At a performance at KCON earlier this month, Tiffany Hwang, one of nine members of the popular K-pop band Girls’ Generation, recognized a fan in the audience. It was Oanh “Soy” Nguyen — who was particularly noticeable because she'd recently dyed her hair Sailor Chibi Moon pink.
Hwang happened to know that Nguyen's favorite Girls’ Generation member is her bandmate Yuri, so she brought over Yuri, who waved, flashed Nguyen a heart hand sign and blew her a kiss. The moment lasted less than 30 seconds, but for a die-hard fan it was a dream. And because Nguyen is the founder of Girls’ Generation’s international fan site, Soshified, it was a moment she was quickly able to share with her 176 staff volunteers, 300,000 fan club members and 280,000 Twitter followers, who appeared to be just as excited about it as she was.
Nguyen, 24, works in Burbank as a community manager and strategist at Frederator Networks Inc., which is Hollywood producer Fred Seibert’s animation studio. The majority of her free time outside work is devoted to running Soshified, an international fan community she started in February 2008, when she was 16. The name Soshified is a nod to Girls’ Generations’ nicknames SoShi and SNSD.
Growing up in Florida, where there wasn’t a large Asian-American community, Nguyen watched marathons of Vietnamese-dubbed Asian TV shows to find stories she could relate to. Her love for Korean dramas led her to K-pop, and she was soon captivated by Girls’ Generation, which came up in an industry dominated by boy bands like Super Junior, TVXQ and VIXX.
Nguyen remembers finding a TV series called Girls’ Generation Goes to School online, but she could only track down English subtitles for one episode. She tried joining the Girls’ Generation fan site that had translated the show, but membership was restrictive. So she decided to subtitle it herself. She asked a Korean-American classmate to stay after school with her to translate as she timed and edited new English subtitles into the videos.
“I wasn’t trying to start my own site,” she says. “They just weren’t subbing the videos fast enough, and I figured if I wanted to understand the show, other people probably wanted to understand it as well.”
These days, fan-subbing is commonplace — popular Asian drama sites like Viki and Dramafever rely on the work of passionate fans for subtitling — but back then, Nguyen and her team were making it up as they went along. As their community grew, they pursued bigger projects such as crowd-funding gifts for the band members' birthdays or anniversaries.
In 2010, when Girls’ Generation was one of many acts to perform at a Hollywood Bowl concert hosted by their record label, SM Entertainment, Nguyen not only helped get 300 Soshified members seats together but also matching glow-in-the-dark T-shirts they all wore as a sign of solidarity. It caught the attention of SM Entertainment, which later contacted Nguyen to help organize Girls’ Generation’s official U.S. fan meet-up, which attracted more than 2,000 people.
“I was very passionate, I had a lot of free time, and I wanted everyone to know about Girls’ Generation,” she says. “I started posting daily about them. I’d email K-pop sites like Soompi and Asianfanatics to tell them to check out the group, and I think Soshified did a lot for Girls’ Generation internationally.”
In 2013, Soshified led a voting campaign that successfully won Girls’ Generation a YouTube Music Award, beating out more well-known acts like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Psy.
“People like to complain that K-pop groups always dominate these online vote-based awards,” says Reera Yoo, a writer who has contributed to KoreAm Journal and Hallyu Magazine. “Their fans rally together and vote over and over again. Other fan clubs could do the exact same thing, but they don't."
Nguyen thinks most American pop acts don’t have the same type of fan loyalty. “In American pop music, the word ‘fan’ is used more casually,” Nguyen says. “You can be a fan of multiple things, and the focus is more on the music and the craft. That’s not to say Girls’ Generation isn’t about the music, but even if they have a bad single, you still support them.
“I don’t think I’m obsessive,” she continues. “But I’m not a casual fan. I’m committed to helping the community grow and helping the artists become whatever they want to be.”
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It’d be easy to dismiss her and her team as mere fangirls, but part of the reason behind Soshified’s success is the legitimate talent within the club. Their latest T-shirt design was done by an artist that works at Marvel. A Soshified poster was designed by a member who does graphics for Pixar. As for Nguyen, she’s basically developed through Soshified the skills to run her own media and production company. One of Nguyen’s proudest accomplishments is that Soshified raised more than $100,000 from fans for various charities over the years, including aid for Japan's 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami relief and for the Korean Retinitis Pigmentosa Society.
“Growing up, it was weird to be a fan,” she says. “But now, people understand that I’m not just a weird outcast who loves this girl group. They think it’s cool that I’ve created this international community.”
Now Nguyen's the one with fans — including the girls of Girls’ Generation.
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly describe the number of Soshified's fan club members and Twitter followers.