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Thai idol group BNK48 coaxes fans to open wallets

Sister troupe to Japan's AKB48 shakes up pop culture

BNK48, a sister group of Japan's AKB48, has convinced Thai fans to shell out for content.   © BNK48 Office

BANGKOK -- Girl pop group BNK48 has brought a new model of consumption to Thailand, with enthusiastic supporters snapping up multiple copies of a single CD for face time with their favorite idols.

BNK48 launched in February 2017 as one of the many sister groups to Japan's AKB48. As in the rest of the AKB48 family, members are seen as "incomplete" idols to be nurtured by fans. Two members of BNK48 ranked among the top 100 worldwide in a June poll.

People in Thailand are generally not used to paying for content. Record companies produce only about 1,000 copies of any given CD because of rampant piracy. Yet BNK48's Thai-language version of AKB48 hit "Koisuru Fortune Cookie" has sold more than 30,000 copies since its release in December. Many fans buy multiple copies of the same CD -- each costing 350 baht ($10.60) -- for tickets to shake hands with the girls.

Each CD is good for an eight-second handshake, a 29-year-old man explained, adding that he plans to buy 20 next time. Fans do not mind waiting in long lines for their favorite idols. BNK48's official Facebook page has more than 500,000 followers.

A BNK48 theater that opened in Bangkok this April is a popular spot for fans, even on days with no scheduled events. A cafe there gives out coasters featuring BNK48 members' pictures with each beverage purchase. Patrons cannot choose which coasters they receive, so they order multiple drinks -- for the rough equivalent of $4.50 each -- and swap coasters with other fans.

Thailand has long been influenced heavily by Western culture, according to the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living ASEAN. Many celebrities here have chiseled features like those popular in the West. The biggest idols are typically K-pop stars who win hearts with their polished song-and-dance performances.

"The concept of work-in-progress, girl-next-door idols is new in Thailand," a BNK48 manager said.

Hidetomi Tanaka, a professor at Jobu University in Japan, remarked that "the culture of watching inexperienced idols grow is taking root in Thailand as well." Fans may yearn to see "their" idols make it on the world stage through the global AKB48 ranking, he said.

While the bulk of AKB48 fans are men in their 30s to their 50s, BNK48 fans are mainly between the ages of 18 and 34, and about 40% are female. The idol group is embarking on the new challenge of cultivating a broader base of worshippers.

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