Samui Wining & Dining

An in-depth chat with ‘Pinky’, one of Chaweng’s resident cabaret performers.


100Some are superstars on television or in national shows. Some have less-glamorous jobs, working in factories, shops or hotels. Many more you’ll never get to see; they’re employed behind the scenes as artists or fashion-stylists. One or two attract attention by being outrageously over-the-top. But most are quiet and demure; shy almost. These are kathoey, Thailand’s ‘third sex’, also referred to as the ‘second kind of woman’. But most probably you’ll be more familiar with the term ‘ladyboys’.


Thailand’s an unusual country in this respect. Sociologists agree that this is largely due to the nation’s Buddhist beliefs and the tolerance and acceptance that go with this. Certainly, the overall acceptance of the transgendered community took a sudden leap when, more than 100 years ago, His Majesty King Rama IV found himself amused and entertained by such performers. But no one quite knows just why this country has so many. Between 2005 and 2008, the Thai military had to reject over 3,000 ‘men’ for compulsory National Service in the army (soldiers with make-up and silicon breasts don’t give a good impression of fighting men.) And you can confidently multiply that number by ten for an overall national figure.


As a visitor to Thailand, most of the times that you’ll see a kathoey you probably won’t even realise it. But you certainly will if you’re out and about in Chaweng at night, particularly in the area of the Soi Green Mango. Here, the order of the day (or night, in this case) is spiked high heels and skin-tight Lycra mini-dresses. Plus there’ll be more than a sprinkling of sequins and feathers. Because this is where there are two ladyboy cabaret shows close together and the performers are out on the street, promoting the shows and looking to lure in some extra customers.


Both of these shows are excellent; highly professional and well-worth seeing. There’s the witty chat of Campbell, the androgynous MC at the fast-moving Starz Cabaret. And then there’s Christy’s Cabaret that’s probably better-known and more established, as it’s been around since 1995. And it was at Christy’s that I met up with ‘Pinky’, who, at the tender age of 23 is already a seasoned performer.


She’s been ‘on the boards’, as they say, ever since ‘she’ left school at 16. Well, apart from a short spell working in a restaurant (which she didn’t really want to do and certainly didn’t take to). She was born in Chiang Rai and always wanted to work in a show. “I tried Phuket first,” she explained, “but it was so big and busy. I hated it. It was very competitive and there was quite a lot of jealousy and aggressiveness. I had to make do with working in a small restaurant instead. So I decided to look for a cabaret somewhere else. Why Samui?” She grinned. “It was such a beautiful place!”


Pinky – whose official papers bear the name ‘Worawut Sitthibunma’ – is relaxed, quiet, friendly and unassuming. To see her all vamped up on stage, made-up to kill and strutting like a model gives altogether a different impression. And she’s very professional, in all senses of the word. “I’ve always loved dancing and singing; it’s natural for me. I first started with a cabaret when I had just turned 17. I think I must now have probably more than 200 dance routines in my head. And at Christy’s we add two or three new ones every month.”


But, I mused, where does it begin? I mean, do you get to your teens and suddenly decide to change sex? How does it happen? Is it an easy thing? How do your friends react? Your parents? There were a lot of quite direct questions I wanted to ask, but Pinky made it easy for me. She’s not only thoughtful but refreshingly forthcoming and open about it all, too.


“I first realised that I wasn’t comfortable as a boy at the age of five when I started school,” she confided. “Without being to understand it then, I wasn’t like the other boys. I liked painting pictures and singing songs with the girls. I hated all the rough-stuff and running about and shouting that the boys did. As I grew older I began to realise that I was really a girl inside; I just didn’t have the right sort of body to go with it.”


As she began to mature she let her hair grow and began to take hormones in the form of the contraceptive tablets that are freely available here. “But I was always respectful at school,” she added. “I never wore make-up and it was only in the evenings that I allowed myself to look the way I really felt. My friends were no problem; most of them were girls anyway and they helped me a lot.”


Having spent some time talking to Pinky, I’ve now discovered that there are different ‘degrees’ of kathoey. Not everyone feels the same way as she does. Some are, I suppose you could say, bi-sexual, and are attracted to both genders. Some are essentially gay and prefer other males and are more, or less, effeminate with it. Now it was my turn to be a little shy. I struggled to ask her about her … ‘inclinations’!


“Oh, I like men. Simple as that,” she replied without hesitation. “I’m a woman. I’m attracted to men. I already have breast implants and one day perhaps will change things more. That’s just the way I am: it’s who I am and what I am. It’s me and I’m happy with it.”


And what better way to show the whole world than being on stage every night in a cabaret extravaganza. But, in reality, the work is demanding and takes up a surprising amount of time. Pinky gets up each day at somewhere around 3:00 pm: basically, she works at night and sleeps in the day. Make-up goes on at around 6:30 pm and then it’s away with the other performers to a hotel performance somewhere. Christy’s Cabaret show runs from 10:30 pm until around midnight and then it’s time for a break. Yes – because several evenings a week it’s back again to the deserted theatre to rehearse new numbers at 2:00 am, finishing for the night at 4:00 am! And then it’s away with friends for a few hours in a nightclub, finally heading home to bed (in a house she shares with three others from the show) when the sun is already coming up.


Pinky likes Samui. That’s why she’s been living and working here for five years already. And she likes Christy’s; the hours are long but it’s very easy-going. And if you go along go to see the show, see if you can spot her. But it won’t be easy. Blonde hair, pink hair, black hair; lots of make-up and a dozen different costumes. Almost a total transform-Asian!


Rob De Wet


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