This one’s for you and me

There will come a day where I will be able to talk about Henry in a completely rational, non-spazzy, non-fangirly fashion, but for now, this is probably the best you’re gonna get from me. :P

It irks me that even after Henry put out his public-service announcement via Twitter yesterday, there are still fans who are upset that SM doesn’t promote him enough, that he’s not doing enough variety shows, that he’s not performing in enough concerts, that he’s not allowed to “make the most of his talent.” To a certain extent, this disgruntlement is understandable, and it’s fueled by our current understanding of K-pop idoldom: if a K-pop idol isn’t promoting 24/7, then what else is he doing? We assume that K-pop idols inherently possess a career that is unceasingly public, and that if we don’t see them doing stuff, then they’re probably not doing anything at all. And we’re not necessarily in the wrong by assuming this. Most K-pop idols do live out this kind of lifestyle, where their entire lives are so absorbed by their careers that we don’t really see them as anything but singing, dancing, variety-show-ing K-pop idols. And why wouldn’t we, when that’s all they can do, all the day long?

So when we have cases like Henry and Zhou Mi — neither of whom get much airtime on Korean television and have to share their Chinese television airtime with six other (mainstream) Super Junior members, and neither of whom have much of a career in the Korean entertainment industry to speak of — it’s easy to cry foul and say that these two are being treated unfairly and are not getting the recognition they deserve. And there’s a certain degree of truth to this as well; Henry and Zhou Mi are essentially chained to the existence of Super Junior-M. Should SJ-M one day cease to exist, the other mainstream Super Junior members can still deal and carry on with their careers. But because Henry and Zhou Mi have done very few high-profile solo activities to distinguish themselves apart from the SJ-M identity, it’d be very easy for Henry and Zhou Mi to turn into complete irrelevants without the structure and existence of SJ-M to hold them up. Add to that to the Hangeng incident, as well as all the fan-driven vitriol directed at them during their debut (traces of which still continue to linger within the SuJu fandom), and one would be damned to say that Henry and Zhou Mi have had it easy thus far. In the end, Henry and Zhou Mi have a fraction of the amount of public exposure that the rest of the Super Junior members (or any other K-pop star currently in the industry) have, and if we continue to believe that Henry and Zhou Mi’s existences solely lie within the context of K-pop idoldom, it’s easy to conclude that Henry and Zhou Mi only have a fraction of the career that their peers have.

Which, empirically speaking, is true, and it certainly doesn’t help that SM does a pretty good job of emphasizing that fact. I mean, not letting Zhou Mi attend Super Show 4 in Paris on account of “visa problems” when Victoria can travel just fine on her Chinese passport? Not letting Henry attend because Zhou Mi isn’t going? Or how about crediting Super Junior’s song in the SMTown Winter album as “Super Junior (with Henry and Zhou Mi)” in order to appease the teeny percentage of fans who would be offended at the idea of Henry and Zhou Mi being considered a part of the main group? I give SM props for holding their own against the Only13 fan backlash and allowing their own artists to personally call out these fans for their BS, but apart from that, I don’t see SM making a conscious effort emphasizing the importance of Zhou Mi and Henry as people who work under their label. This doesn’t even have to manifest itself in actual activities and schedules. It just has to manifest itself in the mere idea that Zhou Mi and Henry actually matter.

But as far as this “Henry-and-Zhou-Mi-aren’t-getting-fair-treatment” thing is concerned, that’s where my discontent stops. I don’t approve of how SM has been overly cautious when handling Henry and Zhou Mi for fear of enraging a small percentage of their buyer constituency the fans, or of how Henry and Zhou Mi seem completely expendable as far as company profits are concerned. That’s just a matter of respect. Nevertheless, I think that Henry has the right idea by using his “downtime” to pursue his dreams outside of idoldom — because idoldom doesn’t last forever, even if talent does.

It makes me really happy that Henry is being productive with the time that’s supposedly been “cheated away” from him. In doing so, he’s building a career for himself that will last in the future, rather than chasing a career that barely sustains itself in the present. And in doing so, he’s doing something important for the K-pop industry at large: proving that you don’t have to be on air all the time in order to sustain your popularity. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that Henry is a less profitable commodity than his peers in Super Junior, but in many ways, Henry has gained a deeper respect, not just from Super Junior fan circles, but from the K-pop community at large — and even beyond. He’s the one idol whom I could point to and show to any cynic of K-pop and say, “Hey, this is what you get when you combine extraordinary talent with the extraordinary mechanism and resources of the K-pop industry. More importantly, this is a dude who knows what he’s doing with his life. This is a dude with a future. This is a real artist.” And it goes without saying that respect means a lot more than sheer material profit.

The current K-pop mechanism is engineered to squeeze out all the life from the most vibrant, energetic years of idols’ lives, only to be tossed aside when a batch of newer, shinier, fresher-faced idols comes along. Idols are given next to no resources to develop a post-idol career plan for themselves, and that’s not fair. Though it seems really unfair that Henry only has a fraction of an idol career as that of his peers, Henry then gains the luxury of having the time, the resources, the talent to make the best of himself, rather than the best of his short-term career as an idol. Who are we to deny that from him?

