Star attraction

Malaysian tourist Nur Diyana Mazlan has been queuing since 6.30am outside the headquarters of music company CJ E&M in Seoul, with at least 500 other Korean pop fans, all hoping to score a spot at its weekly countdown concert.

The first 200 in line every Thursday get the rare chance to enter the otherwise off-limits-to-fans filming studio and watch for free up to 20 bands and singers performing live on TV channel Mnet's M Countdown show.

One of the most popular countdown shows with overseas fans, it is broadcast live to Japan and the United States, and airs in nine Asian countries, including Singapore, via Channel M (StarHub TV Channel 824 and SingTel mio TV Channel 518). Owner CJ E&M is among the biggest players in the South Korean entertainment scene.

In the week that SundayLife! is there, hot acts such as MBlaq, EXO and Sistar are scheduled to perform.

"I'm queuing to see EXO," says Nur Diyana, 21, from Kuala Lumpur, who is also a fan of boy band TVXQ. Having just finished her final-year engineering examination at Universiti Teknologi Mara in Selangor, she is rewarding herself with a 17-day stay in South Korea, which will be mostly spent chasing K-pop stars.

She and her university friends plan to hang around the Cheongdam area, where headquarters of artist management companies such as JYP Entertainment (Wonder Girls), SM Entertainment (Super Junior, EXO) and Cube Entertainment (Beast) are located, in case the bands they represent show up.

"I hope I can see the idols. Anyone, but especially EXO," she says.

More and more South-east Asian tourists like her are coming to Seoul not for its palaces or museums but to experience the city Hallyu style. They visit filming sites of popular Korean dramas or music videos, eat at cafes sponsored by Hallyu (Korean wave) stars and buy make-up or clothes endorsed by singers and actors.

The Singapore arm of the Korea Tourism Organisation says it gets on average 30 requests a month for information on tours relating to K-pop or K-drama, with 154,000 people from Singapore visiting South Korea last year. Arrivals are up 8 per cent in the first half of this year, compared to the January to June period last year.

A spokesman for Singapore travel agency CTC Travel says that more tourists are signing up for itineraries that include concerts and fan meets. For now, 80 per cent of the South Korea tours it organises are to visit the filming sites of TV shows such as romantic drama Winter Sonata (2002) - the television series starring Bae Yong Joon remains popular a decade after it first aired.

Increased interest in ongoing variety programme Running Man, which sees teams compete to complete unusual tasks, has led the agency to start offering tours to out-of-the-way locations such as Petite France in Gapyeong-gun, where one episode of the show was filmed in 2011.

The French-themed village, about 90 minutes from Seoul, hosts regular concerts and is home to museums of puppets, music and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, The Little Prince.

However, for cash-strapped younger tourists, the biggest draw is the South Korean capital, where Hallyu stars regularly hold concerts and fan meets or film entertainment programmes.

Fans haunt spots such as the Hongdae area near Hongik University, often featured in K-dramas or K-pop videos, or stalk the streets of the upmarket Cheongdam or Apgujeong areas, where companies managing major artists are headquartered.

"I like to hang out at the Cube Studio Cafe at Cube Entertainment. You get to see the artists go in and out," says British student Lolly Best, 19, who started studying at the Korean Language Institute in Seoul last September. The Cube Studio Cafe is a coffee and souvenir shop opened last year by Cube Entertainment at its Cheongdam area base. It is often used as a venue to host fan meets.

She joins the M Countdown queue outside the CJ E&M Center in the outlying Digital Media City area of Sangam every time her favourite bands, such as MBlaq, are due to appear.

Entrance into the company headquarters and filming studios is strictly regulated by company security and also by veteran fans.

Fans hoping to get into the countdown show divide themselves outside the building into groups according to fan base, for example, MBlaq lovers in one area, EXO supporters in a separate line.

Fans in each group are assigned queue numbers based on their level of commitment - those who own only CDs are on the lowest rung of the ladder, while priority is given to those who have splurged on official merchandise such as lightsticks, towels or wristbands.

The system operates on honesty. Veteran fan leaders are in charge and non-Korean speaking fans can usually find English-speakers willing to translate.

