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The name and the concept was inspired by Angry Asian Man and The Angry Black Woman. In my posts, I cite my sources accordingly. All images I include are not mine. None of the gifs are mine. Nope, not even that green fan. Credits go to their original owners. Someone please make me a less artistically-deficient banner.

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(Venting since March 2011)
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Spot the ‘sasaeng’ fans: did you shit bricks? (image source)

Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 |

I read with great interest an editorial released by Seoulbeats discussing the controversy surrounding a JYJ member allegedly striking a ‘sasaeng’ fan, as demonstrated via audio (and even video) footage that surfaced recently, despite the event having taken place way before DBSK’s split. (More about the incident itself.) Many have talked about ‘sasaeng’ fans in the past, and it’s something that most K-pop fans have heard of more or less, but it’s something that I have always wanted to look fairly deeper into. We’ll see how this goes. 

The ‘sasaeng’ culture is a fascinating, albeit disturbing, topic to look into; and as much as the aforementioned editorial received quite the backlash from its readers, I believe it did raise several points worth thinking through, namely about the structure of the K-pop industry and how it caters to and “exploits” the feelings of its young audience. What’s more, in this population exists a small percentage among which ‘sasaeng’-like tendencies can, and definitely has, surfaced. 

Here’s a list of core questions Part 1 will attempt to address today:

  1. What is a ‘sasaeng’ fan? 
  2. How do they compare to ‘stalkers’? How do they compare to paparazzi?
  3. (Intro to) What are some possible explanations for ‘sasaeng’ tendencies?

Part 2 (read it here) will be wrapping up the discussion with the following (may be subject to change):

  1. What are some possible (socio-psychological) explanations for ‘sasaeng’ tendencies?
  2. What should be done about it? 

As usual, dive under the cut and embrace yourself for an exceptionally long read!

*This is tricky to talk about because all information about ‘sasaeng’ fans I derived from press releases and fan accounts that have circulated during the time of JYJ’s scandal. Just keep in mind that they’re neither wholesome in truth nor in lies.

WHAT IS A ‘SASAENG’ FAN?

With no pool of like thoroughly peer-edited resources or anything to reference from, we cannot ensure ourselves of what the most valid definition of a ‘sasaeng’ fan is. But because everything is socially constructed anyways (ohohoho), we’ll work with the following explanation, one that K-pop social media has settled on:

it basically begins with a group of people who come together. then they each take turns staking out at various places, mostly the idols’ dorms, radio recording sites, offices, etc. and when they see the idols leaving an area, they will text the others and say “come to (insert area here) right now, they are leaving.”

and the others, from wherever they are, get to that place as soon as they can to wait for the members. idols and managers even know some groups of sasaeng fans by face and name, and these “fans” will physically try to go and hold onto the idols, swear and insult at them, touch them inappropriately, HIT and bruise the idols, and follow them around EVERYWHERE. they will knock on the manager’s vans to get them to open the window, bruise the members’ faces to leave marks, pull out their hair to “keep”, etc. therefore the managers must constantly protect these idols from harm and molestation, and to many korean fans, it is absolutely no wonder as to why idols and managers lose their temper with these “fans.”

[…]

other sasaeng fans travel through taxi. basically, the fans have to pay the taxi driver a large sum of money, and in return they follow the specific idol(s) for twenty four hours.

[…]

these fans have also been known for sending nude pictures to idols, breaking into their homes (and like one infamous incident: pee on their towels and hang them up on a rack), sending “gifts” such as writing in period blood or pads drenched in period blood, etc. they have physically hurt idols, in such occasions that the managers have to beat back at the fans to protect the members. they even sell the idols’ phone numbers and social security numbers online.

[…]

(Please read more in source: guixien @ tumblr)

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'Sasaeng' fans in action (image source)

HOW DO THEY COMPARE TO STALKERS? HOW DO THEY COMPARE TO PAPARAZZI?

