fans to witness K-pop live. Groups come here all the time, but not for concerts.
Since last November, EXO, Winner, Black Pink and Twice have all been in town for a mix of photo opps and video features. Others have been here as well. In 2017, before they really blew up in America, BTS was on Oahu to film their vacation package “Bon Voyage.” They walked throughout Waikiki and the North Shore unbothered. No one took much much notice of the seven Korean guys in loud aloha shirts.
There have been attempts to stage big concerts here before, but according to promoters, the numbers really didn’t add up. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the market for K-pop is still niche and in Hawaii, it’s difficult to know who’s a fan. Many are closeted.
And although the rest of the world sorts music lovers into fans of K-pop and antis, many of the K-pop fans are anti-any-band-that-is-not-their-fave. Rivalries among fandoms is real, so a BTS fan may not show support for an EXO concert and vice versa.
A BTS fan may say he/she is a K-pop fan, but in truth that person may only like BTS. So BTS distorts the numbers of true K-pop fans—who, just as among Western music lovers—may follow only two or three favorite groups out of a hundred or so that debut every year.
So, it was a real treat to see Ladies Code and eSNa in town for a free concert thanks to the Hawaii Korean Chamber of Commerce, which presents a free Korean Festival annually. This year, the event took place Aug. 10 at Victoria Ward Park on the grounds of the former Ward Warehouse.
About 10,000 people attended the all-day, family event that closed with the 7 p.m. concert, and afterward the women stayed for a meet-and-greet session with grateful fans.
I had the opportunity to chat with the women briefly before they had to go on stage for a soundcheck and rehearsal session.
eSNa, whose stage name is an abbreviated version of her full name, Esther Nara Yoon, is from L.A. and started her music career by uploading cover songs on YouTube. She moved to South Korea in 2010 and became known as a singer-songwriter who has written songs for many in the industry.
She was sidelined earlier this year after she was struck by a car that left her bedridden with a broken collarbone and other injuries. After recuperating, she returned to the stage during KCON New York last month. Her Hawaii appearance is only her second outing since then, and she will perform next at KCON LA, running Aug. 15-18.
She had wanted to try skydiving on this trip, her fifth to Hawaii, but still doesn’t have the OK from her doctor for any extreme activity.
Meanwhile, Ashley Choi and Lee Sojung were here without Polaris Entertainment’s Ladies Code third member Zuny. They had lots of plans to enjoy the outdoors, try a lot of local food favorites such as shave ice and açaí bowls, as well as hit the bars.
On their first trip to Hawaii, they said that the view is something you can’t imagine in Korea and they love the blue sky and fresh air.
I have the uncanny knack for being in places like Shanghai and Seoul when the air is clear and skies are blue, so I have never witnessed the black smog and air pollution that has Seoul ranked near the bottom, out of 180 countries, for air quality in Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index.
During their rehearsal, Ladies Code was joined by two backup dancers to perform their current comeback hit “Feedback,” as well as one of their debut songs, “Bad Girl,” among others.
They said they would love to be invited back to perform next year, and I’m sure Hawaii K-pop fans would love to see them again.
Never in my life did I dream that K-pop would be a subject worthy of college level study, but why not for the politics, history, psychology or sociology student who wants to know how popular culture shapes a society, or the business or economics student who wants to know how a multibillion dollar industry was built from nothing? Which is where K-pop was in 1992 when Seo Taiji and the Boys took to the Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. stage on April 11 with their hiphop act and lost the evening’s music competition but won enough fans to change the way music is made in Korea.
It was only five years after South Korea became a democracy, and people were finally free to emulate their Western counterparts regarding music and fashion. Prior to that, they had lived under autocratic rule similar to North Korea today, where personal freedom was limited and little things like hair lengths and skirt lengths were strictly regulated.
While Seo Taiji and the Boys took their cues from American hiphop, others flocked to J-pop, and within a year after democracy was established, 10 percent of all music sold in Korea was J-pop. One of the “boys” was Yang Hyun Suk who would later found YG Entertainment, one of the Big Three agencies in South Korea, who professor Jayson Makoto Chun now compares to Darth Vader, having gone to the dark side as someone who once fought for creative freedom, but stifles his own artists.
