A beginners guide to Thai BL

I found myself scratching my head the very first time I watched a Thai BL. I struggled understanding certain customs, phrases and traditions. Also, when visiting websites or reading about Thai BL, I found many unfamiliar terms. Here, I will try to define the most common terms used to talk about BL and also give you a reference guide for watching BL. I will also mention the most controversial BLs, the scandals you should know about and the controversies you should be familiar with. This won’t be a complete who’s who list of Thai BL or BL terms but I will try to make it as comprehensive as possible.

Thai BL is derived from Japanese Yaoi manga and so it inherited many of its concepts. A Seme is the dominant partner in a couple. The Seme is traditionally the “top” or sexually “active” partner. He is the one who penetrates. The Uke is submissive and is traditionally the “bottom” or partner who gets penetrated. Here, I use the term traditional to refer to the yaoi manga tradition. In Thai BL, a Seme can “flip”, and this has been seen in some shows such as Love Sick.

There is a couple of ways you can identify the Seme in a Thai BL. First, a Seme is usually in a position of power relative to his partner, the Uke. In Love Sick, Phun is rich, smart and is the student council secretary while Noh is popular but not very smart. In SOTUS (2016), Kongpob is socially more adept that Arthit. However, it is Arthit who holds the “power” of seniority over Kongpob. This has confused many viewers. Who is the Seme? Well, the second way you can identify the Seme is because a Seme pursues the Uke. This is an almost universal trope in Thai BL. I don’t know of any exception to this trope. The third way you can identify a Seme is because Semes usually bring food to their Ukes. You may even notice that the Seme FEEDS the Uke and takes care of the Uke like if he was a child. Perhaps the best example of a Seme that takes care of his Uke is Sarawat in 2Gether (2020), but other recent examples include Chief Phupa taking care of Tian in A Tale of a Thousand Stars (2021).

Toxic masculinity is a common issue in Thai BL and Semes are usually the guilty party. For more information about toxic masculinity in BL and the difference between Semes and Uke, you can listen to The BL Clinic podcast episode on this topic here

Ukes are usually portrayed as less smart, sometimes blasé about the developing relationship. It is the Uke who often deals with “coming out”, thought there are exceptions (see He’s Coming To Me, 2019). Semes somehow KNOW they want to be with the Uke and don’t question there sexuality, but Ukes show more hesitation. Ukes often reject the Seme’s advances and are sexually reticent. At The BL Clinic, we call this phenomenon uke reticence. For more information on uke reticence, you can listen to The BL Clinic’s episode on this topic here

It is important to understand that a Seme is NOT the same thing as a TOP and that although translators usually use the words “wifey” and “husband” in English, these are not terms that denote any difference in masculinity between the two.

If you have ever watched a Japanese Shoujo manga live action adaptation (e.g. J-drama or dorama), you know what a tsundere is because most, if not all, of the doramas have a tsundere. [BTW The word dorama comes from how the word drama is spelled in Japanese]. A tsundere is a character who is cold, almost emotionless, but warms up to his love interest later. Sometimes a tsundere is a seme, and sometimes it is the uke. In SOTUS (2016) Arthit is a tsundere who plays the role of Uke. Similarly, in TharnType (2020), Type is a tsundere who plays the role of Uke. However, in 2Gether (2020), Sarawat is a tsundere who plays the role of Seme. In Lovesick, neither Noh nor Phun are tsunderes. In The Tale of a Thousand Stars (2021), Chief Phupa is a sort of softie Tsundere.

A lakorn is a Thai soap opera. The first “teen” lakorn was Hormones (2013). The success of Hormones is, in my opinion, the reason that MCOT took the chance on Love Sick. Lovesick (2014), Make it Right (2016) and Thank God Its Friday (2019) are all examples of teen lakorns. Most Thai BLs are lakorns. I believe the only exception to this is a new show I have not watched called YYY (2020) which is said to be a comedy. [Update: I am honestly not sure where Fish Upon The Sky (2021) falls on this but since it is more of a comedy than a drama, I had say it is not a lakorn] 

A common type of lakorn is the slap/kiss lakorn. These are called slap/kiss because often the female protagonist is slapped by the male protagonist, who then ends up kissing her. It is hate (and sadly, sometimes rape), then love.

In many Thai BL’s, characters will often talk about getting someone’s “LINE ID”. What are they talking about? Line is a messaging service platform popular in Asia. With a LINE ID, a user can find and add someone, and call them, even if they don’t know the person’s phone number. Line is owned by Line Corporation, a Japanese company.

