The lights dimmed and subsequently went out for the live entertainment scene as the global pandemic mercilessly hit not just public health but also the economy. The concert scene in the Philippines was evidently not spared from the impact of it all. Live events organizer PULP Live World’s Happee Sy-Go speaks out her thoughts to NewsFeed360 about the proverbial elephant in the room.
It is a Korean expression, albeit in English, of encouragement and support that the live entertainment sector could certainly use right now. A slew of postponed and cancelled live shows followed the lockdowns, community quarantine and flight restrictions imposed by various countries. In the Philippines, the growing and lucrative K-pop concert scene—of which PULP Live World is a pioneer and a leader—had to weather the storm and take a hiatus as well.
From trainee to expert
BTS.EXO.IU.Twice.Big Bang.Super Junior.2NE1.Seventeen.WannaOne.
These are just some of the biggest names in K-pop that PULP Live World was able to bring to the Philippines. Founded 20 years ago, PULP was established by Vernon Go initially as a magazine. It later branched out into producing live shows, bringing in some of the biggest names in music such as Cyndi Lauper, Aerosmith, Kelly Clarkson, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, All Time Low, Mayday Parade and The Maine before it even earned a reputation as a trailblazer in K-pop events in the country.
In 2010, breaking its usual lineup of bringing in metal legends and rock bands, PULP made a brave decision to bring in internationally acclaimed K-pop group Super Junior.
Contrary to popular observation, it wasn’t a business decision—it was a grand romantic gesture.
Happee Sy is known to Filipino K-pop fans as “Inang” or “Inang Reyna”
Happee Sy-Go, Vernon’s better half and “Inang” to legions of K-pop fans in the country, explains the story with playful panache.
“That time, Vernon and I were just friends and he was courting me. Tapos I told him ‘Sige, let’s do something together.’ Then my sister was the one who suggested to bring in Super Junior. Vernon didn’t know who Super Junior was back then but he wanted to impress me so parang he arranged a meeting and he did everything he can to get that show for me. It started there—nagpa-cute lang,” Happee laughs.
It was also Happee’s first ever venture into concert production.
“We were shocked nga. I didn’t know anything about expenses. Vernon naman, of course, he’s been doing it for 10 years so he knows what expenses are and he knows what’s expensive and what’s cheap. So this was the most expensive thing he really purchased na he felt was worth it kasi nga di ba? I guess it’s worth it now,” she adds, referring to a courtship that eventually led to a happy marriage with two adorable kids – Winter and London – in tow, and a thriving business.
Happee, a certified Super Junior fan (ELF), is candid enough to admit that though her first live show project was supported by fellow fans, it wasn’t successful.
“We lost money because I didn’t know how much expenses it entailed like there were [expenses for] translators, food consumed and so much stuff needed na wala dito so there were a lot of unaccounted for expenses na we never thought we would have,” she begins, recalling the struggles of their maiden K-pop show.
Her relationship with the Korean management initially did not go as smooth either.
“In the beginning, galit na galit talaga sila sa akin (laughs). Sobrang parang trainee talaga ako na I have common sense and stuff but they have certain ways of doing things na completely different from ours,” Happee says, referring to how different the Filipino and Korean work styles can be. Thankfully, they were able to meet halfway.
“After the show, I guess the Korean management saw my sincerity in wanting it to succeed and wanting to do it so they gave me a second chance,” Happee recalls, adding that the management agreed to come back and work with her the following year, but advised her to study up and at least get to know how the scene works.
“I was practically trained by the Korean management. Kumbaga sa trainings sa mga artists, ako na-train as K-pop promoter,” she suggests, leading this writer to joke that she can actually claim that she’s been an “SM (Entertainment) trainee” owing to this background (“Oo nga no?!”).
The tough training in organizing a K-pop concert may have been pretty stressful for Happee but she also had a profound realization along the way.
“It worked for me because I’m O.C. (obsessive compulsive) and organizing a K-pop concert basically fed on my O.C.-ness kasi the Korean management is very particular with little things and I’m so happy na parang I found my friends. It was a match na parang I found the way that I want to do things and it was this way,” she says, even confessing that for the first 3 or 4 years of staging K-pop concerts, there was not one show where she didn’t cry within the opening week because of how trying everything was. She and the PULP Live team have since handled succeeding shows with much more ease and confidence.
Through it all, she would still consider the Super Junior concert as her most memorable project.
“Sabi nga nila, you’ll never forget your first. I didn’t know anything about it that time but every corner of the stage, every detail of the venue and every seat—I know. I even used to print out the seat plan—ang laki-laki talaga ng kartolina ko para lang ma-imagine ko how the venue and stage would be. It was so memorable kasi as soon as [Super Junior] was on stage, para kang nag-buo ng Lego tapos umilaw ‘yung Lego set,” she explains.
