2020 CAPSTONE PAPER
This study encompasses the analysis of cultural diffusion of South Korean beauty to Singapore as influenced by the forces of globalisation, focusing on cultural adoption and adaptation by Singapore’s youth. However, diffusion does not necessitate homogeneity and commodification, and may instead result in heterogeneity and cultural hybridity. Hence, this research expounds on how and to what extent Korean narratives of beauty have diffused into Singapore.
Literature Review & Conceptual Framework
Beauty is a broad notion with differing interpretations, but there are three key distinctions in definitions presented within academia.
Firstly, some scholars posit that beauty is an individual, intrinsic judgement (Santayana, 1995), while others argue for the collective: Yan and Bissell (2014) suggest beauty is ‘more a result of editorial rooms’, indicating that it is a dynamic social construct influenced by agents of culture including the media. This is corroborated by Carlock and Russell’s postulation (2015) that beauty notions ‘evolve as trends valued by society’s elite change’. However, individual and collective perceptions should not be seen as mutually exclusive and examining this interplay would be valuable.
Secondly, certain scholars limit their definition of beauty to visual, physical bodily attractiveness (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (English-Chinese), 2000), which presents too narrow an interpretation. Others include both outer and inner beauty involving the senses, intellect and moral faculty (Corbett, 2008). Regarding the distinction between outer and inner beauty, philosophers such as Plotinus have questioned whether they share a common ‘antecedental ground’, or if ‘embodied’ beauty and ‘bodiless’ beauty are independent (Anton, 1964). In the South Korean context, Gelézeau (2015) affirms the former interpretation, presenting physical appearance as a manifestation of moral transformation, intertwining outer and inner beauty.
Thirdly, scholars such as Anton (2015) distinguish aesthetic beauty from moral values as perceptions of beauty are ‘ultimately irrational’ while moral judgements are based on utility. Conversely, others assert that beauty is correlated with moral duty and a ‘manifestation of the good’ (Santayana, 2015). In South Korea’s context, Gelézeau (2015) introduces a paradox between Confucian philosophy sinche palbu (the absolute integrity of the whole body) and the emergence of an infatuation with aesthetics, positing that physical appearance reflects social etiquette, due to the belief in harmony of body, heart and spirit.
One consensus is that beauty has a significant influence on one’s social standing (Santayana, 1955). Gelézeau (2015) affirms this in South Korea’s context, where belonging to a ‘miyŏng hawui kyegŭp (“cosmetic underclass”) risks one’s social wellbeing.
Culture and Globalisation
Culture is another widely contested concept with varying interpretations across space and time. Even so, one major interpretation in academia is that cultures are dynamic rather than static, as ‘systems of shared meanings often based around ideas about ‘place’ (such as religion, language and ethnicity) that can exist on a number of differential spatial scales’ (Daniels, 2008).
Several debates in academia have centred around the process of globalisation and its influence on cultural diffusion (Appadurai, 1990; Daniels, 2008). Some scholars propose that there seems to be cultural homogenisation driven mostly by transculturation, leading to profoundly asymmetric power relations and the commodification of culture as products for consumption in the global market, resulting in a dilution of local culture (Daniels, 2008). However, other scholars have argued that homogenisation oversimplifies the new global cultural economy (Appadurai, 1990), instead positing that there has been cultural heterogenisation by placing emphasis on how agents of cultural diffusion, such as transnational corporations (TNCs) and global brands, reinterpret culture locally and contribute to glocalisation (Daniels, 2008; Appadurai, 1990). Nevertheless, heterogenisation may fail to account for the realities of former colonies with deeply entrenched Eurocentric influences, causing a form of cultural mixing that more closely resembles that of homogenisation (Daniels, 2008).