Line can be used to make phone calls, video calls, group video calls, etc.

NOTE: As of 2022, LINE TV is no longer in existence but LINE is still used for messaging in Asia.

MCOT, LineTV, GMMTV, Rakuten Viki, Gagaoolala, and WeTV
MCOT is a part-government owned channel from Thailand. MCOT aired the first BL series, Lovesick and Make it Right.

LineTV is Line’s video-on-demand service. The first BL to air on LineTV was Make It Right (2016). By providing a platform in which BL could be watched all over Thailand (and the world), LineTV served as a catalyst for the early success and internationalization of Thai BL. The highly popular 2018 Love By Chance was, for several years, the most watched series in LineTV’s short history. LineTV cease operations at the end of 2021. Most offerings from LineTV are now available in GagaOOLala.

GagaOOLala is a Taiwanese worldwide streaming service, specializing in queer media launched in 2017. Many popular BL series from Japan are only available via GagaOOLala subscription service. Interestingly, the service is not available in China. GagaOOLala is the first LGBT-focused video streaming subscription service in Asia.

GMMTV is a studio owned by GMM Grammy. GMM Grammy is the biggest media conglomerate in Thailand. Therefore, GMMTV productions are well funded and usually well promoted.  GMMTV is in itself not a channel but a studio and talent agency. GMM25 and One31 (previously, GMMOne) are the two channels owned by GMM Grammy. GMM25 content is geared towards teenagers, while One31 is the premium content channel from GMM Grammy. Since 2022, One31 has begun offering some select, high-quality BL content, such as the series Rak Diao (2022) and Khun Chai (2022). Expect One31 series to be geared more towards young adults.

Rakuten Viki is Rakuten’s web streaming service. Rakuten is a Japanese multi-national conglomerate. In September 2013, Rakuten acquired Viki, an American web streaming platform. The first BL it aired was also the first Korean BL series to air in South Korea, Where your Eyes Linger (2020).

WeTV is a video-on-demand service from Tencent. Tencent is a Chinese multinational conglomerate, with presence in many Asian countries. It is one of the largest multimedia companies in Asia. WeTV aired its first BL show, My Engineer in 2020. [Update: In 2021, Tencent controversially deleted accounts belonging to LGBQT students in China. When you watch Tencent, understand it is not a platform supportive of gay rights!].

As of early 2022, Channel 3 from Thailand has also began to offer very high quality BL productions, including the highly popular and critically acclaimed Miracle of the Teddy Bear, which was the first BL ever to be shown on prime time TV.

Rape is a common trope in Thai BL. Specifically, the romantization of rape is a common trope in the enemy-to-friends type BLs. I will write a separate blog entry about this phenomenon, but suffice it to say, this is something that many people find off-putting about BL. Rest assured that many BLs DO NOT have rape scenes. Some Bls without rape scenes include, Lovesick (2014), SOTUS (2016), Dark Blue Kiss (2019), and He’s Coming To Me (2019). I will also note that this tradition of rape as a plot device to bring couples together is most likely inherited directly from slap/kiss lakorns.

Two series stand out as having pretty heart-wrenching and/or shocking rape scenes: The Effect (2019) and ThanType (2019). So, be aware if you have PTSD related to trauma or abuse, as the rape scenes in these two series could be triggering or make you feel uneasy. Personally, I found the scene in The Effect to be very disturbing, while the scene in TharnType just made me feel angry.

Controversial Shows
Several BLs have been mired in controversies. You will probably hear of a show called The Effect (2019) which was controversial for its frank depiction of rape and its consequences (see the above section on Rape). Another show that was relatively controversial was TharnType (2019) because of its depiction of non-consensual sex, the fact that one of the characters miraculously healed from the trauma of rape, and because one of the characters was involved in the rape of a minor.

Another controversy occurred in the early days, when Lovesick (2016) first aired. After the first kiss scene aired (Episode 8), the show was heavily censored. Though the censors knew the show depicted the romantic relationship between two boys, it seems they didn’t know that the boys would kiss or if they did, they didn’t expect a backlash from it. I understand that part of the controversy may have been that Captain was 16 at the time, while White was 19, but honestly it is such a short kiss!