“ASAN 464: K-pop and J-Pop: Korean and Japanese Popular Music and Society,” led by Drs. Patrick Patterson and Chun, grew out of their respective interest and research into the worlds of J-pop and K-pop. They joined forces because they said there can be no discussion without knowing the countries’ intertwined histories.
It made me thank back to a post from last year after BTS appeared at the Grammy Awards show. I remember one commentator wrote of one of their videos rocking out to Dolly Parton’s performance, “Those are the whitest guys I’ve ever seen. That’s what colonialism gets you.”
On the one hand, I was angry about the snarky comment, but at the same time I had to acknowledge that K-pop is essentially American or Western music sung in the Korean language. The course is driving home this point even more as Chun raised the question: “What is Korean about K-pop?” pointing out that most of the songs are written by Swedish or American songwriters; their dances are created by American or Japanese choreographers; their training system is modeled after the J-pop system; and these days group members are increasingly coming from the United States, Thailand, Japan, China and Taiwan as they seek out the best and brightest who may no longer be in South Korea.
It’s a question that will come up more and more as the Korean music industry itself tries to stay ahead of the pack and are moving into other countries, hoping to replicate the K-pop formula with homegrown talent in countries across Asia and the rest of the world, including this country as SM Entertainment prepares to launch a second Girls’ Generation with American talent to sing in English, and a second NCT comprising Europeans.
Obviously, they have the know-how to create and train groups in countries such as Indonesia or Thailand that don’t have the infrastructure to grow and market their regional talent.
I’ve often thought this about Hawaii, where we have a lot of people with innate musical ability, but lack the vision and training centers to create superstars. Someone like Bruno Mars had to go it alone and blaze his own trail, but what if we had studios connected to L.A. producers who could identify and work with talent from a young age? Mars (born Peter Gene Fernandez) at least had an advantage in having been trained in stagecraft by his musician father.
But the whole idea of the K industry looking elsewhere for talent has me worried about the future of K-pop and Koreans who want to enter the business as the market will become saturated with singing, dancing boys and girls from every country, speeding the decline of this style of music as the audience grows weary of it and moves on to the next big thing.
The overall purpose of the class is to learn the ways the Koreans have managed to hack our brains as we decode the workings of an industry that is shaping the way all music is made.
Professor Patterson compared it to a baseball field in which one action sets every player on the field into action. Although in the scheme of things, BTS is not as big in terms of record sales in America as the perception may be because of their constant news presence, all industry eyes are on them to see what they will be doing next and to crack the code to their success. You can bet there are people hard at work now to reverse-engineer their music and marketing methods to find out why they have managed to captivate so many, irregardless of gender, sexual identity, race and age.
During an earlier talk to raise interest in the course, Chun suggested that suffering is a crucial component of K-pop because fans identify with the struggle and the fact that the group members continue to work hard even after they become successful, unlike their Western counterparts, who often adopt a decadent lifestyle and feeling of entitlement. In contrast, every K-pop star knows he or she can replaced any second by someone younger and more talented. As trainees, they compete every day and are role models for a generation sick of the childish behavior exhibited by our politicians and other adults around them. American adults talk about morals and values but display none of the traits they idealized. On the other hand, K-pop stars are generally trained to act like model citizens as they are sent as ambassadors of South Korea abroad. Fans often call them princes because of the elegance they project abroad.
Another reality is that South Korea is still a relatively poor country and in rural areas, a family’s well-being can rest entirely on their child, which is why they can sign them to slave contracts. It’s why the kids feel incredible pressure to perform well, and adds to their feelings of disappointment and shame when they are unable to debut.
When Chun asked us whether we would have been willing to sign our lives away at age 11, it’s funny only me and the other musician in class raised our hands. “Seven years is not that long,” I whispered to my friend. At their age it covers “wasted” time in junior and high schools.
