Learning about the history of K-Pop in the Philippines at KPop Con X

Learning about the history of K-Pop in the Philippines at KPop Con X

New to K-Pop? The annual Philippine Kpop Convention is the place to get an education.

Photos by Gaby Serrano


It’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m standing in a sea of colorful lights, surrounded by people chanting “nega che chalaga” in unison. By now, the 2NE1 mantra, which means “I am the best” has been tattooed into my being. At this moment, I feel like my skin is clear, my bills are paid, and the country isn’t in ruins.

Witnessing an act of unity and shared love for a common thing tends to make a person feel unstoppable. This is the effect of Kpop Con, the biggest and longest-running fan-organized gathering of K-pop fans in the Philippines. Now on its 10th year, the convention is a mecca for Philippine K-Pop fans. It’s organized by The Philippine Kpop Convention, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing local fan clubs together.

Light it up: It’s rare to see people raising lightsticks from different groups in one place, but it’s the norm at Kpop Con.

Fans flock to the annual event to buy all the albums and merch that aren’t available in local stores. And of course to have a good time with fellow fans. For me, a stan two years into multifandom, it was an effort to understand the community more.   

And what better way to educate ma’ self than by going back to where it all started? So off we went, writer and photographer (a baby EXO stan, converted only two months ago) with one mission: to learn as much as we could about K-Pop in the Philippines — and also maybe cop some merch while we were there.


Naega mandeun history: Going back to where it all started

Barely a minute inside SM Aura’s SMX Convention Hall and we ran into a tall, slim dude cosplaying as Chanyeol from EXO’s recent Loveshot comeback. A sign that this was totally the right place.  

In a series of videos shown during the convention, one of the founders, host Kring Eleanzano Kim, spoke about the history of K-Pop in the Philippines. She explained that the years 2008 and 2009 saw an increased interest in the industry, a fact we owe to former Star Circle quest runner-up Sandara Park’s debut in 2NE1 and the dangerously catchy Nobody by Wonder Girls taking over the airwaves (*clap clap point*).

Upon entering the hall, we immediately saw Kosplay competition champion Jerville de Guzman as Chanyeol from EXO’s Loveshot MV.

It was around that time that Kring and her close friend, Mishi Camaya, both members of Cassiopeia (the TVXQ Philippine fanclub) saw the opportunity to gather others with the same interest.

“This was 2009, and watching concerts in the Philippines was unheard of at that time. We only had gatherings,” says Kring. And so the idea for Kpop Con was born from a question posed by Mishi: “How about we gather the fan clubs in the Philippines and do something similar to a comic convention, or toy convention?”

From there, they contacted other fan clubs asking if they wanted to participate, eventually getting 12 of them to agree and mounting the first ever KPop Con during the early days of the Hallyu wave, harbored in by groups like Super Junior, Wonder Girls, Shinee, Girls Generation, 2NE1, and Big Bang.  


Love scenario: getting rid of the stigma

Nine years later, and Kpop Con X has 29 participating fan clubs of groups old and new. Talking to some of the admins and fans at their decked out booths, we were reminded that it wasn’t always always a flower road for them. While interest in K-Pop was growing in the Philippines, there was a stigma associated with liking it for the longest time.

Minsan kasi yung iba, ang dali nila mag-judge,” says Derlyn, a college student majoring in Education who stans Monsta X. She adds, “Kapag sinabi mong K-Pop fan ka, sinasabi nilangAy, ang weird nito.’”

Second gen: Red Velvet Philippines admin Charm has been a K-Pop fan since the days of Girls Generation and Sistar

Charm is an app modifier for IBM and one of the core admins of Red Velvet Philippines. Having started out as a fan of Girls Generation and Sistar, she is what stans describe as “lumang tao of K-Pop”, which is a playful jab at the fans who have been stanning ever since the early days.

Using Sandara’s pineapple hair as an example, Charm tells me that Filipinos “used to think of K-Pop as baduy” because of the zany fashion and makeup styles that idols would wear for performances, coupled with the fact that all of their songs are, essentially, in Korean.

