Hungry for Drama, Chinese Viewers Send Out for Thai
The Sexy Soap Opera Actresses and Actors Are So Asian—And So Over the Top
BANGKOK—A Thai soap opera called “Battle of the Angels” created a stir when it was first broadcast here two years ago. Local trade unions and women’s groups were upset about the way the prime-time drama showed flight attendants going about their jobs, which appeared to consist mostly of cat fights and devious schemes to woo pilots.
Now the series is enjoying a second life, in China—and network executives there are banging on the door of Thai producers to see what else they can subtitle and beam across the Middle Kingdom.
“I’m amazed,” says Takonkiet Viravan, the 44-year-old Thai soap opera svengali who produced “Battle of the Angels” and other shows now making it big on the small screen in China. He’s still being bombarded with inquiries, “and they’re coming from all directions.”
What’s going on, TV analysts in the region suspect, is that Asia is starting to outgrow its addiction to Hollywood hand-me-downs.
For years, Asian broadcasters have been relying on such U.S. imports as the “CSI” dramas and that old standby “Baywatch” to fill out their programming schedules. Now, egged on by the popularity of South Korean singers and actors in recent years, Asian broadcasters are more comfortable using their neighbors’ TV dramas or music instead of American fare. Some analysts figure the success of the Asian programs is the latest sign of Asia’s rising confidence.
Thailand’s over-the-top potboilers are the latest sensation. They come across as both familiar and exotic. Many of the stars are ethnic Chinese, as are many Thai. But the Thai dramas are also resolutely outlandish, featuring divas rushing about the set trying to slap each other with the spiky shells of the malodorous tropical durian fruit as writers and directors crank up the melodrama.
“I love Thai shows. The actresses are so beautiful and the leading men very handsome,” says Jang Jing, a 44-year-old housewife from Beijing and an avid fan. “They also show that what goes around, comes around—even if they seem a bit strange at first.”
Thai soaps seem to succeed because they are often brutally direct, whereas in everyday life many Asian cultures value subtlety and avoiding confrontation. “This is the escapism, the fantasy—the dramas are so direct and loud and so boom, boom, boom I hate you,” says Mr. Takonkiet, who is managing director at production companies Exact Co. Ltd. and Scenario Co. Ltd. “It would never happen like this in real life.”
Thailand’s government, though, is leaping on the success of shows such as “Battle of the Angels,” “Scar In My Heart” and “The Princess” to help buttress its more conventional exports, such as seafood and toasters.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva flew to China in November, and signed an agreement with Chinese government officials to promote Thai soaps and exempt them from foreign-content quotas that state regulators there sometimes slap on broadcasters.
Scores of Chinese fans, meanwhile, flew to Bangkok in September to surprise “Scar In My Heart” star Sukrit Viseskaew on his birthday and helped him put on a party at a local orphanage.
Calling themselves the “Dragonfly Army,” after Mr. Sukrit’s nickname, Chinese fans have also teamed up with their Thai counterparts to form powerful online voting blocs that sway the outcome of Thai entertainment awards.
This year the dragonflies helped the 25-year-old Mr. Sukrit win the coveted “most popular actor” award at entertainment magazine Siam Dara and have flooded Thailand’s show-business chat-rooms with tributes to his talents.
“Bie” Mr. Sukrit Viseskaew