(I’m not sure if such comparisons are appropriate, but I’ll just go ahead and make them for the sake of understanding.I know the mistake I am already making: not examining this issue on its own. With the lack of literature on the topic, I’m afraid this might be the best I can do for now. Sad smiley face.)

I don’t think there’s an English equivalent to the term ‘sasaeng’ (which literally translates into ‘private life’ (fan)… but even that’s way too euphemistic); and as implied in the definition above (in its full post), it may indeed be far beyond the average stalking per se. As you have already read, actively trailing after their idols in cabs is evidently the least ‘sasaeng’ fans do.

I want to push this discussion into the realm of what some of us may be most familiar with — celebrity stalking in the west; and whether or not we can establish if ‘sasaeng’ fans are in fact unique to South Korea and K-pop. I am tempted to say yes. Then again, it may seem that ‘sasaeng’-ing is far more intense than cases in, say, Hollywood, simply because there seem to be no laws in place that protect idols from harassment and abuse. Legally speaking, ‘sasaeng’ fans are completely unrestrained from the most shameless and ridiculous things, and they do do them. The worse that can happen is being told to go away or getting physically/verbally abused; and even being labelled as 'outcasts' if their names ever get revealed… but nothing along the lines of incarceration or restraining orders. What’s more, being reprimanded or assaulted by managers and idols is perceived as a form of attention, and any form of attention is exactly what these ‘fans’ look for. However, something I’m missing here are flaws in the assumption that Chapman would’ve peed on Lennon’s hand towels instead of shooting him square in the back… but in this assumption exists an array of factors, such as the motive of the stalker (harmful, or harmless intimacy? Or are the lines blurred?), and that privacy laws are in place in the context of this case but not in ours.

One interesting thing about ‘sasaeng’ culture that we don’t see in infamous western cases, however, is that these ‘fans’ work in networks — relatively organized groups, despite the competition that ensues among members for ‘exclusive photos’ and whatnot. At the same time, a black market that helps fuel ‘sasaeng’ activities is quickly developing, with taxi services and the like. Sounds sort of reminiscent to the highly capitalist (read: exploitative, shameless) macrocosm it exists within. Moreover, it is even claimed that ‘sasaeng’ networks are becoming all the more pro in getting and circulating information. And to think, the average age of these ‘fans’ must be, what, 15-18 years old? High schoolers (or high-school drop-outs)*. That’s insane.

*Of course, there are those older (and even younger). 

However, what I have noticed is that such collaboration and networking is parallel to that of paparazzi culture in Hollywood. As much as there is intense rivalry between photographers, they don’t shy away from offering each other tips as to who is where at that very moment. In addition, the paps stick together when it comes to them versus the rest of the world, especially regarding anonymity, similar to the cases of ‘sasaeng’ fans. In a documentary titled Teenage Paparazzo, the main photographer creator Adrien Grenier (ultra mega hottie from the American series Entourage) was following around was very hesitant about letting him and his camera crew into his world, fearing that some of his ‘friends’ would be exposed.

Asides from that, this documentary provided a bunch more insight into how the paps think and work:

  • Hollywood paparazzi consist of freelancers as well as photographers employed under certain agencies. For all of them, the drill is pretty much the same: take a ton of pictures, send them over to celebrity tabloids like People and OK!, and pray that a pic or two will make it to their spread, because that’s where your pay basically comes from. Moreover, many say they’re in it for the fun. They say it’s an exciting lifestyle, albeit dangerous. On top of that, the fact that you earn maybe about $500 to $1,000 per picture makes it all the more appealing. 
  • Many paparazzi believe that celebrities owe it to them for making them famous in the first place. Because of the pictures they take and the hype and buzz they were able to generate for them to build their name, the stars have no right to complain. 

I get the feeling that this is where a sense of forwardness comes in — to a lesser extent than ‘sasaeng’ fans, paps would go out of their ways to aggravate their targets for a photo op. There was one example that Matt Damon offered in the documentary: a photographer once shouted, “your mom looked like a fucking whore!” to Ben Affleck to stir a reaction that would undoubtedly make a great picture. Again, it seemingly boils down to the profit motive.