In 2018, Love By Chance was set to air on MCOT. At the last minute, MCOT’s executives pulled the plug on the show and refused to air it. Luckily for us, GMMTV decided to take its chances and air the show. I am not sure how many kissing scenes were actually aired, as an uncut version was also aired on LINETV, but in any event Love By Chance became the most popular BL on LINETV and went on to become one of the most successful franchises in the history of Thai BL.

The most famous casting controversy is perhaps what occurred to the entire cast of 2Moons (2017). For the second season, the entire cast was replaced with a new, younger, and mostly inexperienced cast. This resulted in a divide among the fans: some fans only support the original 2Moons cast and do not support the new cast or the new season of 2Moons. Other fans support both while still some fans hate the original cast and only like the new cast. [Update: In 2021, the entire cast of 2Moons2 quit before 2Moons3 started shooting. The curse of 2Moons!]

In both the USA and Thailand, fans “ship” characters in shows. The term “ship” comes from relationship and it is use to express the desire of a fan for two characters to become romantically involved. In Thailand however, shipping extends beyond the fictional world: actors are shipped with actors. Thus, Thais will “ship” not only Sarawat with Tine in 2Gether (2020) but also the actors who play them, Bright and Win.

The order in which character names or actors names appear on a ship name is related to their roles or expected roles in the relationship. Semes are always listed first. Thus, for Sarawat (Seme) and Tine (Uke), the ship name will be SarawatTine. Since the line between fiction and reality is thin, fans will use the same roles for the actors. Thus, the name of the ship for these actors would be BrightWin. Similarly, the main ship in Lovesick is PhunNoh and the actor’s ship is WhiteCaptain.

The Shipping order (SemeUke) also applies to series. In TharnType (2019), Tharn is the Seme and Type is the Uke. In RakDiao (2022), Rak is the Seme and Diao is the Uke. Please, note that some English translations change the order in the original Thai. This is the case with Big Dragon (2022), in which the Seme’s name is Dragon and the Uke’s name is Big. The original title in Thai is มังกรกินใหญ่ which literally translates as Dragon Eats Big. So even in this case, the order is SemeUke!!!

I will admit, I still don’t know where the line is drawn between fiction and reality in fanservice. Regardless, fanservice is very Thai, though it seems that Chinese fans and Filipino fans get very deep into this idea of fanservice. Outside of these countries, fanservice remains highly controversial, with most international fans decrying the practice and many pointing out to either the delusional fans or the greedy managers and executives as the culprits.

I don’t know what the exact history of fanservice is, but it seems that even in the earlier shows, such as Lovesick and Make it Right, fans were already “shipping” actors together and expecting them to perform in public like the characters. Both White and Captain from Lovesick (2014) would often hug each other in public, lay their heads on each other shoulders, etc. Similarly, Peak and Boom from Make it Right (2016), would act out some aspects of their characters relationship in public. But it was Ohm and Toey, also from Make it Right (2016) who really ignited fans’ imagination and turned fanservice into the elaborate show it is today. Rumor has it (and it is only a rumor but one that has a rather interesting story) that Ohm and Toey were in fact having some kind of affair and this is why they acted the way they did. Regardless, they were the first BL actors who hugged, kissed, and held hands in public events and blurred the lines between their characters and themselves.

Fanservice can extend to a character’s storyline in a show. For example, we consider the cameo of Tharn and Type in Why R U? the series to be fanservice. Similarly, many people consider the shipping of several characters in Lovesick Season 2 to be fanservice by the production team.

In Thailand, fan meetings are a main source of income for many actors and managers. Actors tour different countries in Asia to perform these shows. When Lovesick first performed fan meetings, the show mostly consisted of reenactment of important scenes in the show, signing and cast interviews and games. Nowadays, a big part of these fan meetings is fanservice, with actors getting married or proposing on stage, or actors doing risqué games that involve some sort of physical intimacy.   

Controversial Actors
The list of actors who have caused controversies is too long. From Krist Perawat’s homophobic comments to Art’s public meltdown over his relationship with Mew, there are many BL actors who have found themselves on the wrong kind of spotlight. The following is a very limited list of some controversies that caused a big uproar among the BL community.

In early 2019, around the time Lovesick Season 3 had been announced, Captain Chonlathorn’s girlfriend announced that she was pregnant with Captain’s child. Captain acknowledged that the kid could be his and publicly apologized. It will later surface that she was lying and had made the pregnancy up, but by then it was too late and Captain’s reputation had suffered some damage. To this date, many people say that the reason he has not taken any new projects is because of this issue.