I already know what it’s like to suffer for one’s career and stick it out for the long haul. I feel like I would have been tough enough, though after watching some of the survival shows I feel as if I—like so many of them—would be crying after every evaluation. It all drives the feeling of empathy and compassion we feel toward them. It was already pointed out in class that after one of our class members related one of the difficulties of her high school years, we sympathized and liked her more.
The same is true of the K-pop bands we stan. The fans are always there to offer up an encouraging rallying cry of “Fighting!” “Save him!” or “Protect him!” when we see them enduring hardships or taunts from other fandoms. Just today there were anti-fans trying to spread the hashtag “TaehyungleaveBTS,” calling him ugly and talentless. Of course Army fought back.
And there’s a reason EXO’s catchphrase is “We are one.” Fans and stars, we are all fighting for their success together, and that makes for an unbreakable bond.
We spent an hour learning BTS’s “Idol” during our beginner K-pop dance class at Star Fitness Hawaii on Feb. 9, 2019. It is the most high-energy dance we’d done so far, and after dancing it at 100 percent about five times, we wanted to collapse.
Now I understand why I’ve seen BTS also collapse on the floor after performing nearly 4 minutes of this choreography. When I saw it happen I was wondering why they would be so exhausted after one dance because they often perform several of their dances in succession during live shows.
I have to admit it scared me to see them, especially Taehyung, breathing so hard when they are so young.
After doing this dance, I now know why. We only learned about 40 seconds, so would have only done 2-1/2 minutes of the dance at 100 percent and it is way more exhausting than we make it look. The song is nearly 4 minutes and they are dancing that whole time. It’s all the jumps that make it so exhausting.
BTS choreography is actually much easier than most K-pop dances. It’s not that they can’t do sharp moves, but they sacrifice detail for high energy that is exciting for people to watch and more engaging during a live performance. It also makes it much more fun to dance. An EXO dance, for instance, is so intricate that it’s hard for me, as a beginner, to escape into the mood or feeling of the song. Every second is spent thinking about the small technical details that make it more stressful than fun.
On Jan. 19, 2019, in our beginner K-pop class, we danced part of IU’s “BbiBbi.” It’s a cute, lazy-looking dance that actually sends a serious warning to gossips and haters.
Her greeting, “Hello stup-I-D,” refers to the anonymous trolls hiding behind made-up IDs to leave hateful messages for their targets online.
In her gestures in the dance she draws a line that should not be crossed and wards off haters with a yellow card, referring to warnings used in soccer games.
I really like the strength she shows in singing this song. Korean entertainers are subject to a lot of scrutiny and nasty criticism for everything from the way they dress to the smallest of so-called infractions that veer from the mean.
They are constantly apologizing for any behavior that results in criticism, so it’s nice to see IU stand up for herself, because Korean society is particularly hard on women they expect to conform to a strict code of feminine behavior and appearance. Through this song, she shows she’s no one’s easy target.
I’m not one who needs a pop-culture reference to spark a culinary expedition, but I understand the impulse. Films like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” each left me hungry for nigiri sushi and Chinese food, respectively. Alas, in those cases, similar cuisine was nowhere to be found on Oahu at that time. (Great sushi bars have since materialized.)
When traveling, K-pop stars inevitably start missing a taste of home, and that’s how I ended up following in their footsteps to a couple of restaurants in town for some “When Harry Met Sally”-style, “I’ll have what he’s having moment.”
That’s how I ended up at Seoul Jung restaurant, not exactly a top-of-mind Korean restaurant for locals because of its hidden status, tucked away on the second floor of the Waikiki Resort Hotel, and at New Shilawon Korean restaurant, where I was also eager to try a holiday special of $9.99 samgyetang, kalbi soup or kalbi and vegetable soup.
BTS was here on the Big Island and Oahu in spring 2017 for the season 2 filming of their annual summer vacation package “Bon Voyage.” Some places they showed up included Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo, and Teddy’s Bigger Burgers in Haleiwa.