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Paparazzi hording Michael Jackson’s van (image source)

  • In old-school Hollywood, celebrity culture was more ‘studio-manufactured’ — that is, what the rest of society saw of stars like Vivien Leigh and Gene Kelly were mere ‘images’. Seldom were there efforts to capture them in raw, TMZ-like moments. These images were intensely glamorous to the average movie-goer, and I guess the aim was to fuel a sense of allure by maintaining that distance. Something happened between then and now, though — the fascination of what went on behind the scenes (and the want to feel closer to stars) grew larger and larger, manifesting in what we have today: news stands peppered with celebrity gossip magazines and crazy featurettes like “Celebrities Are Normal People Too!”

This ‘manufactured’ image parallels greatly to what we see in K-pop. And maybe it is due to this very same curiosity on the part of us fans to want to know more about our favorite idols that ‘sasaeng’ fans have taken it to the utmost extreme. This is where Patricia from Seoulbeats has highlighted some interesting points which spurred some questions. Is it so that the industry catering to the fans first and foremost via variety shows and the like a form of compensation for the lack of paparazzi* in South Korea and a comprehensive tabloid culture in South Korea for Koreans? Is it this lack part of the reason* why some ‘fans’ have pushed it too far? Is the fact that K-pop defines itself as service to its fans wants part of the reason why we have ‘sasaeng’ fans — those who are perceiving their end of the bargain in a very distorted and extreme manner? 

*Paparazzi defined as everything I have discussed of them thus far 

*Emphasis because I don’t believe that of all of us are ‘sasaeng,’ or would think of engaging ourselves in these sorts of behaviors. If such reasons were the entire story and we disregarded factors such as psychological development (discussed in part 2), then we’d all be buying apartments along the Han River, let alone one-way air tickets to Seoul, for the sake of being close to our idols.

Another difference between a ‘sasaeng’ fan and a paparazzo is that for the former, there is intense attachment to one group or idol. Your typical paparazzo would follow any and every celebrity everywhere on a given day; and again, it’s all for the sake of getting a shot. Related to this is that ‘sasaeng’ fans are not in it for the money — they’re in it emotionally and passionately. There seem to be other motives at play.

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JYJ (I think?) at home. Courtesy of ‘sasaeng’ fans (image source)

Many do not consider ‘sasaeng’ fans ‘real fans’. It even goes as far as labeling them “not normal.” In our society, this usually connotes severe psychological disorder; and many studies in the (western) fields of psychology and criminology suggest that stalker-like behavior has roots in personality and mental development. But then again, considering that there may be about 500 to 1,000 ‘sasaeng’ fans per popular group*, does that mean that all of them are indeed ‘psychologically unstable’? We also have to take into account that there are different levels of ‘sasaeng-ism’ (if you will) — there are those who merely stalk around in cabs, and there are those who stalk and send used sanitary pads to their oppahrs. I’m sure there is a huge degree of differences even among ‘sasaeng’ fans, let alone between them and ‘harmless’ fans. 

*Although challenging this is the claim that JYJ and DBSK is/was the only group that have/had unbelievable amounts of ‘sasaeng’ fans, and very violent ones at that. The taxi-cab phenomenon is also supposedly unique to their fandom. (source)

And this is where I’m going to end today. To conclude, all of us K-poppers for the most part are undoubtedly fascinated by these idols and the images they present. It’s part of our psyche to be especially attentive to those with fame and status*. But there definitely is a line between following celebrities and, literally, following, them; and the reality that we exist in the same fandoms as ‘sasaeng’ fans shows that there is more than just the way the industry is structured, and the tendencies it fuels among fans. Though the fact that K-pop is very fanbase-oriented does have an influence, ‘sasaeng’-ism is probably a confluence of that and one’s psychological development, as well as its role in the way fangirl/fanboy feels are basically manifested and acted upon. 

*May warrant a separate post? Or you can just check out Teenage Paparazzo

Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 |

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