In early 2020, Bright Vachirawit became involved in a small controversy that exploded into one of the biggest twitter wars I have ever seen. Bright’s girlfriend had posted something on twitter or Instagram (I can’t remember) about Taiwan. In the post, she referred to Taiwan as a country. Naturally, the Chinese fans were beyond insulted as they consider Taiwan part of China. Bright retweeted this post and quickly became vilified by the Chinese fans. The Thai fans then responded by attacking the Chinese fans. For the next several hours, Thailand and China became embroiled in a twitter war. This despite the fact that the twitter platform is not an official platform in China.

In 2021, actor Toy Thanapat was arrested for killing his girlfriend, who was found stabbed to death. Toy had a supporting role in Why R U? (2020) and Y-Destiny (2021). He is currently serving a jail sentence in a Thai jail.

The Scandals
Filipinos use the term “scandal” to refer to any kind of “porn” video leaked by an actor. There are several actors who have had such video scandals. The most famous of this is 2Moons (2017) lead actor and model, God Itthipat, who had apparently amassed a very large collection of such videos. Rumor has it, his ex-girlfriend released these videos to the interweb. In any event, God has now become famous for these videos and not for his acting, which is, in my opinion, is very lackluster even in his own scandal videos. God no longer is involved in any BL, thought he had a small part in Reminders (2019).

The only other high-profile BL stars who had “video scandals” were incidentally both minors when they recorded the videos. As a result, they did not get any backlash and the videos were quickly taken down from major circulation in the internet. 

PD Maybe one day I will write a post about all the other actors with “scandals” or alleged “scandal” videos in the internet.

Agreement grunt
When Thai people agree with something you said, they make a sound that I call the agreement grunt. It is a very characteristic noise, similar to the noise you make when you say “hmm” in agreement but instead of closing your mouth, you open it and let some air escape. It is definitively a pure vowel sound with no participation of the lips or tip of the tongue. It sounds like a mix between “errr” and “hmmm”.

Fighting! (Susu/Susuna)
Thai people will say this to someone as is saying “Good luck!” or “That’s the spirit!”. Literally, they are saying to the person to keep fighting. The first time I heard this I was very confused, not so much because the phrase confused me but its grammar confused me. While Spanish (my native tongue) and Japanese (another language I have studied) both have implicit subjects, English does not. Thus, I was confused by the wording (or lack of additional words). So yes, this just means YOU keep fighting.

Double handed goodbye (and the single hand wave)
Watch any parting scenes and you will often see one of the characters raise his or her hand and wave goodbye RIGHT IN FRONT of the person. This is not how Americans usually do it. In the US, you only wave goodbye when someone is far away, otherwise you simply raise your hand (no waving). But Thais usually raise their hand and wave, often with two hands, right in front of the person. I remember seeing this for the first time when I watched Love of Siam (2007). I thought, “Oh! That is so cute”. Nevertheless, after watching many Thai shows, I realize that this is just a common way to say goodbye in Thailand.

Thai Names and Nicknames
Thai actors (and sometimes characters in series) may have unusual first names such as First, Third, Newyear, Captain, Earth and Gun. These names are not the actual Thai name of the actor or character but the official nickname. The nickname is usually picked by the parents and the Thai person will go by that nickname most of their adult life (sometimes they will change it or adopt another one given by friends in childhood). In many ways, a Thai nickname functions the same way a first name works in English but with some key differences.

For example, White Nawat Phumphothingam goes by the official nickname of White but his first name (given name) is Nawat and his last name (family surname) is Phumphothingam. He will go by his nickname among friends and family members and you may hear people who interview White refer to him as White or White Nawat. As a fan, you will want to refer to him as White. However, Nawat is his Thai first name not his surname.

Some people seem to think that because Thai names are rather long and complicated, parents developed the use of nicknames. The history of Thai nicknames however goes back to the 1200s when people used to name their kids the Thai words for first, second, third, etc. depending on their birth order. This practice evolved into using descriptive names like “fat” or “tall” and it continued to evolve until the present day in which nicknames are often chosen based on how they sound.

Some nicknames are compound names, probably used to distinguish people with similar sounding names, such as Gun and Gunsmile or Game and Gameplay. Others originate in the Thai language and may only have a passing resemblance to English words, like Gun, Sing, and Hyter. Some Thais had to change their name once they moved into an English speaking country, because their Thai names sounded like bad words in English, such as Poo or Pee.  

