By Teresa Valenton
Lined up alongside Dundas St. West, rhythm-heavy, hip-hop-influenced tracks off BTS’ J-hope’s album Hopeworld blasts from the speakers within Fantastic, Baby! Cafe. Inside, the walls are covered with BTS-themed decorations such as purple balloons, BT21 stuffed animals and photographs of the members. The air is filled with the scents of freshly-baked pastries and fruit teas coveted by fans who are busy setting up their photo cards and themed drinks to curate the perfect photo. Chatter fills the air as people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities share their interests in the genre, many of them dressed in eccentric outfits and raving over fan-made merchandise.
With South Korean boy bands such as BTS, TXT, SEVENTEEN and ATEEZ, the dynamic, bouncy music reliant on supplementary choreographies of their numerous members, and visuals, has made its way far beyond borders under the name “Hallyu Wave.” Defined by Korea.net as the foundation of successful pop culture, the term refers to the global influence of South Korea. Toronto, a home to over 1,000 cafes, is one of the cities where fans of all ages come together to not only celebrate their idols, but each other as they overcome the negative connotations surrounding K-pop fan culture.
As K-pop has rapidly risen in popularity over the last few years, fans have found less shame in sharing their interests. With a common goal of bringing more attention to their favourite K-pop idols, fan-run events called “cup sleeves” are becoming popular gatherings organized in local cafes in Toronto. At most events, attendees receive fan-made merchandise alongside a purchase of a drink.
Translated from the Korean term ‘Saeng-Il cafe,’ the term ‘birthday cafe’ refers to fan-run events hosted for Korean pop idols. Accumulating over 44.4k posts on Instagram under the hashtag #cupsleeveevent, these gatherings have become a cultural export right into the heart of Toronto. Though there are no designated spaces for these events, places like Fantastic, Baby! Cafe, and other recurring cafes such as Bloom Cafe, Kung Fu Tea and Palgong Tea, have become regular hosts.
Back at Fantastic, Baby Cafe!, Sonia Lachlan, 26, is seated across a group of BTS fans, otherwise known as “ARMY,” an acronym that stands for Adorable Representative M.C For Youth. She is here for J-hope’s cup sleeve event. Dressed in an outfit reminiscent of the K-pop idol aesthetic, she shares her initial curiosity about the phenomenon. “Honestly, I just started to attend events in the last few years,” she says. “I didn’t understand what a cup sleeve was, but I just tried it with my friends. It was just a nice way to see other people and get themed drinks and goodies, but it was a great surprise.” For the genre itself, an outsider image is immediately repelled by many non-listeners. Seoulbeats explains, “Many detractors who dipped their hands into the realm of K-pop denounce its shallow nature generalizing after listening to some famous hits.” But despite language and cultural differences, BTS, and many other groups have made the genre more accessible to international audiences.
Lachlan says she feels comforted by the familiarity of the ever-growing K-pop scene. She is quick to note the subtle differences in showcasing fan dedication aside from considering K-pop as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ “Everywhere I go, I have seen people with BTS charms on their bags. It’s just a nice thing to know that even if I don’t talk to them, that the person on the TTC is just the same as me. I’m comforted to feel recognized by just a glance too.” As fans continue to walk through the doors of Fantastic, Baby! Cafe, Lachlan says she feels grateful to be surrounded by like-minded people.
Though it is music that unites passionate K-pop fans, non-profit fanbases have taken a lead in organizing local happenings. Behind the scenes of cup sleeve events, numerous fanbases such as @CANADAXTXT have been a stepping point for fans of the South Korean boyband, Tomorrow by Together. Though fanbases tend to organize with no external funding or receive monetary compensation for their efforts, Jana David, a member of the TXT fanbase in Toronto, explains that the turnout is enough.
It’s a pleasant March afternoon, as David sets up TXT-themed decorations at a table in the Palgong Tea cafe in the Distillery District. Already, taped along the counter, there’s a gathering of animal balloons meant to represent her favourite group and, on the table itself, she has placed a white grid for messages about TXT’s anniversary. Over the course of the afternoon, many handwritten cards will be pinned to the grid, while attendees hover over merch to share their sentiments. The door of the cafe repeatedly opens up for guests dressed in TXT-inspired outfits, defined by simple silhouettes and monochromatic colour schemes and subtle fan-related accessories.
Since 2020, David alongside a team of dedicated MOAs—an acronym for Moments of Alwaysness—has focused on ensuring that unity remains a strong point for Toronto-based fans. “Something that I kind of live by is that, when you’re a certain fan base for a region, it’s essential to focus on that region versus outside. Because when you narrow down whom you’re trying to contact, being able to have groups like TXT sound like a familiar name to people is my goal,” she continues.
Taking a different approach to cafe events, Ana Balaniuk, a newfound member of the ATEEZ fanbase for Toronto, talks about how her community centers its goals around fans rather than the artists themselves. “I think that it was more about getting to know the people who like the same things, rather than it just purchasing a cup sleeve and leaving,” they say about the camaraderie that exists between the fans
Talking about the ATEEZ concert in Hamilton in the latter quarter of 2022, Balaniuk recalls a touching moment for their fans, ATINYs (a contraction of the group name ATEEZ and the word “Destiny”). “At one of our events, someone had come alone but they found a group of people and started talking. They moved all the tables together to create this giant table,” they reminisce about their experience at TeaHut cafe. Though the attendees appeared quite reserved, Balaniuk sympathized with the unfamiliarity of cup sleeves and felt relieved to see their efforts in action. “It was really exciting to see that people were connecting because of what we were doing.”
This sort of camaraderie is ever-present at another event at Tiger Sugar cafe at Yonge and College, where attendees are greeted with photographs of the boy band SEVENTEEN, taped to the walls of the interior for the “Invitation to Valentine’s Day” event. Heart-shaped stickers are pressed against a poster board that says, “Pick Your Valenteen!” which translates to a pun on the group name. There are several vendors present displaying their latest handmade fan merchandise, including stationery products, photo card holders, stickers and binder covers.
Fan-made art is part of the phenomenon with many fan artists showcasing their talents at cup sleeve events. Take a longtime fan-artist Stefanie Chow who shares how she has combined her skillset in the fine arts with her interests to build scting, her online fan-merchandise shop. Upon finishing up a sales transaction with a cheerful customer, she smiles at those passing through.“I made a lot of friends by selling my art, trading photocards and things like that. So through that, I think there is a close, tightly-knit community of CARATs [fans of the boy group SEVENTEEN] in Toronto right now,” she says.
Next to Chow, another table full of handmade SEVENTEEN-themed goods are carefully flipped through while many await their turn to purchase a product. Surrounded by returning customers for her shop, miscelneous, Elise Antoniette feels grateful for the Toronto K-pop community. “Realizing that I can make stuff that people can find joy in makes me feel so much better about this community,” she says.
Out of many cafe events across Toronto, attendees fill Tiger Sugar cafe, with an unspoken collective among those who arrive. Slowly overcoming the shame around K-pop, fan communities band together to deconstruct the stigmas. Antoniette, however, puts it bluntly, “people in Toronto just want to do their best to host for every member. It’s super cool to see everyone come together to celebrate our interests.”