We 'heart' K-pop

The YG Family Concert (above) in Seoul last month drew fans from around the region.

Thai lass Pookie Bunnak has been leading a jet-setting life chasing her favourite Korean pop idols BigBang around the world for the past seven years.

The 30-something happily tells Life! she has attended more than 30 of their concerts in places such as Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong.

Last month, she travelled to the heart of K-pop in Seoul to watch BigBang perform at the multi-act YG Family Concert held at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium. The star-studded show, which will make its Singapore stop on Sept 13 and 14, is a showcase of entertainment powerhouse YG's hottest talents including Gangnam Style star Psy, edgy girl group 2NE1 and rookie boy group Winner.

Besides the YG Family concert, Ms Bunnak has a busy itinerary during her month-long stay in Seoul centred on BigBang activities.

The bubbly fan, who runs a construction company in Thailand, says: "It's a ticket war for me over here. I'm trying to bid for tickets to BigBang member T.O.P's stage greeting at cinemas for his new movie. I had to try really hard to get the tickets."

Back in her home in Phitsanulok, a province in nothern Thailand, she has a shrine to showcase her BigBang acquisitions that run the gamut from music albums to T-shirts.

"I've bought many BigBang products and I want to show them in a beautiful way. I've never really counted how many items I've bought. But I think I've spent more than one millon baht (S$39,000) on everything related to BigBang in the past seven years," says Ms Bunnak, who will be coming to Singapore for the concert too.

"In each country, the feeling I get from each concert is different. I want to listen to them talk in different langauges."

The deep-pocketed passion of international fans such as Ms Bunnak is proof of top-tier Korean talent agency YG Entertainment's successful global strategy. An industry insider tells Life! that the Seoul-based entertainment agency is going big on its outreach to China and America.

YG has even attracted the attention of the investment arm of French luxury conglomerate LVMH, the parent company of luxury fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. Reuters reported last month that LVMH will invest up to US$80 million (S$100 million) in the Seoul-based management agency.

Indeed, the global appeal of YG's artists is seen in the foreign fans spotted among the 35,000-strong crowd at the four-hour mega concert - they come from Asia, Europe and South America.

One of them is Russian student Daria Abnizova, 18, who also got the chance to attend the concert's rehearsal, that was held on Aug 14, a day before the YG Family concert. Called the Sound Check Party, it was a one-hour session where 1,000 lucky concertgoers got to watch a sampling of the actual concert rundown in a much more informal setting.

The drizzle on the evening of the sound check did not dampen the excitement of the poncho-clad Ms Abnizova, who says: "I'm a fan of girl group 2NE1's Park Bom. Park Bom is my favourite 2NE1 member and my favourite singer in the whole world. I flew to Seoul so that I can hear her sing live at a concert.

"I have been saving up for this trip for a long time because I wanted to go to South Korea using my own money that I earned myself." She had worked part-time in a cafe to earn the US$1,700 she needed for her maiden Seoul trip.

Accompanying her in the snaking queue to enter the concert arena are two fellow Russian fans. Ms Abnizova says: "We are all from different cities in Russia and we met on the Internet, thanks to our passion for YG Family.

"In Russia, 2NE1 and all the YG Family artists are popular. Almost every K-pop group has fans in Russia. We are very pleased that Korean artists are slowly beginning to hold concerts in Russia. I look forward to more K-pop artists going to Russia."

The ripples of the Korean wave, or Hallyu in Korean, are felt all the way in Latin America, says Brazilian fan Pollyana Coura, 37, the main administrator of Facebook fan page BigBang Brazil.

Ms Coura, who works for a hotel chain, says that the first time the Brazilian media paid attention to K-pop was when mayhem erupted when boyband MBLAQ was in Brazil to promote a dance cover contest in 2011.

"The organisers did not expect the crowd - more than 5,000 fans went to Sao Paulo to see MBLAQ," adds Ms Coura, who has attended the YG Family Concert in Japan (2012) and BigBang's Alive Tour in Peru (2012).

Her love of Korean culture has taken her to Seoul for a holiday last month, where her fellow Korean VIPs (the official name of BigBang fans) invited her to attend a promotional event graced by the cast of the movie Tazza 2, which stars BigBang member T.O.P.

She says: "Since I like Korean culture, I went there to see the country I have seen so many times in K-dramas. I got to know the Korean VIPs, people who run fansites tend to talk, collaborate on projects, and we become friends."

