Soap operas like SBS’s “My Love from the Star” (별에서 온 그대) (2013-2014) and KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (태양의 후예) (2016) were sensational hits from their very first episode, not only in East Asia but also in TV markets in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. Mainland China, in particular, has gone beyond simply importing Korean content, and has now jumped onto actually investing in South Korean productions or joint productions with Korean producers.
The word Hallyu (한류, 韓流) comes from Mandarin. Translated as the “Korean Wave,” the word was coined for the first time in the late 1990s.
The word emerged when Chinese newspapers and broadcasters were talking about actor Ahn Jae-wook, the male lead in MBC’s 16-episode drama “Star in My Heart” (별은 내 가슴에) (1997).
The soap opera aired first in Korea on March 10, 1997, and was then broadcast across mainland China, initiating the first ripples of the Korean Wave. The main actors and actresses starring in the show rocketed to stardom as it hit Southeast Asian markets after China. The media started to call the stars Hallyu and it was the beginning of the first generation of the Korean Wave.
“Star in My Heart” tells the story of a love triangle between the female lead Lee Yunee who is a kind and strong-willed orphan, the male lead Kang Min who is the son of a rich businessman and who dreams of becoming a singer, and then Lee Joon-hee who is an executive at one of the nation’s leading fashion houses. At one point, Lee Yunee was taken to the home of one of her father’s close friends and met with hostility from her new stepmother and stepsister. At any rate, one day at a party she happened to meet Lee Joon-hee, a man who was attracted to her because of how closely she resembled his beloved ex girlfriend.
The heroine then meets Kang Min, her eventual Romeo, when she visits a night club where one of her orphanage friends, Soon-ae, was working. Kang falls in love with the heroine at first sight, of course. When Kang makes it big as a singer, the pair grow closer together. However, Kang’s father, who disapproves of their relationship, tries every possible means to tear them apart. At one point, the couple becomes estranged over a misunderstanding about bribe money that Kang’s father is said to have given to Lee Yunee to leave his son alone. Kang’s father also keeps forcing them apart by any means possible, such as locking up his son in the house and threatening the heroine to not meet his son again.
Meanwhile, the successful entrepreneur Lee Joon-hee, Kang Min’s friend and rival in love, becomes more attracted to Yunee, too, as she looks a lot like his old flame. Whenever she has a problem, he shows up out of nowhere to help her. Later, he helps her to achieve her long-awaited dream to be a successful fashion designer.
Kang Min, desperate not to lose Yunee, leaves one sole ticket to his upcoming concert for his friend, Lee Joon-hee, hoping, however, that Yunee will come instead and see him on stage. The heroine heads to the concert venue and Kang steps down from the stage, hugging her in tears, as the story wraps up with a happy ending for the couple.
The show got tons of media attention even before it was aired, since it was known that the most popular actor and actress of the time — actor Cha In-pyo as Lee Joon-hee and actress Choi Jin-sil as Lee Yunee — would star in it. As expected, it became a smash-hit, reaching the highest-ever viewer ratings of around 50 percent for the domestic Korean audience in its time slot. What wasn’t expected by the fans, however, wasn’t the love story between the two characters. It was the love story between actress Choi Jin-sil and actor Ahn Jae-wook, then a rookie in the business, who acted as Kang Min.
His coif was perfectly fixed with gel, covering almost half his face. His gaze, with a serious look, stared out through his signature hair. All this, combined with his defiant and masculine image, and, lastly, his noble and pure love toward only one woman, won over the hearts of his many fans. His unexpected popularity was extraordinary enough to reverse the end of the story. Originally, the plot was designed to conclude with a happy ending between Lee Yunee and Lee Joon-hee, the fashion designer. There were so many calls from viewers asking for a love story between Lee Yunee and Kang Min, the singer, however, that the production crew decided to respect the fan base.
Since the show aired, hair salons across the nation had long lines of male customers who were eager to get the same hairdo as Ahn. The theme song from the drama, sung by Ahn himself, including hits such as “Forever” and “Friend,” brought him fame as a singer, too. In fact, after the soap opera aired, Ahn debuted as a singer, releasing his first album titled “Forever.”
In a 2009 interview, the actor reminisced about his unimaginable popularity back then. “People often say, ‘They rose to fame overnight,’ and that’s the case for me. When we had to film outdoors, there was always a crowd of people who made it impossible to do any filming.”
In the final episode of ‘Star in My Heart,’ Kang Min, played by actor Ahn Jae-wook, confesses his love for Lee Yunee, played by actress Choi Jin-sil. This happy-ending left many fans falling head over heels for the actor.
The love story struck a chord with mainland Chinese audiences, too. When the show aired in China, it hit a 5.8-percent rating, gaining more than 150 million viewers. When Ahn held a concert there, more than 50,000 fans flocked to the venue. There was even an exam question at one university asking students to describe who is Ahn Jae-wook.
Phoenix New Media, a Chinese news outlets, released a list of Korean Wave stars who have captured the hearts of Chinese female fans over the past 20 years. Published in March this year, Ahn was named as one of “the first-generation of Hallyu stars” from 1997 to 2002. This group also included Jang Dong-gun and Han Jae-suk from the shows “Model” (모델) (1997) and “All About Eve” (이브의 모든것) (2000), as well as Song Seung-heon and Won Bin from the KBS drama “Autumn in My Heart” (가을동화) (2000), and Bae Yong-joon, the hero from KBS’s “Winter Sonata” (겨울연가) (2002). Ranked top of the list, however, was Ahn from “Star in My Heart.”
Media described Ahn, one of the top male actors from the late 1990s and early 2000s, as a, “Man with deep, big eyes, a high nose and a warm heart.”
The show aired in Latin America, too, becoming the first Korean soap opera to make inroads in the Spanish-language market. Starting in Peru, the show was broadcast in Panama, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela, in turn.
One final note: since the show hit Peruvian TVs, a subsequent series of Korean dramas has grown in popularity across the country. Following the success of the TV shows, Korean pop music, too, has become popular there. Currently, the nation has more than 120 fan clubs with more than 50,000 Korean TV show and pop music fans.
Hong Si-wan, Seoul