Korean shows are a bit more meticulous in presentation compared to a regular concert. It’s a full-on production as it takes the form of a storytelling done in several segments in which there are props or details that would surface according to a song’s theme or feel. Despite the stressful and detailed work behind the scene, Happee feels a sense of accomplishment to see the plans come to life that fans can see and appreciate.
Tricia Kiocho, a public relations practitioner who was able to watch PULP’s Winner and EXO shows, can attest to the grandness of a K-pop show.
“K-pop concerts are super sulit experience-wise. From visuals to production and mas mahaba ang show than the concerts of Western artists. I appreciate how PULP gives clear directions for concertgoers before and on the day of the concert,” she says.
This was seconded by Romina Cunanan, an e-Commerce marketing specialist who got into K-pop after stumbling upon EXO’s Lotto on Spotify. She was able to watch a number of PULP’s K-pop shows which includes EXO, Stray Kids, Winner and Monsta X.
“K-pop concerts are a bit more exciting compared to a Western concert. This includes the production and the fans—iba ang energy of the fans with the lightsticks and fanchants. Tapos pwede kang magwala and fellow fans wouldn’t care and judge you. The K-pop stars also give the best fanservicing because of their ‘ment (statement)’ for fans where they really talk to them, accept gifts and do something special for them,” Romina fondly shares.
K-Pop fans Romina & Tricia (2nd from left to right; seen with a friend) appreciate PULP’s efforts as promoter & concert organizer saying they look forward to their shows post-pandemic. Romina says: “Thank you Happee and team for bringing K-POP to the Filipinos. PULP accommodates the fans’ needs and enables them to connect to their K-Pop idols. They are not only good at being organized, they are also great at building the K-Pop community here.”
Asked what Happee thinks made PULP successful and unrivalled in its category, the beloved “Inang Reyna” of the country’s K-pop scene paused to ponder.
“I think it’s really more of the expertise. At the end of the day, you cannot be great at everything. I think every promoter has its own specialty so it’s not really like parang sinasadya mo to fight with them (other promoters) or one up. It’s more of it comes naturally to me because this is my genre. Hindi sya extra effort for me to think of things for this. If you make me do something na sobrang out of my genre naman, mamamatay ako kakaisip,” she humbly states.
As an avid fan of Korean pop culture herself, Happee is delighted to witness the rising interest of Filipinos in K-pop and Korean dramas.
“Personally, I’m very, very happy that it happened because who would want to promote something that’s not growing? Especially since back then it was a struggle because everybody, every sponsor and every person we reach out to for support would ask us, ‘Ano yan? Sino ‘yan? Ikaw lang may alam niyan eh.’ When it became big, I feel happy kasi when I reach out to them now, the door is more open,” she says.
2020 was supposed to be another banner year for PULP as it was able to book top Korean acts to perform in the Philippines. Even as talks of COVID-19 started spreading around during the early part of the year, Happee and her team were able to stage Winner’s “Cross” tour in January and Seventeen’s “Ode to You” in February. The latter was particularly an intense experience.
“That was crazy! Gosh! Grabe ang dasal ko noon. Feeling ko naging textmate na kami ni Lord level. That was a huge test and I’m so grateful for the artists (Seventeen) for trusting me that I will not fail them and that I will not put them in danger. I felt naman kasi that time na if it was really bad, I wouldn’t do it. But I knew that time, it could have still been prevented. I was really praying hard because whether tumuloy sya or ma-cancel, maraming expenses. Thank God, it wasn’t cancelled,” she animatedly shares.
Throughout the planning of the last concert, the team closely and consistently worked with the venues to ensure that necessary precautions were being implemented. Specific protocols included mandatory wearing of masks for the concertgoers. There were medics on standby and separate tents were built to do temperature checks, screening and health declaration forms to be filled in before entering the venue.
Fortunately, the Seventeen concert successfully pushed through and was well-attended by adoring fans.
Michelle Tiongson, a PR associate and a huge fan of Seventeen, was able to catch this particular concert.
“Lahat naka-mask sa Seventeen concert that time although merong iba, nagtanggal lang for photo purposes. But it was still fun and sobrang wild ng crowd and the venue was still full. I really like how organized PULP is compared to other promoters. They always update the fans and hindi sila mahirap kausap,” Michelle says.
The Seventeen concert was the last show PULP was able to do for 2020. Likewise, Manila was the group’s last stop for the year.
“The COVID situation created a huge dent. It really affected the live scene, the entertainment sector and all those event coordinators. PULP was not immune to that. In a year, we would do 13 to 18 shows. Now, basically we stopped and cancelled lahat from March. We cancelled around 15 shows. At first, we were just trying to move it but reality hits na it’s not going to be anytime soon,” she admits.
While the promoter had to halt the production side of the business, the priority is the well-being of the staff members.
“As much as we can, we are trying to continue, that’s why we still keep doing online stuff so that my team would have something to do. I can’t let them suffer just because we don’t have shows. I moved the staff around just so they would have something to do and at least they would also have compensation. We are still trying to survive as best as we can and, hopefully, we get to weather this, find a cure and get back to normal,” she shares.
