Foreigners who live in South Korea become TV stars

Sam Okyere -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Sam Okyere -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Fabien Yoon -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Fabien Yoon -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Sam Hammington -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Sam Hammington -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Ghanaian Sam Okyere (left) and Frenchman Fabien Yoon (centre) took part in wildly popular Korean TV show Running Man. -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK
Ghanaian Sam Okyere (left) and Frenchman Fabien Yoon (centre) took part in wildly popular Korean TV show Running Man. -- PHOTOS: ONE, JTBC, JUNG YEON JIN, HANWHALIFE FACEBOOK

Foreigners who live in South Korea are now a common sight on Korean shows

A roly-poly Australian funnyman, a chatty seaweed-loving Ghanaian and a kick-ass French taekwondo athlete have one thing in common: These foreigners have adopted Seoul as their home and are making audiences laugh on Korean TV.

Aussie Sam Hammington is the bumbling recruit among the Korean celebrities on military-themed reality show Real Men. Ghanaian Sam Okyere and Frenchman Fabien Yoon were invited to take part in popular gameshow Running Man.

Once relegated to hosting foreign language programmes in the 1990s, these foreigners - completely non-Korean and non-Asian looking artistes - are an increasingly common sight on Korean TV.

Ms Grace Lin, 27, who is in the finance industry, says producers have an eye on the global market. She watches Real Men and talk show Abnormal Summit.

"By bringing in all these foreign representatives and talking about universal issues, it takes the show all over the world. One of the representatives on Abnormal Summit from Turkey mentioned that people in his country are watching the show."

One obvious reason for TV producers to include foreigners in their shows is the novel appeal for local viewers, who gawk and are amazed at the foreigners' fluency in Korean.

Professor Shim Doo Bo, from the department of media communications at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul, points to the example of France-born Korean citizen Ida Daussy, who is a familiar face on the talk show circuit. Daussy, who has two sons with her Korean ex-husband, is also a French professor at the Sookmyung Women's University among other portfolios.

She impressed with her fluent Korean during guest appearances on variety shows such as music show Challenge 1000 Songs and now-defunct family-oriented show Mamma Mia.

Such stunt-casting to reel in TV audiences is not unique to South Korea, of course. Taiwan's showbusiness circuit has a bunch of Chinese-speaking foreigners, such as Belarusian babe Margarita Laurouskaya, who has been making her rounds on Taiwanese variety shows for over a decade.

A newer addition to the Taiwan scene is Turkish comedian Ugur Rifat Karlova, who goes by the Chinese name Wu Feng. His charming, witty hosting in Mandarin on food and travel show I-Walker won him the best travel host at the Taiwan 47th Golden Bell Awards in 2012.

While Okyere has admitted to enduring his fair share of jibes at his African heritage (jokes about him running after lions in the jungle, for instance), there has been a move away from such cheap shots on Korean TV.

Non-Asians are lauded for their fluency in the Korean language and familiarity with local cultural practices and customs, says Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in Asian pop culture.

"There are of course instances of negative typecasting in game shows. Even though foreign artistes are quite fluent in Korean, they are made to wear their national or ethnic costumes," adds Prof Liew.

But globalisation has made the Korean public more sensitive to such racist portrayals, says Prof Shim. Instead, TV producers are now tapping into what these foreign entertainers can offer - a diversity of opinions and a window to the world.

Mr Yoon Jae Woong, press and culture counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore, says: "The foreign entertainers on Korean TV are not just for laughs, they also play a critical role of introducing their cultures and customs."

Talk show Love In Asia, that premiered in 2005, explores interracial families comprising foreign wives who marry Korean men. KBS Global Talk Show (2006-2010), also known as A Chat With Beauties, featured a panel of foreign women sharing their experiences of living in South Korea.

More recently, there have been Island Village Teachers, a show in which four foreigners are tasked to teach Korean kids on an island; and Abnormal Summit, which mimics global summits with a panel of 11 "foreign delegates" called the G11. They are from different countries and all walks of lives, such as the learned American master's student Tyler Rasch and Japanese Takuya Terada, who is a member of multinational boyband Cross Gene.

Prof Shim explains: "Abnormal Summit is a step forward from Global Talk Show. Most of the topics dealt in the show are not just about Korean society, but also cover global problems and diverse cultures in the world."

