Ladyboys the website began like this, one evening in Convent Street or Soi Convent, Silom;
It’s hot, fucking hot and humid and just getting dark and I am sweating as I listen to question after question as we stand on the road together. In the way that only journalists can, Charlie and Dee press on regardless, earnestly, sympathetically, apologetically but pressing on is what they must do because they are deep in the shit now.
They have made a mistake and now they are making another while trying to undo the first. They are too deadline orientated to care that while they may be able to extract information about Thai ladyboys from inside of my head they will never be able to truly ‘know’ that knowledge; not in their bodies the way that I know. Knowing in the body is where it’s at. Anything less than experiencing with the body is just ‘talking the talk’. Now they are asking me to tell them precisely what ‘walking the walk’ means, assuming that I am able to do that.
That assumption is mistake number three, a repeat of mistake number one: asking questions without understanding the source of the answers and believing blindly what they are told.
After reading Bangkok Baby, they have asked me to to help them write about Thai ladyboys and tonight they are lucky. I know some of the answers and all of the questions. The where, what, why, and how of ladyboys is galloped through without pause, without understanding. It’s becoming tedious.
Then just like that, the night snapped its fingers and the quality of the darkness changed and the creatures of the night begin to appear. So intent are they on asking me about ladyboys that a tall, dark, red-lipped urchin walks past and they do not see her, only her wake. ‘How can you tell?’, they ask me. ‘How can you not?’, I ask back at them, ‘Are you both blind’?
A ladyboy who looks like she has been working late in an office crosses Silom, walking behind them and as she mounts the steps to the BTS. She hovers in my eye-line for a moment longer than necessary. We smile, recognize, imagine, taste. For some reason that I still don’t really understand the news people are open- mouthed. ‘That’s how it’s done’, I tell them. ‘Its just human attraction and it happens all over the world, it just happens quicker here in Bangkok. Sometimes it happens too quickly’. I know they don’t understand what I mean. But they begin to sense the mojo of Bangkok and how the city will carry your heart if you let yourself be carried away. Now they begin to see it, the city opens itself to them as more and more ladyboys walk past us almost on cue as if this was all a surreal opera about vampires. I begin to dream, to enter the waking dream world where the senses are everything and sense nothing. No questions are needed because now they can feel the night but still they ask, ‘Why do ladyboys like you so much, how do they know you like them’, a portent of the many embarrassing questions that were soon to come my way.
We all like to feel we are special but that’s just a kind of fantasy not something tangible we can talk about. It’s not real. ‘I don’t think I am special. Ladyboys are just horny little devils who want to stick their horns in me’.
‘I’m not special, I’m just available’, I laugh, overcompensating. ‘Probably all ladyboys want a boyfriend. Once they know I live here it’s easy. If you live here everything changes; the way Thai people talk to you changes. Even those who are prostitutes dream about a lover, a friend, a partner, someone who cares about them.
Ladyboys may be uber-women but they are human like the rest of us, they get lonely, horny, miss their families, dream. Are you sure, they seem to be thinking. ‘Basically, we are in the shit.’
‘Because of what you told us about Tom we don’t want to use him in the article but as the editor, Cathy says, nobody who knows about ladyboys will talk to us, without him we have nothing. We are fucked David.
We are getting death threats from some people because of Tom. We are like lepers now. We don’t want Tom but what can we do? Tom was a guy that the newspaper had pencilled in to be the star of a new series of photojournalism about Thai ladyboys. He was revealed to be barking mad despite the psychological testing done by the paper people.
I say nothing. ‘Can you help?’ Like a Patpong whore when the customer asks, ‘How much’, I begin to weigh the possible outcomes. ‘Up to you’, I tell them with a straight face. It works just as well for me as it does for the whores.
I wait some more ‘Ok, if we dumped Tom would you help us?’ ‘ Maybe I could speak to a friend of mine’, I say. In the morning Charlie the journo calls. ‘Tom is history’.
We want you to be in the articles. Will you do it? ‘Ok, ok’, I say wishing I hadn’t. I call Annie.
It’s a day for making decisions. I want her back in my life. All along the Chao Phrya bridges are beginning to burn.
A couple of weeks later and the photo shoot for Lady boys is just beginning and when I asked Annie how she would tell our story she said, ‘If ask me, I tell about when we meet Facebook and give number and then we meet and eating together. It romantic. I think you handsum but butterfly man. No, maybe helicopter man.’