Geisha, call center agent and the externals head of BTS Philippines adds that a lot of the hate had to do with preconceived notions of sexuality in our conservative country.  “Daming homophobic before. And you know how [male K-pop idols] wear makeup — people ask ‘Why do they wear those types of clothes?’ or ‘Bakit ganyan ang kulay ng buhok [nila]?’ And I think bigla na lang siya naging mainstream.”  

I got a boy: There were plenty of Twice and Loona fanboys at the con.

The stigma is especially heightened when it comes to fan boys. K-Pop fans aren’t limited to screaming teen girls — there are plenty of male fans, too. At the con, the male to female ratio was pretty balanced (in fact, some guys were even more enthusiastic during the I Am the Best cover performance).

We approached Engineering majors Sam, Louis, and Joseah as they were in the middle of checking out their loot. The three were carrying binders of photocards from Loona, Twice, and IZONE. “Sa classroom namin, overall lalaki ang fans. Kasi mostly iniisip ng mga iba na, “Ah, ganyan ba? So hindi ka lalaki? Pero sa akin, I find [the concepts] cute,” explains Joseah.

Bias wrecker: High school students Milos, Jung Woo, and Joshua pose with their Twice faves.

Friends Milos, Jung Woo, and Joshua are high school students who are part of their school dance team. “I mean, it’s music at the end of the day. You can’t judge other people because of their music taste,” says Jung Woo.

K-Pop isn’t as popular among schoolmates at their all-boys school. The friends plan to spread the love by performing songs from boy groups like Monsta X and NCT. “To show that K-Pop isn’t just those cute happy songs. There’s also some really good trap music,” they add.


Talk to me: fan translators and YouTube

Part of the increase in popularity of K-Pop in the Philippines can also be attributed to the emergence of more K-Pop related events, heralded in on a small scale(usually fan gatherings for a group’s anniversary or a member’s birthday) by fan clubs and on a larger scale (concerts and fanmeets) by promoters like Pulp Live World’s COO, Happee Sy. Pulp was responsible for organizing Super Junior’s Super Show 2 in 2010, which is considered as the first full-blown K-Pop concert in the country.

The Girls Generation booth had a bunch of SONEs waving their lightsticks while watching a performance on a laptop.

While making our way around the fan club side of the packed convention center, we passed the Girls Generation booth, where a bunch of SONEs were waving their lightsticks while watching a performance on a laptop.

Seeing the booth, it dawned on me then that we owe much of the spread of K-Pop around the world to technology. “Remember, in 2005 there was no YouTube. It was really hard to get information and watch shows of your oppa deul (favorite male idols),” says Kring. “But then in 2009, YouTube became bigger and K-Pop used that platform to reach out to the fans.”  

Dramarama: Derlyn and Diana became friends because of their shared love for Monsta X.

Meanwhile, Derlyn brings up an integral part of being an international K-Pop fan: our dependence on translations. “Pag fan ka na, siyempre lagi kang nanonood ng may sub[titles]. Tapos kapag music, titingnan mo yung translation kung ok ba,” she says.

A true K-Pop stan makes an effort to truly understand the messages that an idol group sends with their music — a practice made possible by selfless fans who post Korean to English translations online via color-coded lyric videos and social media posts.


Where my money yah: on group orders and merch

Being a K-Pop fan is also a painfully expensive hobby. Between all the concerts, official merch, and frequent album releases, you gotta be making serious dough to be able to cop it all.

Since most official merch isn’t available in regular stores here in the Philippines, fans resort to ordering online via shops and group orders (GOs), which are usually fan-led initiatives that brings in the goods in bulk through Korean suppliers. Many of the shops, like CNA Philippines, Sunshine Kshop, Kmerch Haven, and other smaller stores apply to be concessionaires at Kpop Con.  

Concessionaires at Kpop Con offer a variety of official and fan-made merch.

But then the question stands: with an average album ranging from P750 to over P1,000, how are the fans able to afford it? For Charm, Geisha, and Yumay, it all boils down to spending money wisely and making sure that an item or concert ticket is worth it.   

Sa akin naman, ako bina-budget ko talaga,” says Monsta X stan Diana. “Every [group order] cut-off, sasahod ako. Parang, ipon ko ‘to para gastusin ko sa kanila. Pero minsan talaga magic eh. Kahit wala ka talagang pera, pag nandiyan na, mapapabayad ka na,” she adds.


