A brief history of Thai BL

Early Origins

We can trace the origin of BL or Boy’s Love to Japan. While most fans of BL will associate BL with Yaoi, BL and YAOI are not the same thing. Both genera originate in Japan, but YAOI is an acronym for the Japanese, Yama nashi (no peak or climax!), Ochi nashi (No point!), Imi nashi (no meaning). This phrase is derogatory and denotes the lack of adherence of Yaoi to traditional manga standards. Yaoi manga is a result of the blending of two manga literary traditions: the fan-fic parodies of popular manga (doujinshi) which often featured homoerotic depictions of the manga heroes, and the shoujo manga, romantic manga aimed at teen girls. Yaoi manga made its way from Japan to Thailand, where many underground writers using pseudonyms created hundreds of novels and short stories. Just like in Japan, Thailand’s Yaoi is mostly written and consumed by women. Many of these stories were published online and some made it to print. One of these stories, penned under the pseudonym Indrytimes, became immensely popular in Thailand, and allowed BL to jump from an obscure and underground literary genre to become a subgenre of Thai lakorns. The name of the novel was Love Sick: The Chaotic Lives of Blue Short Boys (รักวุ่น วัยรุ่นแสบ in Thai).

Love Sick and the rise of Thai BL

In 2013, a teen soap opera (lakorn) called Hormones became hugely popular in Thailand. In its first season, Hormones featured a BL side story. Surprisingly, the BL side story was popular and perhaps provided the template for an idea that would proof to be successful, the merging of the Hormones school lakorn concept with a BL story front and center. In 2014, a small independent production company brought the Love Sick novel to the TV screen. Thailand’s state-owned MCOT brought the show and aired it on one of its channels. In October 2014, Love Sick became the first show in Asia (and perhaps the world?) to feature two teenage boys as the main couple that we were meant to root for, the true stars of the show. Thus, Yaoi had become mainstream as it entered the TV screens for the first time in Thailand as Thai BL.

After a highly successful, albeit controversial, first season, MCOT order a second season of the show. At 36 episodes, Love Sick season 2 was three times as long as it is first season but also marked an important step in the development of Thai BL. Still standing alone in the BL lineup (no other BL series aired at that time in Thailand), the second season of Love Sick was the first to add multiple BL couples, thought it kept the original format of an ensemble cast with heterosexual side couples.  This became a common trope in Thai BL, in which anyone can fall in love with anyone. Gay men or men who develop homosexual romantic relationships are not rare but common in the Thai BL universe.

Two years after Love Sick premiered, and a year after it had ended its second season, Thailand had four BL series scheduled to air, including SOTUS (GMMTV) and Make It Right (MCOT/LINETV). Make it Right marked another step in the evolution of BL. Unlike Lovesick, the majority of the MIR characters were same-sex couples with only a few heterosexual characters. MIR was raunchier and treated more mature topics than Lovesick. The cast of Make it Right also became very popular all over Asia and eventually a second, even raunchier, season 2 was green lit.  

A second show which aired in 2016 also became a powerhouse franchise, SOTUS. With GMMTV providing a solid financial backing, SOTUS elevated the production values of Thai BL, quickly gaining an international following. Unlike MCOT’s Lovesick and Make It Right, which featured a cast of mostly new and unproven actors, GMMTVs SOTUS had a cast of experienced and professional actors, which included some former Lovesick cast members.

Since the premiere of Love Sick in 2014, the number of Thai BL series offered every year has increased dramatically. In 2015, only one BL show aired in Thailand. Four years later, more than a dozen BL series were aired or streamed in Thailand. Support for international fans has also increased, with many of the shows providing their own English subtitles as opposed to “fan subbing”. In 2020, 2Gether: The Series, a Thai BL also produced by GMMTV became the most streamed showed in the online Asian platform LINETV.  This show also trended on twitter worldwide consistently during it is 13-episode run. In little more than five years, Thai BL has become an important industry with a reach beyond Thailand. As of this date (May 2022), more than 100 BL series are produced per year, and most of them are produced in Thailand. A recent article in the Bangkok Post stated that the BL industry represents about 30 million USD per year and that Thailand is poised to take advantage of this in its quest to become another Asian soft power (like Korea).

Besides Japan and Thailand, BL is produced in many other countries. BL series, with a more queer-centric plot, have been produced in Taiwan since around 2017, when the first HIStory was produced. The Philippines produced its first true BLs in 2020. The jury is out if we consider Sakristan, Hello Stranger or Gameboys as the first BLs from The Philippines, since they were released almost simultaneously. In 2020, South Korea joined the list of countries producing BLs, with “Where Your Eyes Linger”. In 2021, Gameboys became the first Filipino BL series to be offered on Netflix internationally. We don’t have a lot of data on Vietnam, since MyDramaList does not catalogue Vietnamese shows, but we know they have been producing series since at least 2019. Also, since 2021, Japan has increased the number of BL series available online. Recently, Cambodia has been rumored to have a BL production on the works. In 2022, Netflix released what some have said is the first true Western BL, the series “Heart Stoppers”. I have not watched it yet, but as soon as I do, I will let you know if I think it is a BL (or not).

BL is truly an international phenomenon on the rise!

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