K-pop activism is a lifeline for Thailand’s hard-hit tuk-tuk drivers
BANGKOK, June 28 (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 out Survive loss of tourist customers.
His bright green three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw has been mostly empty for over a year. However, over the past few months, he’s made about 600 baht ($ 19) a month from running K-pop ads on his vehicle.
“The extra income may not be much for most people, but it is for us,” he said, looking at a shimmering vinyl banner from Jung.
Bangkok’s distinctive tuk-tuks are among the hardest hit by the devastation of the pandemic of the all-important Thai tourism industry, leaving haunted corners of empty city streets complaining of rising debt.
Samran made about 1,500 baht ($ 47) a day driving foreign tourists through Bangkok. Almost everything disappeared as visitor numbers dropped 85% in 2020 and Thailand is unlikely to lift its strict border controls for months.
Unexpected help this year came from Thailand’s politically disaffected and K-pop obsessed youth when they stopped buying idol birthday ads and album launches on public transport and instead donated their advertising money to grassroots businesses like tuk tuks and street vendors.
In recent months, young fans have mobilized to put up banners with their favorite K-Pop idols on the iconic vehicles for a month, creating a new source of income for ailing drivers.
Samran and many others now drive their empty tuk-tuks through Bangkok every month with a banner from another K-pop sensation, stopping for young Thai fans to take pictures and use their service, often with tips.
So far, the initiative has benefited several hundred tuk-tuk drivers. According to the government, more than 9,000 tuk-tuks are registered in Bangkok.
The trend has its roots in anti-government protests last year, with tens of thousands of students calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power for the first time in a military coup.
Many K-pop fans have been protesters themselves and vowed last year they would pull huge advertising fees from Bangkok’s Skytrain and subway services – a long carefree tradition for various fan groups – after the mass transit shut down to try to attract students prevent reaching places of protest.
Fans began printing vinyl or cardboard signs and recruiting tuk-tuk drivers in workshops and on the street – and channeling their advertising money to the people who needed it most.
“It is a political expression that we capitalists do not support them. This was a change from the competition of booking skytrain and subway billboards, but now it’s tuk-tuks, ”said Pichaya Prachathomrong, 27.
Pichaya herself raised 18,000 baht ($ 565) among Thai fans of the boy band Super Junior to promote member Yesung’s new album before recruiting Tuk Tuks through a new booking service from popular messaging application LINE 13.
The “Tuk Up” service of the 21-year-old student Thitipong Lohaendung was initially intended to help dozen of drivers who have rented vehicles from his family’s garage. But now it supports about 300 drivers from all over Bangkok.
“The fans distribute revenue to the grassroots, which helps drive social change and support the economy,” said Thitipong.
Motorists said they saw little of the government’s approved discharge of around 967 billion baht ($ 30 billion) as the handouts were mostly only accessible through a mobile wallet application.
“If we get the money, we’re almost 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.”
($ 1 = 31.7600 Baht)
Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Tom Hogue
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