HONOLULU - It's become a daily ritual for Gayle Stephens. She often laughs and cries while getting her daily fix. She's even tried to get her family hooked.
Stephens loves Korean dramas.
She is among a growing number of Americans with no connection to Korean culture who say the shows are a more compelling and wholesome alternative to the usual daytime programming on American TV. And retail giants are also starting to tune in.
"I like the fact that they're cleaner, they're not as smutty as the American dramas," said Stephens, a 32-year-old black woman who grew up in Durham, N.C.
"I didn't think I would enjoy watching, but I really got caught up in it. It's very engaging," she said.
TV dramas have become South Korea's hottest export since cell phones, female golfers and kimchi. The Korean craze, which also includes music and film, has swept through Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore and most of Asia and is now making its way across the United States.
"It's just a small peninsula nestled between Japan and China, but they've just hit it right," said Tom Larsen, general manager of YA Entertainment LLC, a major North American distributor of Korean dramas. "They know how to put together a good drama that their neighbors in Asia are eating up."
Now, more Americans are saying hello to "hallyu," or the "Korean wave."
Larsen said the dramas are the driver behind the wave, but it is really "all things Korea."
"It stopped in Hawaii, built up some momentum and reached California shortly after and is continuing to spread across the states," he said. "The mainland is three, four, five years, behind Hawaii."
Korean soap operas used to be only offered in select Asian video stores, but now they are going mainstream with English subtitles.
In Hawaii, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Borders, Blockbuster and Tower Records are capitalizing on the craze and in the past few months began selling Korean drama box DVD sets for $60 to $120.
The DVDs are also sold in music and book stores in cities with large Asian communities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York, as well as online at Amazon.com.
Since opening in 2003, San Bruno, Calif.-based YA has seen revenue triple in each of the past two years behind strong sales of its top sellers: the tearful love story "Stairway to Heaven," and historic drama "Dae Jang Geum." YA plans to release 22 titles this year.
Fans say the Korean shows, centered around relationships and family, focus more on story lines than special effects and are a refreshing change from American programming they see as too violent and too racy.
Annette Marten, a 69-year-old nurse from Kailua, said Korean soaps depict love in a more romantic and artistic way, without steamy, bedroom scenes.
"I'm not prudish in any way, but it's so lovely how they express themselves," she said. "I get all excited if they get a hug. It has so much more meaning."
Many Korean dramas feature elements also found in American soap operas - love triangles, forbidden love, evil mothers-in-law and corrupt business partners. But a key difference is that Korean story lines end usually after 16 to 20 hour-long episodes, no matter how popular they become.
CBS' "Guiding Light," on the other hand, has been on the air since 1952.
"They go from one bed to the next and everybody ends up with someone else's husband and it never ends," said former daytime TV fan Yolanda Kala, 48, of Waianae. "It's like 20 years and they still have the same problems. At least with the Korean stuff, you start and you end."
KBFD-TV in Honolulu, the nation's first FCC-licensed station dedicated to Korean programming, had primarily Korean viewers when it first aired in 1986.
Today, less than 10 percent of viewers are Korean and ratings are higher than ever, said Jeff Chung, the station's general manager.
In just a few years, the station has helped Korean dramas become part of Hawaii's entertainment landscape.
Travel agents here are selling tours to Korea to visit filming locations. There are blogs and chat rooms. Hawaii's largest daily newspaper carries a weekly column. Korean restaurants, shops and language classes are now filled with curious non-Koreans.
There're even fan clubs devoted to the dramas.
Gerrie Nakamura and Nora Muramoto, who are of Japanese ancestry, are truly Korean drama queens.
They founded the Hawaii K-Drama Fan Club in 2002 with about 20 people, but the group has grown to 400 members, mostly middle-aged women of all races. Only about 5 percent of its members are of Korean heritage.
Muramoto, 59, said her love of the dramas has inspired her to take Korean cooking and language classes. Nakamura, a high school teacher, said she sometimes recommends the dramas to her students to learn about family values and respect for elders.
"We grew up with 'Leave it to Beaver' and 'The Waltons,' but today's kids don't have that," she said. "They see extreme whatever - reality TV and naked girls on MTV."
More than 200 members attended the latest club gathering and got a visit by journeyman actor Lee Jeong-gil, who often plays the role of a father or businessman.
"I was blown away by the welcome," Lee said. "I never expected anything like this."
There are other fan clubs devoted to specific Korean stars, such as Bae Yong-joon, the soft-smiling star of "Winter Sonata."
The 2002 love story turned Bae into a huge star in Asia, especially in Japan, where his scarf-wearing image is featured on everything from teddy bears to key chains. Hawaii's Bae fan club boasts more than 100 members and may expand into a national group.
"'Winter Sonata' is showing on the mainland and there's pockets of underground fandom all over the U.S.," said Michelle Smith, the club's president.
While obsessed with the star, Smith said she isn't the typical fan.
"Your typical Bae Yong-Joon fan is in her 40s, has a family and listens to K-pop," she said, a reference to Korean pop music. "I ride a Harley, play electric guitar and listen to Green Day, AC-DC and Ozzy."
Music, from ballads to instrumentals, plays a prominent role in Korean dramas. There's also a lot of crossover in acting and singing, such as pop stars Jung Ji-hoon and Eric Mun.
Jung, of the hit romantic-comedy series "Full House," is better known as the singer "Rain." He sold out New York's Madison Square Garden twice last month and in October performed in front of 40,000 fans at Beijing Workers Stadium.
Retiree 62-year-old Margie Okuhara said she feels like a teenager again when the Hawaii drama club meets to swoon over the stars.
"My kids call me a groupie," she said. "I say, 'That's OK, when you get to be my age, you can do whatever you want.'"
On the Net:
Hawaii K-Drama Fan Club: http://www.hawaiikdrama.com/
Korean drama info site: http://www.koreanwiz.org/
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