Thailand’s Performers and ProtestersBy Liew Kai Khiun, 2023
K-pop, or contemporary Korean popular music, is associated with the global popular music industry. Highly manufactured, managed, and manicured »idol« groups executing synchronised dance performances to catchy tunes for screaming fans – what relevance is this mainstream pop music industry to the more experimental and independent orientations of Nusasonic? Keen to provide more local and regional perspectives and pedagogical materials to the global academic literature, I have been writing about Asia’s popular music landscape for the past two decades.
The following decade of the 2010s was breathtaking for the region. Southeast Asia’s late Millennials and Generation Zs demonstrated the transformative potential of using K-pop to achieve celebrity status, as well as for activism. Here, I will use Thailand as a case-study for such cultural leveraging. Aside from the significant representation of its artists in the K-pop industry, the kingdom of approximately 70 million people also visibly stood out as a dynamic force in the globalisation of K-pop through both cultural aesthetics and political activism.
LalisaDebuted in 2016 under the Korean YG Entertainment label, the all-female K-pop group Blackpink shot to global stardom within a year, rivalling its male counterpart BTS on the world stage. Among its four members is Lalisa Manoban (Lisa) from Thailand. Already bilingual in Thai and English, she became fluent in Korean, further distinguishing herself as one of the more cosmopolitan K-pop artists. In a segment of her self-titled solo music video (MV) released on 10 September 2021, Manoban showcased her Thai cultural identity as she raps in a sabai-style top and sarong wrap skirt, paying homage to Thai artistry and fabrics. A striking feature of her costume was the pointed golden crown designed along the patterns of the Thai traditional headgear, the Chada, used in traditional dances. Shortly after the release of the music video, similar versions started appearing in retail outlets in Thailand as reports of its demand surged.
For the native from the Thai province of Buriram, incorporating Thai heritage with contemporary fashion designs and dance choreography stemmed from a desire to conjure a »Thai-style melody to the music video’s sets, styling, album design, and choreography.« Counting more than 70 million views on YouTube within 24 hours of its release, »Lalisa« set a new record for the most viewed solo artist on the platform in a day. Exceeding half a billion views at the time of writing, through K-pop, Manoban has augmented not just Thai cultural aesthetics and heritage, but also the presence of Southeast Asia onto the world stage.
Building on artists like 2NE1’s Tagalog-fluent Sandara Park (who grew up in The Philippines) and 2PM’s KhunNitchakhun Horawetchakun (Nichkhun) from Thailand in the early 2010s, Manoban’s prominence marked a new pinnacle in the momentum of K-pop artists from Southeast Asia who heeded the industry’s global talent search. In addition to Lisa, Kunpimook Bhuwakul (Bam Bam) and Chittaphon Leechaiyapornkul (Ten) from boy groups GOT7 and SuperM, and girl group members Nicha Yontararak (Minnie) from G(I)DLE and Chonnason Satchakun (Sorn) from the now disbanded CLC, Thais dominate Southeast Asia’s presence in the K-pop industry. On 14 May 2023, YG Entertainment, the label that engendered Blackpink, debuted its next generation K-pop group, Babymonster. The multinational septet included two Thais, Riracha Phondechaphiphat (Chiquita) and Pharita Chaikong (Pharita), that the company positioned as part of the cosmopolitan global face of the K-pop industry.
The reasons for such prominence remain elusive. Nichkhun’s personal success in opening up more doors for aspiring Thai K-pop artists is one possible factor, which was mentioned by Bam Bam in his tribute to the artist in a press conference in 2022. At a broader level, Thais have decades of continued exposure and contact with both Western and East Asian counterparts. Through the sustained cultural linkages of its ethnic Chinese minorities, the Thai market has been exposed to post-war Hong Kong and Taiwanese popular entertainment. Being an international tourist hub since the Vietnam War, the kingdom is also no stranger to trends in Western popular cultures. It may therefore have deeper industry networks and the accompanying cultural sensibilities of both global Hollywood and regional entertainment.
