Author Archives: Vivienne Chen
After a long sojourn of school, life, and editing, I am pleased to announce that the first cut of “The Third Gender” will debut at the inter-Ivy League LGBT conference, IvyQ on February 9, 2013.
This workshop will present a short (20 minute) artistic documentary that explores the community of trans and gay individuals in Thailand through their personal narratives. After the film, there will be a broader discussion/presentation about how the film was made and the differences between Thai and Western ideas of sexuality/gender.
I should add that it’s not just going to be about differences– a lot of the narratives are markedly similar across cultures! However, I would like to engage the audience to think about how anthropologists and gender/sexuality scholars have tried to understand Thai sexuality, often through an overly Western lens, and how the cultural context of Thailand might influence the way people feel about things like– language, body, mind, etc.
I’m extremely excited, and not to mention incredibly nervous about the reception of this work. I want to do justice to the lives of those who I interviewed, and to Thai people, who have graciously let me enter their culture to even slightly better understand it, and understand myself.
A better bio of me:
VIVIENNE CHEN is a Princeton University student, freelance writer, journalist, and videographer. Her interests include sexual freedom, alternative sexualities, trans rights, and international LGBT movements. Chen is the student speaker for Princeton who was chosen for IvyQ 2013 through a competitive application process. We are extremely excited to welcome Chen as a speaker.
I’ll be getting loads of feedback about the documentary and hopefully working on another cut to be presented at Princeton University. From there? There will likely be an online version released via Vimeo or Youtube, for everyone to watch.
I am again, so, SO thankful to everyone who has helped me along the way, from my translators, to my friends and interviewees who took the time to share themselves with me, and to my hosts/connections in Thailand who basically gave me my documentary from the ground up. When I came to Thailand, I knew no one. It was only through the kinship networks we built that this project was possible.
Check out the trailer again!
HEY EVERYONE- the trailer I made for my project is out! WATCH AND SHARE!
Thanks again to everyone involved!
Hey everyone! Sorry for the long hiatus. I just started settling down in Shanghai after two months in Thailand.
73.59 Gigabytes of footage, 3 locations across the country, and dozens of interviews later, my Dale project has at last completed phase 1! Now it’s time I finally sat down with everything and start fitting it into the evolved storyline– a picture of Thailand’s gender and sexuality that I’ve found at times surprising, inspiring, and impressive.
The most amazing things I’ve learned have been talking to people who consider themselves activists in their community. From Tannia Sukkhapisit, the indie filmmaker I mentioned earlier, to Tor, the founder of Mplus+, a Chiang Mai-based NGO that works with male sex workers and ladyboys from all walks of life, I was with no shortage of people who had thought long and hard about the state of Thai gender and sexuality from an intellectual perspective. Coupled with the personal stories of over a dozen transgender/ladyboys, from young professionals to performers to sex workers, I’m really excited to be weaving these storylines together into my short film.
Things I Learned During my Project:
- Contrary to popular (Western) belief, Thai society isn’t Entirely accepting of gender difference. While everyone agrees that the integration of gender non-conforming people is perhaps better than any other country, and while transgender do not experience nearly as much violence (although not entirely zero aggression) as they do in the States, people still have troubles. At the most personal level, family and community stress, and on a national level, discrimination from the laws and regulations. Tannia’s banned film, Ploy’s escape from her hometown, and the military ban on transgender are just some examples of where Thailand, like America and the rest of the world, is still experiencing issues.
- The root of gender/sex activism is native. In other words, the impetus for cultural and social change in Thailand doesn’t come from Western NGOs or activists; but from native Thai people like Tannia, Tor, and the kathoey community. I REALLY think this makes Thailand wholly unique from its neighbors like Cambodia, Laos, etc., and I’m willing to bet it has everything to do with Thailand not having ever been colonized. Although Western gender theory certainly has great influence (Tor and I even talked Judith Butler– AMAZING!), having the hands on outreach come from native Thai proved to be absolutely essential to activists’ effectiveness.
- Sex workers who are ladyboys will say they are often there by choice, and that sex work is work. This was the main philosophy of Mplus+, and a controversial concept to say the least. I’ll have more to show for this in my film, so I don’t want to spoil it.
- Very few people will admit that they have family issues, but Tannia said it best when she said that her family has never said a word against her, but she knows that inside if her family could have chosen, they would have preferred her to not be kathoey.
- It’s damn hard to get people to talk on camera, and even harder to get behind the surface of that veneer of “Thai Smile.” You hear a lot of the same language, same rhetoric– the “born like this,” “ever since I was young, I felt like a girl” narratives– but what I found surprising was the comfort and fluidity of being gender non-conforming behaviorally, without the pressure nor desire to necessarily change physically. Some ladyboys I met had gotten top surgery, but only a handful took hormones, and most had only done small cosmetic alterations (cheeks, nose, etc.) Gender was really about the performative-– acting, walking, dressing, talking… and few ladyboys felt the pressure of needing to transition beyond that.
Things That I Wish I Had Gotten Access To (But Didn’t This Time):
- Insider footage from a sexual re-assignment hospital. You could imagine how stonewalled I was on this front. I got some footage from inside an HIV clinic for MSM (men who have sex with men) and ladyboys, and some of outside/peripheral footage of these hospitals/clinics, but no dice on interviewing a doctor who performed such surgeries.
- Student voices– there are TONS of ladyboys in school, from as young as high school (although most transition once they’re away from their parents). I’m sorry I wasn’t able to speak to any who were still in school.
