BANGKOK, June 28 (Reuters) – Samran Thammasa, 39, a Bangkok “tuk tuk” taxi driver, had never heard of K-pop star Jessica Jung before the coronavirus pandemic, but now the fans singer’s Thai help her survive the loss of tourist clients.
His bright green three-wheeled rickshaw has been largely vacant for over a year. Over the past few months, however, he has earned around 600 baht ($ 19) per month running K-pop ads on his vehicle.
“The extra income might not be a lot for most people, but it is for us,” he said, glancing at a glittering vinyl banner from Jung.
Drivers of Bangkok’s distinctive tuk tuks have been among the hardest hit in the pandemic devastation of Thailand’s all-important tourism industry, leaving haunting corners of empty city streets complaining of growing debt .
Samran was making around 1,500 baht ($ 47) a day transporting foreign tourists around Bangkok. Almost all of that is gone as visitor numbers plummeted by 85% in 2020, and Thailand is yet to lift its strict border controls for months.
Unexpected help came this year from politically disgruntled and K-pop obsessed Thai youth this year when they stopped buying ads celebrating their idol’s birthdays and album launches on public transport, instead giving their advertising money to local businesses, including tuk tuks and street vendors.
Over the past few months, young fans have stepped up to put banners of their favorite K-pop idols on 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 photos and use their service, often with tips. .
So far, the initiative has benefited several hundred tuk tuk drivers. There are over 9,000 registered tuk tuks in Bangkok, according to government data.
The trend has its roots in last year’s anti-government protests that drew tens of thousands of students calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – who first came to power in a coup military state.
Many K-pop fans were protesters themselves and last year pledged to remove huge advertising costs from the billboards of Bangkok’s skytrain and underground services – a long, light tradition. date for different groups of fans – after the closure of public transport to try to prevent students from reaching protest sites. .
Fans began printing vinyl or cardboard signs and recruiting tuk tuk drivers in garages and on the streets, channeling their advertising funds to the people who needed them most.
“It is a political expression that we do not support the capitalists. It marked a change from our competition to reserve billboards for the skytrain and subway, but now they are tuk tuks,” he said. said Pichaya Prachathomrong, 27.
Pichaya herself raised 18,000 baht ($ 565) among Thai fans of boy group Super Junior to promote member Yesung’s new album, before recruiting 13 tuk tuks through a new booking service on the messaging app. popular LINE.
The “Tuk Up” service, created by 21-year-old sophomore Thitipong Lohawech, was initially intended to help dozens of drivers who rented vehicles from his family’s garage. But now it supports around 300 drivers from all over Bangkok.
“Fans distribute income to the grassroots, which helps spur social change and support the economy,” Thitipong said.
The drivers said they had hardly seen the government-approved relief of around 967 billion baht ($ 30 billion), as the documents were mostly accessible only through a mobile wallet app. .
“By the time the money gets to us we are almost dead,” said Pairot Suktham, a 54-year-old driver who, like many others, does not have a smartphone.
“The fans are our survival 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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