The M Countdown experience is only for hardcore Hallyu fans.The lucky 200 start snaking into the building around 5pm, and there are numerous stops and starts before they reach the studio. Part of the delay comes as K-pop acts make "surprise" entries en route to other parts of the building, sending fans into a frenzy.

These "impromptu" appearances are staged and only feature newbie acts wanting to increase their fanbase, says a CJ E&M insider.

The studio space is dominated by the performing stage and less than half the room is allotted for cameramen, journalists and sweaty but jubilant supporters. Viewers who do not fix their eyes firmly on the performers might have a panic attack as boom mikes and cameras swing close over their heads, trying to catch the best angles.

Many acts are pre-recorded earlier in the day and used in the TV broadcasts but, nevertheless, sometimes the stars re-appear to perform them live. There may be fewer frills in the live show - singer Henry from Super Junior-M, a sub-group of Super Junior, for example, uses fewer props for his live rendition of the solo single Trap when SundayLife! is there - yet nothing beats the electric excitement of seeing the idol on stage, within touching distance for a lucky few.

Then there are the bloopers one can enjoy only in person because they are edited out of the broadcast. The emcees from girl group Rainbow trip as they step off the elevated platform in one shoot. A dancer for girl group Girl's Day is twice out of step with her fellow performers and starts a rude gesture out of frustration until she recalls the cameras around her.

This raw glance at otherwise polished pop shows more than makes up for the gruelling wait beforehand, fans say.

Japanese salarywoman Youko Yorako, 27, flew in from Tokyo and booked a Seoul hotel room solely to catch bad-boy group VIXX in action at the M Countdown show. She is one of the lucky 200 allowed inside the studio.

After queuing for hours to get in, then screaming herself hoarse during the 90-minute filming in the crowded, standing-room-only studio, she plans to repeat the exhausting cycle all over again a few days later, when she will attend VIXX's appearance at the KBS Music Bank chart show hosted by TV channel KBS.

"It may be really tiring, but it's really fun," she says in Japanese, adding that this is her third visit to Seoul and her birthday present to herself - she turned 27 on June27.

"K-pop groups dance perfectly, sing beautifully and watching them is so much fun. I will come again if I can get leave from work," adds the hardcore Hallyu fan.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Scoot and the Korea Tourism Organisation.

HALLYU HOLIDAY

Shop, eat and shoot photos at these Hallyu-themed spots. You might even spot your favourite K-pop or K-drama stars at a cafe they own or en route to a film shoot.

SHOP

LYA Nature

What: A new skincare boutique started late last month by actress Lee Young Ae, who starred in the 2003 drama Jewel In The Palace. A top-seller is her Moonhori House Made soap ball of black sesame, rice and red ginseng, which costs US$50 (S$64) for cleansing and moisturising the skin.

Where: 63-38, Samcheong-dong, Jongnu-gu, Seoul

Open: 10am to 10pm

Getting there: A 15-minute walk from Anguk Station, subway line 3.

10 Corso Como

What: A designer multi-label boutique featured in Psy's new music video, Gentleman. It is the South Korean outpost of the hip, high-end lifestyle emporium from Milan. Reservations are needed to enter the attached cafe.

Where: 79 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Open: 11am to 8pm

Getting there: A five-minute walk from Apgujeong Rodeo station on the Bundang subway line

EAT

1st Shop Of Coffee Prince

What: The film set for the 2007 K-drama 1st Shop Of Coffee Prince has been turned into a cafe boasting staff with a striking resemblance to the original cast. The walls (right) are autographed by the main cast, including Yoon Eun Hye and Gong Yoo. Prices start at US$6 (S$7.60) for black coffee. Do not be confused by the fake menu behind the baristas, which is left over from the drama set.

Where: 337-2, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul

Open: 11am to late

Getting there: A 10-minute walk from Hongik University station on subway line 2

Kuai Chinese Flavour

What: Eat Gangnam-style at this Chinese restaurant run by singer Psy's mother. Staff are wary of gawkers but welcome serious diners. Prices start at US$9 a dish.

