Have you ever watched the Alan Partridge episode Watership Alan (S1E3). There is a recurring ladyboy theme following Alan’s fascination with the famous transsexuals of Thailand, and the episode is just British comedy gold. “Come on…. Tell About Me About the Ladyboys” (video below and you can thank me later).
Anyway, there has always been a bit of a global fascination with Thailand’s famous ladyboys, locally known as Kathoey in Thailand, and it’s an obsession that even had Fanfan baffled during one of her first visits to Northern Ireland (from Thailand) when driving past massive billboards promoting the “Lady Boys of Bangkok” tour in Belfast. And it is a show that has been touring the UK for 25-years having originated in Edinburgh in 1998).
“What? Why?” So local Thai people don’t really understand the wider global fascination of ‘Ladyboys’ given transexuals are a fairly common part of society here in Thailand.
Ladyboys in Daily Life
So the phenomenon is sensationalized more for global audiences, where they are sold as a bit of a tourist attraction in Thailand and abroad. But of course there is much more to the culture than this global image as transsexuals are normal in daily life in Bangkok where they are known as “khatoey”. For example, our condo manager is a ladyboy, the street liquor vendor out front is a ladyboy, one of the workers at our neighbouring 7-11… .
This is how I know of Bangkok ladyboys, through daily life, and I’ve personally never seen a ladyboy show simply because they’re pretty much promoted solely to tourists. But the shows are still fairly common in Bangkok; from the slightly seedier side with the gogo bars in famous red light districts like Soi Cowboy, Patpong, and Nana Plaza. To the more family-friendly shows selling tickets for both adults and children at various tourist attractions in Bangkok.
Ladyboy Shows in Bangkok
I should first point out, while globally the performance may be labelled as ladyboy shows, the performers do not see themselves as ladyboys as they are neither ladies nor boys. They are natural-born individuals. They are Thai Transgender artists. They are individual talents and are dedicated to the art of entertainment. The label is used to capture the ears of the wider ladyboy phenomenon and in reality, it can be taken as an offensive stereotype.
One of the better-known ladyboy shows in Bangkok would be Calypso Cabaret, having been around for over 30 years in the city at different venues (not a whole lot longer than the Lady Boys of Bangkok in the UK). The main venue these days however is found at “Asiatique: The Riverfront” which is an open-air mall and entertainment district along the Chao Phraya River. It’s beneath the famous Asiatique Sky Ferris wheel and there’s just a lot to add to make a night of it all.
Otherwise, the cabaret shows are fairly similar across the board with live lip-synching and choreography performances ranging from the classics, to show tunes, to current upbeat pop music. A lot of the focus will be on the lavish customers with feathers and sequins, as well as look-alike performances. Then there’s the set design, decor and effects… But mostly these shows are about celebrating Thailand’s transsexual performance culture.
Ladyboys in Modern Thai Culture
As above, our condo manager is kathoey, my liquor vendor is kathoey (pictured below), a worker at my neighbouring 7-11 is kathoey. Actually, the term ‘Kathoey’ is not really used these days. At least not so much in local life. It’s kind of rude. Transsexuals would just be addressed more as ‘poo ying’ which is generic for girl or lady, or ‘p’sao and nong sao’ which means older and younger sister respectively. And people don’t really differentiate or label them other than as female. This is the cultural norm these days.
At the same time, while there is a general acceptance in the big cities of Thailand, the transgender community is not overly accepted in the stricter religious rural communities or even accepted in law. While Thais have identified as transgender from as early as the 14th century, laws do not acknowledge those who identify differently to their gender at birth, and transsexuals cannot change their gender on identification forms etc.
Otherwise, Thai transgender are commonly celebrated as a colourful sub-culture not just in cabaret but also as models and in beauty pageants such as Miss Tiffany’s Universe which has been one of the world’s largest transgender beauty pageants since 1998. It is also the norm for Thai newspapers to print the winners of both female and beauty contests side by side. So transexuals are widely accepted and celebrated in general in Thailand.