If I had more time and more money, I’d almost certainly return to get these perspectives.
Until then, I conclude Phase 1 of my project. Expect a trailer soon (I PROMISE I’d get it done by mid August!), and a fully edited work by the end of the year.
Also, Thai friends: look out for me asking you to help translate and subtitle some sections of my work.
On my second border run to Burmese/Myanmar for visa purposes, I hit a road bump. Fully booked buses from Chiang Mai meant I couldn’t leave until 10:30am, which set me a few hours behind schedule. I had intended to leave as early as 7am, but fatigue and getting lost got the better of me.
As a friend said, bordertowns almost uniformly suck.
My last border run between Thailand and Cambodia was insane compared to Mae Sai– Aranyaprathet to Poipet was lined with scammers trying to get you to buy their “visa”, gamblers/casino sharks, etc. I’ve learned since that anyone who is enthusiastic about expediting your visa is most definitely untrustworthy.
I ignored the scammers at Poipet, but what irked me the most was that the police station/official border crossing staff were literally a few paces away, doing nothing about it. While I’ve heard in the past it’s been worse and the police have cracked down on it, it sure didn’t look like it.
Mae Sai border crossing, on the other hand, was mostly monks, a scattering of saffron robes on the bridge to Myanmar. Besides some guys who did try to grab me and sell me imported cigarettes, I was unbothered. It was a cheaper crossing, and I cleared myself for the rest of the trip.
However, I didn’t know the last bus to Chiang Mai from Mae Sai left at 4:30. I got to the station at 5pm.
So, I got stuck in Chiang Rai with nothing but my backpack and several thousand baht. I asked a hotel close by how much it would cost to get a taxi back to Chiang Mai if I was hell bent on returning before midnight– they said upwards of 3,000 baht ($100 USD). GUH. Yeah, not happening.
So, I wandered the city aimlessly a bit, and then something caught my eye– a guesthouse. That looked like Terrace. As in, painted glow in the dark psychedelic walls, dark, wooden, only a few kilometers (aside: holy shit I’m using the metric system now) from the bus station.
The owner, a Thai rastafarian with several strands of black dreads on his head and silver rings on his hands, welcomed me rather enthusiastically.He loved that I’m from California. He showed me a room. I thanked him and told him I’m going to buy my bus ticket home for the morning at 6am.
At the station, I met a girl (Hi Rebecca! Hope your 10-day Buddhist retreat goes well! Good luck!) who was in the same predicament as me. I told her where I was staying, warned her about the Rastafarian vibe– to which she said “oh no I love places like that!”– and we end up splitting a room for 100 baht each.
Dinner at the night bazaar, some shopping around, a mosquito-filled sleep (more like nap), wake up at 5:30am, and a long busride back– and I’ve returned to Chiang Mai safely!
Home sweet home. These are pictures of my host’s place in Chiang Mai.
Thanks to some friend-of-friend contacts (and a little Facebooking), I’ve scored an interview with Tanwarin “Tannia” Sukkapisit, the TG/ladyboy-identified independent filmmaker whose famous film Insects in the Backyard (2010) was banned by the Thai government. Insect in the Backyard was banned for “morality” reasons (i.e. penis shot, allegedly), but made rounds and accolades on the international independent cinema scene.
I am really excited. Tannia’s work is quite amazing and her story is bound to be fascinating. My interview with her is also set to become a feature article for the debut issue of AsiaLIFE: Bangkok, coming out in August/September! SO, DOUBLE PLUS GOOD.
Check out the trailer for Insects in the Backyard:
Is Thai society open about gays and katoeys? Most people believe so. We’re not arrested on the streets. Our rights aren’t limited, and we can live fairly happily. But if you ask me if katoeys are accepted as part of the mainstream ‘we’ of society, I don’t think so. We’re still ‘the others’, the insects in the backyard.
— Tannia, Bangkok Post, 2010
ALSO, for those US/English speaking readers, the English film title of one of her other great works, It Gets Better, should be particularly poignant.
All of Tannia’s films tackle tough issues of gender, sexuality, and often feature either herself or other ladyboy characters as serious dramatic stars.
So stay tuned! The interview is scheduled for July 5, 2012. My plan is to talk cinema, kathoey/ladyboys, growing up in Thailand, aspirations, and intersections of gender, sexuality, and artistic expression with this awesome fellow filmmaker.
Special thanks to: Nadia, Jira, Sy, and Parinda for helping me out in this endeavor. Full credit will be given when credit is due.
It’s been a busy week! I’ve finally started a good portion of my filming.
Last Friday, I shot footage of Calypso, the famous Bangkok ladyboy cabaret, which Lady Gaga also went to when she was here.
This past weekend I also did an extended interview of my good friend Ploy, who is shaping up to be one of the main characters in my project:
And then it was off to Pattaya (which is Thai’s version of Vegas meets Miami/Hawaii), to go backstage with the ladyboys of Tiffany Show, the glitziest cabaret I’ve ever seen!
Interviews with the performers backstage were interesting– I’m slowly becoming less and less satisfied with the famous “Thai Smile.” It seems like the same old story…After a bit more prodding, I began to see a glimmer of something more sincere. And that can be really heartening.
Coming soon: A trailer! So long as I get my shit together. :)
This is the first professional video I made with my Canon 60D SLR camera. This was for Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 2012. The video is of Princeton’s Class of 2012 Graduation.
My couchsurfing host and I jam out to Carly Rae Jepsen.