Photos and Text by Liza Linklater
“I’ll bet you anything that one third from the left is not a girl,” a woman in the audience remarked to her neighbor. To discover that none of the performers were girls, left her dumbfounded.
This sense of disbelief is felt by many viewers who sit on their stools sipping drinks and watching the cabaret performers entertain in their elaborate costumes under the pulsating lights. I know I felt the same way on my first visit to just such a spectacle as, too, was not aware that the performers were actually men mouthing the words to American hit songs.
After living in Thailand for a year, I started exploring the behind-the-scenes life of transvestites in Bangkok and Pattaya, a nearby beach resort. People who have never been to Thailand have often commented on how good-looking the Thais are – the women are certainly known for their beauty – but I have never realized just how good-looking the men were too.
When I arrived in Thailand, I was immediately aware of the fashionable androgynous look among the teenagers of Bangkok. I found this intriguing – especially so after visiting a street in Bangkok that many visitors don’t frequent – housing the gay bars. These are incredibly crowded, unbearably hot, gyrating places — full of young men smiling those beguiling Thai smiles.
At midnight or around 1 a.m. every morning the dancing stops and the transvestite cabaret shows begin. As in most other shows of this sort, the likes of Nana Mouskouri, Diana Ross, Bette Midler and Liza Minelli appear on stage and mimic the words to various well-known, mainly English songs. These shows are quite popular and in Pattaya they are even billed as family fare.
To an outsider it seems that Thais tolerate transvestites, and homosexuals in general, more than people do in the west. The same stigma does not seem to be attached to transvestites – katoeys in the Thai language.
However, one of the principal leaders of the gay movement in Thailand, Dr. Wongmonta Seri, disagrees. He says the term “katoey” is derogatory and that Thais do make fun of them. Dr. Seri, a professor at a leading Thai university, said that “katoey” means hermaphrodite, or having two sex organs in one body (male and female). The transvestites themselves refer to each other as “ladymen”, or second type female. Whatever they are called, there is a definite female likeness.
After a while, I realized that what would be of most interest to many in the west was how these transvestites transform and convey themselves visually. After receiving permission to photograph backstage at some of the shows, I watched and recorded the metamorphosis from male to female, via the use of make-up, wigs and clothing.
Some of the performers take hormone treatments (and have had silicone injections or implants) to produce breasts, but most do not. Usually the ones who have had the implants dress as women all the time, much to the surprise of many a heterosexual male tourist. There are, at most, twenty transsexuals in all of Thailand, according to Dr. Seri. This is because the operation is very expensive and one must go to Europe or Singapore to have it done. The Thai Supreme Court has decided that male transsexuals and transvestites are technically and legally men. The law also refuses to recognise the marital status of gays. Some activists are fighting to change these laws.
Asian men seem to make the transition from male to female in appearance in a more believable way than do western men, mainly because Asian men are generally small and slight, have minimal body hair and often have a grace of movement that is decidedly feminine. Even in the world of haute couture in Thailand some of the best known “female” models are men. They adorn the pages of Thai fashion magazines and are always at the fashion shows. Every year in the newspapers there is a photograph of the beauty contest winner for “Transvestite of the Year”.
The performers themselves seemed quite interested when I would go to the shows and shoot behind the scenes. Some were wary until I told them that I wanted to show the transition. I found out quite readily that they wanted to be regarded as the end product: the beautiful woman. Each time I returned I would bring them some photos from the previous visit as gifts – once they let me know right away that they did not like the ones without make-up.
Because they are essentially exhibitionists, some loved to perform for me and would readily pose, while others were uneasy and did not know what I was taking from them. Some seemed reluctant when not dressed up, and more secure and happy about being photographed when they were in their fantasy outfits. Most did not speak English, and my Thai was minimal at best, so we could not communicate verbally, but visually we did gain rapport and they kept asking where and when the photos would be published.
I was intrigued by their heightened consciousness as I waited to take their portraits before they presented themselves on stage.
They are allowed to live in a fantasy world while performing. The performers run through a dazzling repertoire that includes renditions of star singers, comedy skits, various song and dance routines and big production numbers. A fast pace, vaudeville-style, is ensured by incredibly quick clothes changes between acts. Depending on the time of year they will perform three to four shows per night at one-and-a-half hours each. The pace is strenuous and most last three to five years on the job. Most performers are quite young, in their late teens or early twenties.
This type of show started in Pattaya ten years ago. These shows are family entertainment and not seamy drag displays. The popularity of these cabarets does stem mainly from the curiosity factor of seeing men dressed as beautiful women. However, the audience is equally impressed by the extraordinary costumes, complex lighting, excellent sound systems (music and songs are taped) and professional performances where dancing, miming and acting ability are more important than simply the ability to look like a woman. One act features a performer split in half (half male, half female) and another presents a man at one side of the stage and a “woman” at the other with each gradually transforming into the opposite sex to the background tune, ”I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra.
There is never a shortage of applicants auditioning for the shows and hopefuls come from all over the country. Many drop out after a couple of months, unable to take the pace. Rehearsals are held every day. There are four main shows daily in Pattaya some with up to 80 performers, some with 25 to 30 and one with only 12. The best performers travel to Singapore, Australia and Europe to perform. They are not well paid even by Thai standards except perhaps for the “stars” – normally $3 per night which is the minimum daily wage in Thailand. Most gay bars in Bangkok also have at least one transvestite cabaret performance nightly.
Transvestites live mostly in their own world, and those that dress as women all the time do not normally hang out in the gay bars. In many parts of Asia you will find them strolling pigtailed along tropical boulevards, in air-conditioned shopping centres or between stalls at teeming market junctions. In some cases you may think something is a little amiss – either too much make-up, too tall, or too broad-shouldered – but generally they are quite strikingly dressed in the latest fashions and they certainly do not go unnoticed.
When the shows are over, the performers make their exit from the stage with Auy and Lek flipping their wigs in a final gesture to the delighted, applauding audience. A quick change, and the “girls” rush outside dressed to kill in reams of taffeta, chiffon and sequins. Standing under the bright lights in the parking lot, preening themselves to the roar of the idling tour buses, they linger and strut as if at some bizarre beauty contest or fashion show.
The tourists giggle and finally get their chance to be photographed with real, live transvestites – but they must pay a fee of $3 for the privilege. To many it is worth it so they can show their friends back home… can this beautiful, glamorous creature really be a man?
From my personal experience backstage in the dressing room with 60 or more of these “lady men” I never felt ill at ease.
I was impressed by their politeness and civility. For much of the time, they are sheltered within their world, surrounded by their own people, and, in a way, this allows them to do whatever they want. They seem to be playing with life, more than worrying about it. They have nothing to lose. I admire them for that because I can’t do it myself.