Discussions in the show have covered topics such as smartphone addiction, dating and the age at which young adults should be independent.

Local viewer Alison Tan initially tuned in to Abnormal Summit to watch her favourite Korean host Sung Si Kyung, but was soon hooked by the foreign panellists' candid and interesting debates.

Ms Tan, who is in her 40s and in the IT industry, says with a laugh: "Sometimes the three Korean emcees on the show are redundant. The audience is more interested in the views of the G11 members."

nggwen@sph.com.sg

Catch the following shows on Oh!K (StarHub TV Channel 816): Infinite Challenge on Saturday at 8pm and Real Men on Saturday and Sunday at 11pm. Catch Running Man on Friday at 11.45pm on One (StarHub TV Channel 124, 820 and 823; SingTel mio TV Channel 513 and 604).


SAM HAMMINGTON, 37, AUSTRALIA

Sam Hammington is an Australian, but he is serving his "national service" in the South Korean army. He books into camp once a month and lives like a soldier for a week.

But it is all in the name of entertainment - Hammington is filming the military-themed reality TV programme, Real Men.

The show, which chronicles the army training of celebrities, is one of the top rated ones in the Sunday primetime variety belt in South Korea.

Speaking to Life! from Seoul, the roly-poly 37-year-old says: "The physical part is tough. The pressure comes from the mental stress of having to switch from civilian to military mode each time.

"It's like you have to reshape your brain once a month. You speak and act differently in the army. You have to wake up at a certain time, eat at a certain time. It's so regimented."

The mental and physical torture of his military stint has paid off. Hammington's bumbling yet endearing ways have increased his exposure and won him new fans.

The comedian went on to secure about 10 endorsement deals, ranging from ice cream to insurance. He won the Male Newcomer Award for a variety show at the 2013 MBC Entertainment Awards last December - which he calls the highlight of his entertainment career.

"As far as I'm aware, it's the first time a non-Korean has taken the award home, which I think is pretty big. To get an award like that is an affirmation of what I've done on Real Men," says Hammington, who is married to 39-year-old South Korean cupcake store owner Jung Yu Mi.

The jolly dude's affinity with South Korea started when he did a one-year exchange programme in Seoul in 1998 while studying the Korean language as one of his double majors at Australia's Swinburne University of Technology.

He returned to Korea in 2002 in hopes of honing his Korean by living in Seoul and had plans to work in a Korean company before heading home.

That changed after he stumbled on a TV career and he has been in South Korea for 12 years since. The accidental TV star was discovered when he volunteered to go on stage at a live comedy sketch show.

He did a two-year stint on the sketch-comedy TV show Gag Concert and helmed English shows on English-Korean radio programmes.

He got his second big break when the producers of Real Men noticed him on a radio show.

Recruit Hammington will be discharged from the reality TV show next month.

He is glad that another foreign recruit, Canadian-born Chinese Henry Lau from boyband Super Junior-M, has joined the Real Men team.

Hammington, who will join survival reality show Law Of The Jungle, says: "Everyone is saying that Henry is going to take home this year's newcomer award. If the award does go to him, it will mean two non-Koreans winning it in a row. It says a lot about the industry.

"Non-Koreans have been working in the industry, but to finally get recognition and to get an award for it, it's huge."


FABIEN YOON, 27, FRANCE

Frenchman Fabien Yoon, 27, got his first taste of acting on Korean TV in the 2008 melodrama East Of Eden opposite a huge star, actor Song Seung Heon.

"I got a call from the casting director asking if I could do a scene with a few lines in English. I didn't know who was my co-star till I turned up at the filming site the next day and realised it was actor Song Seung Heon. He's huge in Korea," he tells Life! in a telephone interview from Seoul.

"Song Seung Heon's lines were in English. He came to me and said he wanted to practise his English lines and he was like, 'Please help me'. My friends were like, 'Wow, you're acting with Song Seung Heon'," says Yoon, whose boyish good looks had friends goading him to try modelling and acting while he was attending a Korean language course at Ehwa Women's University in Seoul.

His love affair with all things Korean started with taekwondo, which he took up at the age of five. He eventually made it to the French national team.

