Drivers of the famous Bangkok tuk- tuk’s have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of tourists to the city. Now financial help has come from an unlikely source. Fans of K-pop.
Main picture Tuk-tuk driver Samran Thammasa stands next to his vehicle decorated with a banner of K-pop star Jessica Jung, as he waits for customers, in Bangkok, Thailand credit REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa
For those of you who are not up to speed with modern, popular Asian music, K-pop is short for Korean popular music and has become increasingly popular worldwide. Influenced by a wide range of musical styles including pop, rock, hop hop, electronic, dance, folk, jazz and country alongside more traditional Korean sounds. It has become an industry worth around US$5 billion per year. To put that in perspective, in 2020 K-pop band BTS sold more albums than Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift.
Bangkok tuk-tuk driver Samran Thammasa, 39 used to earn around 1,500 baht ($47) a day ferrying foreign tourists around Bangkok. Nearly all of that disappeared as visitor numbers fell by 85% in 2020, and Thailand is not expected to lift its strict border controls in Bangkok until October at the earliest.
Help came from an unexpected source earlier this year when K-pop-obsessed young Thai’s stopped buying ads celebrating their idols’ birthdays and album launches from public transport, instead giving their ad money to grassroots businesses, including tuk tuks and street food vendors.
Over the last few months, young fans have mobilised to put up banners of their favourite K-pop idols on the iconic vehicles for a month at a time, providing a new source of income for struggling drivers.
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.
His bright green three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw has now been mostly vacant for more than a year. In the past few months, though, he’s earned about 600 baht ($19) a month to feature K-pop ads on his vehicle.
“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 K-pop star Jessica Jung.
So far, the initiative has benefited several hundred tuk tuk drivers among the 9,000 tuk-tuks registered in Bangkok.
The trend has roots in anti-government protests last year that drew tens of thousands of students calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – who first came to power in a military coup – to step down.
Many K-pop fans were protesters themselves, and last year vowed to pull huge billboard advertising fees from Bangkok’s skytrain and underground subway services – a longstanding lighthearted tradition for different fan groups – after mass transport shut down to try to prevent students from reaching protest sites.
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 ($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.
The “Tuk Up” service, created by 21-year-old university sophomore 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 grassroots, which helps drive social change and support the economy,” said Thitipong.
Drivers said they have seen little of the government’s approved relief of around 967 billion baht ($30 billion), as handouts were mostly only accessible via a mobile wallet application.
“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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