K-pop fans to the rescue! Why Jessica Jung, Super Junior and other Korean idols’ fans in Thailand are buying ads on tuk-tuks across Bangkok

Bangkok’s tuk-tuk drivers, short of the revenue usually earned from tourists, are making money from banners of K-pop stars like Jessica Jung. Photo: Reuters
Bangkok “tuk-tuk” taxi driver Samran Thammasa, 39, had never heard of K-pop star Jessica Jung before the coronavirus pandemic, but now the singer’s Thai fans are helping him survive the loss of tourist customers.

His bright green three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw has been mostly empty for more than a year now. In the past few months though, he’s earned about 600 baht (US$19) a month by featuring K-pop ads on his vehicle.

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“The extra income may not be a lot for most people, but it is for us,” he said, glancing at a shimmering vinyl banner of Jung.

Jessica Jung, one of the K-pop stars whose ads are cropping up on the sides of Bangkok’s tuk-tuks. Photo: @jessica.syj/Instagram

Drivers of Bangkok’s distinctive tuk-tuks have been hit hard by the pandemic’s devastation of Thailand’s all-important tourism industry, left haunting corners of empty city streets and complaining of mounting debts.

Samran used to earn around 1,500 baht (US$47) a day ferrying foreign tourists around Bangkok. Nearly all of that disappeared as visitor numbers fell by 85 per cent in 2020, and Thailand is not expected to lift its strict border controls for months yet.

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But unexpected help came this year from Thailand’s politically disaffected and K-pop-obsessed youth when they stopped buying ads celebrating their idols’ birthdays and album launches on public transport, instead giving their money to grass roots businesses, including tuk-tuks and street food vendors.
A woman takes a picture of a billboard wishing happy birthday to a K-pop singer Jimin in the subway in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2020. Photo: Reuters

Over the last few months, young fans have mobilised to put up banners of their favourite K-pop idols on the vehicles for a month at a time, providing a new source of income for struggling drivers.

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Samran and many others now drive their empty tuk-tuks around Bangkok with a banner of a different K-pop sensation each month, stopping for young Thai fans to take pictures and use their service, often with tips.

Tuk-tuk drivers, their vehicles decorated with banners of K-pop stars, wait for customers in Bangkok, Thailand in May 2021. Photo: Reuters

So far, the initiative has benefited several hundred tuk-tuk drivers out of the more than 9,000 tuk-tuks registered in Bangkok, according to government data.

The trend has roots in anti-government protests last year that drew tens of thousands of students out onto the streets to call for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha – who first came to power in a military coup – to step down.

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Many protesters are also K-pop fans, and last year vowed to pull their huge billboard ads from Bangkok’s skytrain and underground subway services – a long-standing lighthearted tradition for different fan groups – after mass transport shut down to try to prevent students from reaching protest sites.

Lisa Manoban, a Thai member of K-pop girl group Blackpink, poses for photos in a Bangkok cafe in Thailand. Photo: Instagram

The fans started printing vinyl or cardboard signs and recruiting tuk-tuk drivers at garages and on the street – funnelling their ad funds to the people who need it most.

“It’s a political expression that we don’t support capitalists. This marked a change from us competing to book skytrain and subway billboards, but now it’s tuk-tuks,” said Pichaya Prachathomrong, 27.

Pichaya herself raised 18,000 baht (US$565) among Thai fans of boy band Super Junior to promote member Yesung’s new album, before recruiting 13 tuk-tuks via a new booking service on popular messaging application Line.

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Tuk-tuk drivers, their vehicles decorated with banners of Thai and Korean stars, wait for customers in Bangkok, Thailand on May 12, 2021. Photo: Reuters

The “Tuk Up” service, created by 21-year-old university student Thitipong Lohawech, was initially to help dozens of drivers who rented vehicles from his family’s garage. But now it supports about 300 drivers from all over Bangkok.

“The fans are distributing income to the grass roots, which helps drive social change and support the economy,” said Lohawech.

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Drivers said they have seen little of the government’s approved relief of around 967 billion baht (US$30 billion), as handouts were mostly only accessible via a mobile wallet application.

Tuk-tuk drivers wear face masks as they wait for customers on Khao San Road, a popular tourist destination, in Bangkok in March 2020. Photo: AFP

“By the time the money reaches us, we’re nearly dead,” said Pairot Suktham, a 54-year-old driver who like many others doesn’t have a smartphone.

“The fans are our life support system and give us hope to keep fighting.”

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K-pop idols
  • After protests against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thai K-pop fans pulled their billboard ads celebrating stars’ birthdays from public transport
  • Instead the ‘Tuk Up’ service on popular messaging app Line, designed by a student, helps drivers all over Bangkok recover income lost due to travel restrictions