Edmonton's K-pop fans find community and connection through music

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Small fold-out plastic tables – each dotted with piles of CDs, custom-made posters, cups and keychains – are tucked into the corner of a popular Edmonton Korean restaurant in the Oliver neighbourhood.

Staring up from the covers of magazines and photo cards on those tables are the faces of the most popular stars of the Korean popular music scene, or K-pop for short.

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The event is a K-pop pop-up, a temporary one-stop shop for all things connected to Korean popular music.

And for those 75 or so people mingling around chatting in late November last year about the likes of groups like Super Junior, Exo or Wonder Girls, community and connection is everything.

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That’s because for many east and Southeast Asians in Edmonton, K-pop has become the closest thing to Asian representation. 

“It hits very close to home for a lot of us … someone that looks like me or you know, has the same features,” said Catherine Sampaga, a Filipino-Canadian and leader of dance group Apricity that primarily performs K-pop dances. 

The beginnings of a movement

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Alexandra San Diego, a K-pop super fan, or stan, since 2006, runs Edmonton’s only K-pop community Instagram account Yegkpop. She is also the driving force behind events like the pop-up at the Hanjan restuarant in Oliver last year. 

For San Diego, the attraction of K-pop is simple: it’s fun, colourful and entertaining. 

“Of course, everyone involved is very talented and attractive, but I think what causes people to stay is really finding that community online and eventually offline as well,” she said.

“I think it’s a sense of belonging. Yeah, that really gets you locked in there.”

The community of a few hundred people turned to K-pop either because many saw representation they had not seen elsewhere or because the thrill of being part of a niche faction excited them. 

And they all found each other in Edmonton either trying to find items and collectibles that at first were not sold in any stores, or through dance groups dedicated exclusively to K-pop.

K-pop first became more widely known in North America because of Korean singer Psy’s smash hit Gangnam Style in 2012. 

And while that song opened the window to K-pop for many, it wasn’t until the likes of bands like BTS and BlackPink became more mainstream internationally that the scene really exploded.

Edmonton's K-pop fans find community and connection through music
© Amy Harris/Invision/The Associated Press Blackpink perform at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Friday, April 12, 2019.

Exploring connections with culture

For a majority of those involved in the Edmonton K-pop scene, including Caitlyn Gan, the music offers a much sought after connection to culture. 

Gan, a Malaysian-Chinese student at the University of Alberta, began listening to K-pop three years ago after her sister showed her music video for the band Exo.

It was around the time Gan was connecting with her Asian roots. K-pop offered her that opportunity. 

“I just wanted to get a little bit more in touch with my culture,” she said.

For Sampaga, who has been a fan of K-pop since 2015, the interest in the genre was its difference from the mainstream.

“I don’t think anyone really knew what K-pop was. It was like something different. It was our niche,” she said.

One of the most cherished possessions most K-pop fans have are photo cards. 

A single photo card featuring the musician or group comes with each CD purchase. Fans then buy, sell and trade those cards, like Pokemon cards, to try and collect a complete set. The price of the cards can go from $10 to a couple of thousand dollars depending on the musician. 

It’s one of the things that has brought people together in Edmonton, the quest for these collectible items. A lot of Edmonton K-pop fans – including San Diego and Sampaga – found each other trying to buy, sell or trade merchandise. 

Another way many Edmontonians have incorporated K-pop as a lifestyle is through dance. Besides the music, K-pop is known for its high-production music videos that feature fluid, mechanically-perfect choreography.

A number of dance groups in Edmonton like Convergence, Daebak, Mimyu, Encöre Dance Crew and Apricity perform K-pop choreography.

For Sergio Gomez, it was after performing a K-pop song for his high school’s cultural day that solidified his love for the genre.

“I listen to it every day, I have for the past, like almost 10 years now. But I remember that first performance was a great time and I remember being so, so happy,” recalls Gomez who is also a member of Apricity.

Over the past few years, the K-pop community has come together for concerts, dance and singing events. The biggest K-pop event in Edmonton saw 700 people come together at the University of Alberta in 2019 for a K-pop contest.

And now San Diego is working on creating a space exclusively for the K-pop community to come together, buy merchandise and even host events.

“I really want to create a curated experience where you can get rare merchandise,” she said.  

With her business partner she is currently approaching investors and hopes to have a store open in the next two years. 

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