Are they women or men. No matter, says Richard Fitzpatrick, because the Lady Boys of Bangkok are great fun.
SHORT and softly spoken, Urasak Suthajinda, aka Sak, is the artistic director of the Lady Boys of Bangkok. He choreographs the Thai cabaret troupe’s dances, and greets audiences with a mandate: “The Lady Boys of Bangkok are here for entertain you!” But Sak is probably best known for his version of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.
Sak starts the number looking like Shirley Bassey, but as the song meanders its way through the loving, the laughing and “the share of losing”, he slowly sheds his elaborate costume, the wig and the make-up, to reveal a man. He has become Sinatra by the song’s end.
Sak is one of the original ladyboys of the touring troupe. He’s been with The Lady Boys of Bangkok since it first made a splash at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1998.
“The first time we arrived in the UK, the people were surprised,” says Sak. “They’d never seen anything like us before. They thought we were drag queens. They couldn’t believe their eyes. There were 16 males on stage that time that looked like ladies; they didn’t look like men. They said, ‘You lie’!”
“Before the show starts, we remind the audience that we are an all-male company, but when the curtain opens they don’t believe their eyes, because it looks like all girls on stage. People don’t believe that we are not ladies. They understand that we are ladyboys.
“Even at the immigration desk at the airport when we arrive, they are surprised when we show our passports and they say that we are men.”
Sak laughs when I ask his age, and bats the question to touch. It’s rude, of course, to ask a ‘lady’ her age. He’s a drag queen by day, a transvestite. But he says it’s more fun to perform as a male.
“For me, I look like a man,” says Sak, “but sometimes, on stage, I look like a girl and sometimes I look like a man. Some of my cast are ladyboys — they decide to be ladyboys because they love to be that. For me, that’s alright.”
Jacqueline, one of the other ladyboys I interview, who is 34 and has been performing with the Lady Boys of Bangkok for 10 years, prefers to be known as a lady.
It’s more than just dressing up in girls’ clothes; she says it’s a way of life.
“I wanted to be like a little girl. I wanted to do make-up. I wanted to dance,” she says. “When I was 15, I decided to become a ladyboy, and to change everything.”
Jacqueline’s family have accepted her choices. Her mother has seen her perform with the Lady Boys of Bangkok. “My family has helped me, because they love me,” she says.
All of The Lady Boys of Bangkok started out life as males. When I ask Sak if any of them have had gender adjustment surgery or hormone drug treatment, she is reluctant to answer: “We can’t answer questions about that subject, about operations, because it is hard for people to understand.”
Thailand has come to terms with the ladyboys as a third sex, or ‘kathoeys’, as they are known. “Thailand is very accepting of ladyboys,” says Jacqueline.
Ladyboys are more visible in Thai society than, say, transgender people are in many Western cities, which is consistent with Buddhist and Hindu teachings.
There are ladyboy beauty pageants on TV shows and an airline has recently trained its first ladyboys as airhostesses.
The law has been slower to adjust, however, so prejudice does exist in the most important quarter. Thai people are not legally allowed to change their gender to female, for example.
Therefore, it is illegal to marry someone of the same sex. As Sak says, ladyboys are not allowed to change gender on their passports or birth certificates.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok don’t do shows in Bangkok. They have been returning to perform on these islands every year for the last 16 years, and will be live at the Cork Opera House next Tuesday (November 18).
It is at Edinburgh’s fringe festival, however, where their cabaret show has become an eagerly anticipated staple, not far down the pecking order from the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo for festivalgoers each August.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok is a little cottage industry. Along with 16 performers, the production includes 18 crew members who help with the staging of their big-top show.
Make-up is a huge operation, and, of course, the ladyboys’ elaborate costumes have become a crowd favourite. The cast members go through 20 costume changes a show. That’s a lot of jumping through the hoops in a show that lasts under two hours.
Shows are restricted to people over 16 years of age. This year’s show is entitled ‘Red Hot Kisses’ and has 200 different types of costumes. Sak coordinates the ‘music from the movies’ section, which includes Hollywood hits from films such as Hairspray, Grease and Dirty Dancing.
There is comedy, including a one-sided boxing match between a dwarf and one of the ladyboys, and one of the favourite sections of the show is when the ladyboys get audience members to dance with them.
The ladyboys are not shy in launching into the crowd to source volunteers.
The ‘Red Hot Kisses’ show includes a tribute to Amy Winehouse, the English singer who died in 2011, and superstar pop favourites — with the odd country-and-western number – from the likes of Dolly Parton, Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams, as well as a gusto performance of The Village People’s ‘YMCA’.
It comes as a surprise — or maybe not — that the show concludes with a rendition of The Weathergirls song, ‘It’s Raining Men’.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok’s show, Red Hot Kisses, is on Tuesday, November 18, at Cork Opera House: www.corkoperahouse.ie
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