BANGKOK — Bangkok “tuk tuk” taxi driver Samran Thammasa, 39, had by no means heard of K-pop star Jessica Jung earlier than the coronavirus pandemic, however now the singer’s Thai followers are serving to him survive the lack of vacationer prospects.
His brilliant inexperienced three-wheeled motorbike rickshaw has been largely vacant for greater than a 12 months. In the previous few months, although, he’s earned about $19 a month to characteristic K-pop advertisements on his automobile.
“The extra income may not be a lot for most people but it is for us,” he stated, glancing at a shimmering vinyl banner of Jung.
Drivers of Bangkok’s distinctive tuk tuks have been among the many hardest-hit by the pandemic’s devastation of Thailand’s all-important tourism trade, left haunting corners of empty metropolis streets complaining of mounting debt.
Samran used to earn round $47 a day ferrying international vacationers round Bangkok. Nearly all of that disappeared as customer numbers fell by 85% in 2020, and Thailand just isn’t anticipated to raise its strict border controls for months but.
Unexpected assist got here this 12 months from Thailand’s politically disaffected and K-pop-obsessed youth once they stopped shopping for advertisements celebrating their idols’ birthdays and album launches from public transport, as an alternative giving their advert cash to grassroots companies, together with tuk tuks and avenue meals distributors.
Over the previous couple of months, younger followers have mobilized to place up banners of their favourite K-pop idols on the long-lasting automobiles for a month at a time, offering a new supply of revenue for struggling drivers.
Samran and lots of others now drive their empty tuk tuks round Bangkok with a banner of a totally different K-pop sensation every month, stopping for younger Thai followers to take footage and use their service, usually with ideas.
So far, the initiative has benefited a number of hundred tuk tuk drivers. There are greater than 9,000 tuk tuks registered in Bangkok, in keeping with authorities knowledge.
The development has roots in anti-government protests final 12 months that drew tens of hundreds of scholars calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – who first got here to energy in a army coup – to step down.
Many K-pop followers have been protesters themselves, and final 12 months vowed to drag big billboard promoting charges from Bangkok’s skytrain and underground subway companies – a longstanding lighthearted custom for totally different fan teams – after mass transport shut all the way down to attempt to stop college students from reaching protest websites.
The followers began printing vinyl or cardboard indicators and recruiting tuk tuk drivers at garages and on the road – funneling their advert funds to the individuals who want 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,” stated Pichaya Prachathomrong, 27.
Pichaya herself raised $565 amongst Thai followers of boy band Super Junior to advertise member Yesung’s new album, earlier than recruiting 13 tuk tuks through a new reserving service on well-liked messaging software LINE.
The “Tuk Up” service, created by 21-year-old college sophomore Thitipong Lohawech, was initially to assist dozens of drivers who rented automobiles from his household’s storage. But now it helps about 300 drivers from throughout Bangkok.
“The fans are distributing income to the grassroots, which helps drive social change and support the economy,” stated Thitipong.
Drivers stated they’ve seen little of the federal government’s accredited aid of round $30 billion, as handouts have been largely solely accessible through a cell pockets software.
“By the time the money reaches us, we’re nearly dead,” stated 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.”