Ghosts and superstition
Watching Thai shows you will wonder why most characters seem to be so afraid of being left alone in a room late at night or why if a character hears something go bump in the night, they wonder if it’s a ghost. Ukes are notoriously scared of ghost, as seen from Noh in Lovesick (2014), Fuse in Make it Right (2016) or Tine in 2Gether (2020). In He’s Coming To Me (2019) the Uke is himself a ghost!

Thought a majority of Thais are Buddhist, almost every Thai person also practices animism, the belief that spirits inhabit animate and inanimate objects. Animism is part of Thai culture. Thus, in Make it Right (2016) when Fuse stays late one day in school and seems genuinely scared of “ghosts” in the school, is not because Fuse is afraid of the dark like a child but because he probably genuinely believes there are spirits out there that are evil and could hurt him.

Thai Honorifics

Like many Asian languages, Thai relies heavily on honorific to express the relationship between the interlocutor and referents. The three most common honorifics you will hear in Thai BL are: Pee (often written as P’), Nong, and Ai. Translators don’t always translate the honorific, so you will often hear it used in front of the name of the person being addressed. Ai is used among peers and reflects either disrespect or close familiarity. I don’t have space to go over all the details of this topic, so I will summarize, but if you are interested in how honorifics provide a glimpse into character’s relationships in Thai BL, you can read this extensive article on the subject: Tumblr Article.

Pee/Phi/P’: Is used by a younger character to respectfully refer to an older character. One thing I have noticed is that the characters don’t always drop the use of P’ after they have formalized their relationship. I have no idea if this is true in real life.

Nong: Used primarily as a term of endearment by an older character to refer to a younger character. Note that the character does not have to be much older to refer to another character as Nong, but in real life I think they usually only use Nong to refer to someone who is significantly younger.

Ai: Ai (may sound like “hey”) is used mostly among friends. It denotes closeness. However, Ai can also be used to denote annoyance with someone. Context (and tone) are key to understanding how it is being used. Researching for this article, I found a reference which translated the following text from the Thai Royal Dictionary concerning the use of Ai: “A word prefixed to the names of friends to express close friendship; often used in male adolescent groups”

Khun: This word can be pronounced in two different tones. When pronounced with a middle (neutral) tone, it is a Thai honorific that is probably close to the use of Mr. in English. If pronounce with a rising tone, it refers to a royal title. I don’t think this is how t is used in Thai BL, so the more common translation is probably mister.

Hia: In the 2022 BL series Cutie Pie, both Semes are referred to as Hia. Hia is a honorific only used to refer to Thai Chinese and/or people of Chinese descent. Please note that this word is pronounced differently than the curse word hia (which is pronounced with a high-falling tone, see below). The word is a loan word from Teochew, a Chaoshan Min dialect of the Southern Min language. Teochew is the most widely spoken Sinitic Language among the Thai Chinese. 

As a side note, in Thailand Thai Chinese are known as Tee. The term Tee is a term of endearment, use to refer to any person of Chinese descent. This explains the alternate title of the BL Series ‘Cause you are my Boy (2018), “My Tee”. In the series, the character Tee is a Thai Chinese. [Note: I read this on an article about the series My Tee that I haven’t been able to locate. If you could help me track this information down, I would greatly appreciate it!]

Swear Words

Thai BL characters love to swear and curse at each other. There are several curse and swear words you will hear in Thai BL.

Hia: The most common curse word used. This word literally means monitor lizard. When you call someone a monitor lizard, you are cursing them, as monitor lizards are a bad omen. In My Engineer (2020), one of the characters who wonders around a park, encounters a monitor lizard by the water. He quickly reacts by screaming and running away, as he fears the lizard! His strange fear can be explained by understanding that for Thais, a water lizard is bad luck.

Shia: Pretty much the Thai equivalent of “sh*t”. I am not sure about the origin, thought some articles relate the word hia and shia. This twitter user says that Shia is “a softer version of hia”.

Kwai: This is the equivalent of calling someone dumb. A Kwai is a buffalo, which I guess Thai people see as very unintelligent animals. In 2Gether (2020), Sarawat calls Tine a “Kwai” several times.

Saraleo: Also shortened to Sat. This is an insult and is the equivalent of calling someone stupid/asshole. Tine called Sarawat this plenty of times in 2Gether (2020), mostly as a play on Sarawat, “Sara….leo!”.

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