Fainting fans, delirious teenagers and hundreds of screaming girls. You'd think a major pop star was in town in Dubai on Friday. But to the young fans, who turned up from all over the UAE and assembled at the Boracay Club in Asiana Hotel three hours ahead of their scheduled appearance, ZE:A (pronounced je-a), are as big as they come.
Only seven of the nine-member Korean boy band may have turned up, but it didn't stop the fans, mostly girls, a lot of them Emiratis, to tirelessly chant their names holding posters and messages. As the excitement built, organisers, who weren't quite prepared for the massive attendance, had to extend the fan meeting time from an hour to two to accommodate everyone.
And when the boys eventually appeared, the screams that echoed through the venue could only be termed "deafening".
"Assalamu alaikum," they greeted, all immaculately dressed with perfectly kempt hair. Even more screams followed, drowning out the opening speech as one of the organisers thanked the sponsors. Speech done, it was soon the moment the fans have been waiting for: Each of them had been pre-assigned numbers, and as their numbers were called, they each got the chance of a lifetime to meet the stars face-to-face and get autographs.
The ZE:A boys patiently went through each one of them, greeting them with a smile as fan after fan lined up, many hardly able to contain their excitement.
Aisha Rashid, a 15-year-old Emirati, was almost in tears. "I'm here 'cause I love ZE:A so much, with all my heart," she just about managed to mumble.
Jeyun and Hejun, sisters from Korea, screamed in unison: "We're such big fans and we love K-pop and ZE:A. They're so hot, they're so good-looking."
Eliza, from the Philippines, caught in a delirious hop, just about managed a screeching "I love y…" before being whisked to the side to make way for other fans.
Sisters Wafa and Marwa Hassa, Sharjah residents from Yemen, took the opportunity to show off their knowledge of Korean: "Kamsamnida [thank you]," they screamed, waving their autographed posters.
For organiser Eman Al Alawi, the founder of UAE Loves Korea, the success of the event was a testament to all the hard work her non-profit organisation has put in ever since she founded it in 2009.
Born after a trip to South Korea, Eman has since organised a number of events to introduce Korean culture to the UAE. Her projects also include sending 16 Emirati students every summer to Korea for a one-month induction into the Korean culture.
"We wanted to do something different this time," she said of Friday's event. "We wanted to give fans something beyond just concerts… something more intimate."
ZE:A's UAE appearance included a fan interaction in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi on Saturday where they also briefly performed.
"People here love Korean culture and K-pop is a global phenomenon, so we wanted to explore that," Eman added. "I've been wanting to do this for a long time and finally found a partner."
Eman's partner, Sook Jung, a Korean national, said it was a meeting of interests. "I've always wanted to do something that would introduce Korean culture," said Sook, the founder of Total Resource International, which organises cultural exchange programmes between South Korea and other countries. "The K-pop idea just seemed like the perfect thing to do."
The pair had also successfully brought K-pop band Nine Muses and Korean pop star Seo In Young to perform at Beats on the Beach in Abu Dhabi last year.
It had been difficult in the past to convince sponsors, Eman admitted.
"We nearly cancelled this event many times because the market is uncertain and sponsors are not willing to invest in something they don't really believe in," she said.
Well, anyone still in doubt only needed to be there on Friday when ZE:A met their screaming fans: We want more K-pop is what they're saying, loud and clear.
Music to your ears
There's something about Korean pop stars that makes them so irresistibly appealing to an entertainment journalist, quite battered by and disillusioned with celebrities and their fragile egos. I found the answer when I sat down for an interview with rising Korean boy band ZE:A.
It's not just the fashion or the style (which definitely has an appeal), neither is it the pretty boy good looks or their bubblegum sweet videos and dance moves. It's not even the indiscernible language in which they sing and add fun English phrases to ensure you unwittingly find yourself tapping your feet by the end of the video. It's the total humility with which they conduct themselves, lifting the air around us and making it more fun than not, even though we needed a translator to facilitate the conversation.
The truth is JunYoung, 23; HeeCheol, 23; HyungShik, 21; Siwan, 24; Tae Heon, 23; MinWoo, 22; Kevin, 24; KwangHee, 23; and DongJun, 20, the nine members of ZE:A, know exactly how much it has taken to get to where they are. Following a round of auditions, the nine boys were selected from thousands of entries and trained vigorously for five years before their label, Star Empire, decided they were ready for the market.
It was not easy, they said, but it was fun. "We had to go through lots of training and hard work but I think it has paid off," said Siwan.
It must be hard though, I asked, in a market with a hundred other bands, each now trying to make a global mark.
"I think we are quite different in that our approach is different," said JunYoung, the leader of the group. "We became famous through our guerilla shows so we had this very intimate connection with our fans even before we became famous. So I think that has ensured we stand out from the rest."
Despite being a big group, they rarely fight, they said.
"I think we all share a special bond and all want to make this group a success," said HeeCheol.
Although all their albums have been in Korean, ZE:A have recorded an EP in Japanese and have performed at sold-out shows in Japan, Thailand and the Philippines and much of Asia.
Kevin, who migrated from Australia to Korea for a shot at stardom, said the group would like to sing in English some day, if their fans demand it.
"We love all our fans and we love it when they sing with us in Korean. But if they want us, maybe, one day," he said.
The youngest of the group, DongJun, is the most mischievous, they said, although the 20-year-old and KwangHee couldn't make it to for this trip. MinWoo, everyone concurred, was the best dancer.
"We can dance well," the 22-year-old immediately protested.
For their UAE fans, they said they were quite pleasantly surprised at the reception and promised to come back for a full concert.
"We appreciate the love so much and definitely want to come back to see Dubai and perform for all our fans," said Kevin. "…And we want to meet lots of beautiful Arab girls," added HeeCheol mischievously.