Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006
An Action Theatre Production
Performed by Parinya Charoenphol (Nong Toom)
Accompanied by Babes Conde
Directed by Suwandee Jakravoravudh
Lighting Design by Suven Chan
reviewed by Jyh Wee Sew
'Are his boobs real?' The question flashed on the screen on the wall.
This was the first joke in Boxing Cabaret, which performed to a full house audience at the Singapore's Esplanade Recital Studio on 17 June 2005 (Fig. 1), the world premier of Nong Toom's (NT) one-woman show, which continued for three more performances in Singapore. The reply from the performer was equally funny. As the sole lead NT claimed that they were as real as they can be and she preferred the female possessive pronoun (her) for the question. This one-woman performance informed about the story of a 22-year-old transsexual who shot to fame with the movie Beautiful Boxer (2003), which depicts her life story. The show was part of the Flipside Arts Series in conjunction with the Singapore Festival of Arts 2005. Flipside consisted of arts performances that offered a twist on conventional arts performances.
Another killer question posed on the screen in Brechtian style was, 'Is she a real woman?' Of course, the audience was roaring with laughter when she pulled a punch with her fist and said I am a woman with a husky voice. Her fame as a Thai boxer immediately came back to remind the audience that she was not completely as soft as she seemed to be. Behind the sleeveless black dress with a low cut neckline which criss-crossed her upper torso and offered stolen glimpses at her lower armpit-cum-breast area was a man who used to conquer the boxing ring in Bangkok.
The show came in five rounds of conversations concerning five topics: the audience, Thai boxing, love, men and herself. In her first round NT claimed she knew what the audience was thinking and the projector flashed the question:
'Is she going to strip?'
The reply was simple from NT, 'For thirty dollars [per ticket], you must be crazy!'
Hearty laughter signalled a 1-0 score suggesting that the audience seemed a little lascivious. NT's soft tone made the line in Thai English sounded more comical.
NT asked another clever question: if the audience had been to Thailand, and how many went for Buddhist temples, shopping (which sounded like chopping), or Thai food. Many raised their hands for either one or all of the reasons but when it came to the question how many went for sex, barely any hand went up. The silence was followed by bouts of laughter. She slipped in a cynical remark, 'I thought you're all honest! So, honesty is not the best policy when it comes to sex.' More laughter.
NT joked if she could ever find a man to love her for who she was, as she was once like him too. NT had the audience laughing in tears as she fished two youngsters from the audience to be her back-up dancers. The ad-hoc improvisation from the male back-up dancers was hilarious while NT remained calm belting a Thai song about the beauty of Chiang Mai girls. In her dance sequence, NT lacked the female grace and her dance moves revealed a soft residue of masculinity from her past boxing glory.
NT looked nervous trying to memorise all the lines in English, which was not an easy task for a native Chiang Mai Thai (wo)man. If she were to stay in the entertainment line, she needs to be proficient in English as she forgot a few lines in her show. NT needs more skills to be a versatile performer as it requires more than punch lines with sexual connotations. Capitalising on her history as a boxing champion to offer her audience a special slice of her new life as a woman is a short term strategy at best.
NT confessed that she was fortunate compared to those who aspired but could only dream to be a woman and she should be happy since her dream came true. Unfortunately, as she disclosed in the segment 'NT against Man,' she soon realised that all women went through many hard knocks in life. In her encounter with love, she disclosed that her first love appeared three days after her sex change. As a new loving woman she tried to see to her lover's every need. Despite having offered tender care, fine cooking, hard cash and even washing his dirty underwear, her boyfriend was found with another woman. NT came to the conclusion that to love a man is to let him go and to let a man love her is to experience love for herself. She broke into a song that went like this:
The next round of conversation concerned NT's video footage as a boxer overtaking a tough-looking Thai boxer. The video clip showed that after the victory he went over and kissed the defeated opponent on his cheek. A lighting effect suddenly placed the stage and NT 'behind bars' for tarnishing the ancient art. Kissing another male in the boxing ring is a disgraceful taboo. NT explained with true sincerity that she did not feel she had done anything bad. NT argued that she did not rape the boxer nor did she find him cute in the first place.
In actual fact, her kiss was intended as a sign of being sorry as it was not her intention to create a bloody mess out of her opponent. The voice of the recorded judgement after she was put 'behind bars' called NT a faggot. In response, NT said while she was not born like the speaker, she was happy that she was not like him. At the end of this segment, NT knelt on the stage and paid homage to her guru who introduced NT to Thai Boxing. In NT's narration, the deceased guru did not discriminate against NT despite knowing NT's intention to be a woman and trained NT in the ancient art. NT prayed that he would rest in peace.
At this point, Babes Conde, the guest performer, came to cheer NT. She had the audience join with her to sing 'You make me feel like a natural woman.' Babes provided good performing support with her singing repertoire as she sang the Mandarin ballad 'Lover's Tears' (Qing ren de yan lei). The audience joined with much zest as the song was a popular love ballad sung by Priscilla Poon, a Singaporean diva in the 70s, and became popular again when it was reproduced by Dick Lee in the 90s for Sandy Lam.
There is a lot to learn about NT's understanding of love. Her most touching explanation concerned her mother who told the Thai television in an interview that she was not ashamed of her son who is now her daughter as she was prepared to love her child even if NT had no limbs or incomplete facial features. NT's mother loved her new daughter even more than before and was only worried for her because of the additional difficulties she would be facing as a woman.
Cross-dressing is by no means new to Singaporean TV. The renowned local director Jack Neo used to impersonate women on national television, first as a funny granny known as Liang Po Po (po po means grandma in Mandarin) then as a middle-aged single mother known as Liang Si-Mei, who had a naughty son. Another local comedian, Moses Lim, cross-dressed with Neo. In 2005, Lim cross-dressed as a peranakan nyonya (Malay-Chinese cross-breed) and later as a voluptuous lady in a series of variety shows in 2005.
Nong Toom has a long way to go before securing her position as a seasoned performer in Asia. It would be exciting to hear her tell about her experiences ten years from now in proficient and confident English coming from a charming woman of substance and wisdom.
 On this theme, see Graeme Storer's paper, 'Performing sexual identity: naming and resisting "gayness" in modern Thailand,' in Intersections: Gender History and Culture in the Asian Context, Issue 2, May 1999, accessed 7 August 2006.
This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.
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