Appadurai (1990) reiterates this tension between these contesting theories, but also challenges the assumption that cultural homogenisation is only driven by Americanisation, and provides a multi-dimensional framework to understand the new global cultural economy that is complex and overlapping, and has disjunctures. He establishes five dimensions key to this understanding of global cultural flow: firstly, the ethnoscape encompasses social groups who alter culture for their own means due to their varying socio-identities, contradicting the cultural homogenisation-heterogenisation binary; secondly, the mediascape; thirdly, the technoscape is concerned with variations in the level of, and nature of technology that enables or impedes cultural diffusion; fourthly, the ideoscape including the fetishisation of beauty explained by the Marxist argument of commodification; fifthly, the finanscape.
Much research surrounding the cultural diffusion of beauty narratives has focused on Americanisation, with few or no studies exploring the cultural diffusion of Korean beauty narratives in the South East Asian context, especially to Singapore. Such inquiry might be valuable, not only due to the popularity of Korean beauty in retail stores and in cyberspace, but also due to Singapore’s historical and present diasporic and diverse society that is arguably more heterogeneous than South Korea.
This project employs both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods to investigate the notions of Korean beauty and its diffusion, regarding consumption patterns and adaptation of products in Singapore.
Fieldwork was conducted in Korea, utilising quantitative street surveys (Annexes A and B). Transects along Korea’s main shopping streets of Myeongdong, Ewha University Shopping Street and Dongdaemun were selected where we surveyed 10 female respondents. This allowed us to identify a widely-subscribed-to set of Korean beauty ideals. Due to time constraints, our sample size was limited both in scale and in gender representation.
Next, fieldwork was conducted in Singapore, consisting of qualitative personal interviews (7 interviewees) and qualitative online surveys (90 respondents), drawing from respondents aged between 15-24, over two weeks (Annexes C and D). This data provides insights into how locals perceive and respond to Korean beauty. However, to limit risks of community transmission of Covid-19, we had to rely on respondents from our own contacts, lowering our data’s gender and racial representativeness.
1. Cultural Diffusion of Korean Beauty
Forces of globalisation drive the large scale of cultural diffusion of Korean beauty into Singapore. This is supported by Appadurai’s concept of the technoscape, where cultural diffusion is facilitated by technological advancements in communications (Appadurai, 1990). Media, as part of the technoscape that transcends spatial boundaries, is a significant channel for transnational flow, directly engaging with youths in particular, subconsciously shaping their impressionable notions of beauty via pervasive exposure to the Internet. Consumers’ perceptions of beauty are thus shaped by firms’ advertisements and product offerings in cyberspace. The prominence of Korea’s cultural diffusion through the media was cited to be ‘influential in shaping youth culture in Singapore’ (Fig. 1). This sentiment is further echoed amongst youths we interviewed, stating that ‘subliminal messages in the media [influences] the adoption of Korean beauty standards’ (Fig. 1).
|‘On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the least and 5 being the most, I would say Korean beauty is maybe a 3 or 4 in terms of its influence in Singapore … it’s all these subliminal messages in the media that influence the adoption of Korean beauty standards in a very subtle way … it could have a really great impact in the future too, since Korean culture is so influential in terms of shaping youth culture in Singapore. I think one reason why it’s been so deeply entrenched is because it’s a very unassuming part of culture so people don’t really think about the implications of Korean beauty on the way they perceive the world. By consuming Korean culture, you’re also kind of buying into this lifestyle or worldview that they’re trying to sell …’ (Interview with Singaporean Students on Exchange , November 2019 ).|
Additionally, Singapore’s geographical proximity to South Korea is a driving force. According to Appadurais’s theory of the technoscape, globalisation eases transport and communication processes through aiding time-space compression, facilitating the operational expansion of Korean TNCs to Singapore (Appadurai, 1990). This is further reinforced by Singapore’s close economic cooperation with South Korea, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus welcoming Korean TNCs. Through the consumption of Korean cultural products, Singaporean youths also ‘[buy] into the lifestyle [and] worldview’ of Korean beauty culture, promoting its diffusion.
