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A colorful illustration depicting k-pop stars and fans.
Cup sleeve events were a boon in the face of pandemic-related struggles. Since then, the fan ritual took off.
Illustration by Lille Allen

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How Los Angeles’s Koreatown Cafes Are Keeping the K-Pop Fandom Alive

K-pop fans are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and comebacks at cup sleeve events

Jeannine Silva arrived at Dragon Boba, a small shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, two and a half hours before the advertised start time for a cup sleeve event celebrating BTS’s Permission to Dance on Stage concert last November. Though Silva was the first person waiting at the tea shop’s entrance at 9:30 a.m., within three hours she stood at the helm of a winding queue of 100 patrons.

This is the typical scene at a cup sleeve event, a K-pop fan ritual organized around a group or member’s birthday, debut anniversary, or comeback. At participating coffee or boba shops, fans receive a colorful slip of cardboard to wrap around their purchased drinks while they dance to their favorite group’s entire discography, take photos underneath balloon arches, and bond with others who share a love for Korean pop music. The sleeves — and the shops — are decorated with members’ photos, patterned backgrounds, and graphic designs often centered on a particular theme or idea. Recent cup sleeve gatherings included a cowboy-themed event at Heuk Hwa Dang in Koreatown for Mingi, a member of the group ATEEZ, and a Ghibli-inspired event at Miss Cheese Tea Cafe in Pasadena to honor NCT’s Taeyong. Sometimes, cafes even create special menu items for the occasion.

These events are almost entirely subsistent on fans’ financial contributions, design skills, and energy — and most importantly, the cooperation of local cafes. During the early days of the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders led K-pop groups to cancel their tours and specialty drink shops to close their doors, cup sleeve events became a way that business owners and fans could mutually benefit. Since then, both parties embraced partnership, and the fan ritual took off. Cafes all over the state have hosted more than 850 events from October 2020 to July 2022, with about 68 percent taking place in Southern California, according to @calicupsleeves, a now-inactive Twitter account that was dedicated to promoting cup sleeve-related activities in California.

In Korea, where the concept originated, cup sleeve events are referred to as “birthday cafes.” According to Jungwon Kim, an adjunct lecturer at Yonsei University who studies K-pop, fandom, and gender studies, the first-ever cup sleeve event was organized by K-pop agency SM Entertainment in 2009 for its five-member boy group, TVXQ. K-pop fans in Korea quickly adopted the entertainment agency’s idea and made it their own.

Birthday cafes are now primarily run by home masters, or homma, who regularly take professional-level photographs of idols to sell at these events. Attendees typically take a “tour” from one event to another, picking up multiple cup sleeves from several locations in celebration of their favorite idols. “It’s a way of manifesting my fandom,” says Kim, who has hosted multiple birthday cafes for the K-pop boy group AB6IX. “Listening to music and attending concerts are not the only things we can do as a fan.”

While birthday cafes are firmly established in Korean culture, cup sleeve events are still in their nascency stateside. Michelle Ochoa, a K-pop fan from Texas, plays a large role in laying the groundwork for the fan ritual in the United States. She runs Flower Vantae, a group that organizes BTS cup sleeve events in Southern California and northeastern Texas. In 2017, she hosted what may have been the first of these events in the country at a Texas restaurant owned by Brian Chong of Dragon Boba.

“A lot of people from Korea helped me learn all of these things, like how there’s a specific template that you need to design for,” says Ochoa, who reached out to several Korean cafe organizers for advice five years ago. Ochoa continued planning more events after that first one with Chong. She is currently Dragon Boba’s event coordinator and point of contact for any cup sleeve event hosted in its space.

To achieve Ochoa’s level of success, many event organizers prioritize looking for the right cafe owner — one who, beyond financial profit, shares the same dedication toward constructing a space for K-pop fans to unabashedly enjoy their fandom together without judgment. The process of doing so requires trial and error, but once organizers meet the ideal owner to partner with, the pair’s mutual dedication to K-pop allows the ensuing relationship to transcend a traditional business partnership.

