A BEAUTIFUL face catches your eyes from the side of the street. There in front of a café, people are taking photos of a blown-up poster of a K-pop idol with “Happy Birthday” written across it. Whose birthday is it, you wonder. And why weren’t you invited?
Well, it turns out everybody is invited. These celebrations, known as café events, are organized by various dedicated K-pop fans to celebrate important milestones in their favorite idols’ lives, from birthdays to debut anniversaries.
Commemorating important milestones and anniversaries
The most common occasion for a K-pop café event is an idol’s birthday. These events usually last several days, starting from a few days before the actual date of the birthday to a few days after. Cafés are often decked out with photos of the idol, pyramids of cupholders, and balloons, with the idol’s solo or group songs playing in the background. Some cafés will even project videos of the idol performing on the wall for fans to stay and watch. Fans generally attend several of these kinds of events to collect cupholders printed with the idol’s face as well as photocards and stickers that come with the purchase of a drink or sometimes a baked good. Many events also have special presents like acrylic keyrings, pin buttons, and hand mirrors that are only available to the first 5, 10, or 20 people. Fans often arrive several hours early for a chance to get these goods. At a birthday event for Red Velvet member Irene that was giving out posters to the first five people, fans were there two hours before the café opened. You can even order off special menus at these events and indulge in a cute “Xiu Latte” (named after EXO member Xiumin) or a “Bae-bae Berry Ade” (named after Bae Joo-hyun, Red Velvet member Irene’s real name). Cafés often have special cookies and macarons with the idol’s face printed on them, if you’re okay with biting into your beloved idol’s face.
Other celebrated occasions are comebacks, debut anniversaries, solo song releases, and discharge from military service. For the two-year anniversary of “Euphoria,” BTS member Jung-kook’s first solo song, more than 90 fans lined up outside the café before the event even started. Many sported BTS tote bags and little BT21 figurines from BTS’s collaboration with Line Friends. In an interview with *The Yonsei Annals*, Lee Yeon-su, a 14-year-old who was waiting outside a K-pop café event with her friend said that she attends café events quite often, especially BTS related events. This event was important to her in particular because Jung-kook is her favorite member and “we [fans] want to celebrate together.”
Some other events held in the month of April included BTOB member Eun-kwang’s return from the military and IZ*ONE’s 1st debut anniversary. Fans even held events for K-pop idols who have passed away, such as birthday events for SHINee member Jong-hyun, who died in December, 2017.
The people behind it all
Most events are hosted by fan sites, which are websites that are run by fans who dedicate large amounts of time to taking photos of idols and are generally well-known within fandoms. However, it is just as possible for any regular fan to hold these kinds of events. Erin, an exchange student at Korea University who wished to be addressed by her first name, held a birthday café celebration for Red Velvet member Yeri in March—one that Yeri herself attended.
“It was sort of like different, you know, it wasn’t like I was paying money to see [Yeri]. This was her showing up at an event that I had prepared for her birthday; she was in no way obligated to show up. I wasn’t expecting her to show up for reals, so it was a very different feeling.” Erin said she knew there was a possibility that Yeri would come to her event after Yeri mentioned in an Instagram live that she wanted to go to one. Since Erin’s event was the only one still happening several days after Yeri’s actual birthday, scores of fans flocked to it waiting for Yeri to appear. “I had a really enjoyable time preparing for the event and sharing the same space with other people who wanted to celebrate her birthday,” Erin said. “I really like creating that space for other fans.”
Some cafés are especially popular for holding events, such as the Jiyugaoka location in Apgujeong Rodeo and Jazoo, a café in Hongdae. Jiyugaoka, where Erin’s event for Yeri was held, is almost always booked for idol cafés, evidenced by its full calendar of events posted each month. Jazoo has a large gallery space that is sometimes used for exhibitions, where fan sites can display photos they have taken and sell merchandise in addition to the goods they are giving away for free. Some cafes, such as Minos Coffee on Garosu-gil, do not allow decorations but are still popular for events because idols have been spotted there, according to Erin.
Christine Park, 30, opened her café Falling Dessert only half a year ago, one that has already hosted many K-pop café events such as the one for EXO Xiumin’s birthday in March. Though she does not follow any particular group, she said, “I do like hearing people have fun at my café, and it is fun to watch a lot of people get together and be like, ‘Oh my god, this is so cute’ or ‘Oh my god, that is so funny, you know?’” Fans can rent her café for free with just a deposit to ensure that they don’t back out at the last second. Park said that fans have started meeting up at her café even when there is not an event going on because it is a location that people know about through past events.
A diverse range of attendees
These café events draw in people of all nationalities and ages. For foreigners, going to k-pop café events can be a way to explore different neighborhoods in the city and make new friends. Sophie Barterian, who is on a one-year fellowship in South Korea with the Luce Foundation, was introduced to them by a friend and later started attending them by herself as a way to walk around with a purpose and “have a mission.” One particular event she participated in had an activity where one can receive a special poster if one collected all twelve photocards in a set. Fans were going around trading cards with each other to try to get a complete set.
“My Korean was not really good at the time, but I knew enough to say ‘I have this number, do you have this number,’” she said. When Barterian helped another fan find the final two cards for a complete set, the fan helped Barterian finish her own set by talking to other fans in Korean. The two attended more BTS cafés that day, “and now we are friends,” Barterian said.
For some fans, these events are simply a way to celebrate something they love with other fans. Park Se-won, 47, has been a BTS fan since 2016 and said she attended the “Euphoria” 2nd anniversary event in Hapjeong because “as an Army*, I’m happy to participate in an event for BTS.” This sentiment was echoed by Jeong Seo-young, 23, who attends Victon idol group birthday events. Jeong explained, “To let idols know our love for them, fans celebrate the idol’s birthday with joy.” Erin believes another reason these events are so popular in K-pop fandoms is that milestones are especially important in Korean culture, and it is an excuse for fans to get together without the idol necessarily being there. “This idol is equally important to all of us and has a place in all of our lives,” Erin said.
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In the end, perhaps café events are simply about celebrating something you enjoy with other people. Park from Falling Dessert wants to hold more events in the future for movies and books as well and hopes that people don’t automatically assume café events are k-pop related because they are in Korea. “I hope that they see it as in just people getting together for something that they love.”
If you’re a K-pop fan in South Korea though, attending café events is definitely a unique experience. The next time you need an excuse to treat yourself, you can celebrate a special occasion for your favorite idol with a café drink and some free goodies created by fans for fellow fans.
*Army: the official name of BTS’s fandom