Steffi Chang writes: Bangkok is known for three things: the steaming heat, incredible shopping and ladyboys. The first two are characteristic of anywhere in South East Asia, but ladyboys — known as ‘katoeys’ locally — are a Thai institution.
For those sheltered few, katoeys is a term popularly used to refer to men who endeavour to be women, usually through sartorial disguise and eventual surgery. To outsiders, katoeys are a famed, almost-mythic creature of our concrete jungle. A lucky sighting inspires awe and absolute bewilderment because what sets Bangkok’s trans-women apart is how it is sometimes impossible to differentiate them from real women. Thailand’s katoeys are often glorious specimens of the ultimate female with their hair, face and physique groomed to perfection — a fact that, I’ll admit, has conjured occasional feelings of envy.
My fascination with katoeys began a decade ago when I ventured into a ladyboy cabaret.
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My family and I had just landed in Bangkok when one of my father’s colleagues heartily suggested we go and see Asia Hotel’s world-famous Calypso Cabaret, telling us: “The katoeys are very beautiful! Very exotic!” With our family-discounted tickets in hand (yes, this was considered child-friendly entertainment), we zipped off to get our first taste of Thai culture. I think it’s important to note that, at this point in time, I was only eleven years old and hadn’t the faintest inkling of what a ‘katoey’ was.
The cabaret theatre was a glittering knock-off combining the smoky New York underground with Las Vegas’ pizzazz. The oval stage was ringed with plastic show lamps. Its red faux-velvet drapes flanked a backdrop of silver streamers. As I settled into my front-row seat, I was wonderfully dizzy. Whether it was because of excitement or from the choking amounts of dry ice, I couldn’t be sure. Amidst all these adults swilling their sour-smelling drinks, I remember feeling so grown up.
It started with a handsome 1940s goddess, curvy and statuesque in a slinky gown. Even under the harsh lights, her features seemed flawless — the dramatic cat-eyes and powdery white skin. Her thick, somewhat mannish hands were disguised with an exaggerated grace. It was mesmerizing in a larger-than-life kind of way.
Then, the stage exploded with confetti to reveal leggy can-can dancers wreathed in hot pink feathers; a Thai reinterpretation of The Moulin Rouge. It was number after spirited number of burlesque parody and dramatic ballads: a trio of Marilyn Monroes, an ostrich-riding Carmen Miranda, geisha girls, Tina Turners, Broadway’s best and all that jazz. Each girl was more breath-taking than the last (with the occasional camp pre-op she-man for extra laughs).
It all led up to the unleashing of their crown jewel — a dazzling blonde in a little rhinestone bikini that was dripping with jewels. She sashayed across the stage, crooning and flirting with the front-row. Flicking her hair and swaying her hips, she had us all enraptured. Then, with a cloying smile, she deftly unhooked her top to reveal a very ample (and very naked) bosom. The other dancers flooded the stage at that very moment and quickly followed suit before the curtain dropped and a final blast of confetti ended the show with a literal bang. Eleven-year-old me was completely stunned (mostly from the jarring display of nudity).
On our exit, we were greeted by the entire line-up of performers who, under regular lighting, seemed rather less delicate than their counter-parts on the stage. They were all caked in layers of make-up, some with jaw-lines that were just a little too severe to be considered feminine. Then, lo and behold, I noticed a very prominent Adam’s apple on one of the can-can dancers. Combined with the incredibly effeminate mannerisms of the previously mentioned ‘camp man’, curiosity won the better of me.
“Mummy, are some of these women not real women?”
She shot me a look that said ‘don’t be stupid’ before giving me the answer that staggered my pre-pubescent brain. They all were, or once had been, men.
It’s been a decade since then and as a veteran expat of Thailand, I pride myself on being able to distinguish the stunning creature that is the katoey from the rest of the female masses. For years I made a game of it. I would look for the Adam’s apple, wide shoulders, slim hips, large hands and feet but even then, the occasional katoey would fool me. More than fool me: astound me with their poise and femininity. Then, I realized, this was a sign of success.
Here in Australia, and indeed, in most of the Western world, the transgender minority seeks to blend in seamlessly with the average female. Well, katoeys do that and more. Yes, they want to seem like a natural-born woman but they want to stand out as well. Seeing a katoey dressed to the nines with perfect hair and make-up may cause revulsion in some (if their true gender is known), but for me, they are something of an inspiration. By taking pride in simply being female, they publicly celebrate what most women take for granted.
Bangkok is known for many things. Katoeys are one of them. Greater than some cheap sight-seeing spectacle, they are a glimpse into a more open-minded world.
Steffi Chang is studying journalism at the University of Melbourne.