Korea's Lucky Sticks, Lucky Day

All around towns and cities across South Korea, the owners of convenience stores and small supermarkets have put the finishing touches to street displays of chocolate gifts given annually on Nov. 11. Tables protected from the rain by summer lawn awnings have been spread thick with boxes of chocolate. Nov. 11 is Pepero Day.

Pepero Day does not commemorate the courageous actions of an anti-Japanese Korean independence fighter or any national invention, disaster, battle, or discovery. The chocolate that South Koreans exchange with one another on Pepero Day commemorates only the chocolate South Koreans exchange with each other on Pepero Day: Pepero chocolate, produced by Lotte Confectionery, a wing of the eponymous giant chaebol. It is as if there were a Kit Kat day in the west that everyone bought into.

The justification is simple enough. These thin biscuit sticks, two thirds covered in chocolate, resemble the number one, but only to the extent that any long, regular, three dimensional object does. Pepero resemble Pocky Sticks, the Japanese chocolate-dipped cookie stick devised in the mid-sixties.

A pen or a straw-making company could just as reasonably claim the dateline. But Lotte got there first. Nov. 11 (11/11) is said to resemble five Pepero sticks – one slanted -- and so naturally belongs to the company. This year the day magically falls both a day after Su Neung, the South Korean high school SAT exam that still carries with it a sense of life-determining import, and on a date of millennial significance, as all those ones line up like obedient little marketing tools.

In his book, The Koreans: Who they are, What they want, Where their future lies, Michael Breen quotes an unnamed foreign businessman expressing his distaste for what he saw as the negative tendency of Korean businessmen to all jump in and compete in successful areas of medium sized industry, so saturating the market with more, say, shoes than it really needs. A corollary implication being that they probably all look and feel the same, and that innovation and diversity suffer as profits are squeezed.

The criticism by the foreign businessmen that Breen quoted was made 20 years ago and can no longer be fully affirmed in a world where Samsung makes televisions that deliver recommendations of what to watch based on the owner’s viewing history, and in which Korean ships and cars occupy so much of the globe’s shipping lanes and roads.

But at a street level there are more coffee shops and bakeries and cell phone dealerships in small concentrated areas of Korean shopping districts than those small concentrated areas probably need. So Lotte could hardly expect to get away with their brazen marketing ploy without the idea being diluted for profit, could they? They don’t, entirely. Others have jumped in to make their own.

A fairly large competitor in the sweets market produces a very similar looking chocolate-dipped cookie called Piko; there’s also something called an Atti which comes strawberry flavored. A smaller manufacturer butts right in and calls theirs the Lucky Stick, as indeed could they all. Lotte does more than half of its annual Pepero turnover in November alone. Might the company itself have dreamed up the day’s satisfying creation myth? It is said that a number of high school girls exchanged Pepero on November 11th, 1994, that they might grow as tall and slender as a Pepero stick. In Korean, pepe (빼빼) means skeletal, emaciated, haggard. It is an unremarked upon irony that schoolgirls toast each other’s slimming ambitions with chocolate. So although Lotte first produced Pepero in 1983, its spiritual birth came (you guessed it) 11 years later.

Aging teachers might receive a few boxes from their students, but it is mainly the young who exchange Pepero. A friend recalls giving a box of Pepero to a woman then cooperating gamely in the very earliest stages of romance. He splashed out, selecting from the luxury end of the snack. It was beribboned and, crucially, chocolate filled. In return, he received from his prospective belle something plain in taste and paltry in quantity. Fatally, it was a regifting. It was an awkward November 11th, and reader, he didn’t marry her. Those lucky sticks.

(NB Armstrong is a freelance writer and translator living in South Korea. He can be reached at aex_nba@yahoo.co.uk )