Seoul Music

Vietnamese-Korean singer Hari Won opens up about the industry of making Korean pop idols

It’s been almost two decades now since the delicious beauty and artifice of the Korean entertainment world began to prevail over popular Asian culture. The power of appearances has held enormous sway in this region since the time of Confucius, so the appeal of Korean celebrityhood here – its obsession with surgical, skin-deep perfection, its idols and its big hits manufactured rather than made – is not at all difficult to understand. It’s an industry of illusion and sleight of hand, and one that both thrives and frowns upon its own superstars’ lapses into humanity. Being able to hold the attention of the public in any way possible is key – to paraphrase Wilde, the only worse thing for a Korean pop star than being in the tabloids is not being in the tabloids.

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If nothing else, then, the treatment that emerging Vietnamese-Korean starlet Hari Won has been handed by the local press lately – based on barely scandalous material – confirms that she has finally become a true microcosm of the Korean idol industry here in Vietnam. Since rising to national attention after her successful 2013 appearance on the reality TV show The Amazing Race (with her then long-term boyfriend, Vietnamese rapper Tien Dat) Hari has been the focus of increasing fascination for the Vietnamese public. Although born in Seoul, she’s half Vietnamese by her father, and speaks the local language fluently with an excruciatingly cute accent that has scored her plenty of fans all on its own. Having been prepped for the industry back in Korea in one of Seoul’s infamous celebrity factories, she has managed to make the transition to the Vietnamese music and acting scene as a direct import from the holy land of Asian entertainment.

The irony of all this is that part of the reason why Hari Won is in Vietnam at all is that she refused the sinister Kpop path to notoriety back in Seoul not just once, but three times, precisely for being unwilling to give up the kind of clean living that doesn’t make for clickable headlines.

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“When I was 18 or 19 years old, I joined an entertainment company,” says Hari of her first foray into Korean showbiz. Despite an ever-so-slightly broad Vietnamese nose, she had that classic Korean doe-eyed look, was tall and slender, and was a superb candidate for a performing career – so she went straight on the company’s ‘ready-for- debut’ list, receiving training in singing, acting, and the Japanese language, waiting for the enlistment of compatible members to put together a marketable girl-group.

“There was a company which had trained many famous singers at that time,” she recalls. “At the interview, they asked me what I would do if I had the chance to be a singer, how determined I was. So I thought for a while, and I said, ‘Except for prostitution, I can do anything. If you ask me to cut my finger and sign in blood, I’ll do it. Just don’t ask me to sleep with anyone, I can’t accept it.’”

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It’s well-known that Korean celebrities are expected to be of exemplary moral character in the public eye. It’s also well-known that the realities of the industry are far less squeaky-clean.

“So they explained that this industry is like a dirty pond,” Hari sighs. “Even if I was clean, I’d get dirty when I got into it. So I had to refuse – they offered me everything, a house, car, everything, but I just disappeared after that day.”

A second door opened for Hari after one of her self-published videos drew an unusual amount of public attention, but the opportunity disappeared when her father fell ill and she was asked to join him in Vietnam. It was then a number of years before a chance encounter with a third agency back in Korea revived the dream of making it as a performer.

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“I was around 26, so I thought I was already too old to become a singer,” she says. “But they said I looked young enough, so it was just a matter of faking my age. I was a little confused and afraid of the dark side of the industry, but they assured me that they wouldn’t force me to ‘do that.’ So, I considered it my last chance.”

“I worked as a singer for a year,” she continues, “but then the company had financial problems, so they decided to ask me to ‘do that’ after all. There were some rich Japanese guys who wanted to invest in me, it was about VND20 billion. The manager advised me to carefully consider it. Then, all of a sudden, I was diagnosed with the early stages of cancer. It was nothing serious, but it was the perfect excuse to refuse them. Sure, I was sad to have cancer, but it was better than working in the Korean pop industry – so I felt very happy.”

Mixed Heritage

Wedged between the Chinese empire and imperial Japan for centuries, the Korean people only survived as a nation by strict observance of racial purity and determined xenophobia. Cosmopolitanism only dawned in Korea after the Seoul Olympics in 1988, three years after Hari Won was born to a lovestruck Vietnamese father and a mother whose resolve in marrying him was largely brought about by her parents having absolutely forbidden her to do so.

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“I had no idea what mixed meant,” says Hari of the difficulties posed by her heritage as a child. “I often had trouble making friends, because the other kids’ parents were afraid that I would be an influence on them. They were worried that a kid growing up in such a different cultural background like me would affect the other children, that their kids would follow me.”

Visiting Vietnam as a child gave Hari some positive experiences of the country – despite the unbearable heat, the crowded, indecipherable hospitality of her father’s huge extended family helped her to adjust to a country she’d presumed was all jungle and khaki. While she became rather more fond of Vietnam than Korea, she never considered a permanent move here until, during the visit to help her father recover from his illness, her mother stole and hid her passport, preventing her from returning to her corporate job and boyfriend in Seoul. By that stage, her whole family had made the move to Saigon, and her mother – rightly, as it turned out – believed Hari’s life here would be better.

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“Actually, I think I’m a very lucky person,” she says. “If I hadn’t joined The Amazing Race, people here wouldn’t have known anything about me. I didn’t think of entering showbiz at that time. I didn’t even know the rules of the show until I took part in it.”

The Amazing Race is not popular in Korea,” she explains. “They only like to watch their own TV shows. In Korean showbiz, I always had to be pretending, I had to be polite, watch my mouth, because of the strict social behavior there. During filming in Vietnam, I was just myself, 100 percent. Because nobody knew me, and there were many famous competitors there, so I thought I wouldn’t be on camera very often. So I was comfortable just being myself. And what was really amazing was that people seemed to like me.”

Shortly after the show, Hari was approached by Vietnamese talent management to appear in local performances. Well-treated by fellow entertainers and quickly accepted by the Vietnamese public, her fourth brush with fame turned out to be the big one, and Hari fit right in here as a Kpop star straight out of Saigon.

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“In fact, the entertainment industries are not very different between the two countries,” she observes. “Korean showbiz is more specialized and professional, like a real business. Many Vietnamese singers still have to do everything on their own. In Korea, every singer has a company behind them, controlling every aspect of their lives – their fashion sense, diet, skin care, even where to go out – it’s from head to toe. In Vietnam, not every singer has the same working style. They even do their own makeup. But I think that’s probably comfortable for them – if they don’t feel like doing something, they can refuse. It’s not the same in Korea, if they don’t want to do something, they have to have a reasonable excuse.”

“Besides, it’s more stressful for Korean singers,” she adds. “It’s very competitive. So in Korea, you must be a winner to survive, otherwise you’re a total loser. But here in Vietnam, it’s not so clear-cut. It’s competitive, but not intensely so. It’s easier to do it here. Being half Vietnamese and half Korean here is actually an advantage.”

Images by Patrick Carpenter

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