Thailand has adapted Japan’s queer literary genre successfully, turning Boys Love (BL) into a class that is uniquely Thai. We checked out the Bangkok pop culture scene, dipping in and out of cultural attractions, book stores and events to see how Bangkok is situating itself as a literary soft power with a very unique Southeast Asian framing.

We spent June and early July 2023 travelling, and our latest book destination was Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand.

Since ASEAN was established in 1967 in Bangkok, member countries of the Southeast Asian union have been exposed to modern Thai literature, translated into the member countries’ official languages. These are commonly published as anthologies of short stories and poems.

To the world beyond ASEAN, Thailand is also known for another cultural export, the Boys Love (BL) fictions. Those who don’t read Thai consume BL fictions via translated works or Thai TV dramas, which have huge followings globally.

Thai storytelling: a brief history

Our first stop was the Museum Siam. At the museum, we were briefly introduced to Thai history via a well-curated bilingual exhibition called “Decoding Thainess”. Here, visitors get to learn about the legacy of the Srivijaya Empire (8th-11th Century AD) which still unites Thailand with its ASEAN neighbours via arts and culture.

The exhibition opens with introduction to commonly shared artefacts across the Southeast Asian Indosphere which is now Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia: the shadow puppet that is part of the Hindu epic Ramayana; a Srivijayan bust of Avalokiteshvara – a Boddhisatva who’s neither male nor female; a classical book in Thai and a map that shows the political boundary of Siam before the southern regions were ceded to the British around the 1900s.

The wide reach of Books Kinokuniya

After a lesson in material culture at the museum, our next stop was the Bangkok bookshops. Major shopping malls provide visitors with an excellent entry into the Bangkok book scene. At Siam Paragon, located in the heart of Bangkok’s luxury shopping district on Rama Road, there are two book stores worth visiting.

Books Kinokuniya Bangkok on the Third Floor provides a selection of fiction and non-fiction books in Thai, English and Japanese. Here, we treated ourselves to the English versions of Osamu Tezuka’s Clockwork Apple and Issue 1 of Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsawman.

It isn’t surprising to see a major Books Kinokuniya branch in this ASEAN city, given that Japan and ASEAN has a cultural relationship that went back 50 years – and probably older if you count the Siam-Japan relationship fostered since the times of Ayutthaya (15th-18th Century AD). Manga and anime are widely consumed in this part of the world.

At this bookshop, we came across the full set of the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation series by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu – otherwise known as The Untamed after the cult BL series that aired on Netflix in 2020.

Next to Books Kinokuniya, on the same floor, is Naiin Paper House. It’s a chain store that sells not only paper stationery and luxury gifts but also books – in particular Boys Love (BL) books in Thai. These are also available on their online shop.

Luxury gifts such as this pop artefact are sold at Naiin Paper House alongside paper stationery and BL books. Image: ©Story Of Books

Thai’s BL fiction: From Japan with love

Naiin Paper House also sells BL books on its website. Titles are by authors from East Asia. Image: Naiin Paper House

Originally, BL was a Japanese export. What started out as a romance fodder for the female audience in the shojo category became something else in Thailand. The country embraced and popularised the genre both in books and in the popular media with gusto.

There are, however, insinuations that BL is a form of pink-washing to divert the world’s attention away from Thailand’s militarised democracy. But who are we to judge? The entire East Asia has always had a fraught relationship with democracy, LGBT movements, freedom of speech, political correctness, social issues and whatever else you could think of.

One thing is certain: Thailand adapts and expands on Japan’s queer literary genre, turning it into a successful cultural export in mainstream media and publishing. In 2021 alone, the streaming rights of Thailand’s BL series across Asia reached 360 million baht (£8 million). But that’s not all.

It’s a form of soft power, just like manga is for Japan and K-drama is for South Korea. Through BL, Thailand proves that it can leverage the dialogue between East Asia – especially the non-democratic voices – and the democratic world via a very unique Southeast Asian framing. Literature and fictions play a major role in this cultural manoeuvre.

Thai literary fiction: where the real grit is

Of course, Thai literature is more than just BL. Translated works of especially short stories are common in Malay – the official language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore. They often touch on social issues with grittiness that’s a far cry from the BL genre. These are read at schools and universities, though not necessarily accessible to non-ASEAN audience. If you read in Malay language, there’s more information on Thai writers and their stories on this blog. Or you can have an English overview of Thai fictions on Goodreads. Bangkok was a fleeting visit but we hope to come back again to explore the country’s literary scene.

More on arts and literature of Bangkok

More on BL genre on Story Of Books

Editor, Story Of Books. Co-founder, GLUE Studio. A writer since 1995.