From The Straits Times    |

Credit: Getty Images

Lisa of Blackpink made waves with her 2021 song Lalisa and its music video, both of which heavily referenced her Thai background. Although she’s most decidedly a part of the K-pop industry, this moment arrived amid a phenomena known as the “Thai Wind,” as Thailand’s growing entertainment industry emerges as a cultural powerhouse in its own right.

While K-pop has a lot of popular Thai stars already (GOT7’s BamBam, 2PM’s Nichkhun, and (G)I-DLE’s Minnie, just to name a few), the rise of Thailand’s domestic industry on the global stage is growing faster than ever. And while South Korea’s intensely powerful wave of international popularity, known as Hallyu, has been sweeping the globe for well over a decade now, Thailand’s steadily-growing wind is now rapidly changing the global entertainment climate.  

Lisa Bulgari
Blackpink’s Lisa attends the photocall for Bulgari’s ‘Serpenti Seduttori’ launch event in Seoul on October 29, 2019. The Thai megastar is now a brand ambassador. Photo: Getty

Nowadays, pretty much every luxury fashion brand under the sun seems like it has a prominent Thai actor or musician behind it, and Netflix is seeing a major investment in the market, with Thai television shows and movies like Girl from Nowhere. But it’s BL, or Boys’ Love dramas, which are especially taking off, launching the careers of many popular actors. Whether it’s on social media or the runways, stars from shows like KinnPorsche, Love in the Air, Our Skyy and 2getherThe Series, feel like they’re everywhere.

Amporn Jirattikorn is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Science and Development at Chiang Mai University, and currently a visiting professor at Harvard University. She’s studied Thai dramas and their audiences for years as Thailand’s primetime dramas, known as lakorn, have steadily seen their viewership grow across Asia.

Bambam GOT7
Thai singer and rapper BamBam from boy band GOT7 attends the 2021 Asia Artist Awards in Seoul. Photo: Getty

“Cultural proximity plays an important role in the reception of Thai dramas,” says Jirattikorn. “The distributors were the ones exploring international markets, so starting around the mid-2000s Thai dramas began being exported to China, and it was quite a big hit at that time. Then the distributors started to see the potential benefit of taking the version that they exported to China because they have already separated the image and the sound [for dubbing], so maybe they could export to other countries as well.” 

Audiences quickly developed in neighbouring countries, and lakorn started gaining popularity in the Philippines, Indonesia, and beyond. Because of differences in Thai and Chinese dramas, Jirattikorn’s research alleges Chinese audiences watch lakorn for escape value, while Southeast Asian viewers watch for the cultural similarities.

Chicha Kitty
Thai actress Kitty Chicha Amatayakul of Netflix’s Girl From Nowhere fame attends the Saint Laurent pre-Oscars event hosted by Anthony Vaccarello in Los Angeles on March 25, 2022. Photo: Getty

But in the 2010s, formal distribution of these dramas slowed down, and fan subtitling groups became a major power player, with fan-oriented creations and spaces becoming especially important. Their popularity took off even further during the Covid pandemic lockdowns when everyone was at home, with BL dramas at the heart of Thailand’s international drama fandom. 

Now in more recent years, international attention, and streaming platforms’ attention especially, has made Thailand an entertainment industry to watch among global consumers, following in the footsteps of other Asian regional equivalents, like Hong Kong cinema, Japanese anime, and South Korea’s, well, everything in recent years.

Companies like television production company GMMTV and artist management and content provider Be On Cloud have especially shaped the BL scene, bringing together stars, storylines, and stans. (Harper’s Bazaar Singapore reached out to both GMMTV and Be On Cloud for comment on this story.) 

Dr Thomas Baudinette is himself a BL fan, but professionally a scholar of queer culture, and currently a Senior Lecturer in Japanese and International Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

According to Baudinette, while other segments of Thailand’s entertainment industries are also gaining a foothold in the global entertainment mindset, they haven’t yet seen the same success as BL dramas have. The reason? BL captures a major aspect of fan behaviour which many industries benefit from: fan-oriented shipping.

‘Shipping’ people together, essentially manifesting a relationship between them, is extremely popular in many fandoms. K-pop stars are regularly shipped by fans, while popular television shows and films often have entire fandoms propelled by these ships, such as Supernatural’s “Destiel” shippers or Star Wars “Reylo” ones. Shipping is often the target of social media posts, fan-fiction creations, fan art, and more. And it’s highly lucrative if monetised, which is what Thailand’s drama industry is doing, says Baudinette, by creating couples and pairing them off officially, albeit fictionally, with popular ships often recurring in different series and off-screen promotions. The industry even has light-sticks just like K-pop stars, but instead of having one light-stick per actor, a paired couple gets one, instead. 

“Companies like GMMTV, they recognised what was this kind of bottom-up fan practice through their observation of K-pop idol shipping among young people in Thailand, as well as the long history of consumption of boys’ love products from Japan in Thailand,” observes Baudinette. 

“And they basically said, ‘Okay, so there is also this pre-existing kind of local BL fan culture that is based around shipping idols from other countries. There’s also heaps of local [BL] novels that are being written. We as a growing talent agency-slash-content producer want to sell our talent to young people in Thailand. So clearly what we should do is provide them with ships and make… BL content [around these stories]. And it’s going to appeal to our key demographics of young women and young LGBTQIA+-identified consumers.’”

Tapping into the already-there audience, BL Thai dramas took off during the pandemic with engaging and romantic storylines winning over fans on-screen, while off-screen promotions turned these actors into international heartthrobs.

Now, GMMTV and other Thai entertainment companies are working with counterparts across Asia, and the U.S., to create content, with several upcoming Thai-Korean and Thai-Japanese BL productions in the works, also targeting Chinese and English-speaking audiences around the world through a variety of transnational collaborations. Others are also trying to tap into BL’s popularity, like Netflix, which found a hit in British BL show, Heartstopper. 

Netflix Heartstopper
The cast of Netflix’s Heartstopper poses for a photo on the red carpet at the 27th National Television Awards in London on October 13, 2022. Photo: Getty

Despite the representation to be found in BL dramas, and to a lesser degree, girls’ love dramas, Baudientte cautions viewers to watch with the awareness that these shows largely portray romanticised narratives where queer characters are spotlighted, even as LGBTQ+ rights still have a long way to go in most countries. Despite the relationships being central to their performances and their promotions, actors who appear in BL dramas are assumed to be straight, aside from a few actors who have publicly come out. 

As Thailand’s stars become more popular in other countries, content creators are hoping to step in and help create cultural bridges. Lila Schonfeld is a U.S.-based co-host of the Star Struck Media YouTube channel, where she interviews Thai actors and entertainers. 

“I believe that Thai actors are beginning to rise in fame, aside from being talented – which a lot of them are wildly talented – because in the past few years there has been an uptick in interest in Asian media. Whether it be K-dramas or K-pop, a lot of the Western world has become more accepting of this type of entertainment. With that comes open-mindedness to try other entertainment outside of popular Korean dramas or Chinese dramas, thus expanding to Thai shows.” 

It’s not just dramas and fashion where Thai’s entertainment industry is taking off: Thai music is also having a moment. Rapper-singer Milli is perhaps the most prominent, and now part of the U.S.-based, globally-oriented Asian artist collective 88rising. Pop acts like girl group MXFruit are building buzz for their addictive bop “Strawberry Ice Cream,” while actors like Win Metawin and Jeff Satur are building impressive music careers, too.

This article was originally published in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore