1 Week Update – New place, first interviews, and Carly Rae Jepsen

Just a quick summary of what’s been going on:

My new place on Suk Soi 11 is great! Hostel is letting me stay in a big room with private bathroom for a single bed rate!


My first ladyboy interview features Ploy. She’s a hairdresser who grew up in the northeast and moved to Bangkok to pursue her dreams (after some terrible events that targeted her in her hometown). More updates on her story soon!


And of course, a big thank you to my first CouchSurfing host in Bangkok, Jirapong Manit!




Words Words Words: What’s the correct term for “ladyboy”?

So, I’ve been getting conflicting information about this.

I’ve been told “ladyboy” is a little derisive and that I should refer to them as Third Gender or Transgender (even though I personally have my doubts about the appropriateness of using a Western category/idea of “trans” to describe ladyboys). I’ve also used the Thai word “kathoey”, but was recently told THAT was offensive/condescending and that “ladyboy” was a self-adopted term within the community. Transvestite and Transexual are often used in advertisements, but I’m betting that is for marketing to foreign farangs.

So, what’s the actual politically correct (do Thai even care about political correctness? Is this some Western fixation around words and naming/language?) way to describe the gender non-conforming people of Thailand? I need to ask around more.

Kathoey – The Third Gender

Kathoey - The Third Gender

Many Thai people have asked me why I’ve chosen kathoey and a subject for my project. From their perspective, I think it does seem a little odd, as there are many aspects of Thailand that would be equally interesting to film. I explain that there are lots of people in America who make it their academic career to study gender and sexuality, and that Thailand’s unique culture– as the only Southeast Asian country to never experience colonization– offers a particular insight into how human sexuality or gender identity can be fluid. The culture around ladyboys, both commercial and social, is something you couldn’t imagine finding in mainstream America. I’m interested in learning if their stories are similar or different to the stories of transgender in America, and while in some ways they will have to be radically different (see culture), I’m interested to discover if the narratives have any common themes.



BANGKOK, YOU HAVE WON THE INTERNET TODAY. (At King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. Naturally, Computer Engineering).

Tuesday, June 12: My First Thai Alphabet

LOOK! Written out like a first grader! I actually have no idea how the characters are pronounced (yet)!

44 characters, very swirly.

Some things I’ve learned about the Thai language now:

  • It’s tonal, like Chinese, but there are 5 tones and they’re different from the Chinese tones… so having Mandarin skills doesn’t help much beyond understanding that how you say something affects its meaning WAY MORE than you think.
  •  The “alphabet” is 44 characters long, and even my host had trouble remembering what order you write them in.
  • Thai phrase books are clearly geared toward tourists– in the sense they teach you all the words about hotels and taxis, but not about buses. My phrase book (which DOES have bus travel phrases) has a whole section dedicated to words around jet-skiing. Really?

Other Lessons Learned (That Should Have Been No Brainers From The Start): No more jaywalking across 5 lanes of traffic lest you kill yourself (or worse, other people!)

Things That Are Already Happening: I am getting stingy– but like, Thai stingy. Which means I start getting annoyed if freshly blended fruit juice is more than $2 USD (64 baht). I’m like, 200 baht for a nice meal?! That’s… oh. That’s like McDonalds. That said, I did spend 280 baht on a Singapore Sling the other night at the Nest. That is essentially an 8 dollar cocktail. The nice stuff still doesn’t come cheap. I miss Phnom Penh now. ($4 cocktails, man.)

Today I ate this delicious chinese porridge meal with thai iced coffee for… $1.5 USD. I LOVE THIS.

FILMING STATUS: Tomorrow and Thursday… getting the ball rolling. Will update again!


Day 1: Sun, June 10. First Fails/Success Record in BKK!

I’m thirsty, but now I’m too cheap to pay for anything more than $1.5 USD. Damn you thai baht!

Landed in Bangkok at 6am in the morning today. Went through customs/immigration without a hiccup, which is surprising considering the debacle United gave me before take-off in Newark, holding me for over an hour (!) and almost making me miss my flight due to “immigration” concerns.

This incident will henceforth me known as “The Thai Visa Debacle.”