Blood, sweat, tears: on fan dedication

Another misconception that people have is that all the efforts fans put in are useless in the long-run. Yumay, an admin for Big Bang Philippines who works in the financial sector immediately disproves this. She became a fan a year after their debut. “Diba yung iniisip nila na puro fangirling lang? No, it’s not always about that,” she says. “Yung pagha-handle ng isang group — it’s a responsibility. You definitely need to have a job kasi minsan out of pocket yung mga ginagastos namin dito.

BTS, Shinhwa, EXO, and Seventeen were some of the groups with elaborately decorated booths.

All of the fan club booths at the convention were decorated based on the concepts of their respective groups. Some even devised mini games for con-goers to win goods and merch. The folks behind the booths are usually, fan club core team members. Most fan clubs have departments for internals, externals, and creatives. It’s a legit working team fuelled by a shared passion. These fans work tirelessly and yet don’t expect anything in return.

Being a core member of a fan club involves a great deal of hard work and dedication. “I think others would work for themselves, for the clothes, for the food, for anything. I literally work for BTS,” says Geisha.  

It’s not all fangirling all the time, too. Proceeds from Kpop Con have always gone to beneficiaries like PAWS and Gawad Kalinga. It’s also common for fan clubs to organize donation projects for charity in the name of their idols. Last year, RM Philippines (another BTS fanbase) even made headlines by planting trees along the Sierra Madre mountain range to celebrate the birthday of BTS’s leader, RM.


The biggest hits on the stage: today’s Philippine K-pop scene

Over a decade later and the scene has only grown larger. Idol group concepts have tamed down quite a bit, and the overall world attitudes toward outrageous ideas have evolved as well. In a way, people these days are more accepting. Locally, Filipino style and beauty ideals have shifted towards East Asian trends, and now androgyny is praised and the fight for LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance is stronger than ever.

The music itself is becoming more mainstream nowadays, with an increasing number of Filipinos recognizing it as legitimate art and not just tunes for the next viral dance trend. Momoland and Psy are constants on local radio (one or two songs, but still). There’s also celebrities like Liza Soberano publicly tweeting about her love for BTS, and vloggers like AC Bonifacio regularly posting YouTube dance covers. Heck, even Anne Curtis wants to be a K-Pop star.

In the same way K-Pop has gone mainstream, these days, people are generally more accepting towards things that seem strange.

Of course, as with any case of fandom, the topic of fanwars is unavoidable. Geisha points out that there will always be “bad apples” in any fan group, so we shouldn’t be focused on fighting. “I want all fandoms to realize na — kung halimbawa, may makita ninyong may mali sa isa sa amin, it doesn’t reflect all of us. I hope you understand na iba iba yung fans. Hindi sila representative ng lahat. They’re a lot but sobrang daming dynamics.”

She follows it up with a reminder for stan etiquette: “And don’t just be [dismissive] and be like “You can’t sit with us”. You have to educate them and say ‘this is not the right way to behave’ because it will reflect on the group that you’re stanning.”

In the end though, fans mostly just want what’s best for the idols. Charm brings it back to her reasons for being a fan, saying that all she and other Reveluvs merely want the best for Red Velvet. “Lahat naman tayo, that’s what we want for the groups. But also we want na makapaghinga din sila. Yun lang yung gusto namin. For them to be healthy, to have a personal life.”  

During the Kolors of Unity segment, we spotted an EXO-L and an ARMY laughing and smiling together.

At KPop Con X, it’s normal to bump into EXO-Ls rubbing shoulders with ARMYs, and Onces doing the fanchants to a Big Bang song alongside Reveluvs. The convention ended with Kolors of Unity, a segment where con-goers were invited to wave all their lightsticks, regardless of bias group, to the tune of the SBS friendship project song You Are a Miracle.

There’s just something about the passion of fandom that you find at conventions like this one that you can’t feel online, through stan twitter or other platforms.

Our Kpop Con X experience was an eye opener. We got what we came for (merch, included) and much, much more. It was an educational experience, tbh. It’s always nice to be reminded that there is a community out there that’s fueled by pure love. And sometimes that’s all you need, right?   



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