Why Do Fans Send Rice to Their K-Pop Idols?

Donated by K-pop fans, rice wreaths are a common way to show support for idols. But not everyone—not even fans themselves—know exactly why.

28 February 2022, 4:51am
VICE K-Pop: Music, fandom, celebrity, and all things K-pop.

This month, VICE is doubling down on all things K-pop and Korean music, featuring articles and videos on music, fandom, and celebrity.

This story is part of But Y Tho, which explores a plethora of funny, strange, and peculiar trends to provide long sought-after answers to questions that have been swimming in all our heads.

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Fan rice, or rice wreaths, are a staple in K-pop fan culture. They often appear outside concert or press conference venues—a stand holding stacks of rice bags, usually in the hundreds of kilos. 

“Usually, we get quite an enthusiastic response for [fan rice] because people all just widely recognize this as a charitable as well as a symbolically prosperous cause,” said an administrator of LISANATIONS, an international fan group for BLACKPINK member Lisa.

These rice bags are meant to be donated to charity organizations in South Korea. For one fan rice campaign in 2019, LISANATIONS aimed to donate 327 kilograms of rice—Lisa’s birthday is March 27.

LISANATIONS frequently uploads posts about the idol to over 300,000 followers on Twitter and another 150,000 on Instagram. But despite its wide reach, the fan group’s administrators are famously shrouded in mystery.

“Back then, [founders of LISANATIONS] didn’t really know what was the purpose behind [fan rice] but it was kind of like a very popular, like, fan culture thing. So they wanted to make that as a goal,” said the administrator, who wishes to remain anonymous to maintain the secrecy of the fanbase. 

But how did rice become the staple in an oddly specific K-pop fan tradition?

The fans that VICE spoke with, who are based in different countries across Asia and have organized rice donation campaigns, were all unaware of how fan rice came to be a thing. For them, fan rice is simply a mainstay of K-pop fan culture that represents support for their favorite idols. 

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“I don’t know how or when it started to be a part of the culture for K-idols,” said Alex Rivera, the administrator of fan clubs Lee Junho PH and 2PM Philippines. “If the idol receives rice wreaths like that, it’s like a status (symbol) that they are popular.”

According to CedarBough Saeji, a Korean studies scholar at Pusan National University, fan rice may have emerged from a perfect storm of bad press, rice politics, and an opportunity to rehabilitate the image of K-pop fans.

“In the early 2000s, K-pop fans started to be really pathologized in the media in Korea,” she told VICE, citing “sasaeng” fans who were seen as problematic and a bad influence on young Koreans. 

The term “sasaeng” refers to intrusive fans who invade celebrities’ private lives through behaviors such as stalking and trespassing, with a misguided belief that their obsessive acts can bring them closer to their idols or earn them recognition. These fans are notoriously prevalent in K-pop fan culture and weigh heavily on idols. The Korea Creative Content Agency, a governmental organization, even offers psychological counseling to K-pop celebrities who are dealing with stress—including the kind caused by overzealous fans.

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All this was bad press for K-pop fans, many of whom pride themselves on being considerate of their idols. But K-pop fans weren’t the only ones getting a bad rap. Around the same time, Saeji noted, media reports were surfacing sporadically of fan gifts—often heartfelt, handmade presents or expensive items—being tossed away near idol dormitories. There are still allegations of this happening in recent years.

“You start to get these stories in the media where somebody finds bags full of these presents thrown away behind the dormitory of some idol group,” said Saeji. “And of course, you know, that hurts the fans so badly.”

According to Saeji, that’s where charity—and rice—comes in.

K-pop celebrities are known for participating in charity projects, including donating to marginalized communities and collaborating with charity organizations. Besides boosting their public image, they’ve also inspired fans to take part in philanthropic work. These days, besides rice, fans also donate things like pet food, charcoal briquettes, and even blood as a show of support for their idols.

Rice wreaths set up in support of K-pop idol Junho. Photo: Courtesy of Lee Junho PH

“So we have these narratives about fans being a social problem and we have these idols getting all of these gifts that they really can’t do anything with,” said Saeji. “Then, the perfect solution is to ask the fans to spend their money, put their money together and do something worthwhile with the money.”

“And then you can put the idol’s name or the group’s name onto that donation… you can make fans look good and you can make the idol look good.”

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Saeji said that it was older and more practical fans who first started organizing rice donation campaigns in their idols’ names, in an attempt to portray K-pop fans as a charitable bunch and a positive force in Korean society.

But among all the items that could have been donated, why rice?

Some fans pointed to the significance of rice in Asian culture, which was one of the things that prompted LISANATIONS to kickstart their fan rice campaigns.

