Gender Bender

June 4, 2006

Lady-boy Pattaya (Thailand), originally uploaded by Thomas Phan.

ONCE MALE, now female, Thailand’s transsexuals and transvestites are still a fringe community discriminated by the authorities.

A techno beat reverberates through the packed Tiffany Cabaret Theater in Pattaya. China dolls float down the catwalk, swaying their hips to the catchy tune, ‘Don’t Touch Me, Baby.’ This is the prestigious Miss Tiffany pageant, one of the most famous transvestite beauty contests in the world.

The paparazzi were out in force. Previous winners have been described by one news agency as being “every bit as feminine” as Miss Thailand. The glamorous live television coverage of such an event may lead one to believe that gender deviation and reassignment and cross-dressing is socially accepted in Thailand. But that’s far from the truth.

This year’s Miss Tiffany, Piyathida Sakulthai, is a hot favorite to win the Miss Queen of the Universe title in Los Angeles. Sakulthai was sent packing to Germany ten-years-ago on the pretext of further studies by his parents when they found out that he preferred to be considered a she.

Although plastic surgery techniques for sex-change operations have been advancing rather impressively, the rights of transsexuals and transvestites haven’t. For instance, there are no existing laws that allow transvestites to change their gender designation legally. This means if a lady boy is raped, s/he can’t file charges as they are still considered men under the criminal law.

In Thailand, transsexuals and transvestites are known collectively as ‘katoeys’ – the unofficial third sex. Katoeys have long suffered an ambiguous fate in Thai society. While scores of transvestite cabaret shows like Calypso, Mambo, and Tiffany bring in the tourist buck by the truckload, katoeys are still often portrayed in the entertainment industry as one-dimensional comic foils.

Even though the government – together with the medical community and the national airline – have been promoting sun, sand and surgery packages for medical tourists to help fill up the beds of five-star hospitals which were left empty after the 1997 economic crisis, it had also tried in 1997 to ban katoeys from teachers colleges. The attempt failed because the media created a big stink about it.

At the time, the media censorship board also told television producers to stop using lady boy characters because they were seen as unhealthy role models for Thai children. Again, this attempt to clean up Thai TV failed because it was unrealistic to wish the katoeys away.

Satree Lex (The Iron Ladies), a movie about a lady boy volleyball team who win the national championship, became the second-highest-grossing film next in Thailand after Nang Nak. It was a surprise because, as its director Yongyooth Thongkongthun says, “It broke every taboo in the business.” And only enforced the katoey culture.

Traditionally, Thai films have always emphasized family and religious values, but this movie addressed issues publicly that had been in the Thai closet for too long.

By all accounts, Thailand offers the best sexual reassignment packages in the world: at Yan Hee General Hospital, the operation costs US$3,850, which includes five nights stay, medication, meals, and around-the-clock attention. The hospital will even organize a holiday package, for the convalescent if she so desires. In America, the same operation would cost about $17,000.

On average, two sex-change operations are performed in Thailand a day; and according to the industry insiders, the number of such operations and related cosmetic procedures are growing at a rate of 30 per cent each year.

This is facilitated because patients applying for sexual reassignment surgery don’t have to go through the extensive six-month psychological evaluation required in the west. They’re given the green light once they have passed the “real life” test which requires them to dress and behave like women in public for a few months.

The combination of lax laws and a competitive rate is making Thailand a mecca for gender reassignment surgery. It’s been said on the international transsexual grapevine that the kingdom’s surgeons have come closest to perfecting the medical transformation of a man into a woman known in the industry as gender reassignment.

The simple operation of cutting off the penis and carving out an artificial vagina has developed considerably since Dr Preecha Tiewtranon from Bumrungrad Hospital began these operations in the early 70s. Now 57, the veteran, who has over 1200 male-to-female sex-change operations under his belt, is well known in international transsexual circles for his skill and dexterity – he can execute a sexual overhaul complete with breasts and a shaved Adam’s apple in about three hours. Ironically, he used to dislike transsexuals and transvestites.