2. Transculturation: Similarities Between Singapore and South Korea’s Ethnoscapes and Ideoscapes
Besides considering spatial factors, similar temporal-historical contexts also expedite the diffusion of South Korean beauty standards to Singapore. Both nations converge as they are former colonies. According to our interview respondents, the influence of colonial legacies have led to the emergence of similarities in pre-existing Sino-centric and Euro-centric beauty elements, thus fostering a sense of familiarity amongst Singaporeans towards these cultural beauty standards (Fig. 2).
|‘Some of it has to do with the Korean wave and the commodification of Korean media or the proliferation of Korean beauty. But I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of the Korean wave. Singapore already has very similar Panasian, Eurocentric beauty standards like fair skin so I suppose the Korean wave merely intensified or reinforced elements of beauty that were already present in Singapore …’ (Respondent F, Interview with Singapore Students, January 2020)|
This phenomenon is termed a ‘postcolonial hangover’ and illustrates the residual impacts of Western colonialism in contemporary times—a plausible factor that allows for Korean beauty products and practices to suitably cater to audiences in both countries. Typical Western notions of beauty—pale skin, big eyes with double eyelids, a high nose bridge—manifest in what is deemed ‘local’ Singaporean culture as a result of post-colonial hangover (Tan, 2020). Hence, the present pursuit of such standards in both Singapore and Korea signifies that transculturation has occurred.
Intensified Sino-centric beauty standards in Singapore can be due to the Chinese demographic majority, which possesses genetic similarity with Koreans, allowing Korean beauty products to be highly suitable for and catered towards East Asian features. The geographical proximity of China and South Korea may also have led to Sinocentric and Korean beauty ideals being similar.
In addition, Confucianism is the ideological foundation of both Singapore and South Korea. According to Appadurai’s ideoscape, both societies adopt collectivist ideologies, which encourages the desire to blend in and conform, unlike in Western nations where individualism is championed (Tan, 2013; Kim, 2003). Moreover, referencing the Confucian philosophy of sinche palbu, there exists a preference for natural enhancement, such that beauty is not for one’s individual expression in the construction of personal identities, but as a form of respect for society, as it is a channel through which visual presentability is reached (Gelézeau, 2015). Physical appearance then becomes a question of social etiquette, even of moral duty (Gelézeau, 2015).
Therefore, the transnational flow of Korean beauty does not radically change existing standards in Singapore, but reinforces and intensifies pre-existing ones instead.
3. Cultural Heterogenisation and Glocalisation of Korean Beauty
Our findings align closely with Daniels’s argument (2008) for cultural heterogenisation, rather than complete homogenisation. However, they show that the alteration of Korean beauty in Singapore results from an interplay of individual, state and TNC actions, instead of individuals alone.
Glocalisation occurs when TNCs adjust products distributed globally, to accommodate local and regional specifications (Grigorescu & Zaif, 2017). Korean TNCs in the beauty industry have conducted market analysis to define their consumer base and modified cosmetics to increase appeal in different locales. This is supported by interviewees who have mentioned cosmetic products that cater to darker skin tones in Singapore’s multiracial context, which are less commonly found in Korea due to differences in the countries’ ethnic demographic (Fig. 3 and 4).
Fig 3: Etude House’s Darker Foundation Shades for Malaysia and Singapore (r/Asian Beauty, n.d)
|‘I think some brands try to cater to darker skin people in Singapore by making darker foundation shades such as Etude House, but they do not provide super diverse ranges and not all their products can be used by Malays and Indians …’(Respondent C, Interviews with Singapore Students, January 2020).|
The process of glocalisation thus contests Daniels’ argument that cultural alteration results solely from individuals, as TNCs shape cultural diffusion and adoption (Daniels, 2008).