They split up three ways for dinner one night, but two of the groups including R.M. (Kim Nam-joon), J-Hope (Jung Ho-seok), Park Jimin, Jeon Jung-kook and Jin (Kim Seok-jin) ended up at Mikawon, where one wall has become a shrine to BTS, with guests adding their artwork memorializing their visit to the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Sugar (Min Yoon-gi) and V (Kim Tae-hyung) ended up at Seoul Jung, where I was able to sample the mul naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) and doenjang jigae (soy bean paste stew) that nearly drove them to tears after being away from Korean food for two weeks.
As soon as I was seated at Seoul Jung, I asked the wait staff if they remembered BTS, and they did! From there I had 100 questions like, “Were they cute? Were they funny? Did you talk to them?” Only to find Suga and V left no strong impression. I was told they were quiet and polite, sitting in the very back of the restaurant in a room with more privacy than in the main dining room.
People are not usually seated there unless the main dining room is full. That’s when I was told about Japanese visitors who show up with screenshots in hand and, matching up the artwork on the walls, beg to sit in the same seats Suga and V occupied. I was fine with sitting in one of the booths outside that room.
The restaurant caters to the Korean palate, with flavors lighter and more refined than local-style Korean. In fact, throughout their visit and sampling local food, the BTS members’ reaction to most local food was that it is extremely salty.
In contrast, Suga said Seoul Jung’s food “hit the spot,” and the soy bean stew ($16.95) reminded him of his mom’s cooking. Their smiles, tears and quiet reverie as they emptied their bowls said a lot.
The mul naengmyeon ($15.50), or cold noodle soup, was refreshing. The buckwheat noodles were topped with slices of apple and half a boiled egg, in a broth of beef and vegetables, brightened with vinegar and clear soda. It’s served with extra vinegar for those who crave more of the sourness associated with authentic Korean fare.
I could taste why Suga appreciated the doenjang jigae ($16.95). It had the flavor of home, mild and comforting, a simple soybean paste, tofu, beef and vegetable stew that one could eat every day without tiring of it.
Because no Korean meal feels complete without meat, I added on the L.A.-style grilled, sliced kalbi ($28.95), so succulent and tender it was easily the highlight of the meal. Wang-style kalbi on the bone ($28.95) is also available, but I was in a lazy, no-fuss mood, so having the shortribs finished and cut in the kitchen was fine with me. Both arrive on a sizzling platter. If you’re the grill-it-yourself type, you can always order assorted meats for a customized yakiniku experience. Selections range from kalbi and sirloin ($26.75 each), to black pork belly ($23.95), beef tongue ($24.75) and beef tripe ($25.95).
EXO also showed up Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, 2018 for filming and photo shoots, and in addition to being spotted at Champs Sports Bar in Kaimuki and the Haleiwa McDonald’s, showed up for dinner their last night in town at New Shilawon restaurant, where they enjoyed kalbi jjim ($26.95), kim chee jeon ($16.99), fish roe stew ($19.95) and yakiniku.
A few weeks later I was there to try the restaurant’s lunch special (through Dec. 22) of ginseng chicken soup, but yakiniku sounds good to me, so as a meat eater, I’ll probably revisit soon. The banchan and food are great here, and so is the staff.
The yakiniku is $29.95 or $34.95 per person (minimum two people) for all-you-can-eat, lunch or dinner. For $29.95 15.99 for children ages 5 to 10), meat options are pork belly, beef brisket, BBQ chicken, bulgogi and spicy pork. For $34.95 the selectors is greater: ribeye, beef tongue, beef brisket, cubed beef flank, pork belly, kalbi, bulgogi, BBQ chicken and spicy pork. Typical all-you-can eat rules are in effect, like a two-hour time limit, $3 per plate fee for leftovers and no take-out.
IF YOU WANT TO GO:
Mikawon Korean Restaurant: 2310 Kuhio Ave. Call 808.924.3277 New Shilawon Korean Restaurant: 747 Amana St. Call 808.944.8700 Seoul Jung: Waikiki Resort Hotel, 2460 Koa Ave. Call 808.921.8620