Peter Tieryas
Photography: Angela Xu

In 1788, the Burmese fleet surrounded the island of Phuket, a beautiful slice of paradise south of Bangkok. The Thai army there was hopelessly outnumbered and their chances of survival were bleak, especially since the governor had just passed away. Enter Kunying Jan, widow of the ex-governor. She dressed up as many of the women as she could in the garb of male soldiers. The Burmese, leery at the sudden increase in visible adversaries, grew disheartened and turned away. So, cross-dressing was an important part of Thai history even back in the 18th century.

Part of that tradition has been commercialized in the ladyboy shows. The Calypso Cabaret is made up of kathoey defined as “male-to-female transgender” persons. In their quest for metamorphosis, they undergo breast implants, genital reassignment therapy, and a medley of other surgeries. The show was unlike anything I’d seen. A man played Marilyn Monroe lip-syncing to Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend, the Wonder Girls’ Nobody was performed by the Wonder Boys dressed like girls. It was a dazzling array of choreography and make-believe from the “Most beautiful ladies of Thailand.” Two times a night, they are heroes, murderers, celebrities, wash-out rejects.

I understood the plight of the caterpillar pursuing his path to butterfly. Wasn’t my trip through Asia a different expression of that desire? But unlike the kathoey, driven by instinct towards mammaries, my goal was more nebulous. Still, I tried to find meaning in their melodies.

There was a piece with melodramatic Chinese music and a heroine played by a beautiful man. From what I gathered, he was in love with a rich gangster, but the gangster was unfaithful and they got entangled in a thread of suspicion climaxing in a duel, pistols claiming all. Tragedy seemed a Siamese twin of time, its passing always the embodiment of loss. And it was loss I thought about, memories playing dominoes with my emotions. I grew up in a poor family and had been eager for change. After college, when a job opportunity appeared, to work in videogames, I seized it and have never looked back. Almost a decade later, I felt like I’d been in a race for as long as I could remember. But I didn’t know any longer why I was running.

After their performance, the kathoeys stood in a line for guests to take photos with. Tips were optional, but I was surprised when I flashed a little money myself. They mobbed me, desperate for that extra baht. Four of them forced me to take a picture with them, two others grabbed me, demanding money afterwards. It was depressing how quickly they shed their dignity for a pittance ($1 USD). I wondered how low their salaries were.

I tried not to feel too down as I thought about it. They were living out their dreams. And I understood their eagerness to earn a little extra. Change can be expensive.

Peter Tieryas is a visual effects artist for Sony Pictures where he’s worked on movies such as Alice in Wonderland and I Am Legend. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Camera Obscura, Gargoyle, Pear Noir!, Quiddity International Literary Journal, and ZYZZYVA.

Angela Xu is an international photographer who enjoys taking photos of the obscure.

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