Off the beaten path from Apgujeong, a glitzy and upscale neighborhood in Seoul known for ever-soaring housing prices and neon sign boards of plastic surgery clinics, there’s a burger restaurant, around the corner of which is a narrow stairway leading down to a basement.
There are no burgers in this basement. Upon entering, guests are greeted by signed albums of old-school Korean singers such as Wax and Jang Yun-jeong, with dust lightly settled on their plastic covers.
Welcome to King Studio — where the ordinary can become K-pop stars, if only for a moment.
On Saturday afternoon, Wu Ruyu, 22, was singing enthusiastically into a pop filter with huge headphones covering her entire ears. She was inside a small room with a window, which looks out into a fully equipped recording studio with audio interface, studio monitors and snake cables plugged into the work station.
Wu is from Guangdong, China. It was her first time in South Korea but her Korean pronunciation was almost flawless as she sang Through the Night, a Korean pop song by IU. The popular female singer’s songs are known to be difficult to mimic because of her signature high tone.
Through the window, Wu glanced at the South Korean woman and man sitting in front of the work station. “Please sing a pitch higher,” Cho Gwan-hee, a studio engineer, requested in Korean. Sitting next to him was Baek Cho-hee, King Studio’s global manager, who haltingly translated Cho’s Korean comments into Chinese. Wu muttered “biyeom (rhinitis)” in Korean, a reason for her slightly clogged voice.
South Korean start-ups are seeing a massive business opportunity in Chinese tourists like Wu.
Targeting Chinese Shoppers
South Korea, only a short flight away from Chinese cities, is a popular holiday destination for the Chinese. According to Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), over 8 million Chinese tourists visited South Korea in 2016, accounting for nearly half of the total number of travelers. The number is expected to increase to 10 million per year by 2020. All those visits will generate a combined total of more than 68 trillion won ($61 billion), a 2014 report by the Hyundai Research Institute predicted.
Before 1978, it was difficult for Chinese citizens to leave China because Mao Zedong thought tourism was anti-socialist. They could travel to Hong Kong, Macau and eventually Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand; but travelers had to prove that their family members lived in the destination countries.
Now, Chinese citizens have full international travel privileges and the country has become the top spender in global tourism, followed by the United States and Germany, according to a 2017 report by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). China rose to the top of the ranks in 2012 and the expenditure by Chinese travelers grew by 12 percent in 2016, to $261 billion, compared to the previous year.
Chinese travelers mainly come to South Korea to shop. The geographical proximity, reasonably priced goods, and quickly changing trends are why Chinese travelers choose South Korea as one of their favorite destinations, according to Korea Tourism and Culture Institute. More than 60 percent of foreign shoppers in South Korea come from China, and they spend an average of 2.5 million won (around $2,300) a year, Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade reports.
Another draw is, of course, K-pop.
Roh Kwang-gyun, a former recording engineer and the founder of King Studio, said the business is all about creating the experience. “The whole point is to make you feel like a K-pop star,” Roh said. “After the recording, the client will miss the feeling of being treated like a K-pop star. It is like a drug.”
Founded in Aug 2015, King Studio originally worked with idol trainees, lesser-known Korean singers and ordinary people looking to record songs. But with rising tourism, Roh saw a different opportunity.
“Apgujeong receives lots of foreigners because there are well-known entertainment agencies such as SM and JYP nearby,” Roh said. “K-pop is hot right now.”
SM, JYP and YG Entertainment are the top three entertainment agencies in South Korea, producing some of the country’s best-known K-pop stars like Big Bang, TVXQ, Girls’ Generation and Suzy. These stars have millions of fans worldwide, many of whom come to visit South Korea.
More than half of Roh’s clients are from China (including Hong Kong). Almost 80 percent of Roh’s international clients are ethnic Chinese.
King Studio isn’t unique; for example, SM Entertainment used to offer a near-identical experience in Gangnam, Seoul. Selling K-pop as a livable experience is a popular business targeting fans, especially those outside South Korea.
But King Studio’s offerings are elaborate. From ‘Gold’ to ‘Noblesse,’ it sells six different packages to K-pop fans wanting to recreate their idols’ songs in their own voices. The prices range from 98,000 won (around $90) to 998,000 won (around $920). Gold, the most basic option, includes one hour of recording, mix and mastering, and a final audio file containing the performance. Noblesse, the most expensive, offers professional translation, make up, a personalized music video and an album, and even a half hour of vocal training.
