In December 1999 the Beijing Youth Daily coined the term hanliu to describe the remarkable success of South Korean pop culture in China (it sounds the same as “cool current” in Mandarin). The idea was so well received in South Korea that it was quickly incorporated into the local language using the Korean equivalent for ‘cool current’, hallyu.
China is a major recipient of the hallyu wave. Korea’s TV dramas have been smash hits, while its celebrities have millions of Chinese fans. Chinese consumers have provided the largest number of tourist arrivals in South Korea since 2012, snapping up everything from plastic surgery services to driving licences. The casinos on the Korean island of Jeju are keen to ride the wave too. But the strategy used by some of the junket operators to draw Chinese high rollers doesn’t strike some as too cool.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported last week that Chinese police have arrested 13 South Korean casino managers as well as 34 Chinese agents working for them. Officially their wrongdoing was organising gambling tours for Chinese citizens (these are illegal in China if 10 or more gamblers are involved). But what seems to have got more attention is the way organisers lured China’s punters away from their usual destination – Macau – by offering the dubious services of Korean starlets and models.
According to a contract seen by CCTV, the junkets promised gamblers a “massage service” if they bought Rmb100,000 ($15,770) worth of chips. If they paid for Rmb200,000 of chips a “one-off service from a third-tier Korean celebrity” was on offer. And were the gambler to spend Rmb500,000, the package was upgraded to “three days and two nights” with local starlets.
Jeju started marketing 30-day visa-free trips to Chinese tourists in 2010. Since then the number of visitors has spiked. There are eight foreigner-only casinos in Jeju and 80% of gamblers are Chinese.
Phone calls to Jeju’s Chinese consulate are also surging.
“Many Chinese gamblers were asking for help as their personal safety is under threat because of the gambling debts. That’s what first alerted the Chinese police,” CCTV reports.
South Korea’s tourism authorities released a statement denying that Korean firms have engaged in illegal promotions in China. The sexual services cited by CCTV, according to the Korea Times, were offered by a Chinese agency. And the scandal doesn’t seem to have dampened the hallyu spirit. Xinhua reported this week that as of the end of June, 20.8 square kilometres of Jeju (or 1.12% of the Korean province) is now owned by non-Koreans. More than one in four of the foreign landowners are Chinese. “More than 90% of the Chinese landowners bought land there for the purpose of developing tourist zones or investing in golf courses and resorts,” Xinhua reckoned.
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