There is a table in Soontaree Thiprat’s Phuket cafe that is always fully booked. Most of her customers at the Dibuk restaurant want to sit in the corner, at the spot with the red tablecloth and purple flower.
It is the table where the male student characters Billkin and PP would sit together and flirt in I Told Sunset About You and its sequel, I Promised You the Moon, a romantic Thai series that has proved hugely popular in its home country and abroad.
Devoted fans of the show, who have flocked not only from across Thailand but also from Japan, Korea and Vietnam, pose for photos as they wait to dine in Billkin and PP’s hangout. “They scream so much that I would like to call an ambulance,” said Soontaree.
I Told Sunset About You is part of a recent wave of Thai dramas known as “boys’ love” (BL) – also called the “Y” series in Thailand– whose portrayal of gay romance has attracted a large following across Asia. Already, 17 Thai BL series have been released this year, while 43 were released in 2020 and 2021, according to the fan website Blwatcher.com.
The romcom drama series 2gether, one of the BL genre’s biggest hits, surpassed 100m views on the streaming platform Line TV just months after its release.
As Thailand tries to rebuild its travel industry, the country’s tourism authority has sought to capitalise on their popularity, hosting “Thai BL” booths at a recent marketing event in Osaka, Japan, where the dramas are especially popular, and running a Japanese-language Twitter account profiling locations featured in famous scenes.
Private firms have also responded to the trend. Japanese company HIS recently ran online tours of locations used in the filming of 2gether, while some Thai language teachers have also begun offering lessons that specialise in the slang used in BL dramas.
Monruethai Harada, a Thai language teacher at Jaya & 3S Groups in Tokyo, said she has seen a 20-30% increase in students wanting to learn Thai after BL dramas became popular in 2020. Most of them are women aged about 30, though one recent student was 75 years old. “She really loves to watch the boys’ love dramas. She said it’s the most exciting and thrilling ever,” said Monruethai.
While BL has its roots in Japanese manga comics, Thai production companies have transformed the genre by adapting it for TV and producing a flurry of popular series, said Rujirat Ishikawa, assistant professor at the School of Cultural and Creative Studies, based in Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University. “In the past, I don’t think people believed there was a big market for the boys’ love dramas,” she said.
Thai BL dramas first boomed in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. “Because of Covid, [people] had plenty of time,” said Ishikawa.
In Japan, similar TV series are usually only accessible to viewers who have a paid subscription but Thai broadcasters are more relaxed about uploading content online, said Ishikawa. “[Audiences] just say: ‘We watch it on YouTube, it’s free, why not?’” Fans often add subtitles in their languages so that others can also enjoy the dramas.
“You can see the internet power here and how it spreads,” said Ishikawa, adding that most fans are drawn to the series by the attractive male actors, the often happy story lines and the music.
For Thailand’s struggling tourism industry, the popularity of the dramas is welcome news, though commenters point out that the Thai government, despite talk of building the country’s soft power abroad, has struggled to embrace the genre.
“Initially, the Thai state appeared to be in an awkward position about the broadcast of Thai BL drama via traditional mediums like free TV channels,” said Poowin Bunyavejchewin, senior researcher at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “Yet man has to eat. The Thai state needs money. It is as simple as that.”
The majority of BL series are shown in Thailand on alternative platforms that link with smartphones, such as Line TV, added Poowin, which “may ease the concerns of Thai conservatives, as sweet erotic love between young men has not been highly visible to them”. Nor has it interfered with the traditional soap operas broadcasting on free TV channels.
But some in the LGBT community have mixed feelings about the dramas. BL offers a happier, more positive portrayal of same-sex relationships than elsewhere in Thai media, where gay love tends to end in tragedy, said Kangwan Fongkaew, a lecturer at Burapha University in Chonburi province, who has studied the representation of LGBT communities in Thai media.
But while this is in some ways refreshing, BL dramas do not offer true representations of society. They are generally focused on “puppy love” and omit the realities faced by gay men in Thailand, which still does not have basic rights such as equal marriage, said Kangwan.
Viewers, added Kangwan, “might misunderstand that Thailand is a gay paradise, which is totally not true”.
The leading characters are also predominantly light-skinned, middle class and educated, he said: “The boys’ love series don’t reflect the real diversity of the LGBT community in Thai society, and that’s why the stigma and discrimination against LGBT are still going on right now.”
But he also believes the dramas could bring change, especially if their portrayals of same-sex love become more nuanced or political: “I am still hopeful.”
Soontaree, who is gay, said she supports the BL series, adding that the dramas are a powerful tool for Thailand: “I can see it clearly. When part 1 [of I Told Sunset About You] was on air and it was the Covid time, I still earned an income from that because the fans were coming to visit the restaurant.”
Although some visitors can become a bit overwhelmed, she welcomes the fans. If they are busy taking photos and enjoying the scene, she said, at least they will not be rushing her to serve them: “They don’t pressure me to cook as fast.”