Asian fans enjoy soap opera

Sunday, May 5, 2002

MANILA, Philippines -- Glittery Hong Kong dramas dominate prime time in Malaysia and Singapore. Latin America's steamy telenovellas heat up the screen in the Philippines. In Vietnam, viewers follow the tangled twists of a half-dozen Chinese dramas.

Across Asia, fans are eating up a steady diet of imported soap operas.

Once separated by language barriers and historical enmity, countries are now vying for prime-time space in each other's television markets.

"Nationalism has been erased through the medium of television," said literary and media critic Bienvenido Lumbera of the University of the Philippines. "It's a kind of youth culture that makes the transfer from one culture to the next quite easy."

Soap operas, whether from Australia or Asia, appeal to viewers through a classic formula of common emotions and fantasy settings, said Christina Slade of the University of Canberra, who organized a recent conference on soaps in Australia.

For many in poverty-stricken developing countries, the appeal of escapism -- beautiful homes, beautiful people -- is self-evident.

"The themes are about love, sex, fidelity, domestic arrangements and money," she said. "There are very few societies outside that range of issues."

Many of the popular soaps are not Hollywood exports; they're made and principally marketed within the region.

Since the late 1990s, South Korea has become a soap opera powerhouse, producing and exporting programs to China, Taiwan and Singapore.

Park Jae-bok, general manager of MBC Production, which exports TV dramas, attributes the success to fans' desire to see Asian faces.

"Asians are growing sick and tired of Hollywood products. They are sick of seeing white people and black people on their screens," Park said.

In Vietnam, posters of South Korean stars like Jae Young-joon adorn many teen-agers' walls, and their photos are exchanged like baseball cards.

"South Korean soap operas are attractive to young Vietnamese viewers because it's close to their daily life, plus the shows have beautiful artists with fashionable clothes and makeup," said Nguyen Kim Trach of state-run Vietnam Television.

But the reaction of some countries' governments sometimes isn't so enthusiastic.

Last month, China banned a popular Taiwanese soap, "Meteor Garden," which depicted the high school romance between a poor girl and a member of a gang of spoiled rich kids. Complaining that it was a threat to young minds, China pulled the plug after the show ran for less than a month.

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