When girl group NewJeans made its sensational debut last summer, its music and visuals weren’t the only things that caught the public eye. Another pleasant surprise for the Korean public was member Hanni’s ethnicity.
Hanni was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia to Vietnamese parents. Vietnamese nationality or descent is rarely seen in K-pop. Before Hanni, member Hanbin of boy band Tempest who debuted in March 2022 was the only Vietnamese K-pop star in the industry.
Until the late 2000s, K-pop idols were virtually all Korean with a sprinkle of some Korean-Americans or other ethnic Koreans from western countries. Their role was not to appeal to overseas markets, but to the Korean public by being in charge of English lyrics and giving the group a sense of exoticism.
Today, nationalities and ethnicities of K-pop members have become increasingly diverse, although it is still largely limited to a few East Asian countries. Nonetheless, slowly but surely, the scope of ethnic diversity is growing wider in K-pop.
The Korea JoongAng Daily takes a look at the many different Asian — and other — ethnicities seen in the K-pop scene.
As K-pop’s international popularity expanded throughout the 2000s, agencies naturally turned their eyes to China — a large nation with a formidable population and rapidly growing purchasing power. Because they were also East Asians who could easily blend into the “Korean look,” Chinese members quickly grew common among K-pop agencies.
K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment’s chief producer Lee Soo-man is especially known for his passion for the Chinese market. SM Entertainment was one of the first agencies to actively include Chinese members in its groups: Han Geng of Super Junior and Victoria of f(x) being some of the first examples.
Not only did Chinese K-pop members see success in Korea, but they also contributed to their groups gaining popularity in their home country. This proved that including a foreign member is an effective overseas marketing strategy on its own.
But the number of Chinese members in K-pop has been on the decline due to rising political tensions between Korea and China. Sparked by the Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) crisis in 2016, the Chinese government has been enforcing an unofficial ban on Korean pop culture, and anti-Chinese sentiment has intensified among the Korean public, making it difficult for Chinese K-pop stars to be active and loved in both countries.
Chinese celebrities are pressured to openly state that their political stance is in line with the Chinese government and Chinese K-pop idols have been no exception. Their social media posts expressing support for the Chinese government’s controversial policies have become a risk factor over the years, leading the Korean public to grow hostile toward those members and their groups.
Notable K-pop stars of Chinese nationality include... (debut year)
- Han Geng of Super Junior (2005)
- Victoria of f(x) (2009)