BNK48 and IsanMaking significant inroads into the markets of the Asia-Pacific, K-pop has overshadowed local entertainment markets. It has in some ways, made the local industries look dated, bringing to the surface the complacency of uncompetitive local commercial entertainment. This apparent climate could also be the motivation for Thais aspiring to enter the K-pop industry. Like its neighbours in Southeast Asia, efforts have been made within the Thai popular music industry to follow the rhythmic and aesthetic trends pioneered by K-pop. The most notable emphasis comes as a move towards localising the K-pop idol group concept through staging local pre-debut auditions and training that lead towards the formation and roll-out of official dance-oriented boy and girl groups under a refreshed Thai pop, or T-pop, label. In this respect, one of the more innovative initiatives to meet the K-pop challenge in Thailand was inspired by Japanese popular music, or J-pop.
With beginnings in the Tokyo district of Akihabara in 2005, AKB48 is a collective of amateur young female artists whose individual popularities with fans are cultivated by their daily performances at the AKB theatre. Founded by Yasushi Akimoto, the appeal of this collective is one of the »incompleteness« and »work-in-progress« of female teenage performers improving on their singing and dancing while forging solidarities with fellow team members. Through their daily shows, fans can identify with both the struggles and progress of the individual members. Popularly received within the J-pop industry, the AKB48 concept was also exported.
In 2016, Thai entrepreneur Jirat Bawonwattana bought the AK48 franchise and founded the Bangkok version, BNK48. Bawonwattana started to rejuvenate the T-pop industry with promises of stardom for a new generation of Thai youths. The experience of new BNK48 recruits came across as novel in the country. As mentioned by Tarwaan, a BNK48 member, in an interview with All Magazine in 2019:
»I was a K-Pop fan before. I followed Korean entertainment more than Japanese so I didn’t know much about the system of 48 groups. When I first joined, I learned that we need to have Senbatsu (members who are selected in each song) for 16 persons. There are stage performances and competitions. I was confused. I didn’t know how I should react.«
The pool of talents consolidated by the BNK48 concept spread out into concerts, television programmes, and films. Amongst one of the more outstanding musical productions was the theme song for the 2020 film Thibaan, titled »ไทบ้าน x BNK48 จากใจผู้สาวคนนี้«. Co directed by Surasak Pongsorn and Thiti, the song was created by challenging several members of the BNK48 to go to the countryside to learn traditional folk songs, as part of the efforts to come up with new songs for the group. The music video featured the travels of BNK48 members, complete with cosplay uniforms, into the Isan countryside in Northern Thailand, and staged the artists’ synchronised dance choreographies against the musical backdrop of the region’s distinct provincial folk songs steeped in its morlam and luk thong traditions. The film and accompanying MV became part of the outcome of the broader regional interactions of mixing new East Asian sounds with Thai traditional folk musical aesthetics. Aside from highlighting localised geographies, such productions would also go on to shape local gender identities, which Thai youths have positioned using K-pop.
Boys GenerationK-pop male idols have frequently been labelled as »effeminate« for their use of cosmetics and metrosexual fashion sensibilities. However, within the industry, gender roles are highly separated with structured »masculine« and »feminine« dance choreographies for male and female K-pop groups respectively. Perhaps the group that most embodied such gender distinctions was Girls Generation (SNSD). As one of SM Entertainment’s flagship acts, the original nine-member group became known for their leggy dance performances executed in high heels, in reference to Cabaret dancers from the previous century.
Cover dance performances are a ubiquitous part of K-pop, with performances in both the physical and digital spheres often appearing shortly after the release of the official music video and dance practices of K-pop groups. Observers of K-pop trends have noticed the beginnings of a more casual, mixed-gender appropriation in Southeast Asia of otherwise clearly gendered K-pop performances. For example, from the early 2010s, schools and prisons in The Philippines were using the dance choreographies of K-pop groups like T-ara and Momoland as part of their dance education and performances, making no reference to which gender these choreographies were originally created for. It was again in Thailand where a more subversive re-interpretation and appropriation of K-pop came to be, via the 2009 cover-dance parody of K-pop’s Wonder Girls song »Nobody« by a group of teenage boys named Wonder Gays. Pioneering the cross-gender K-pop cover-dance performance, their cover became one of the earlier viral YouTube videos in Thailand. Receiving both celebratory acclaim as well as sissyphobic reactions from the Thai public, Wonder Gays was subsequently signed by a major local record label, RS Thailand, for a one-year national tour.
