Special Issue: Unreal
Hi there. Welcome to Active Faults.
Unfinished content incoming.
This, is a photocard (also known as poca, based on the Korean pronunciation).
Nothing special, right? And now please pause for a moment to guess the price of it. Don’t cheat by scrolling down.
The answer: around 2 million South Korean won ($1,500~).
For a palm-sized 4x6 inches print of a selfie. Just let that sink in for a while.
And this is not even the most expensive yet. A photocard of BTS’s Jungkook once sold for $3,213 after 120 bids. To put this into perspective, K-Pop fans have allegedly sold photocards to buy iPhones.
Normally packaged with albums as merch or given to fans as gifts, these pieces of paper have become collectables with their own black market. It stimulates album sales because the placement of photocards can be randomized and the collection process becomes a lucky draw. The trading value fluctuates depending on the popularity of the selfie within the fandom, quantitative rarity (if it’s exclusive to certain members or at certain events, for example), “vintages” (how long it’s been around) and the condition it’s in.
Just like the stock market, changing tides of the “political climate” is reflected in the prices, where a celebrity’s photocard can rapidly depreciate if they had a “house-falling” moment. As people un-fan and abandon ship (in every sense of the word), they scramble to resell the photocards of said celebrity at lower-than-average prices in disgust and/or outrage. Some fans would sweep in and bottom fish, bulk-buying these cards for resale at a later date, once the house-falling storm has passed.
In fact, the photocard market has snowballed to such absurd proportions that it becomes the main act. Besides the standard albums officially released by a K-Pop group, there are bafflingly numerous unofficial versions of albums contrived by Chinese K-Pop fans to collect photocards. They are collectively known as “拆卡专”, literally translated to “opened-PC” albums, which are albums minus the CDs. The full album set will be manually opened prior to shipping to be stripped bare, disposing everything else other than the randomized merch items.
拆卡专 was spurred into being by high demands for photocards and collectors not wanting the actual, bulky album itself. You can also customise 拆卡专 to only get the photocards of a member of your choice. This kind of purchase is known as “不运回”, “no-shipping-back”, meaning that the discs won’t be shipped back to China. The cost of 拆卡专, because it weighs less, is cheaper than the full set and very popular amongst photocard collectors.
Some articles on photocards and its consequences such as wastage, if you’re interested:
Many fans rightly argued back that the problem lies with the industry who’s baiting this kind of purchase
小卡江湖：明星人气晴雨表，粉圈新货币 (This WeChat Public Account, 娱理, is a subsidiary of Sina Entertainment that posts in-depth commentaraies on Chinese fandom. Worth a read.)
The term only evolved to cover all kinds of misconduct committed by a celebrity later on. At first, house-falling used to be exclusively reserved for the idol context and is still used most frequently by idol fans. One’s house falls when the idol, god forbid, is bold enough to date.
Previous issues explained that all idols are financially dependent on their fans to different extents, and the primary identity fans take up nowadays is the consumer. The idol-fan relationship is therefore contractual and semi-exclusive. Idols cannot publicly date as they have committed to servicing the fans with what they paid to see, which is a sexually attractive and emotionally available object to appreciate. A medium through which desire can be expressed. A vessel for love to which ownership can be implicitly claimed.
Fans with different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds can react to house-falling differently. Recently, footage of a man who resembles the K-Pop idol Taehyun (from the boy group TXT) dancing in a nightclub started to circulate, and the lookalike was seen to have his arms around one of the multiple girls near him. Non-Asian fans largely condemned the stalker fan who filmed the footage and their violation of Taehyun’s privacy, while engaging in friendly banter like “But the music is so bad, let me recommend him some clubs” and “props for going out there getting b*tches”.
Asian fans had more mixed reactions and a handful were very critical. Some Chinese fans did not have qualms with his clubbing and having fun, but were angered by the acts of intimacy with other girls. They worried about the prospects of the group after such a “publicity crisis”, possibly losing traction career-wise and driving away potential fans. Some questioned his loyalty to his work and henceforth his “devotion” to the fans, treating it as a betrayal of the fan-idol bond. They are different to “foreign chicks” (洋妞, a slightly dismissive term) and more conservative, intolerant of such “loose” behaviours. Foreign chicks are able to put up with this because they haven’t spent enough money on the idol, not as much as they did with China-Inputs or buying photocards from 拆卡专 (probably untrue).
Of course, these views from both sides are not representative of the whole spectrum of possible responses to a house-falling. For most Chinese idol fans, consumption entitles them to want to influence the idol, even and perhaps especially when it comes to maintaining emotional exclusivity, at least on the surface anyway.
On Drinking Talkshows, Unfilteredness and Intimacy
K-Pop is in its drinking talkshow era.
Just naming a few examples: Lee Youngji’s “Although There is Nothing Much Prepared” that trends on YouTube every season. BTS member SUGA’s SUCHWITA, where each episode has at least 1~2M views. Super Junior Member Kyu Hyun’s “Look, My Shoulder’s Dislocated”, a casual spin-off from the renowned reality series “New Journey to the West” attracting, again, millions of views.
These shows share the following traits: a well-known, entertaining host. Guest list consisting young idols. Loose structure and sometimes even deliberately rudimentary, minimal setup. No fuss, no scripts, sometimes no makeup or professional lighting/camera work. Food, alcohol and conversations, lots and lots of it.
Fans everywhere are loving these shows because, I think, it unveils a human side to the idols that is more raw, heartfelt, unfiltered and therefore hilarious. TXT’s Soobin, the face of the photocard example above, said that he completely lowered his guard down on the show, dropping the degree of caution he normally retains when he’s on camera. Their (feigned?) authenticity is alluring - it’s drawing fans towards their off-camera, private selves, honing in on that fan-idol bond.
Relatedly, Weverse launched a new subscription service allowing fans to have 1-on-1 conversations with the artist. Companies are openly monetising fans’ desire to inch infinitely closer to their idol with these content and services.
On Army Diaries
Pun is intended here.
I found a genuinely mind-blowing Twitter account the other day that, after scouring the the official website of the Korean army, posts food tray pictures of what the BTS member J-Hope would be eating that day as he completes his mandatory military service. Fans gather in the quotes of the bilingual tweets to sample today’s menu in the army, express how much they miss their idol, and send their greetings. This kind of virtual tethering of fans and idols through media contents is fascinating.
Another tweet I saw was in regards to BTS member Jungkook’s 1 billion won donation to a children’s hospital in Seoul, almost matching the government budget allotted to the facility in the previous year but was cut this year. Previously done anonymously, Jungkook’s unusual decision to put his name to this donation specifically is interpreted by fans as a statement to stimulate protest against government cuts and attract the public’s attention.
All of the observations I’ve dumped here so far have one common denominator at heart. They are all haunted by probably the most relentless ghost that fandom can never get rid of, the one I let hovering over all of my issues.
In a way, the fandom question is an existential question.
What’s real and what’s not?
Who am I fanning? Are they real? Will I ever see the real them?
Everything I do, I do it to get to the truth - collecting photocards and feeling the weight of them in my hands. Not wanting someone else to see a realer version of them than me. Wanting them to make drunk, unfiltered confessions. Being aware of their presences, grounding the ideas of them down through food trays, associating them with aspects of the everyday life.
Because if they’re real, then maybe, just maybe, I am real too.