‘Annie, I don’t think you understand . . . I mean do you remember the first time we talked to the newspaper about their idea to make the photo-documentary about Ladyboys?’ Annie says, ‘I think like Thai movie, I make before.’ Me: Oh yeah, let me guess . . .
Annie: No, boxing your mouth. Never do like dat. They give we card have words we only say same as this but NO, not same. I make movie before at school about students at school. I was scared little bit first we meet because I think I cannot talk English very good about how I can make them know what are my feelings. I remember we argue but I know when we go out we are working and not same in room.
They asked me why you walked away and didn’t eat with us. I told them you saw a picture of Nan’s underwear and her number ‘135’ badge from Cascades.
Annie: They ask me about this same you. I tell them I not angry you. Jealous little bit but not angry. I cannot be angry you teerak. Me: This day, I know I love you more, because you have a good heart about this picture. The director asked me if you go home, and if we have to finish photographs because you are angry and jealous. She asked me to go and find you and make everything ok.
I told her I would leave you stay alone for little time and you be ok because you are a good person. I not know if true then for sure but you show me I am right can trust you. I love you for that.
Annie: ‘I not go home because look like stupid person I do dat! I only jealous.’
My memory of events begins with a feeling of responsibility. The strange thing about television is that although one may never actually believe it to be true, because of the power of the media one is elected spokesperson for an entire culture, faction, nationality or group. It can be overpowering.
You come alive with the red light on the camera. This is familiar. This is easy. Dangerous static is buzzing in your head but your mouth is not listening. Your mouth cannot stop because so much is expected of it. Words are expected to issue from your mouth.
Wise, foolish, arrogant, damaging, life changing words. The camera does not care. The buzz is dampened only momentarily by your internal bravery speech. ‘I am doing this for the greater good’.
The camera is a drug. You talk, talk, talk and the camera sucks you into its hungry mouth. The static buzz grows in volume and forms itself into the collective voices of those wiser than you, the voices of the betrayed, the damaged, those who have a life at stake and those who simply know more.
Two years in Thailand and you are sounding like the oracle of all wisdom.
As the words leaving your mouth compose themselves into sentences and allow space for the pauses and the gesticulations that support them in their attempt at truth and knowledge, you know the picture they are painting is a fake. How could it be anything else? You are not a kathoey. You are not Thai. You loved a girl for some months and it went bad. How little you know.
Standing behind the cameras and visible only in the spotlights glare you see an army of the dead and living. They are watching. Distracted, you raise a hand to shield your eyes and see better the faces of your accusers. Oil, the ladyboy who jumped from the 6th floor of Sukhumvit Life is there. Are you telling her story in which she was dumped by a farang lover again and again and in which the starring role goes to ice/yabba? Her crazed phone calls and her delusion that you were her boyfriend; are you talking about that. Are you talking about the ghosts like her that jumped?
There you go again, another sweeping generalization and a generous sweep of the arm to embed that small truth in the mind of the viewing public. You are an asshole, an asshole with a big mouth. The faces of the ghosts and the living are tight lipped in agreement. They mouth the word, ‘asshole’ as you talk and talk.
You have been chosen by fate and opportunism to speak in their place and you’re fucking it up for them. For the Irish, Swiss, Slovenian, English and American lovers of ladyboys long dead or living all with the same sad story.
But stories are always sad at the end. Just like life, they end with a disappearance, a fading out or an abrupt stop like hitting the concrete at the end of a long fall; messy and sad. You know about messy, sad relationships that stop abruptly. You are the master of messy endings.
The ghosts fall silent as a bright light appears amongst them. It’s an angel. The light grows brighter as she walks into the smaller light cast on you by the camera and the fruit vendors stall. You are not alone as you squirm on the hook.
Annie is standing by your side with all the happy energy a twenty one year old ladyboy can share. She holds your hand and whispers, ‘teerak’. You say, ‘Hi baby’ as the camera records your first meeting for the third time that night at Thonglor.
The farang living and the ghosts mime your words, ‘Hi baby’, as the ladyboy dead whisper, ‘teerak’, alive again with hope, love and possibility. Even Siraporn comes from her lonely room and from sticking sequins on the her Barbie prom queen, ‘teerak’, she says and you realize that the living and the dead do not see you and Annie but instead see their lost ones, the dead or the forgotten.
They see again those against whose caresses they have hardened their hearts. They see them as they saw them the first time they met and fell in love at the BTS at the bar or on the streets of the city before a messy ending had even been considered.
Alive again, you hold Annie’s hand, swallow and speak now with the strength of a thousand voices, about love and ladyboys about beginnings and possibilities.