Another K-pop cover-dance group that gained public attention in Thailand was Boys Generation, which mainly referenced the choreographies of Girls Generation. Formed in 2009 from members within the local K-pop fan internet forum, the nine-member group gained public recognition with more sustained cover-dances of SNSD’s official versions. Composed mainly of college students, Boys Generation was more of an informal collective, with members tasked with the responsibility of playing the roles of specific SNSD members in their performances. Although the group had staged public performances in addition to video uploads of its choreographies, Boys Generation eventually faded out due to individual members leaving after college graduation. With the increasing ubiquity of K-pop cover dances being performed by both sexes, the cross-gender staging of groups like Wonder Gays and Boys Generation may no longer come across as being radically transgressive today. However, I do feel that they have paved the way for this transformative possibility, normalising what K-pop scholar Dredge Kang describes as the all-kathoey (male to female transgender) K-pop inspired Thai cover dance.
TingsThe word »ting« (short for »ting hu« or »earlobe« in Thai) has conventionally referred to high school regulations on the hair length of female students that should not be shorter than the earlobe. The word took on a new meaning with the presence of mainly female, young K-pop fans in Thailand, who became known as »ting« or »ting Korean« (pronounced as Ting Kaw-ree). The rapid spread of mobile communications coincided with a burgeoning youth demographic in the region’s emerging economies. The increasing affordability of smartphones over the past decade has resulted in a digitally connected, socially networked, and culturally autonomous Generation Z.
In November 2021, H1-Key, a new K-pop girl group, was introduced with one of its members, Sitala Wongkrachan from Thailand. As the daughter of the recently deceased popular actor Sarunyoo Wongkrachan, Sitala’s parentage would have given her an advantage in the Thai market. However, the elder Wongkrachan was also known for his royalist political orientations, and was even featured with Sitala in one of the pro-coup demonstrations in 2014. Upon her debut, the otherwise normally supportive Thai public turned against Sitala with Twitter hashtag #แบนลูกหนัง (cancel the artist Looknung). The public’s anger stems from a Thai K-pop fandom that became more politically conscious.
By the late 2010s, »tings« became more visible in the mainly youth-led protest movement for reforms to the Thai monarchy. Encapsulating the politicisation of a predominately feminine sphere of K-pop fandom, in an interview with Reuters in November 2020, a »ting« by the pseudonym of »Suphinchaya« noted: »K-pop fans would love to just fangirl over our ›oppas‹ [ meaning ›big brother‹ in Korean, where male idols are usually affectionately addressed by female fans] and care about nothing else, but with our country like this, we as citizens have to call for better things.«
The »tings« are also part of a broader umbrella of spontaneous regional youth-led social movements known also as the Milk Tea Alliance. Taking its name from a popular drink amongst the region’s youth, the movement signifies common transnational democratic aspirations and solidarities. In this context, K-pop is pivoted into protest songs and dances, and normally apolitical fan clubs become sites of public mobilisation and activism. Again, this trend has been most prominent in Thailand during the youth-led anti-government protests in early 2020. Lasting for close to a year, the demonstrations witnessed a new wave of public discontent against the military-backed Thai government of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a royalist army general who staged a military coup against the civilian government in 2014.
In public demonstrations, K-pop fans were marking their presence with K-pop dance choreographies and songs that blended sonically with angrier anti-government slogans and chants. Giving serious events a more carnivalesque flavour, theatrical performances alongside both makeshift and professional artistic installations and exhibitions have been an integral part of public protests and social movements.