Where: Level 2, 524-1, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Open: 11.30am to 3.30pm, 5.30 to 10.30pm

Getting there: A 15-minute walk from Sinsa station, subway line 3

STALK

Bukchon Hanok

What: Old-school Korean houses line this area, which is home to many masters of traditional arts and craft, and also the site of Choong Ang Middle and High School, where several scenes were shot for 2002 K-drama Winter Sonata. Visit the souvenir stores near the school, used as the home of Choi Ji Woo's character Yoo Jin in the drama. Getting there: Walk from Anguk station, subway line 3 Myeongdong

What: Hallyu-themed street stalls and big-name department stores crowd this area. Look out for Star Avenue leading up to the Lotte Department Store, with giant posters and interactive installations featuring K-pop stars. Check out the streetside shops for unique merchandise such as Psy skincare masks or Kim Hyun Joong face towels.

Getting there: Euljiro 1-ga station on subway line 2

Cheongdam-dong & Apgujeong Rodeo

What: Home to artist management companies such as JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment, this is where patient fans can spot acts from 2PM to Girls' Generation, while splurging at designer boutiques such as Armani and Prada.

Getting there: Apgujeong Rodeo station on the Bundang line

DAY TRIPS OUT OF SEOUL

One Mount

What: In 2016, a new theatre cum museum, Hallyu World, opens in Goyang city, home of giant funlands such as the 165,000 sq m theme park, One Mount. For now, overseas visitors will recognise One Mount as the site of the exclusive One Mount Sports Club featured in Psy's Gentleman video. Only members who have paid the US$40,000 entry fee are allowed in, but non-members can visit the adjoining Water Park and Snow Park. An episode of variety programme Running Man last month was shot at the Water Park.

Where: Goyang city

Open: 10am to 6pm

Admission: From US$50 a person for each park

Getting there: Juyeop station on subway line 3

Petite France

What: Romantic comedies Beethoven's Virus (2008) and Secret Garden (2010), and a 2011 episode of variety programme Running Man were filmed at this French-themed village (left). Visit the museums of puppets, music and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, The Little Prince, or enjoy free open-air concerts which feature K-pop cover bands or classical music ensembles.

Where: 1063, Hoban-ro, Cheongpyeong-myeon, Gapyeong-gun, Gyeonggi-do

Open: 9am to 6pm

Admission: US$8 for adults, US$5 for children

Getting there: A 90-minute drive from Seoul.

Singapore travel agencies such as CTC Travel (6536-3995 or e-mail enquiry@ctc.com.sg) also organise trips to Petite France as part of their Hallyu itinerary.

QUEUE LIKE A PRO

What: M Countdown

Where: CJ E&M Center, 66 Sangamsan-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul

When: Every Thursday, 5.30pm

Getting there: Take subway line 6 and get off at Digital Media City Station.

The live filming of TV channel Mnet's M Countdown show every Thursday is one of the biggest and best free concerts in Seoul. Filming begins at 5.30pm and only 200 fans are allowed into the studio from about 5pm onwards. Here is how to get the most out of the experience.

ARRIVE EARLY: Queues (above) form as early as 4.30am, so get there as early as you can. Up to half the acts listed might pre-record their performances in case of scheduling conflicts later in the day. In that case, the TV channel will bring fans in just for those pre-recorded sessions.

BE WELL-EQUIPPED: Expect to wait up to 14 hours in line to get in and then to stand for 90 minutes of filming. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, bring water and food, and take bathroom breaks whenever you can.

FLASH YOUR FAN CRED: M Countdown is a promotional vehicle for pop groups, so fans are usually allowed in depending on which bands are scheduled to take the spotlight. So wave that Rainbow lightstick and show off that MBlaq wristband. These will impress veteran fans and get you that much closer to a coveted studio spot. Check the week's line-up at the website: mwave.interest.me/mcountdown/main.m

BE PATIENT AND POLITE: The queue is divided according to fan base and if 10 people show up at the same time, higher queue numbers will be allotted to fans who say they own or who are carrying more merchandise. Do not worry if you do not speak Korean. Many fans are bilingual and showing off your fan cred will bridge the language gap. Just do not make a scene.

YOU HAVE OTHER OPTIONS: If you do not get in to the M Countdown studio, fret not. Other programmes such as celebrity gossip and talk show M Wide Enews are being filmed around the same time in a glass-walled area near the queues. It is one step closer to the heart of Hallyu and there just might be a famous guest star.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

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