The team kept themselves busy and continued doing content for the Happee Hour digital platform. There’s K-mustahan, where Happee chats with random friends online, and activations with Globe for the online group Kmmunity. Some of the staff were immersed in different departments as well so they can keep working and learn new skills despite the pandemic.
For the Go couple, the priority is for them and the staff to survive and stay afloat, be strong and healthy in these trying times.
“Being in K-pop for 10 years and Vernon with PULP for 20 years, I feel like there’s a reason why we were busy and working hard before all these. I feel like whatever we have saved, it’s about sharing now. We’re trying to slowly share with our people and hopefully, we can come back to work again. They are all part of what we have built. Money? We can always save it again. The goal is to survive and be healthy,” she thoughtfully explains.
Happee’s hopeful outlook
Globally, there have been attempts to revive the concert scene. For instance, in the UK, an outdoor socially distanced concert has been staged. The band Flaming Lips conducted a concert with both the members and the audience enclosed in bubbles. Taiwan, China and New Zealand have also started opening up their live show scene with protocols in place. South Korea, through the show “Begin Again,” was able to do an outdoor live music show with the audience inside their cars.
“Actually, there are so many options to do something like that but for me, personally, I wouldn’t like to do it that way because it defeats the purpose of why we are there. I think people go out, enjoy live events for the feel and for the time to be close to your friends and to go crazy and wild. There are some shows where you can just sit and enjoy like watching a play. But there are some events and especially K-pop shows that I do na I don’t think will be fun [if done that way]. For me, it’s really not just about seeing your idols eh, it’s about immersing yourself in the experience and not ‘yung nakita mo lang sya pero hindi mo sya nakalaro or naka-immerse,” Happee opines.
She thinks, however, that there is hope for the future of leisure and live entertainment.
“I think tourism, entertainment, live events, restaurant and everything that has to do with leisure, would thrive. But at the same time, everybody will be more conscious of their sanitary practices. I believe everything will go back to normal and everybody will go partying again but people will be more conscious on space and territory and people will definitely have alcohol in their bags,” she says, smiling.
The only downside Happee sees is that tickets might go up and be more expensive considering the new safety protocols, stricter parameters, and the need to cover losses that artists experienced this year. But other than that, there’s a reason to be optimistic especially in the Philippines.
“I always say it’s more fun in the Philippines. Iyong resilience ng mga tao dito, iba. Magrereklamo pero gagawa ng personal na solusyon sa problema. Nakakagawa tayo ng adjustments on our own,” she says.
Another reason to feel positive is that despite months of being cooped up at home with community quarantine, the number of Filipinos appreciating K-Pop and K-Dramas have grown exponentially.
“My husband was saying nga, ‘I wonder when things get back to normal, who’s going to be the first one to do a show?’ Sabi ko sa husband ko feeling ko ako! Feeling ko ako ang pinaka-excited!” she exclaims, clearly raring to go back to the normal mode of working again.
“I personally believe 2021 will be a lot better than 2020. In the beginning, everybody was nangangapa and matagal na in denial worldwide so matagal din recovery. But I don’t think the world will allow it to happen na this will drag on too long because a lot of people are dying [non-COVID] and getting hungry. We really have to find a way. Either it’s back to normal or there’s a new normal,” she says.
“I’m really hoping that at least by June 2021 or the second half of the year, we’ll be getting back to normal and back to seeing each other again on live events,” Happee continues.
Happee, known for spreading good vibes and positivity, also have words of encouragement for those working in the live entertainment scene.
“This year is extra trying and hard for all of us but it doesn’t mean that you should give up. I think this is the time that you can expand whatever you are offering, add more services or learn more expertise and other stuff you could be better in. Just weather the storm, be healthy and at the end of the day, if live events and production are what’s meant for you, especially for artists, come 2021 you will be back and all the supporters will be there,” she advises.
“I always say this to a lot of people: Audiences, customers and all these fans, they wouldn’t really remember much of the stuff that we have done or what we have shown them. But they will never forget the feeling that we have given them. As long as you have made them happy somehow, some way and somewhere, they would always be there so there’s no fear of them being gone,” Happee ends on a positive note with her signature charm and smile.
About the Writer
Grace C. Diez
Grace Diez started as an AM/FM radio traffic reporter and broadcast supervisor of Trapik.com before pursuing a 5-year career in advertising and a 9-year (and counting!) career in public relations. With 17 years of experience as a writer, her works have been published on People Asia, Metro.Style, ABS-CBN Lifestyle, Star Studio, Metro Magazine, Manila Bulletin, The Philippine Star, Working Mom, Chalk.PH, League Magazine, Sense & Style, Woman Today and Manila Standard with editors entrusting her with cover stories and CEO/celebrity profiling assignments. She loves IU, Taylor Swift, coffee, milk tea, Dr. Pepper and cookies.