“At least for Asian countries, we all thought that rice just meant prosperity, wealth, good luck,” they said. “So we thought more about that symbolic meaning rather than the charity cause.”

This symbolic meaning is perhaps amplified in South Korea, which has a bittersweet history with the staple food.

“In Korean culture, rice is a lot more meaningful than you might think,” said Saeji, citing the scarcity of rice in long periods of Korean history, which gave rise to a reverence for the crop.

Rice was also traditionally used to differentiate members in Korean familial hierarchies—while older and more respected members were served a whiter and more superior mix of rice, the others ate a lower-quality version mixed with other grains. 

“[Rice is] a sign of a home. It’s a sign of a real meal, that’s why when people ask you, ‘How are you?’ when they run into you, they might ask you, ‘Have you had rice?’” said Saeji. “This shows how essential rice is to Korean thinking.”

“[Rice is] a sign of a home. It’s a sign of a real meal, that’s why when people ask you, ‘How are you?’ when they run into you, they might ask you, ‘Have you had rice?’”

It was against this historical-cultural backdrop that the thorny politics of rice in South Korea came to the fore.

Beginning in the 1990s, as part of its liberalization rules, the World Trade Organization (WTO) started to demand that South Korea open its rice markets to imports from countries such as China and the United States. This was bad news for Korean rice farmers, who had to compete with cheap rice imports entering the market. 

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Throughout the 2000s, there were large-scale, sometimes violent and even fatal protests by rice farmers in South Korea. This also led to an outpouring of support for domestic rice, including from K-pop fans who were looking to participate in charity work.

“So basically, we got fans donating rice from this confluence of politics around the WTO forcing open the rice market and the social issue of fans being redirected to do something good for society,” said Saeji. 

“It’s a wonderful way to support the local Korean farmers, to give something life-giving and central to Korean meals, that has a deeper meaning than just carbohydrates. And you know, also to make the idols look good at the same time.”

“It’s a wonderful way to support the local Korean farmers, to give something life-giving and central to Korean meals, that has a deeper meaning than just carbohydrates.”

It appears that fan rice has waned a little in popularity as COVID-19 hit pause on K-pop concerts and large-scale events. But this doesn’t mean fans are overlooking charity work. As the Korean wave sweeps more fans around the world, fan rice—which is centered around Korean charities—is taking a backseat to more large-scale international charity campaigns.

Across the world, fans are also opting to support initiatives in their local communities. In the wake of Typhoon Rai last year, Filipino BTS fans collectively raised close to 200,000 Philippine pesos ($3,900) for relief efforts. 

“I think now, because K-pop has become a much more popular phenomenon and genre, there’s a lot more people in the fan community. So that’s why the projects that support everything else become more large-scale, not just centralized in Korea,” said the LISANATIONS administrator.

But this doesn’t mean that rice wreaths will be disappearing from the K-pop scene anytime soon.

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With strict rules established by entertainment agencies surrounding fan gifts, rice wreaths remain one of the few ways that fans are allowed to show official support for their idols. And before pooling money together for a fan rice campaign, fan clubs usually have to first gain approval from idols’ management companies for the donation. 

Rivera, the 2PM Philippines fan club administrator, said that since they can no longer send personal and handmade presents to the K-pop group, their only viable options for organized fan support are limited to authorized items such as rice wreaths, specified food, and coffee trucks.

Rice wreath for Junho from the K-pop band 2PM. Photo: Courtesy of Lee Junho PH

“Since the rice wreaths are… the most affordable ones, we usually go and choose that option,” he said. “But if we have some budget, we definitely would like to go and choose the food support since the food gets eaten directly by our idol.”

K-pop fans are known for their wallet-heavy commitment to their idols, as they routinely battle scalpers for limited edition photocards, shell out on expensive merch, and even fly thousands of miles in a pandemic to catch a concert. But fan rice and other charity campaigns paint a picture of K-pop being a force for good, despite its consumerist-driven side.

“Once you become part of the [fan] community, then you find out that it’s really amazing that these fans are willing to put in some of their own money to contribute to a more meaningful cause,” said the LISANATIONS admin. “Because, quite ironically, K-pop is a very capitalistic, consumerism thing. So I think that fans trying their best to give back in some way is meaningful.”

“Quite ironically, K-pop is a very capitalistic, consumerism thing. So I think that fans trying their best to give back in some way is meaningful.”

“It’s a bonus if Lisa gets to know that we’re doing these things in her name,” they added.

“Besides supporting her as an idol and as a star, we also want to do good in her name because, you know, she inspires us.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

Music, Food, South Korea, VICE K-Pop , fandom, butytho

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