“I cried for three straight months when he left,” said Monthathip ‘Mona’ Thukjai, 24, a pretty young medical technologist at Chiang Mai University, giggling self-consciously. “It was a personal matter and one we weren’t clear on, but I had just bought my ticket to go see him when he left. At first I thought I would cancel, but then I decided that I needed to show my support, so I went anyway.”
Mona has been a K-Pop fan since 2004, becoming fans of both the music and the chiseled faces of Tong Vfang Xien Qi (TVXQ) when she first watched them on MTV. Over the years she became a fan of other mega bands like Super Junior, SHINee and Big Bang, pioneering online content and expanding fan bases by translating K-Pop news from English to Thai for the growing number of fans in the early days of social media. But she truly fell in love in 2014, when the 12 eerie-lookalike members of the new band EXO was launched, “I saw the EXO teaser one night and something I couldn’t control happened. I instantly imprinted all their names and faces into my memory,” she laughs loudly, “especially Luhan and Huang Zi Tao. I am now also in love with DAY6,” she mentions another young boy’s band, “because of the great engagement with their fans on Twitter and Instagram.
Real World, Virtual Love
There is always drama in the K-Pop world, according to Mona, especially when bands dissolve or members leave. It was Luhan, upon leaving EXO, who caused Mona’s three-month crying bout. In spite of her grief, she insisted on attending the concert to show support for the other members who had worked so hard. “They are all younger than me, and they are famous, so I know that my love will never be reciprocated,” she said after seeing my cynical face as she explained her love for her super stars. “The next time EXO came to Thailand I didn’t get a ticket in time, so I flew to Bangkok anyway and stood in front of the stadium, posting every single minute onto Twitter my request for a ticket. Fortunately some media person had a ticket valued at 6,000 baht which he sold to me for 5,000. I ended up sitting in a VIP section with many Thai movie stars and it was great. I feel that we have all been through sadness or drama together. Because of this, the boys work and perform so much harder for the fans who stand behind them. This is why we need to give back our love and support to them.”
Mona earns between 15,000 and 20,000 baht per month and says that she saves around 40% of her salary into a separate account for her K-Pop stars. Following an accident a few years ago, she puts aside a solid amount each month into savings for her health, and spends very little on her daily life. “I manage my finances very well, each part of my income has a place and is thoughtfully spent, to become a super fan you need to have financial discipline.”
An average fan meeting or concert will cost her the plane ticket, accommodation, pocket money as well as entry tickets. The most expensive events are the signing events because fans have a chance to personally meet and receive a signed copy of a CD from all band members. It is usually a lottery system for fans to get into these events. In 2016 Mona had planned to go to a DAY6 fan signing event in Korea and consulted with many fans before deciding to buy a total of 30 CDs (500 baht each) which should guarantee her a winning entry. True to calculation, her number was picked and after forking over 15,000 baht for CDs, buying her 20,000 baht return flight, spending 1,200 baht on accommodation and putting aside some pocket money, she had tapped deep into her savings. “I don’t need to sightsee or each much, so I can afford it,” she said. During the event, she managed to deliver a hand-written letter to her idols, experienced a ‘hi-touch’, which is a double-handed high five offered as part of the package with the stars, and spent a day of happiness and bliss with the young men in her lives. She struggles to explain her feelings, merely smiling from ear to ear in memory.
Her latest trip was to join the DAY6 fan meeting in Singapore where she again got to ‘hi-touch’ the stars and spend time with the fan club, many of whom, she says, have become lifelong friends.
Fans for Life
Mona spends most of her days in front of a screen. Even at work, when she has a moment, she will check her social media accounts for news and updates on her idols. The minute she returns home until the moment she falls asleep, she is constantly following her Korean lads on Instagram, reading gossip and news on Twitter or chatting with fellow fans in various chat groups. “Whatever nationality we are, we have this in common and it is a great basis for friendship,” she explains, laughing loudly now as she recognises, and acknowledges as the norm, the incredulousness on my face. “Fans are mainly Asian; Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, etc. But, at my first overseas DAY6 fan meeting I saw a Croatian girl crying and I went to ask what was wrong. She sobbed and told me that her idol, one of the DAY6 boys, hadn’t smiled at her when he hi-touched her. I had to tell her that he was having an off day and didn’t talk to anyone and so she stopped crying.”
“It gets hard for some fans when their idols have relationships,” Mona explains of living the balance between fantasy and real world. “Some fans take it so personally, but I don’t. I know that there is nothing ever going to happen with my love for them. I sometimes think that they make bad relationship choices, but I know that it is theirs to make and as long as they maintain the standard of work and relationship with we fans, then it is their business what they do with their love lives.”
Life with Fan?
“No, I have never had a boyfriend,” she bursts out laughing when asked. “I probably spend too much time following the lives of these kids to look for one myself,” she admits, “but when I am out, it’s normally in a lab, so there isn’t much opportunity.”
“I can’t imagine having a real life boyfriend, but if I ever do, I will need him to understand that whatever love we have for one another will not be more nor less important than the love I have for my artists.”
Madness and Largess
“Yup, I am mad,” grinned Mona, who has a great sense of humour about herself. “But think about it, we as humans are all different. Some people save their money to buy cosmetics, others to purchase brand names or to travel. This is my pleasure. These artists are my number one. When I am tired, they sustain me. When I want to give up, they inspire me. These kids have big life ambitions and they have reached them, it makes me want to reach my ambitions too. Most of them can’t speak English, let alone Thai, so I want to learn Korean so that I can communicate with them. Many of my friends and family don’t understand this.”
“We have had many debates on our fan chat groups about this topic, with some members raising the question whether we were all sacrificing too much, sometimes careers, friendships, love and family, to pursue our love for these young artists,” she explains. “But the way I see it is that we are a part of giving these kids happiness. When I was in Seoul watching DAY6 in concert, I wasn’t there just to listen to their songs or sway to the music, I was also there to take in their smiles and the sparkles in their eyes. The smiles get bigger and the sparkles brighter when they look out and see their fans. When it was time for Park Jaehyung to sing his lines at the last DAY6 concert, I noticed that he simply let the fans sing them instead. Each time we sang his lyrics back at him, I saw his smile and his eyes and knew how emotional and happy we made him.”
It is this give and take that has led to a remarkable new tradition that has become an integral part of the cultural fabric of K-Pop fan clubs. On the birthday of each star, the fan clubs will choose a worthy cause for fans to donate towards, whether it is to support an orphanage in Surabaya, send aid to a natural disaster relief effort, or Mona’s latest, donating 25 dollars to the World Wildlife Fund to save an amur leopard, fans believe that they are in a give and take relationship, dedicating each donation in the name of the birthday star.
Mona believes that her relationship with K-Pop idols will continue indefinitely. She sees this as a lifelong love and is fully invested, insisting that she is receiving as much as she is giving and is therefore utterly satisfied.