One of the dance team’s strikes a pose
One of the dance team’s strikes a pose

Colombo is 5,841 kilometres from Seoul, the dazzling, high-tech capital of Korea, where K-Pop started, but you wouldn’t have known it at Sri Lanka’s K-Pop World Festival. The two cities seemed inextricably close as Sri Lankans and Koreans alike crowded into the auditorium of Bishop’s College for a celebration of the high-energy genre that brought Korean culture to the global mainstream.

Performances choreographed to power anthems from girl group BLACKPINK prompted deafening screams from the crowd and tenderly sung Korean ballads brought smiles to the faces of diplomats and businessmen. It was one of over 80 K-Pop festivals to be held around the world, leading up to the main event in Seoul in August, where 20 of the winners from their own countries will compete for the world title.

An energetic display of Sri Lankan-South Korean relations, the Korean Embassy’s festival was a far cry from the dry politics that normally characterize international affairs. The hosts spoke in a mix of Korean and Sinhala and swapped the traditional clothing of each other’s country. The Sri Lankan host wore a hanbok and the Korean host dawned a sari for the festivities. Competitors sported “hallyu” inspired attire and the audience sang along excitedly to K-Pop songs they evidently knew by heart.

Minji Kim, Director of Culture for the Korean Embassy, said she believes Korea and Sri Lanka have a lot in common, citing a deep appreciation for traditional culture in particular. But even with this explanation, when Kim moved to Sri Lanka a year ago, she hadn’t anticipated the K-Wave to have hit an island so far from her homeland.

“I was really surprised because there are many Sri Lankans who love K-pop and can sing K-pop better than Koreans,” she said after the event.

But when Kim looked a little closer, she started to understand how the phenomenon had spread. She says most Sri Lankans find out about K-Pop on the internet, by searching on Youtube, visiting Facebook pages, or finding Instagram profiles to learn more about Korean stars.

“When we do our Facebook page, we can feel that there are many Sri Lankans who want to enjoy the Korean culture, Korean songs and Korean foods,” she noted.


When asked what the judges were scoring for at the festival, Kim explained passion is essential to Korean culture. “When you see and hear the K-pop singers sing and dancing, you can feel the passion. Passion is always in our Koreans,” she said. A through-line of Korean culture, passion unites modern K-pop with the K-dramas and folk dances of centuries past.

World-famous boy group, BTS echoes her sentiment, lyrics to their song, Rap Monster, translate to, “Are you a boy? Girl? I don’t care—passion is the key, a hot heart is your ID.”

And passion was certainly a hallmark of the Sri Lankans performing at the festival.

Moon Nicky, a 23-year-old Sri Lankan who participated in the K-Pop World Festival described her love of K-pop as an “addiction.”

“I was more into hip-hop dancing before I got to know about K-Pop. After I was addicted to K-Pop, I followed their dancing style, “ she added, “it’s very cool and unique.”

Moon Nicky discovered K-Pop when she was searching Google for “cool hairstyles.” She remembers seeing a photo of Kim Jaejoong, a member of the Korean pop band, TVXQ. One click led to another, and soon she found herself deep down the rabbit-hole of Korean culture on the web.

It is no coincidence that Moon Nicky stumbled upon K-Pop on a quest for trendy hairstyles. Visual aesthetics, expressed through carefully curated costumes and theatrical performances, are as essential to K-Pop as the music itself. The best K-pop performers are the ‘Renaissance Men’ of modern culture: excelling at dancing and singing, while also maintaining a visually captivating aesthetic style. Many are even enrolled in acting classes as children, years before their debut.

At the K-Pop World festival, Sri Lankan’s sported K-wave inspired clothing. The winning group, Meraki, wore what’s sometimes called “bubblegum gothic” style-- striped knee socks with bright pink and black skirts. Other groups leaned more towards the grungy side of K-pop-- baggy pants, ripped clothing, and combat boots were essentials. Some female performers went as far as to cut their hair into the iconic Korean short-hair and bangs style.

Nicky Moon’s team, called “Rising Stars,” modelled their costumes after edgy girl group SONAMOO, specifically the music video for Deja Vu, where the group wears cargo pants and dances through the halls of a dark warehouse.

Moon said her favourite thing about K-Pop is watching music videos, which often have hidden meanings. “Sometimes watching a K-Pop music video is like a solving a puzzle,” she said.

One need look no further than BTS’s 2016 hit, “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” which was screened at the festival, to understand what she means. The video follows the boy group through an art museum-- one performer stands before Michelangelo’s Pieta and another stare into sprawling Renaissance canvases. It’s cryptic, eery, and nearly academic in its use of symbolism.


Despite the references to the past, this genre is quintessentially modern, particularly its dissemination. When asked how they discovered K-Pop, fan after fan gave the same answer: the internet.

