Venture into an L.A. boba shop on any given weekend and you may just find a space transformed by K-pop fans throwing a party for their favorite musical artist. Life-size cardboard cutouts of beautiful Korean men greet you by the door. Shrieks of delight echo as enthusiastic fans find the perfect souvenir or the playlist switches to a beloved track. Avoid stepping into someone’s photo op by keeping an eye out for the streamer backdrops and glamour shots of the event’s idol of honor.
Colloquially called “cupsleeves,” these fan events are becoming increasingly common in Southern California. They began in Seoul and other Asian cities as a way for K-pop fans — mostly girls and women — to meet others like them in person, not just online. Cupsleeves get their name from the ubiquitous rounds of cardboard that hug to-go beverages. At each event, fans can pick up a commemorative cupsleeve designed specifically for the occasion. All that’s required is the purchase of a drink. Cupsleeves carve out spaces of celebration and community in boba shops — and the cafes are happy for the business boost.
In Southern California, there are roughly 10 K-pop events happening every week, with most taking place in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to Cali Kpop Weekly, an Instagram account that tracks K-pop events. “In 2021, they started popping up more,” says Leanne Yuen, 23, a BTS fan who lives in Alhambra and attends roughly one cupsleeve per month. “Now, there are so many, I can barely keep track of them.”
At their most basic, cupsleeve events are an excuse for K-pop fans to hang balloon letters and spend the afternoon talking about their idols. Traditionally, they are tied to an artist’s birthday, the anniversary of a group’s debut or the release of a new single or album.
“These cupsleeve events [are places] where fans can just come together and be themselves and not be afraid to be judged,” says Jane Wishashan, 30, the co-founder of Euphoria Dance, a group that curates events for K-pop fan communities in Los Angeles and New York City. “I think it’s hard sometimes to go out and put yourself out there as a fan, especially in this day and age where people may not always understand what K-pop is, and just see what media or society portrays the typical K-pop fan as — you know, screaming, obsessive fangirls.”
There are screaming fangirls at K-pop concerts, of course, just as there are men who yell, boo and swear at sporting events. And yet, “fangirls” are the ones who get pathologized. At cupsleeves, K-pop fans don’t have to encounter those who assume there is something inherently unhealthy in how they choose to spend their leisure time and money.
TikToks about the L.A. Cool Girl aesthetic have prompted deep conversations about gentrification.
June 23, 2022
If you’re a K-pop fan living in L.A., it’s possible to fill entire weekends with K-pop activities. In the same February weekend, Euphoria Dance organized a belated celebration for BTS members V and Jin’s birthdays at Pasadena’s R&B Tea, while Play KPop Cafe in Little Tokyo hosted a two-day cupsleeve celebrating BTS members Suga and J-Hope. In Norwalk, at Besteas Boba, NCT member Ten got his own birthday party. Fans of the Boyz could celebrate Juyeon at cupsleeve events in Koreatown and Fairfax.
The Fairfax event took place at hello82 LA, an 8,000-square-foot space that the K-pop content and e-commerce brand opened in December to regularly host cupsleeve events. “We didn’t invent the [cupsleeve] concept,” says Sang Cho, co-founder of KAI Media, which owns hello82. “It’s been around. But we thought, by providing the same things the fans would do anyway, we would be more connected with the fan base.”
About 1,000 people attended hello82’s event for the Boyz, which ran out of signed albums and cupsleeves designed by the group. “Even when these things are out, once people are there, they’re with their friends or they’re meeting new friends,” says Cho. “What’s really great about these events is that you see people making lasting relationships.”
Cupsleeve events have started to expand beyond K-pop into other underserved, stigmatized fandoms. During the same weekend, at Monterey Park’s Macchiato, fans of the queer Chinese web novel “Mo Dao Zu Shi” (or one of its many adaptations) gathered to celebrate the birthday of character Lan Wangji. They cosplayed, played games organized by the hosts and listened to the soundtrack from the story’s live-action TV adaptation, “The Untamed.”
Most of the people at the Lan Wangji event had never been to a cupsleeve before. Some came because — unlike Hollywood franchises or even anime — there are few organized opportunities for fans of danmei (Chinese stories that feature men in romantic relationships) to gather. Others came to meet fandom Twitter friends for the first time in person.
Emily Lien, a longtime manager at Macchiato, first learned about cupsleeve events when the cafe started hosting them at both its Monterey Park and downtown L.A. locations last year. It hosts two or three per month that bring in anywhere from 100 to 300 people, Lien estimates, depending on the popularity of the fandom. “It does help us to grow our business,” says Lien, noting that there are two other boba shops within spitting distance of the location. “A lot of people probably have never heard of Macchiato until they attend one of the cupsleeve events hosted by the group they follow.”
From intimate clubs to picturesque outdoor theaters to state-of-the-art arenas and stadiums, there’s no better place to see live music than SoCal.
June 9, 2022
Most weekends, friends Lizette Perez and Patty Wong sell BTS merchandise together at cupsleeve events across Southern California. Like other vendors, they started as fans going to cupsleeve events and then decided to start their own small businesses, designing and selling merch. When Perez, 35, was laid off from her job after 10 years, she decided to make selling BTS-themed candles, stickers and T-shirts a full-time pursuit.
Perez estimates that she makes 90% of her sales at cupsleeve events, but she also attends to make friends and talk to other fans. “I can honestly say I’m happy with what I’m doing,” says Perez. “I’ve spent so much time not being happy or working for somebody else’s dream, or somebody else’s passion, right? And it wasn’t mine. So right now, I’m just doing me and I’m OK.”
Upcoming Cupsleeve Events
K-pop group being celebrated: xikers When: March 31-April 2, 12 p.m.-6 p.m.Where: hello82, 7323 Beverly Blvd. in Fairfax
K-pop group being celebrated: Stray KidsWhen: April 1, 12 p.m.- 7 p.m.Where: Macchiato Downtown Los Angeles, 418 West Pico Blvd in Downtown
K-pop group being celebrated: ATEEZ (to celebrate members Yunho and Seonghwa’s birthdays)When: April 1-2, 1 p.m.-6 p.m.Where: Heuk Hwa Dang, 621 S. Western Ave. in Koreatown
Cupsleeve events can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars to throw. Fan organizers sometimes make that money back with raffles, but it’s not guaranteed or expected.
“It’s something that non-K-pop fans don’t really understand,” says Wishashan. “Especially in this day and age, it can be hard to find kindness. And so it can be a bizarre concept that these people took the time to make these [cupsleeves] themselves with their own money, and now they’re giving them, by the hundreds, for free to these people that they’ll never see again? That’s not something that I encountered until I came into this community.”
Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.