Taking the operation a step further is Yan Hee’s Dr Greechart Pornsinsirirak, who is famed for the finer touches of gender reassignment. He developed techniques to create a sensitive clitoris, which is made from a small piece of penis he removes.

The most recent Thai celebrity to lie under Dr Greechart’s scalpel was Parinya Kiatbusaba, the kick-boxer best remembered for wearing lipstick and mascara in the ring and bewitching his opponents by planting a kiss on their foreheads before the fight.

“I don t know how society thinks about this whole thing, but I’ve never regretted it,” says Parinya, who now goes by the name of Nong Tum. “All I have ever wanted is to be myself.” He has since exchanged his gloves for a frock and is now lip-synching pop songs in Bangkok s cabaret circuit. The 19-year-old has been in Time and Sports Illustrated, and will soon be the subject of Beautiful Boxer, a semi-autobiographical film.

Sex changes are not all gloss and glamour. As the industry is left largely unregulated – although there are only 172 plastic surgeons certified by the medical council, more than 20,000 doctors are permitted to perform sex changes under the law – botch jobs are on the rise.

Nittiya Silp, 27, had dreamed of being a woman ever since he was a little boy playing with dolls. After seeing an advertisement in the local papers in Pattaya, he ploughed his life savings of beauty contest winnings into the operation.

Two weeks after the surgery, Nittiya experienced chest pains and consulted another doctor who discovered that her ruptured implants were actually made from condoms filled with water. The Chonburri backstreet doctor who performed the operation didn’t even have a medical degree; he was sentenced to three years in jail for negligence.

Not only did she have to undergo breast augmentation surgery again, her penis was also badly mutilated. “She was a mess,” says Dr Greechart who performed the corrective surgery on Nittiya. “The person who performed the [earlier] procedure left about a two-centimeter stump which had to be removed.”

In Thai history, lady boys are considered ‘sao prapet song,’ which is a classification tantamount to a second female type. Often, they perform the role of the geisha in Japan, with an emphasis on entertaining in public with colorful cabaret shows and garish costumes.

Inside a packed theater, a line of stunning katoeys in elegant costumes fan out across the stage, while the lead singer lip-synchs the official Thai tourism jingle Amazing Thailand against a shimmering backdrop of golden temples and dragons. The downtown Mambo Theatre is situated in a converted movie house. Every night it’s booked with tour groups who come to watch arguably the world’s most attractive lady boys perform 90 minutes of Oriental illusion and disguise. The slapstick spoofs of pop stars like the Spice Girls is unparalleled kitsch.

In 1998, a troupe of lady boys from the Mambo Theatre toured the UK in a show billed The Lady Boys of Bangkok, which boasts “You’ll never look at the opposite sex the same way again!”

“There s something valiant and graceful about these Thai lady boys,” reported The Evening Standard. Tickets sold out at the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End where it ran for a month before going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “It s difficult for a man to watch,” said Phillip Gandey, the show’s UK promoter who has been taking the show annually to the UK since its inception. “I started off thinking that these are men and it’s just a laugh. Then you begin to find them really attractive and you have to pull yourself up very quickly.”

Some men eventually succumb to the lady boys’ charm. Inside the Casanova go-go bar, located on the third floor of Bangkok’s Nana Plaza, a three-story mezzanine adult entertainment complex on Sukhumvit Soi 4, one strapping lad with close-cropped hair is shouting and directing his attention at a lady boy flaunting her wares. He’s George Smith, a 35-year-old computer programmer from Wales who has been vacationing in Thailand for the past five years. He’s currently shopping for a new set of breasts for Sasha whom he met at Casanova.

For 40,000baht (US$800), he says, “you can order breasts that’d make Pamela Anderson look like she’s wearing a training bra.” He plans to take Sasha back to the UK and marry her after the operation. “For [a nation of] so-called tolerant Buddhists, I find it strange that in some bars they won’t allow katoeys in,” Smith says.

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A proud breeder, originally uploaded by curious_shutterbug.

