THE BAZAARS AND BIRTHDAYS OF SINGAPORE'S K-POP CAFES

THE BAZAARS AND BIRTHDAYS OF SINGAPORE'S K-POP CAFES

THE BAZAARS AND BIRTHDAYS OF SINGAPORE'S K-POP CAFES

feature photo courtesy of @bts.bighitofficial

Meet the enterprising students forming friendships and creative ventures to celebrate beloved K-Pop musicians  

ATHENA TAN

It’s noble. It’s brave. It’s time-consuming. It’s a place for people who all adore the same musicians to band together. No, it’s not a fan-meet, nor is it organised by official agencies, or funded by a music organisation of any sort. It all comes out of pocket… that is, from the pockets of eight students, ranging from secondary school to university schooling age. Welcome to the event that brings legions of girls together, that turns shy creatives to entrepreneurial businesswomen, a bubbly fandom into a serious support group-- this is a KPOP Cafe Event. 

Most teenagers frequent cafes for elaborate hipster set-ups and a cozy atmosphere, special blends and unique roasts. Yet, in the Asian continent particularly, there are now entirely different reasons to head to coffeeshops in town -- namely, to celebrate the birthdays of their favorite KPOP idols. 

The musicians are not actually in attendance, but these events are entirely sustained by loving fangirls who devote their time to spend with one another, celebrating the milestones of their favorite musical acts.

In Singapore, cafes such as PLUS EIGHT TWO and Coffeesmith are frequently booked out for weekends at a time by extremely well-connected women who share a wealth of friendship and love for their favorite Korean-pop artistes. They are “well-connected” in the sense that they form groups over Twitter, Instagram, and Google forms in order to plan and host cafe events, which involves the booking of a cafe space, liaising with ‘sellers’ -- fans of the same group who are willing to sell unofficial or official merchandise, in addition to their original creations -- and setting up registration booths for fans and creators alike who enter these cafes on the special days. The adored musicians are not actually in attendance, but these events are entirely sustained by loving fangirls who devote their time to spend with one another, celebrating the milestones of their favorite musical acts. The two ‘M’s -- music and merchandise -- are what fans gather for, and these draws create an atmosphere of warmth and celebration at any time of the year. 

 O’ma Spoon Cafe Event - IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / ATHENA TAN

Several of these wonderful young women graciously gave me their time over the past two weeks -- which was a busy period, because of Kim SeokJin’s birthday -- during the downtime of their cafe event fanfare. At the end of our extended conversation, I am full of praise for the fans who turn their passion and love for BTS into tangible gestures that people from all over Singapore -- and even those who flew in from overseas -- can enjoy.

We start at O’ma Spoon Dessert cafe, located on Level 3 of 313 Somerset, a mall in Singapore that is frequented by the youth. Legacy Festival is this weekend, so people are streaming in from all corners of the island to the beaches on Sentosa, but Somerset retains a sizeable crowd due to the Seokjin Birthday event.


O’ma Spoon Cafe Event - IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / ATHENA TAN

It’s set up beautifully, with posters, shiny 3D balloons, and stacks of photocards of BTS members. “One of our administrators on Twitter asked if we’d want to commemorate Jin’s birthday; eight of us responded and here we are,” Xinyi says, with a girlish tilt of her head. “We also want to celebrate the coming end of the year.”  The four administrators who are at the main counter, helming the event, chime in with eager smiles when I ask for their favourite BTS song; “Spring Day” and “Whalien 52” are fan-favourites. In an age of electronic music and synth-laden tunes, these girls love ballads-- cherish them, even. “BTS’ music consists of messages, messages that touch us,” they explain. In a later interview, a pin-maker who runs a BTS pin-shop (@fifiwsug_pin) based in Malaysia echoes this sentiment: “BTS’ music inspires me...it’s why I made enamel designs in the first place.”

KPOP Cafe events are products of hard work and determination. Xinyi of Elysianeverland shares that the hardest challenge is often scheduling clashes and imperfect communication between “administrators,” who are other Twitter users who combine resources and merchandise to bring a vision of an enjoyable KPOP celebration to life. “In the process of planning, some of us are too busy to respond. See, there’s a group of us who are in secondary school,[so] we’re quite busy with school-work. Another group from polytechnic or university have projects and part-time or full-time jobs; everyone is super busy and responding to enquiries from supporters or ourselves is quite difficult.” This is unsurprising, given the intense workload that Singaporean students have to go through; it’s a uniquely Singaporean condition to be loaded with tuition classes or intense study dates throughout the weekends, and it’s a wonder that these teenagers still have the time and energy to coordinate an event of this scale.