In that sense, my heart hurts for Zhou Mi — not because he’s any less talented than Henry, but because there’s no tangible indication of him doing anything outside of his Super Junior-M activities apart from buying new Mario cases for his iPhone and figuring out exactly why his voice isn’t working anymore. While Zhou Mi might not have the most stunning singing voice in the world, he has a remarkable skill set that would make any entertainment host green with envy. But how could anyone know that when Zhou Mi isn’t even permitted to appear on variety shows that are filmed in the same country as his own entertainment company? It makes me sad that Henry receives so much support from fans (because we can easily see exactly how talented he is, whether it be through his compositions or his performance skill), but Zhou Mi oftentimes just ends up as an afterthought — only because there have been so few venues for us to see where his real talent lies.

Henry and Zhou Mi are incredibly brave to continue with what they’ve been doing for so long, and I have so, so, so much respect for them for maintaining their humility throughout all this. I think one of the biggest reasons why I find K-pop so refreshing is because of the artists’ sheer humility and gratefulness towards everyone around them. Granted, this can sometimes come across as being a bit unsettling (idols asking their fans to marry them and all that good shiz), but where else will you find an entire industry full of people who take every opportunity to genuinely thank their producers, their managers, their choreographers, their management staff, the heads of their companies? A lot of this is simply behavior that’s built into Korean societal habits as a whole, which is why it means so much more for me to see Henry, as a non-Korean who was born and raised in a Western social environment, continue to be so low-key about his talent and so respectful to everyone around him.

I think Henry appeals to a lot of Asian-American and Asian-Canadian fans because, in many ways, he’s just like one of us. It’s oftentimes difficult for international fans to relate to K-pop idols because of the ever-persistent cultural and social barriers, but Henry is the one exception. To us, he seems so much more real — not just because he speaks English, but because he also speaks crappy Chinese like us, he plays classical violin and piano like us, he had to learn to live with immigrant Asian parents like us…as well as countless other experiences that may never escape the confines of Henry’s close circle of friends and family, in the same way that many of our experiences as Asian-Americans/Canadians are best left for only our loved ones to know. As young Asian-Americans/Canadians, Henry’s kind of a hero to us. Granted, there are tons of other Asian-American/Canadian stars out there, but has there been another 華僑 apart from Henry who’s sung in front of thousands of people in dozens of different venues all across the globe?* Has there been another 華僑 apart from Henry who has gained recognition from fans on nearly every continent on the planet?* That’s kind of crazy, if you think about it.

Anyway, I guess that the point of this spur-of-the-moment, 3am, highly brain vomit-y post was to say that Henry’s doing everything right in pursuing his real dreams as a musician while simultaneously working off of the support from his hugely influential label and learning as much as he can while it’s still possible. I wish that all of his fans could see Henry’s goals from his long-term perspective, rather than the narrow-scoped perspective of the K-idol scene. Henry shouldn’t have to join the main Super Junior group or have a crazy typical K-pop idol schedule in order to justify his existence as an artist and musician. And I’m really glad that Henry had the guts and the heart to share his thoughts for everyone to see. That kind of transparency is a rare find from any celebrity, but it goes to show exactly how humble this kid is. And of course, Henry’s not perfect, but he knows that and is willing to fix it. And that alone makes him more admirable and more worthy of respect than any run-of-the-mill K-pop idol could ever hope to be.

*Apart from Wang Lee-Hom. And maybe Jeremy Lin. But shh.

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  • Junkydory

    quick note to drop here. what about tiffany, jessica, krystal, amber and the hoard of other asian american hirees that sm pulled?

    • Good question; I’ve actually been thinking about doing a post on this. The difference between Tiffany/Jessica/Krystal and Henry/Amber is that Tiffany/Jessica/Krystal are Korean-American and speak Korean fluently. Because of this, they’re practically considered born-and-bred Koreans by the Korean public, and their “American” identity is effectively disregarded. On the other hand, Henry and Amber are considered “foreigners” where they’re working, and because they didn’t grow up speaking Korean to their parents like T/J/K, both of them have maintained strong hold on their American/Asian-American/Asian-Canadian identities despite working in Asia.
      Interestingly, whenever Henry and Amber do activities in Taiwan, they are seen as Taiwanese rather than American/Canadian, as both of them claim Taiwanese heritage. Another interesting case is EXO’s Kris, where everyone seems to completely ignore the fact that he lived in and was scouted from Vancouver, and just sees him as Chinese.
      If you think more about it, this is a pretty interesting issue regarding overseas Chinese/Korean and how their national identities are perceived when they go to their parents’ native countries.

  • yarakfouri

    Hey! Sorry for such a late post. I found out about this site today and I will definitely be reading more of your articles! I have to second junky dory here, I would love to see a post about tiff , Jess, Krys and amber. They’re my favorites because I feel that I can relate to this dichotomy of cultures. As for their foreign identities, it is definitely not erased. In interviews and shows I have seen them be called foreign. Also, they (tiff and Krys) have been in controversies that I think can be attributed to their “foreigness” . I too am going on a 3am rant, but what I’m saying is that their americaness is not forgotten by Koreans.