Thursday, November 29, 2012

the ladyboys of thailand

When I told my hairstylist in Ottawa, a lovely woman originally from Vietnam, that my partner and I were going to Southeast Asia for our honeymoon, she emphatically insisted that we go to "Geisho" when we got to Thailand.

"Is that a place?" I asked confusedly.
"You know, Geisho!" she said again. "But don't sit your man at front. They do things to man in front."

I realized that she was referring to a "gay show".

The Thai concept of kathoey, or what is popularly termed as ladyboy in English, does not exactly have a direct Western translation. Some kathoey explain it as being of a third gender or a women of a second kind. Sometimes it refers to an effeminate gay man. Sometimes it refers to a person born as a biological man who has undergone a full surgery or is taking hormonal therapy. Some dress as men during the day at work, and dress as women at night.

We hadn't really planned on seeing a ladyboy show in Thailand, but I really wanted to learn more about kathoey while I was in Thailand. Although I am a cisgender woman, I find it fascinating to learn about different concepts of gender identity in other cultures. I just wanted to tap the kathoey clerk at our Bangkok hotel on her shoulder and ask her all sorts of questions about her life. That would be intrusive, of course, and I am a polite Canadian, so I did not. Instead, I bought a book on the subject and read it by the hotel pool.

Contrary to popular Western belief, ladyboys are not always readily accepted in Thai society, even though the term kathoey has for a long time and often ladyboys begin to self-identify at a very young age, as early as eight. Ladyboys often face public ridicule; sometimes they are kicked out of the house for bringing shame on the family. The ones that leave home early are denied an education, and cannot get well-paying office jobs. Even if they do have an education, many employers do not want to hire a ladyboy. This is why ladyboys disproportionately work as prostitutes or performers.  Even after going through a full gender reassignment surgery, the Thai government does not recognize them as women, and forces them to don the "Mr" title on their passports.  Meanwhile, the police often arrest ladyboys on the streets while propositioning to them at the same time.

By the time we got to Ko Samui, I decided it would be fun to hit up a ladyboy cabaret. Our guide assured us that the ladyboy cabarets were magnificent spectacles, with no affiliation whatsoever with the go-go bars in Patpong, and while I was worried about the idea of paying ladyboys to dance and pose in front of us like zoo animals, I did see that a lot of families brought their kids to the ladyboy cabarets and having a lot of fun. So we headed over to Stars Cabaret in Chaweng.

It's free to get into the show at Stars Cabaret, but there is a one drink minimum, and as you might guess, the drinks are way overpriced. Still the show was quite entertaining, as the performers came on stage in fabulous costumes and fun dance sequences. It's obvious that they spend a lot of time rehearsing and that they enjoy showing off their talents to the tourists. Between the ladyboys shaking their peacock feather-adorned booties to Lady Marmalade, and the showboys dancing around in high heels, mascara, tight black pants, and no shirts, there more going on than my eyes could keep up with.

also featuring showboys

I was impressed not only by kathoey's ability to transcend gender, but also, apparently race. The Thai performers were imitating white and black singers convincingly, without resorting to offensive caricatures (ie, no blackface). They were clearly the masters of makeup. I was tempted to run backstage and beg them to give me lessons in eyeliner.

One of my favourite acts involved a single performer dressed as a man on one side and as a woman on the other side, singing the famous duet "One Man Woman" (you can see another similar performance here). During the female vocals, the performer presented the female side, and during the male vocals, the performer presented the male side. It was fun to watch, if not at the least because it allowed you to see the performer both in drag and not in drag at the same time...not to mention also a white woman and an Asian man at the same time.

there's her...

there's him...

there's them!

There was, as my hairstylist warned, a lot of audience participation, sometimes involuntary: "Toni Braxton" convinced one of the male audience members to give her a kiss on the cheek, while another performer teased a shy Korean tourist who was trying to hide behind his iPad. It was definitely an entertaining night.

diana ross

toni braxton


britney spears

whitney houston