The friendships forged among fans can be a formidable force when they team up to show support for their favourite K-pop idols, even those who are not well known yet.

Chinese and Taiwanese fans of Team B, a group of YG trainees that have yet to debut, managed to raise 10,000 yuan (S$2,000) to send a rice wreath to the recent YG Family Concert in Seoul.

It is a common practice for K-pop fans to show support by sending bags of rice, that will later be donated to charity, that will be displayed outside concert venues.

The row of colourful rice wreaths that lined the backstage enterance of the Jamsil Olympic Stadium is a sight to behold. There seems to be an unspoken competition among the fans to see who could donate the most rice - there are varying amounts of rice, ranging from 50kg to 518kg, and varying sizes of signs emblazoned with the respective idols' names or images.

Ms Fu Ying Jie, who is the president of TeamBxWIN Taiwan Fansite, says: "We want to show Team B the love and support from their overseas fans. To donate 500kg of rice is a pretty massive project, so we decided to team up with three Chinese fan sites - B-MINE, BOBBYQ and ClimaxCN. The impact would be greater if we pooled our resources and channelled it to one project."

Filipino fans of new boyband Winner also wanted to make their presence felt at the YG Family Concert in Seoul. The fanclub Winner Philippines contributed a "small amount" to a Korean fansite to help fund 150kg of rice sent to the Seoul concert, where Winner was scheduled to make their official stage debut.

Contacted via social media, Ms Jhayvie Cacho, 23, a nurse and one of the main administrators of Winner Philippines, says: "We wanted to cheer Winner on for their stage debut. We wanted to let them know Filipino fans support them even though we were not able to attend the concert."

As the YG Family concert heads to the Singapore Indoor Stadium next week, local fans are busy working on projects to welcome their favourite K-pop idols.

Local BigBang fan club SG VIPs hope the concert organisers will help pass on a meaningful book filled with the messages of fans penned before the concerts here.

One of SG VIPs administrators, Ms Sarah Ishak, 34, who is in the service line, says: "We really want to give VIPs the chance to convey their thanks and well wishes to BigBang because it's a rare opportunity for international fans to do so."

The keepsake may be a more personal gift, but local fan Queenie Wong has a larger scale project in mind, one titled the Rainbow Sea Project.

The 20-year-old hairdresser, who runs a Twitter account dedicated to Team B, is working together with local and international fansites to rally concertgoers to light up the stadium in different colours to represent the various YG acts.

She is conducting a donation drive to raise the roughly $300 needed to fund the costs of printing 8,000 instruction sheets and buying 8,000 stickers to be pasted over mobile phone lights.

Ms Wong says: "The idols are like our lights, they light up our lives. So this time round, we will light up the stadium for them."

Spontaneous and relaxed at home

Security is tight backstage at the YG Family Concert in Seoul where the biggest Korean pop acts such as Gangnam Style star Psy and boyband BigBang took to the stage at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium last month.

But a four-year-old girl runs about freely backstage and she has the A-list stars clamouring for her attention. The celebrity among the celebrities is little Lee Haru, the daughter of rapper Tablo, who is part of the concert's line-up as a member of hip-hop trio Epik High.

The mere mention of Haru's name is enough to get the 2NE1 girls all animated during Life's quick 12-minute interview with them before the concert.

"Haru's here today. She's our mascot. She's so adorable. We wait for our turn to get our hugs from her," says rapper CL (Lee Chaerin), the 23-year-old who is 2NE1's leader.

"Who's Haru's favourite member among 2NE1?" Life! asks, and all of them claim they are, with CL and Park Bom, 30, raising their hands like eager beavers.

In their home city, 2NE1 are more relaxed than this reporter has ever seen them in Singapore. When they are overseas for performances or promotional activities, they are usually prepped to death, killing any possibility of reporters seeing them behave spontaneously.

Here in Seoul, pretty face Dara (Sandara Park), 29, still has pins in her puffy hairdo.

The quirky Bom is the last to totter in, only to let out a coy "oops" when she accidentally knocks over her bottle of water as she takes a seat on the sofa.

The youngest member Minzy (Gong Minji), 20, slinks into the background and the limelight and spokesman duties automatically fall on the shoulders of the group's leader CL.

CL, feeling carefree, does not mind being seen wearing slippers to go with siren red lipstick and thick foundation slapped on her face.

Revealing how it is like behind the scenes at a concert, CL rattles on in American-accented English: "Psy, BigBang, Winner and 2NE1, we each have our own room backstage. It's not like we are separated. We hang out together. I chill out in the other rooms. After the show, we all go out and eat."