Although he injured a ligament in his right knee at the age of 18 and had to give up his dreams of competing in the Olympics, his passion for the martial art-cum-sport and Korean culture never waned and he embarked on a backpacking trip around South Korea in 2007.

"I was really passionate about taekwondo and I got into Korean culture, watched the movies and listened to the music. I really wanted to visit Korea, so I saved up for a three-month trip. I liked it so much that I ended up staying for four months," adds Yoon, who prefers to use his adopted Korean surname instead of his real family name, Corbineau, while he is in South Korea.

After the backpacking trip, he returned to the country the following year and has been living there ever since.

The East Of Eden acting stint, which he did to earn pocket money, prompted him to seriously consider a career in showbusiness. In 2009, he took lessons at an acting school in Korea for 21/2 years.

"I was obsessed with learning Korean. I was working on improving my Korean 12 hours a day. I was taking classes in the morning, in the afternoon I was learning vocabulary. I went to acting school at night to fix my pronunciation. I hung out only with Korean people. I was practising my Korean all the time," he says.

His hard work has paid off - he has snagged hosting and acting gigs on TV dramas and variety shows in both English and Korean.

His "real acting debut" was a meatier Korean-speaking role as a doctor in the period drama Jejungwon (2010) and he subsequently appeared in time-travel medical drama Dr Jin (2012, opposite Song once again), and in the new Korean movie Fashion King (2014).

Currently, he has five regular TV shows on his plate, including music show Mnet Music Video Commentary, MBC reality TV show I Live Alone and three food and cooking programmes.

But it was his recent guest appearance on the hit game show Running Man, alongside Ghanaian entertainer Sam Okyere, that increased his international fanbase.

"When I walked on the streets in Korea, usually only the Koreans recognised me. After I went on Running Man, I was recognised by fans from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Malaysia.

"When I went back to Paris at the end of August, people recognised me. They tell me that they follow me on Facebook and watch my shows on YouTube. That was crazy. It motivates me to work hard."

He appreciates Korean women too.

The bachelor, who dated a Korean woman before, says: "I like the way Korean girls take care of their appearance and are feminine."


SAM OKYERE, 24, GHANA

Ghanaian television personality Sam Okyere, 24, is not afraid to admit that he stands out on Korean TV shows because of his race and skin colour.

Speaking over the phone from Seoul, Okyere says: "If I'm frank, it's because I'm black. There have not been too many black entertainers on Korean TV.

"Just for the fact that I speak Korean, I love their culture, I want to bond with the people. I want to do something that a normal foreigner wouldn't. I think that's what Koreans want."

Okyere arrived in Seoul in 2009 on a Korean government scholarship to pursue a computer engineering degree at Sogang University. He graduated earlier this year.

So far, being a foreigner has worked to Okyere's advantage and earned him TV gigs. The outspoken lad first caught the attention of producers during a recording of TV station KBS talkshow Hello Counsellor last summer, in which he spoke candidly about racial discrimination.

He went on to star in Korean cable network tvN's reality TV show, Island Village Teachers, in which foreign celebrities teach local pupils on an island.

The chatty Okyere has snagged a regular gig as one of the 11 foreign panellists on new talk show Abnormal Summit (above) on Korean cable network JTBC. He has also made guest appearances on game show Running Man and talk show Happy Together.

Though Okyere has landed meatier roles on TV recently, he recalls earlier appearances where he was on the receiving end of jokes about his African heritage.

"The jokes get old. The period of 'Oh I thought Africans run after lions and run in the jungle' is slowly coming to an end. People are realising that people from Africa are not like that. They realise that Africans live their lives just like they do," says Okyere.

He is known affectionately by his nickname, made up of the numbers 5, 7 and 2 in Korean, which sounds similar to the pronunciation of his surname.

The verbose Okyere has big dreams beyond a TV career. He hopes to do his part as a "black representative" and create awareness about his home country and adopted home South Korea.

He says: "I get fan mail from people all over the world. Just the fact that they want to visit Ghana, it's big for me."

He has already got his first official appointment as an ambassador to promote seaweed from the small fishing town of Wando in South Korea.

He says with glee: "I love to eat seaweed. I ate a lot on the show Island Village Teachers. It was an honour to be made an ambassador."