While glocalisation partially catalyses cultural diffusion of Korean beauty to Singapore, individuals ultimately play an active role in choosing to accept or resist attempts by TNCs. Korean beauty is unable to diffuse without cultural alteration due to unique traits of the locale, thus undergoing cultural adaptation (Daniels, 2008). Correspondingly, empirical data shows that Singapore’s ethnic demographic is an impediment against full, direct diffusion. Interviewees cite Korean cosmetic products that cater almost exclusively to fairer complexions, rendering Singaporeans with darker skin tones unable to adopt Korean beauty as it is incompatible with traits of the locale (Fig. 5).
|‘In the first place, my skin colour and ethnic background fundamentally means that I can’t use Korean beauty products. It’s just simply unattainable …’ (Respondent F, Interviews with Singapore Students, January 2020, my emphasis).|
In response, individuals actively adapt and selectively customise elements of Korean beauty, such as skincare regimens and lip products, to cater to their needs and features such as skincare regimens and lip products. They do so by mixing Korean cosmetics with those of other cultures, such as America (Fig. 6).
|‘Like for my foundations, I tend to use American Brand’s as they have more range regarding my darker skin tone. For Asian makeup I tend to use lip and other products as they are more subtle and contribute to my everyday look … in terms of foundation and concealers, Korean products don’t completely match. That’s why I tend to mix Korean makeup with American makeup to fit my face in order to form my own style …’ (Respondent G, Interviews with Singapore Students, January 2020, my emphasis).|
This occurs as individuals attempt to contest for power and resist homogenisation attempts by TNCs that drive globalisation and cultural diffusion. This is corroborated by Appadurai’s conception of ethnoscapes, where individuals adapt culture for their own means due to their social identities, disproving the notion of homogenisation (Appadurai, 1990). Cultural adaptation is therefore a means for Singaporeans to assert their varying social identities, giving rise to cultural heterogenisation.
Furthermore, individuals are conditioned by specially local social norms, which predispose them to reluctance towards adopting certain Korean beauty practices. Our interviewees have stated that expressions of beauty typically considered gender-subversive or avant-garde are regulated in conservative Singapore, especially in institutionalised spaces of schools and workplaces, owing to dominant societal beliefs of pragmatism. Conversely, Korean society seems more accepting of different beauty expressions, such as effeminate Korean males, due to the influence of the media which presents the feminisation of beauty in its popular culture far more than in Singapore (Fig. 7).
|‘Social norms in Korea are also different where especially for girls, looks are of a higher priority where it gives them a higher chance of standing out. Due to the growing Kpop industry, many people dream to be idols and looks are something that is heavily emphasised in that industry. Thus, many people mimic idols’ beauty standards. In Singapore it’s kind of different, because beauty is not seen as practical and thus not really valued by society. Singaporeans are also more academically inclined where beauty standards are not as emphasised in schools …’ (Respondent C, Interviews with Singapore Students, January 2020, our emphasis).|
Furthermore, in Korea, beauty is a tool to elevate socio-economic standing, stemming from the belief that physical appearance reflects moral worth and respect in the public sphere (Gelézeau, 2015). Conversely, Singapore’s meritocratic system emphasises academic qualification instead. Differing social norms, further reinforced by state regulation, thus dampen the adoption of Korean beauty by Singaporean youths with reservations about adapting Korean culture to suit localised conditions. However, there are little to no concerted efforts to resist cultural diffusion, deviating from the adaptation-resistance binary introduced by Daniels (2008). This receptiveness or neutrality towards the diffusion of Korean beauty allows for cultural hybridity as opposed to a ‘melting pot’ or ‘mosaic’ beauty culture in Singapore.
As a dynamic and contested concept, Korean beauty is a confluence of individual and collective judgement, with firms and consumers continuously influencing each other’s perceptions. Korean beauty in Singapore also encompasses outer and inner beauty, with physical appearance being a form of social etiquette, although to a lesser extent than South Korea.
Overall, in Singapore, cultural homogenisation and cultural heterogenisation should not be seen as dichotomous, but rather simultaneous processes which continuously shape and reshape the notions of Korean beauty.
We would like to express our utmost gratitude towards Ms Clara Ang for having patiently guided us through every step of the research process.
Ho Yu Hao (19-O1)
Kelly Hooy Chui Ting (19-O1)
Marie Leo Kai Xin (19-O1)
Rachel Eng Li Wen (19-O1)
Desiree Chia Shi Min (19-U1)