It is here that the generation growing up on K-pop was able to retrofit the seemingly apolitical commercial mainstream into political postures and positions. One K-pop song, »Into the New World (다시 만난 세계)« stood out as a protest anthem. The 2007 debut for Girls Generation, this candy-pop narrative about youthful confidence was first heard as a protest anthem in South Korea during the demonstrations against then-president Park Guen Hye, the daughter of the military dictator Park Chun-Hee. An excerpt of the lyrics (translated into English here) reflects the potential potency of the song, that could also be flipped into a protest:
»Don't wait for any special miracle
Our rough path in front of us
Might be an unknown future and challenge
But we can’t give up«
Ordinarily considered to be dated, this song would not have resonated with the generation of young protesters that were probably in their childhood when the song debuted. However, like their Korean counterparts, Thai protesters also took up »Into the New World« as one of several protest anthems. Mentioning being jaded by conventional protest chants in an interview with South China Morning Post on 3 November 2020, activist Natchapol Chaloeykul and his companions brought in speakers and blared »Into the New World.« The more artistically inclined protesters also conducted dance lessons based on the song’s dance choreography.
Complementing the physical environment, the well-established K-pop social media networks of local fan clubs and communities became platforms for political mobilisation and public activism. It was on these sites where a plethora of activities mobilised fans through crowdsourcing for donations to finance protest activities, information dissemination, and by coordinating activities. Amongst one of the social media activities that came into public limelight was a Girls Generation’s Twitter site that raised 780,000 baht (US$25,000) in less than a day, adding to a total of 4 million baht (US$128,000) raised together with other K-pop social media sites in Thailand in one week.
Before the coup, Thai K-pop fandoms were buying advertising spaces from the Bangkok Train System (BTS) and the main public transit companies associated with the political establishment, to commemorate the birthdays of their idols. In deciding to boycott these businesses, they redirected their resources to put up the same posters on the rear of Bangkok’s ubiquitous »tuk tuk« (scooter taxis) operated by individual drivers. At the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, this move was also critical in providing additional financial support for the tuk tuk drivers.
Similar to blockchain environments, these pivoted K-pop fan clubs were highly autonomous entities loosely linked together. Without the formal structures that characterised traditional trade unions and NGOs that could be easily connected to authorities, these groups were able to operate more effectively and quietly.
Almost coincidentally, several months later K-pop digital activism took the global centre stage in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections, where K-pop fans who were also openly supporting Black Lives Matters were also disrupting Trump’s social media campaigns. Similar tactics were also seen in Myanmar a year later, when the country’s once politically latent K-pop fandom mobilised public protests against the military coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021. It is highly possible that Thai K-pop communities provided the references and inspirations for their Myanmar counterparts.
ConclusionBlackpink’s Lisa, the women of BNK48, the cover-dancers of Boys Generation and Wonder Gays, the nameless »ting’s« in the David versus Goliath challenge to the military-backed monarchist government; Thailand stands in the centre of the narrative of Southeast Asia as a big driver of K-pop’s unprecedented global spread over the past two decades. It is also very much a women and feminine centered undertaking in creatively appropriating and converting pop culture into dynamic political expression. Youthful and vibrant, Southeast Asia’s interaction with K-pop also brings new sonic possibilities where any country in the region can lead the next global pop music sensation.
- Tun-atiruj, Choltanutkun (2020). »How K-Pop Helped Fuel Thailand's Political Awakening,« Vice News, 27. Oktober.
- Fernandez, Annabelle (2021). »Blackpink’s Lisa Manoban championed 3 Thai designers in her ‘Lalisa’ music video,« Vogue Singapore. 11. September. These are the Thai designers Lisa wore in her 'Lalisa' music video (vogue.sg)
- Herman, Tamar (2020). »K-pop fans turn their collective focus on the protests in Thailand, raising money and awareness about the movement,« South China Morning Post, 22. Oktober.
- Kraipakorn, Dome (2018). »BNK 48 a Thai-Japanese cultural commodity in the stagnation of Thai music business: Contemporary entertainment business history,« Journal of Advanced Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, 3(4): 136-141.
- McCurry, Justin (2020). »How US Kpop fans became a political force to be reckoned with,« The Guardian, 24. Juni.
- Tanakasempipat, Patpicha (2020). »K-pop's social media power spurs Thailand's youth protests,« Reuters, 3. November.