Confidently maintaining eye contact with Life! and other journalists, she seems more than ready to answer questions beyond the staid and safe stuff the media has to ask from a prescreened list, an unfortunate norm in K-pop interview sessions.

There were to be no questions on Bom's stint on the reality TV show Roommate, where Korean singers and actors lived together in an apartment Big Brother-style.

Even innocent questions on her favourite stuffed toy of a Finnish cartoon character Moomin that she is seen carrying around in the show were not spared from the chopping board.

It has to be because Roommate is a touchy issue. The spunky Bom has not been appearing in the final cut of the show due to a controversy resurfaced by a South Korean newspaper.

The article questioned if Park was let off for an alleged drug offence in a 2010 investigation due to her celebrity status.

But she does not seem burdened by the bad press

Chirpy during the interview, she even enthusiastically shares her beauty secret - good blood circulation with the aid of ear patches which stimulate acupuncture points.

This same beauty tip that Bom shared on Roommate went viral and sent netizens on a hunt for the patches.

Despite their relaxed demeanour, the 2NE1 girls would never forget their duty to promote whatever it is they are tasked to promote at any interview.

In this case, their focus is to talk up the upcoming YG Family Concert in Singapore, where they will be performing with BigBang, Psy, Winner and Epik High. Tickets are still available to both nights of the concert on Sept 13 and 14, but are selling fast.

CL says: "It would be a different crowd, it won't just be us. We love going to Singapore because our fans are so supportive."

While in Singapore, she will indulge in shopping. She says: "I can't tell you how much clothes or shoes I have. Because I don't know. I love going shopping, everywhere and whenever I have the time.

"We take some time out to shop when we are on tour. When we are in Korea, we don't have the time.

"When we are in countries like Singapore, we always go shopping."

Winning on height and youth

Coming in the wake of superstars BigBang, new K-pop boyband Winner know they have their work cut out for them trying to live up to the standards of their YG Family seniors.

"It's a little embarrassing to say this, but I think Winner's only advantage over BigBang is our height and youth," says the group's 20-year-old leader Kang Seung Yoon in Korean.

Standing on average at 1.79m, the rookies tower over their BigBang seniors, whose average group height is 1.7m, and the Winner boys are all in their early 20s, while the five BigBang members are a few years older.

Daunting as it is to follow in the footsteps of BigBang, Winner are thrilled to finally launch their career.

Kang, Lee Seung Hoon, 22, Song Min Ho, 21, Nam Tae Hyun, 20, and Kim Jin Woo, 22, were visibly excited as they spoke to Life! backstage before they made their official stage debut at the YG Family concert on Aug 15. At the concert, they sang tracks hot off their first EP, 2014 S/S, released just a week before.

The five boys from Winner earned the right to debut after beating fellow YG trainees Team B on the YG Entertainment survival talent reality TV show WIN: Who Is Next (2013).

They are the first boyband to debut under YG Entertainment since BigBang's debut eight years ago, so they know comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the two groups.

Kang, who is the group's singer and composer, details the differences between the two: "BigBang has a repertoire of breakthrough music with powerful vibes, whereas our music melodies are simpler. We feel that our content is something that our listeners can identify with."

Their 10-track EP has topped Billboard's World Albums chart, that compiles the top-selling international albums, within a week or so of its release last month. It also did well back home in South Korea, with the title track Empty topping nine online music charts on the day the album was released last month.

Despite their initial success, there is no denying they are rookies and they still have to observe certain etiquette when they are backstage at a concert with their A-list seniors.

Kang says: "Once we reach backstage, we will go and greet our seniors. They will give us pointers and words of encouragement."

After the proper protocol is observed, though, they let their hair down and kid around with the others.

Kang says: "When we act cute in front of our male seniors like BigBang, they will ignore us or jokingly get angry with us. We have lost our confidence. We usually try our cute charms on female seniors like 2NE1, who are more receptive."

Jokes aside, Winner say they are humbled by the professionalism and passion of their mentor, BigBang's vocalist Taeyang.

Lee, who is a rapper, says: "Taeyang was our mentor on Who Is Next. He told us that even though he's been a singer for a long time, he still feels excited before going onstage to perform.

"Feeling our senior Taeyang's passion for performance even though he's already a big shot, we want to take him as our role model. We hope to become as passionate about performing as he is."

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