“There was a Chinese-Singaporean woman who purchased our most expensive package,” Baek, the global manager, said. “We went to nearby Dosan Park [in Seoul] to film her K-pop music video. She wanted to play this video at her company party in Singapore.”
King Studio is one of the many firms trying to ride the wave. The company uses social media to promote the service concurrently with KTO and attends tourism expos in mainland China, where their main customer base lies.
But despite the widespread attempts to attract Chinese travelers, South Korea’s tourist infrastructure is still not wholly prepared for this influx. One deficiency is a dearth of mobile payment infrastructure that caters specifically to Chinese tourists. China is rapidly becoming a cash-free society where people take cabs, eat out and even buy fruit at road-side stalls using WeChat and Alipay, both apps that aren’t particularly popular in South Korea.
TNDN, a South Korean tech startup, is trying to tackle this problem.
The TNDN app provides mobile payment and menu translation services targeting Chinese tourists. With an integrated platform servicing WeChat Pay and Alipay, the app allows tourists to pay by scanning the QR code at partner stores throughout Seoul and Jeju Island, the second most popular destination for Chinese tourists in South Korea.
Having been founded by South Korean university students, TNDN boasts more than 3,500 partner businesses and a transaction volume of more than 10 billion won ($9.2 million) a year, according to its website. (Danny Sun, a TNDN co-founder told Korea Exposé that his firm recently received series A investment of 1.5 billion won ($1.4 million).
TNDN’s promotional video.
Another obstacle is the language barrier. There are few Chinese-language sign boards and restaurant menus outside of the usual tourist areas like Myeongdong, Gangnam and Jeju. Services like King Studio, with a sizable Chinese clientele, have on-site translators like Baek, but most businesses don’t offer this luxury.
The TNDN app helps to overcome the language barrier by offering Chinese language menus from their partner restaurants. There’s also a tool that automatically converts prices from the Korean Won into the Chinese Renminbi.
Baek, the global manager at King Studio, says it’s also important to have sufficient knowledge about the segmented travel industry to market to Chinese speakers. Baek promotes the K-pop studio on KKDay, a travel e-commerce platform in Taiwan; Klook, a similar tourism website from Hong Kong; and HanYouWang (韩游网) and Weibo for mainland China.
King Studio is ambitious. “We want to be bigger than SM Entertainment,” said Baek. On top of a recording service, in a couple of years, King Studio wants to make its own commercial merchandise and produce completely in-house music videos for ordinary people (now they outsource the production).
But catering to Chinese tourists in South Korea can be a tricky business, especially at times of diplomatic friction.
Yes, THAAD. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense is an anti-missile defense system that Seoul and Washington have agreed to install in South Korea, against rising military threats from North Korea.
It’s a sore point for Beijing: The Chinese see THAAD’s radar system as a threat to their national security. The government has imposed multiple retaliatory measures, including a temporary travel ban, removing K-pop stars from Chinese TV, and fueling citizen boycotts against South Korean businesses, most notably Lotte Group (which has had to shut down multiple stores in China after government officials started raising issues deemed to be out of compliance with local law).
The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea has been steadily declining since January, according to data from KTO, although South Korean President Moon Jae-in is trying to “normalize” ties with Beijing during his first state visit to China this week.
But the diplomatic fight doesn’t stop all K-pop-loving Chinese fans from visiting South Korea. King Studio said they didn’t notice a drop in the number of Chinese clients.
Near the end of Wu Ruyu’s recording session, Cho Gwan-hee, the sound engineer, requested in Korean, “‘Tonight, I will send you the firefly near to your window’ — please sing this part again.” While Wu was re-recording the verse, Baek quickly snapped photos of Wu with a DSLR camera. The recording concluded with Cho’s satisfied nods. “Xin ku le (Thank you for your effort),” said Cho in Chinese with a quick smile.
“I love the K-pop culture,” said Wu, who love the K-pop boy band BTS and certainly wasn’t deterred by geopolitics. “I will think about doing this again next time I come to Korea.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the TNDN app offered an integrated platform servicing WeChat Pay, Tencent Pay and Alipay. The TNDN app allows payment using WeChat Pay and Alipay only. There is no such thing as Tencent Pay. The article also incorrectly stated that TNDN had more than 5,000 partner businesses; it should have said more than 3,500. We apologize for these errors.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the surname of King Studio’s Chinese client as Yu. It should be Wu, not Yu. We apologize for this error.
Cover image: Wu Ruyu is a K-pop fan from China, who purchased a typical K-pop “experience package” offered to tourists. (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)