BANGKOK, June 10 — At her lowest point, fighting burnout and depression in her Chinese hometown, Huang Bingbing says she found comfort in watching the escapist love story of two young men on a then-unknown Thai TV drama.

She came across Love by Chance, a same-sex romance, scrolling through clips on social media five years ago and quickly became hooked on the “immature love” depicted in the show.

Inspired by her favourite idol from the series, Huang moved to Thailand a year later to start a new life, becoming part of a growing legion of fans of the “boys’ love” romance genre taking Asia by storm.

The boys’ love genre, which features same-sex male romances, began as a strand of Japanese manga comics in the 1960s known as “yaoi” but has become a booming cultural export for Thailand, where the LGBTQ community is generally more accepted than in many Asian countries.

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“People here don’t care about genders, and all the loves are equal, no matter if it’s between men, women or a third gender,” Huang, 36, told AFP.

Storylines featuring good-looking couples, romantic scenarios and themes of being true to oneself are particularly popular among straight female viewers.

Commonly known as BL, the genre has proved a hit in the region, with episodes racking up tens of millions of views online.

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Girls’ love, a genre featuring same-sex women couples, is also increasingly popular.

At promotional events, fans queue for hours to meet the stars of their favourite shows, sometimes going to lengths more often seen among K-pop devotees.

At an event this year, Huang represented a Chinese fan group for girls’ love, which donated huge floral displays made of baht banknotes worth around US$1,000.

Thais do it best

Thai BLs are also a runaway success in China, despite the government banning Chinese firms from producing or broadcasting such dramas.

“Because we like it, we will find ways to search for it,” Huang said.

“Even if we can’t find a way (ourselves), we will ask how other people watch them and follow (them).”

Thai BL series have also won the hearts of fans in Japan.

Kira Thu-Ha Trinh is a regular customer at a tiny Thai-themed cafe in Tokyo that has become a hotspot for BL fans, with its walls covered in celebrity photos.

The genre became “explosively popular” during the Covid pandemic when there was little to do but watch TV, she told AFP.

“You’ve exhausted what Japan offers. There is usually... only one BL drama in one season. If you wanted to immerse yourself more in that kind of thing, you get suggestions by the algorithm,” she said.

And, Trinh said, “this sounds kind of rude, but Thailand just made it better”.

This picture taken on April 27, 2024 shows a member of staff serving customers at Tokyo No. 1 Sabo cafe in Tokyo, a tiny Thai-themed cafe in the Japanese capital that has become a hotspot for fans of boys’ love dramas. — AFP pic
This picture taken on April 27, 2024 shows a member of staff serving customers at Tokyo No. 1 Sabo cafe in Tokyo, a tiny Thai-themed cafe in the Japanese capital that has become a hotspot for fans of boys’ love dramas. — AFP pic

BL production in Thailand has rocketed in recent years and production houses have organised fan events at home and across Asia.

The number of BL shows produced has jumped from 19 between 2014 and 2018, to 29 in 2021 and 75 in 2022, according to data collected by Poowin Bunyavejchewin, a senior researcher from Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

Poowin said the genre has become popular even in more conservative societies, such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia, although fans in these countries are often more discreet.

“There are a big group of fans (in those countries), but they cannot identify themselves as a big fan of BL publicly due to the socio-cultural constraints, like religious matters,” he told AFP.

Actors for change

Thailand is expected to legalise same-sex marriage later this year — the first country in South-east Asia to do so — but LGBTQ campaigners say there is still work to be done to change attitudes.

And despite their popularity, BL series do not reflect the challenges faced by Thailand’s LGBTQ community, Poowin said.

“Sometimes the life of gay men in Thailand is kind of tragic. They have family problems. But no one wants to consume tragedy,” he said.

Some in the BL industry hope their work can help promote LGBTQ rights, such as gender and marriage equality, in popular culture.

Actor Suppapong Udomkaewkanjana offering prayers before the release of a new television series at a shrine in Bangkok. — AFP pic
Actor Suppapong Udomkaewkanjana offering prayers before the release of a new television series at a shrine in Bangkok. — AFP pic

Actor Suppapong Udomkaewkanjana, who got his big break in Love by Chance and founded his own TV production company in 2020, says he is aiming to go beyond romance stories.

At a shrine in Bangkok, the 26-year-old joined the cast and crew of his latest drama, a girls’ love show, who gathered to pray for the success of their new series.

“I see opportunities with BL series, such as advocating gender and marriage equality,” he told AFP. — AFP