Luckily, there are visitors of such events who appreciate their effort and regularly attend, becoming friends of the organizers and promoters of the event on social media platforms. I had the opportunity to speak to Tiffany (@babybwui), a fellow Singaporean ARMY, who shares that attending these events allowed her to meet more people, and that she has “completely stepped out of [her] comfort zone.” Although she writes this in an email, I can easily picture Tiffany’s lovely smile and dancing eyes, the same way she looked over the crowd at O’ma Spoon for the Jin event, where a number of visitors were her friends. “I have interacted with more ARMYs from [various] parts of the world, even out of Singapore. These ARMYs whom I’ve made friends with over the past 8 months have been there when I need support, and they were the ones who always gave me advice to help me solve any sort of issue. [Even]today, [I’m] good friends with them and we are still giving each other advice constantly, whenever needed.” 


Tiffany (@babybwui), left - IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / ATHENA TAN

In fact, I’m honored to call myself one of her new friends -- I met Tiffany, who was wearing a stylish bucket hat, helping out a pin-maker friend (@howpetalsfall) at a cafe event in PLUS EIGHT TWO a week prior to the Jin event. (Yes, there are numerous cafe events to keep track of, even as a visitor, and I can't imagine how tricky communications and set-up must be for the creators who set up shop at these cafes.)

O’ma Spoon Cafe Event - IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / ATHENA TAN

Creators of pins, stickers, and even fan support play important roles at such events. For those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘fan support,’ Elysianeverland’s administrator explains: “fan support refers to goods and items that fans who stan different musical groups obtain or create to support the artists.” They usually bear popular phrases, images, and insignias of their favorite artists, and are often given away for free at concerts. However, KPOP cafes also host pin-makers who operate as freelancers, designing original designs to be printed as enamel pins. These pins usually retail at about eleven to fifteen dollars, and decorate young girls’ Kankens all over the island.


Kai’s Bag - IMAGE CREDIT: BOBBLEHAUS / ATHENA TAN

Tiffany shares, “these pins all have special meaning to me; they are a spark of joy whenever I see them and bring them out. Okay, they may cost a lot of money, but some pin-makers use the funds from these sales to accomplish something bigger, such as going to the places they want to travel to.”

“I also understand that some pin-makers make pins and donate half of the profits to charitable causes. When I started collecting pins, my friends would always ask me to see my pins -- I gladly show them because of their adorable responses: they recognize some pin-makers’ work!”

I also spoke to Fifi, who hails from Malaysia. 

Looking at her beautiful pins, I can’t help but be in awe of the intricate designs and even the way she photographs these pins for promotion. I personally love her ‘Just Dance’ pin featuring BTS member JHOPE; Fifi captures his fluid moments in a tightly-lined sketch set against a beautiful collision of waves and the sea.

“Everyone has their own struggles,” she writes. “No one can understand that struggle unless they face it for themselves. For me, the main struggle that I currently have is the selling of unauthorised, counterfeit products on the market. It was a very devastating moment for me as a small business owner -- when they sell counterfeits of my products, or of others.’ While they sell over 140 products, I can barely sell fifty.” 

Having seen pin-makers take on multiple roles -- from liaising with manufacturers, selecting colors and grading their own pins, and finally becoming their own marketer in cafe events, my heart is torn at the proliferation of copied designs sold at lower quality, hurting the business of the original designer. “This is what happens when you do not have power and money,” Fifi concludes. Fortunately, at KPOP Cafe events, many pin-makers are able to sell their products at the prices they deserve and promote their brand. Howpetalsfall, a Singapore-based pin store with nearly two thousand followers on Instagram, is, like Fifi, a multi-talented pin-maker who intersperses original elements and colours of nature into her designs. The pin-maker states cheerily, “in this line of business, failure for me would be failing to provide the best quality pins to my customers -- especially with the knowledge that they paid for the product with the impression that it would turn out a certain way”. While pin-makers also market their own products by individually styling the pins and their backdrops on Instagram, they neither enhance nor edit the images of their pins, highlighting them in their natural glory so fans receive exactly what they had their eye on.

 

This weekend, BTS clinched the ‘daesangs’ at the annual biggest KPOP award show in Korea, the Mnet Asian Music Awards. ‘Daesangs’ are the largest awards, including ‘Song of the Year,’ “Artist of the Year,’ and ‘Album of the Year.’ The administrators and visitors of cafe events thus enjoyed a double celebration this December, with BTS Jin’s birthday and the glory of the win culminating in an “emotional, but happy time,” said Xinyi. “Their songs’ messages really touch us.”

But are these cafe events really about the boys? Because they’re held in a communal space, visitors make the transition from strangers to friends very quickly, brought together by the shared joy of BTS’ victories and crafting.   Perhaps more importantly, KPOP cafe event culture appears to be about the fans themselves, too: these events present a safe space for them to indulge in a shared passion. Pin-maker Fifi says warmly, “ARMYs are [...] the most supportive family I [have] ever encountered in my life [...] I am a very shy and introverted person, so making friends [can be]  really hard. Yet, ARMYs all over the world are very encouraging and help me to be confident in my art! I [would] not be here today if it [were] not for them. I am entirely grateful [to have] this supportive family”.

0 comments

Leave a comment