Insects are big part of the Thai diet, and are sold at most markets throughout the county. But here in the north, the rhinoceros beetle has a more noble cause than ending up in a wok of deep-fried oil as a protein snack: they’re groomed as fighters.

The rhinoceros beetle’s armor is formidable and its strength is legendary – one can support 850 times its own weight. Prized for their brute strength and walrus-like determination, they are set against each other in a competition for the right to mate with the female.

The fights take place during the monsoon season, when they are breed for the fighting pits scattered around the rice mills of the North.

The Shan brought this sport from Myanmar to Thailand, centuries ago, says Manop Rattanalitikul, who curates an insect museum in Chiang Mai. “So for northern Thais, kwang chon, or the art of the fighting beetle, has become very refined and sophisticated. And traditionally, the North has been known around the Kingdom for it’s formidable s. Breeders can make more money during the rainy season than a year working the rice fields in the fighting pits,” adds Manop. “And rightly so. They took this sport to another level.”
Somchai Terasuk, 46, is a roadside seller of rhinoceros beetles. Hanging from a bamboo rafter, are hundreds of beetles perched on sugar cane, secured by pink string. Each beetle sells for 100 baht. “This is not only a sport for us,” says the local rice farmer, “it’s a lifestyle. We consider it up there with gai chon (cock fighting) or muay thai. It takes skill and local wisdom to breed these beetles.”
Somchai has a stable of 10 fighters, and is on the road most weekends, putting his prized beetles through mini gladiatorial-like battles in the many makeshift-fighting rings around the North like this one on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

And it’s here that I’m witnessing the height of what is certainly a man’s business. The only women are the ones manning the rice whiskey stall. There are more than 100 locals milling inside the stadium. Outside, breeders and bug-handlers are comparing their bugs, weighing them up for an even fight.

At center stage, high on the rafters, two beetles are battling it out to the raucous cheers of the farmers, while their handlers sit on the fighting log doing their thing. Rules of engagement are posted on the wall above the fighting ring. “No weapons allowed,” states rule number one, though I can’t see any connection it has to the fighting beetles. Rule two warns that if the bug handlers attack each other with their vibrating files- which they use to vibrate the log to stimulate the beetles into fighting- they’ll each be fined 3,000 baht, nearly a month’s salary for most of these farmers.
Rule three – now we are getting back on point – says the beetle is deemed a winner only when it lifts up its opponent with its pincers and throws it off the log. But if a bug retreats, the beetle-handlers are allowed to expose the female only three times, for inspiration.
Normally the female is kept in a hollow cell in the log, informs Somchai. “But on certain occasions,” he says. “The female can be released to encourage the tiring beetle to fight on.”
In layman’s terms, this means a serious injection of ‘mojo’, as the female secretes a scent that makes the male bull fighting mad, evident by its audible war cry.

“Shrek” is in the ring, with its large pincers on guard. Its opponent, “Chaiyo,” which is Thai for “champion,” is from nearby Chiang Rai. Somchai is perched over the fighting log, vibrating his file like there’s no tomorrow. And his prized beetle, named after his favorite movie, Shrek 2, gets out of the gates early.

People go to extreme lengths to get the comparative edge and Somchai is no exception. Before the fight this morning, he took his prized fighter to a local temple to be blessed.

The fight, which lasted no more than half an hour, had me snoozing. It’s slower than golf, and a little bit more racy than lawn bowls. But the locals were screaming and carrying on like it was a kick-boxing tournament. And if it wasn’t for the overt gambling, I’m sure they would have been snoozing too. Shrek won. And I’m not even going to go into the point scoring system, suffice to say that Somchai is a happy man as he puts a wad of cash in his pockets. “I’ll let Shrek in the harem tonight,” says Somchai, who walks away with a tidy profit.

It’s a bugs’ life, no doubt. And when the rhinoceros beetle isn’t serving a purpose in the bug pits – winning – the loser soon becomes a culinary snack for the insect-loving Thais.

By Thomas Brecelic (This feature first appeared in Thai Day, 25 of May, 2006.)

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