Photo of two friends taking a selfie at a cup sleeve event celebrating the birthday of Jimin from BTS.
Fans taking a selfie at a cup sleeve event celebrating the birthday of Jimin from BTS.
Lucia Ruan

Los Angeles-based Janelle Tio, who organizes events for K-pop boy group ATEEZ on Twitter (@ATEEZCafeLA), found that relationship with Sweetea Bar owner and manager Hannah Yeo. Tio and her team, who affectionately refer to Yeo as “girlboss Hannah,” planned four events at the shop in 2021 prior to its permanent closure. Even after selling Sweetea Bar, Yeo still had Tio on her mind. She texted Tio that she made sure the new owner of the shop’s former space knew about ATEEZCafeLA, so if the team still wanted to host there, they could. “I almost cried when she told me that,” Tio says.

These close relationships come hand in hand with an investment in the business’s success. “Whenever I do cup sleeve [events], I try my best not to do them at franchised boba shops,” says Deyanira Vasquez, the CEO of Dream K, a company specializing in K-pop memorabilia. She planned a Halloween cup sleeve event for SM Entertainment artists at Dragon Boba last October. “The idea is to make sure we locally support ones that are barely starting out. That way, people can recognize their hard work and the love that they put into their drinks.”

According to a 2021 study from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, three in five owners of Asian American businesses in Southern California reported significant negative effects due to the pandemic, which is almost double the rate reported by California businesses overall. These same Asian American businesses also reported receiving PPP assistance at lower rates than overall businesses in California due to language barriers, lack of awareness, and difficulty meeting eligibility criteria.

Cup sleeve events were a boon in the face of these pandemic-related struggles. At Coin De Rue, a small Koreatown cafe that opened during the pandemic, a debut anniversary cup sleeve event for ATEEZ put on by Tio’s team brought about a 60 percent increase in sales, according to social media manager Alice Lee. “Ever since, I saw a few of the girls that came by the bakery for that event come back to buy our dalgona coffee or some of our bread,” says Lee. “We’ve been getting some younger generations that have been coming in, and a lot of our Instagram followers were [involved] in the cup sleeve events or came to the cup sleeve events.”

The latest cup sleeve event ATEEZCafeLA put on at Coin de Rue, a birthday celebration for members Yunho and Seonghwa in April, saw an even larger turnout. According to Tio, it saw the second-highest attendance out of all the events she’d hosted, which usually bring in 150 to 200 fans.

While commercial success is essential for any business’s survival, the benefits of cup sleeve events go beyond material profit for many. The Korean business owners behind Dragon Boba and Coin de Rue find their culture’s increasing prominence something to celebrate. K-pop was looked down on in the past, says Lee. But now, groups like BTS can sell out four concert dates at 70,000-seater SoFi Stadium. “We shouldn’t shy away from this,” she says. “Rather, we should just embrace it and be proud that [people] love K-pop.”

For event organizers, making sure attendees walk away with positive emotions is their highest priority. “I know a lot of people worry about if there’s going to be a good turnout,” Ochoa says. “But for me, if we bring any happiness to you, then it’s worth it.”

And to fans, the joy of being surrounded by a K-pop community is what keeps them coming back time and again. College student Alice Petasek formed friendships with a few people she met at the first cup sleeve event she attended at Dragon Boba. These days, they go to Dragon Boba events together almost every other weekend, while Chong makes sure to match the demand. “Everyone needs something special, especially during a pandemic season when everyone’s going through depression,” he says. “That’s why I told Michelle, let’s do more.”

Though the circumstances of the pandemic have changed over time, the enthusiasm for K-pop-centric spaces has remained constant. As a result, the fandom will likely continue to flourish, with business owners and event organizers working in tandem to create a unique space for this community, one drink at a time.

For more information on cup sleeve events, follow @cakpopcups or @IdolDaysinCA on Twitter.

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