The rise and rise of Thai Boys Love shows (Part 1)
By: David Ho
June 20, 2023
Coming hot on the platform heels of the Hallyu/Korean wave, the “Thai wind” of Boys Love (BL) dramas is bringing a brand-new wave of stars in its wake. David Ho tunes into the latest pop culture phenomenon
With sold-out shows in different cities, catchy pop music performed by stylish young men to hordes of screaming fans, one may think another hot new K-pop boyband have come to town.
In a sense, it certainly doesn’t look all that different. But the stars in question hail from Thailand and are actors from various Boys Love (BL) shows. For those not in the know, BL shows (also known as yaoi in Japan where it originated) typically depicts a romance between two male leads.
It’s clear the stars of Thai BL genre have established an ardent following. In the first full week of June alone, Hong Kong has seen fan meet events from BKPP (Billkin and PP Krit from I Promised You The Moon and I Told Sunset About You) and EarthMix (Pirapat “Earth” Watthanasetsiri and Sahaphap “Mixxiw” Wongratch from A Tale of Thousand Stars). Not only were their shows sold out, but EarthMix event apparently crashed HK Ticketing’s site. Another pairing Bright and Win, stars of the 2gether series, are due to hit town next month.
“While on the fringe for many years, BL shows grew exponentially in popularity the past few years. With live performances returning to major cities, production companies have been sending performers out on short concerts and fan meeting events. In Hong Kong and other Asian cities, tickets for these shows sell out immediately, with a few ticketing sites even crashing due to heavy traffic from fans eager to meet their idols,” says Dr J Travis, a lecturer on pop culture at The City University of Hong Kong.
The events are usually a hybrid of a concert and a talk show where the stars perform songs from their shows, perform skits and answer a variety of questions from a host. But one thing that has remained constant is the presence of a predominantly female, screaming fan base.
A pan-Asian phenomenon
The stronghold that Thai BL now has on pop culture goes back a long way. “BL fandom has existed in the Thailand since the 90’s thanks to the import of Japanese paperback yaoi graphic novels,” says Dr Thomas Baudinette, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is also the author of Boys Love Media in Thailand: Celebrity, Fans, and Transnational Asian Queer Popular Culture, the first academic book investigating this phenomenon.
Some may trace one of the first successful Thai media depiction of same-sex love to the 2007 movie, Love of Siam. But its writer and director Chookiat Sakveerakul has been careful not to box it within the confines of BL, despite it hitting many of the tropes of the genre. It would take until 2014 for the success of the Mcot-produced series Lovesick to get the BL ball truly rolling in Thailand.
“TV execs were looking for a way to get young viewers to tune in again. They found a lot of their audience were into K-pop. At the same time, they happened upon a thriving online community of BL fans, consisting of mainly young women and some queer men, that were publishing stories online,” explains Baudinette.
So, savvy Thai executives decided to produce live action BL stories to draw viewers in, building on a genre that originated from Japan, featuring Thai stars with South Korean aesthetics. This pan-Asian mix is also reflective of the cycle of Asia’s pop culture, with the shifts in its center of production and the evolution of its content. In Asia, the epicenter of the region’s pop culture has moved from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan to South Korea today. Now, it seems the crown is going to Thailand.
“There is generally a link with previous forms of culture. A fatigue of the current combined with a familiarity in the next big thing allows it to be bridged as the next. So here we have the idol worship common in K-pop combined with a new live action take on BL manga,” says Baudinette. When this innovative mix caught on with fans abroad, two fanbases have been instrumental in furthering its popularity.
“China’s interest in BL coincided with its government’s crackdown on its own media content. The wild success of the BL web series Addicted in 2016 led to heightened attention and censorship on content production there,” says Baudinette. With proven success but no local productions to invest in, both fans and investment firms began to look abroad for alternatives, which Thai producers were just churning out.
Another fanbase of note would be the anglophone fandom in the Philippines, according to Baudinette. Their passion for Thai BL saw them translate series related material for English speakers and disseminate them on the web, making it accessible to new fans.
Of course, the fanbase for Thai BL extends across more than just these markets. The plethora of shows across Asia and even the existence of a dedicated café for the 2gether series in Tokyo are testament to that. Baudinette refers to this wave of popularity as the “Thai wind”, a cultural phenomenon akin to the hallyu/Korean wave that brought K-pop to the international stage.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped. With the world under lockdown, many new fans looking for entertainment and escapism turned to Thai BL. Baudinette notes from his own research that audiences found the tone of the shows, which generally tend to be on the saccharine and simple side, to be a great form of escapism from reality.
“Western shows on gay relationships tend to be more political and grounded, which can sometimes be a bit gloomy. The positive romance depicted in BL shows is perhaps a democratisation of what romance is like,” says Baudinette.
If one has attended any of the fan meets with the Thai BL stars, it’s clear the fandom is predominantly female. A look through both online forums and academic articles reveal that there are a multitude of draw factors for the overwhelmingly female fandom of BL. It ranges from enjoying the more equal power dynamics between two males than the typical hero-damsel in distress of male-female relationships; relatability of the characters; being able to imagine themselves in either characters safely instead of being confined to a female lead’s perspective; or simply enjoying the pretty boy looks of its stars.
“One of the reason is simply because I can watch two handsome guys at once,” says Charlotte Sin, a fan of series such as I Told Sunset About You, KinnPorsche, Bad Buddy, and My School President. “In a BL series, they are selling a fantasy that there are perfect guys with pure love in the world. These imagined worlds are mostly without women and drama involved.”
Sin is well aware that these shows are made for the female gaze, rather than a queer audience. “I am one of the ‘shippers’ but I do not really mind if they are a real couple as long as they perform. I prefer not to know much of their love life off camera, as I don’t want to destroy my fantasy whether they are real lovers or if they have girlfriends. But of course if my favourite BL couple are real, I will be very happy.”
“It doesn’t have the gender stereotypes of most male-female romances. The BL leads are quite equal and without the usual hero-damsel in distress dynamic of most romance shows, which makes it more relatable for me than the typical female characters,” says Agnes Chu, a female fan of BL shows.
“In the ‘real world’, men are not usually as emotionally open. But in BL shows, they tend to talk about their feelings, be more vulnerable, and even cry. I relate more to BL characters because they are free from gender stereotypes, and that’s why I think most females fans like it. The stories are also simple and cute.”
This story will be continued. In the second part, we speak to Thai BL stars for their view on their popularity, and look into how the genre fits in the queer landscape and its commercial allure.