Whenever Korean music, TV dramas and films become a global phenomenon, especially gaining popularity among American audiences, Thai people usually talk about Korean soft power strategies and what we should do to accomplish what they have done.
There are a number of Korean Wave highlights. One is the TV drama series Dae Jang Geum (2003) which gained popularity in Asia. Another highlight appeared in 2012 with Psy's Gangnam Style K-pop smash hit which peaked at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2019, Korean boy band BTS sold out London's Wembley Stadium, with a capacity of 90,000. A year later, BTS's Dynamite hit No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in the same year, the Korean movie Parasite won four Oscars. Recently, the solo debut album Lalisa by Thai singer Lalisa "Lisa" Manoban, contracted under a Korean music label, and Netflix's K-drama Squid Game have become global sensations.
The Thai entertainment industry has discussed Korea's soft power for 17 years now, but it is unable to utilise soft power to make an impact. One reason Thais would like to emulate Korean soft power is that in the past, South Korea was a poor country like Thailand. However, South Korea is now a developed country with a pop culture that has worldwide influence. Hence, people in Thailand's entertainment industry hope that following South Korea's soft power strategy may help us develop a more creative industry and bring more income to the country.
The Seoul government plays a major role in the success of South Korean soft power. There are long-term policies to support the entertainment industry in various aspects. For example, large production studios and concert halls were built. Technology related to the industry and laws to protect intellectual property rights were also developed. People in the Thai entertainment industry would also like such government support.
When discussing soft power, Thais usually mention cultural products such as music, film and food. However, yaoi, or Boy's Love (BL), content is a Thai soft power that is not recognised internally in the country, despite the fact that Thai BL TV series have attracted fans around the world from Asia and the Middle East to Latin America.
So, it came as a surprise to discover that the Department of International Trade Promotion (DITP) under the Ministry of Commerce saw the potential of this niche market and officially announced its support.
Somdet Susomboon, director-general of the DITP, said the BL market value is more than 1 billion baht. The DITP plans to hold events and activities to highlight that Thailand is a hub of BL content. Last July, the DITP invited international content providers from Asia and Latin America to meet online with Thai creators and was able to sell their content for 360 million baht. Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam were among the countries that purchased Thai BL content the most. In addition to TV series, people in the BL industry can earn income from actors' fan meets and books that are turned into TV shows.
According to the YouTube channel Rainavene, last year Thailand released 24 BL TV series. LINE TV, an online platform, reported that in 2020, there were almost 19 billion viewers/users who watched BL TV series on its platform. Before the BL genre became a strength of Thai soft power, it was taboo due to negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. With the progression of time, attitudes have changed and Thai society is more open to LGBTI. Since LGBTI is not accepted in many countries, those places cannot develop that kind of content.
Why do international viewers become fans of Thai BL content? Thai PBS interviewed Japanese fans of Thai BL, especially 2gether The Series and Sotus The Series. The fans said they enjoyed seeing the lifestyles of Thai university students. They also liked other actor-related content that allows them to get to know the stars better, such as interview clips and game shows. One viewer commented that Thai BL TV series stands out due to its light-hearted content. Also, in the series, there are scenes involving gay affection in public places which is not often seen in Japanese BL TV series.
BL TV is a good place to start in expanding Thai soft power. To strengthen and expand the shows' reach to a wider audience requires development. One BL director said Thai shows still lack variety of content since most series involve romantic relationships among university students. The director also wants to introduce beautiful destinations and Thai food in his productions to attract international visitors who want to explore and experience Thai culture. However, quality production requires investment.
It would be an immense help if the government could provide financial support to content creators and begin a long-term plan to develop the Thai BL industry. I hope the government will be more supportive of this market since Thailand has the potential of becoming a leader in the BL industry. Perhaps, Thai BL content will be an example for other countries in the future.
Suwitcha Chaiyong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.