Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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October 15-17, 2004

The Glamour "Girls" of Bangkok Cross Over Cultural Lines
by Jennifer Gampell

While transvestite cabaret is a tourist staple in Bangkok and at tacky beach resorts such as Pattaya, the kathoey (called 'lady boy' in both Thai and English) performers generally wear tatty costumes and move desultorily through their routines, lip synching like wooden marionettes.

Even so, after British theater producer Phillip Gandey saw his first kathoey cabaret at the Mambo Club in Bangkok in 1998, he realized its latent potential and decided to develop the show for a western market. Six years on, his flamboyant gender-bending extravaganza "The Lady Boys of Bangkok" has become a perennial hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is now making waves elsewhere in the UK and in Australia too.

In contrast to the miniscule stages stuck like afterthoughts at the back of restaurants or sidewalk bars in Thailand, the performance space in Edinburgh is a purpose-built tent seating 500. This summer's "Thai Spice Tour 2004," the show's sixth and most successful tour to date, played two and three shows nightly to consistently sold-out crowds. The 17-member cast executed their 20 lip-synched song and dance routines as well as a total of 200 costume changes with all the glitter, glamour and professionalism of a Las Vegas spectacle.

Lavish production numbers ranged from current faves by Beyonce and J-Lo to '80s disco hits and a campy rendition of Maria from "Sound of Music" that morphed into the title song from "Sister Act." By the glittering confetti-strewn finale (a raucous ABBA medley) some 90 minutes later, the entire audience was on its feet clapping and screaming.

"First class, absolutely brilliant," raved a plumpish Elaine Howie from nearby Kirkcaldy. "They've got better bodies than I've ever seen." Her frumpy companion dressed in a nondescript pantsuit and anorak agreed. "We don't usually get all this glamour and diamante in Edinburgh!"

Most of the spectators comprised gaggles of dowdy middle-aged women getting pleasantly soused thanks to a cocktail bar which remained open throughout the performance. Instead of sitting in standard theater rows, audiences under the purpose-built big top tent are arrayed comfortably around dozens of circular tables. The smattering of recalcitrant husbands and boyfriends dragged along for a night out were generally less appreciative. "It's…bizarre," opined one spectator of the Y-chromosome persuasion.

With their perfectly applied makeup, smooth olive-complexioned skin and lithe bodies, the performers all exude a quintessentially feminine sex appeal. Called variously kathoey or ladyboy in their native Thailand, they're born male but choose to live as females from a young age. In his 2003 book "The Third Sex," British social scientist and theater director Richard Totman writes that kathoeys have been an accepted subculture in Thailand for centuries. Some traveled with troupes of entertainers to local village fairs where they performed bawdy songs and dances known as likay theater.

After studying more than 40 Thai kathoeys for four years, Dr. Totman decided to classify them in a separate category that didn't correlate to western notions of transgender (transsexuals or transvestites). "Ladyboys are definitely an alien concept in the U.K.," agrees the group's promoter Tony Wilkie-Millar.

Despite Thailand's generally laissez-faire attitude towards sexuality, kathoeys who undergo sex change operations are forbidden by law from switching their gender to female on ID cards and passports. This technicality should be explained in The Lady Boys program notes so that when the cast is introduced as "17 male Thai nationals," audiences would understand that no other appellation was possible.

The show's debut at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe was less than a resounding success. UK audiences familiar with homegrown drag shows weren't ready for gorgeous lady boys and initially associated anything from Thailand with sex rather than professional entertainment. Similarly, the performers themselves weren't yet ready to meet the much higher standards of western audiences.

Gandey World Class Productions took 1999 off to fine-tune the show's choreography and presentation. "We had to learn to be more professional," explained Mr. Surasak "Sak" Sutthajinda, one of the five original cast members (and at 46 also the oldest). And they had to overcome culture differences too. For example Asian audiences don't like to be touched on the heads.

Mr. Surasak said European audiences also like their shows with lots of action and attitude. And people paying $22.30 -- 27.65 for a ticket, expect to get their money's worth. In Thailand shows average around $7.00.

Since 2000 when it returned for the second time to Edinburgh, the show's popularity has been steadily increasing both in Scotland and elsewhere. "The Lady Boys of Bangkok" appeared at Star City Casino in Sydney last January and prior to coming to Edinburgh toured for 10 weeks in Brighton and Salford. Their high attendance figures at this year's Fringe are particularly impressive given that the festival lineup included more than 1,600 different shows daily in 200-plus venues.

"They have a great work ethic," acknowledges Mr. Wilkie-Millar. "They'll do their two performances here and still have the energy to put in an appearance as invited guests at local nightclubs. No U.K. performer would do that." The Lady Boys now has its own float in the Fringe's opening parade and this year was invited to appear at the local branch of Queen Elizabeth's favorite department store, the stodgy Harvey Nichols.

Like most Thais traveling outside their homeland, cast members disdain local cuisine and bring along cooks so they never have to deal with shortbread or haggis. I visited backstage as they paused between their second and third shows of this particular Saturday night to gulp down a few spoonfuls of fried rice. Sitting in various stages of undress amidst racks of shimmering gowns, skimpy sequined shorts and feathery headpieces, they somehow found time to uphold the traditional Thai custom of offering water to a guest.

Grueling schedules notwithstanding, these Thai entertainers are happy to strut their stuff for westerners. "In Bangkok we played mainly to crowds of bored Asian tourists who sit on their hands," says Mr. Sak. "Audiences here are so enthusiastic. They really appreciate us and come back year after year."

Back home during the fall and winter months, "The Lady Boys of Bangkok" cast members try to share their experiences and training abroad with fellow performers at the Mambo Club. But in happy-go-lucky Thailand where the mai pen rai ("don't worry/no problem") attitude covers a multitude of theatrical sins, performance standards of local kathoey cabaret aren't likely to change any time soon.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell