More Than a Woman (Absolute Thai. 2008)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Sally Boales played by Liza Minelli may have assured you that, “Life is a cabaret old chum,” but on actual examination that would make life pretty surreal if you applied the principal to Thailand 77 years after Christopher Isherwood chronicled the antics of a bunch of bohemian neurotics trying to live it up in the shadow of the inexorable chaos of pre war Berlin. Well that is, unless your life is full of cross dressing  she-men camping it up outrageously, energetically miming to the music hall greats and cracking sly jokes where the innuendo is only barely veiled. Life may not actually be a cabaret, if you wish to keep your feet on the ground, but at the Tangmo Cabaret on Patong Beach all who enjoy a joke, a song and a shuffle are more than welcome.

The lady-boy cabaret has become a feature of the mainstream tourist entertainment industry across Thailand. Samui has a number of choices for mildly burly feminine entertainment and in Bangkok Katoey burlesque is not only a feature of the cabaret itself but part of the Thai music hall shows at the Coliseum and Tawa Deng where audiences manage to laugh, eat, drink and dance almost simultaneously whilst still remaining at their tables throughout the performance.  Tiffany’s in Pattaya  is famous all over Thailand featuring the Miss Tiffany Beauty Content shown live on national TV every year. Here in Phuket there is the well known Simon Cabaret plus some smaller operations such as the Tangmo. Tangmo herself is a Kateoy, but she is also a very successful business person and entrepreneur.

The fact that is initially striking is that for pretty much all the performers this is the only job they have ever done. Any idea of the dancers hopping from job to job in a barely lit demi-monde of half realised ambition is banished by the fact that they are more faithful to the company than well paid suburban civil servants in any ministry you care to choose. Admittedly most suburban civil servants rarely prepare for work by preening themselves and their colleagues in front of a mirror whilst displaying their surgically enhanced features under the harsh glow of fluorescent strip lighting, but the fact is that this is a job with a secure future. Tangmo explains, “The cabaret is all about fun and the quality of the performance. The performers are like my own daughters.” Emba from Nakhon Si Tammarrat has been working at the Tangmo for 13 years, her whole adult life. Sitting demurely in a small black cocktail dress she explains, “Here I can be what I am and be applauded for it. I have everything I want; a good salary, a caring boss and a nice boyfriend who is only twenty. I don’t want to work anywhere else.”

As first time visitors quickly notice one attractive aspect of Thai culture is the positive air of tolerance that pervades it. Derived, maybe, from a Buddhist ethos of ‘live and let live’ seasoned with a general trend towards ‘sanuk’, or fun, Thais do not really incorporate judgment into their opinions of those who mean them no harm. Thus the transvestite or ‘Katoey’ is accepted into Thai society as naturally as anyone else who has a valid reason to be.  At the Tangmo Cabaret the performers represent as much of a cross section of origin, ambition, aspiration and folly as in any other work place. Emba plans to stay as long as she can, but twenty one year old Jenny is saving to go to University and study business administration and fashion whilst twenty seven year old Cindy is planning to finance the opening of a mini-mart in her native Songhla. Whatever their plans for the future in the present as Showtime approaches it is the show and the show alone that demands the concentration of everyone involved.

In the early evening, every evening, the stars of the show, Emba, Jenny, Cindy, Takky, Pan and Lada climb the rickety stairs to a pokey, humid series of dressing rooms on the third floor above the small Tangmo theatre. Here they begin the elaborate ritual of make up and preparation for the coming performance. It is a performance in itself as each layer of makeup or costume is carefully and artfully applied or arranged. All the while there is a quiet banter murmuring around the room gpassing from one performer to another, gentle gibes and constructive suggestions as they help strap each other in to impossible corsets or apply hairspray to ornate coiffures.

After the preparation comes the parade. For half an hour before Showtime Emba, Jenny and the whole cast patrol the street outside the theatre letting the whole world know what is about to take place inside. Tourists stop to have their photos taken surrounded by Kateoys in sequins and feathers. The performers are proud of their appearances. The work that goes into looking glamorous pays off in the satisfaction of the staring crowds and popping flashbulbs. As the street parade comes to an end it is time for the show.

Tangmo explains that the routines are borrowed from many different cabaret shows from around the world. As the light goes up a diva, impossibly tall in stacked heels, and sprouting ostrich feathers mimes, dances and shimmies to 70s classics as troops of lanky young man boogie behind her. She is followed by a heavily painted clown shifting from happy to sad exaggerated burlesque morphing into a slapstick wobble and exiting stage left. She is followed by the French mime classic routine of a costumed half man half woman camping up the pain of unrequited love. There is 80s techno pop, 60s kitsch, 70s glitter all topped by a couple of Sinatra like show tunes performed in the rounded arc of the spotlight. The miming is perfect. The ladies take pride in their mimicry.

As the lights go up the music is over and it is now time for the comedy. Tangmo takes the microphone and starts to gently goad the audience with chuckling innuendo, teasing both guests and performers with a bawdy humour that offends no one. As the performers line up for a musical farewell, bows are taken and bouquets are thrown. As the audience head back into the neon bustle of Patong by night the dancers and singers climb back up the rickety stairs to remove their finery, peel off the lycra and wipe away the makeup.

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