“K-pop cannot be envisioned without the internet,” said John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, “its export strategy relies on social media and the internet, especially YouTube.”

According to Lie, K-Pop entrepreneurs were trailblazers in the internet era.

“Rather than using radio stations or concert tours, it was the first pop-music genre to use the internet almost exclusively to promote it. In turn, K-Pop entrepreneurs have sought to generate fan enthusiasm etc. by relying on Internet-based fan groups/communities,” he said.

Induni, a 23-year-old psychology student from just outside of Colombo, runs one of those internet-based fan groups, a blog called “KPop in SL.” She discovered K-Pop before it was cool when it was such a nice interest that all of the fans knew each other.

“It was totally alien to Sri Lanka,” she said, “so K-pop fans were kind of brave to stand out of the crowd.”

Back in 2008, nearly ten years before the Korean boy group BTS would top international charts, Induni was poking around the internet, watching K-dramas when the addictive music genre caught her attention. She soon found herself in a K-Pop click hole, discovering more music and meeting people to share it with.

“When I got into K-pop I felt like a loner because no one was sharing the same taste in music. Then I came across few people through international sites, and I spoke with them,” she said.

Swept up in the thought-provoking lyrics, the lively music, and the flourishing international community, Induni soon realized she couldn’t balance school with her new hobby. She actually had to deactivate her Facebook in the interest of her schoolwork.

“Unfortunately, I found myself spending so much time on K-Pop without doing my studies,” she said.

Induni’s story is not so uncommon, especially now that K-pop has reached the mainstream. An interest in K-pop can become all-consuming.

It can build your social life, inform your studies, and fill your free time. Induni remembers learning the Korean language and trying out Korean cooking when she first discovered K-Pop.

It doesn’t help that internet offers an endless stream of information to satisfy your every curiosity. Youtube interviews, Instagram posts, and endless feed of #kpop Tweets, make the K-pop stars feel close, even on an island where none of them has ever performed.

“Our goal is to have a K-Pop concert or fan signing here,” said Gayathri, a 23-year-old from Kegalle, who is known to K-Pop fans as “Lejong.” She runs the Facebook page, “K-Pop Fans in SL,” as well as K-Pop chat groups on Whatsapp and Korean messaging platform, Kekeo.

Originally, Lejong said, it was hard to find other fans, but after she started the Facebook group, she was able to find K-Pop fans in every part of Sri Lanka. “We wanted to prove that there are enough fans here [for a concert],” she said of her motivation to start the group.

With the arrival of the Korean Embassy’s K-Pop World Festival in 2015, Sri Lanka’s K-Pop fans have certainly been making progress. Over 1,400 people have signed the petition on change.org entitled, “Bring Kpop Idols to Sri Lanka”. That’s nearly twice the number of Korean people in all of Sri Lanka, which was a mere 748 in 2013.


But even without K-Pop stars making an appearance in Sri Lanka, the fan-base remains strong as ever and has connected people of Korean and Sri Lankan descent all over the island. What started, for many, as an online escapade through videos and blog posts from Korea, has become a robust, real-world community in Sri Lanka.

“Most of the K-Pop fans I’ve ever met, I’ve met them through social media. Then after some time, we even organised K-Pop fan gatherings and other events to get to know each other,” said Induni.

Nicky Moon also made many of her closest friends through K-Pop. She met many on Google plus and connected with them later in person.

But these friendships are different from friends you’d make through say, art or yoga classes. K-Pop becomes an integral part of many fans’ identities.

When Lejong introduced herself, I first thought she was from Korea but learned her nickname comes from a combination of her favourite K-Pop stars’ names, Shinee Jonghyun and Vixx Leo.

“Most fans have nicknames from their favourite idol name,” the native Sri Lankan explained, adding that Lejong is the name K-Pop fans know her as.

Similarly, “Moon Nicky” took her name from K-Pop artist, Moon Jongup. Induni said Koreans call her “Min Ju,” the K-Pop community knows her as “Peaches Kim,” but “feel free to use any [name] as needed,” she reassured me.

With the ability to customize names on Facebook and Twitter, K-Pop fans’ identities are solidified digitally. In the online world of K-Pop, these self-chosen names can easily take precedence over given names.


Anthems like “DUDUDUU “and “As if Its Your Last” echoed through Colombo 7 on the evening of the K-Pop World Festival, and the only thing louder than the powerful bass drops were the earth-shattering screams of the audience.

For now, while K-Pop fans make real-world friendships, it looks like K-Pop’s biggest stars will remain on the internet, only showing their faces through the pixels of computer screens. But that could change.

When asked if K-pop stars will come to Sri Lanka in the future, Director of Culture, Minji Kim looked around the crowded auditorium after the show and said, “I think they have to.”

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