Basically, the “Thai Visa Debacle” goes as follows: US citizens are allowed to visit Thailand without visa for up to 30 consecutive days. I plan to stay for 60, but not consecutively, because I’ll be taking a train out to Cambodia sometime in July, effectively “leaving the country.” But because these are frikkin’ Thai/Cambodian trains, it’s not like I’m going to be able to buy my ticket online (hell, can’t even do that with NJT or SEPTA) to show “proof of onward travel”. The United Lady at Newark threw a fit at my lack of “proper documentation” and attempted to prevent me from boarding my plane unless I bought an on-the-spot ticket out of Thailand before my first 30 days were up. I told her I’m a student, I’m not made out of money and tickets to Cambodia are way too expensive for the distance traveled, which is why I was planning to take the train. Her justification was that they’d detain/deport me or WORSE, fine United. *cue eyeroll*

The ending compromise was that they’d send me to Oslo, Norway for layover but that I’d need “proof of onward travel” in the form of a plane ticket if I was ever to make it to BKK. My mom ended up doing some clever finagling of purchasing a ticket to Phnom Penh so that I’d have proof of onward travel from BKK, but in the end, neither the Norwegians nor the Thai Airways/immigration gave two fucks about my proof of onward travel. No one even asked, even though United Lady made a note on my ticket not to let me through unless I had proof. Wellp, that’s over, and here I am.

TL;DR of Thai Visa Debacle: United is hyper-paranoid, Mother is a clever finagler, Thai immigration doesn’t actually give a shit.

Also, Steve Dean is the best boyfriend ever and I love him so much because love is driving 2 hours in ridiculous traffic to drop off shit your gf forgot before your 6 month hiatus from the country. <3

NOW for the SUCCESS STORIES: Successfully took a janky-ass Thai bus (like, you can feel that shit rattling down the highway) from the airport to my couchsurfer’s residence, which included feats such as: speaking broken Thai to the bus driver to let her know where I was going, exchanging money, and getting off at the right stop when “stops” are indicated roughly sorta kinda near where you want to be. Successfully met my couchsufing host. Successfully ate lunch. Successfully borrowed an old Nokia, bought new SIM card, now have a Thai number. Successfully found free wifi and air-conditioning. GLORIOUS SUCCESS FOR EVERYTHING!

ON FILMING: STARTS NOW! Going to be taking some beautiful B-Roll of Bangkok once the lights come on. ALL RIGHT HERE WE GO.


VIDEO UPDATE: It’s mah birfday.

Updates, now with more me rambling, in less space.

TL;DW? No longer a teen, watching others graduate, will keep updating so you know I’m not dead.

Updates and Thoughts: May 28, 2012

T-13 days until Bangkok! I’ve decided to start doing posts online on my progress/livelihood. These are meant to be personal and casual rather than professional.

On the Film Project and the concept of Access:

My idea is to get more than just a surface look at ladyboys– look at the lives of those beyond the world of Soi Cowboy, meet Third Gender people who are professionals, students, their families, their friends. I’m realizing how difficult it is not just logistically, but emotionally/psychologically. Journalism sometimes requires a brazen disregard for propriety and a gregarious personality that invites disclosure even in the face of language and cultural barriers. As a naturally introverted person, contacting someone out of the blue or walking up to them and asking for a favor (“Hey! Help me out with this! No I can’t pay! But this is my vision!”) is really taking me out of my comfort zone, let alone when we don’t speak the same native language. Which is why I’m reaching out on the interwebs for help to whoever I can. (ESPECIALLY: Thai speakers/ people who work with/know TG people well).

I’ve also been thinking a lot about access and the act of looking legit vs. being legit. To be honest I constantly feel as if I’m faking it until I’m making it, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels in independent filmmaking. Access isn’t just about credentials– I’m hyper aware of my own race/gender/identity/culture in all of this. A white male making this film is going to have a very different level of access than me, a young asian female. That said, white men also attract a different kind of attention, and one of the greatest things about Bangkok that I’ve found is the ability for me to move through the world unnoticed, undisturbed (this might change when I have my camera equipment, but I’m good at looking inconspicuous when I need to).

On Cameras and More Access:

This is my baby.

I’m in the process of buying additional camera equipment for the trip. I’ve already invested in a fancy Canon 60D camera with an even fancier mounted Rode mic, and I’m looking for a nice 50mm lens (f/1.8? I’m not made out of money here!) and a tripod in Bangkok. If it weren’t for my paid video work for the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s Class of 2012 Commencement coverage next week, I probably wouldn’t have invested in such expensive equipment. But part of having a fancy camera is again, the access.

Travel: Buying a week ticket to Chiang Mai. Also looking at: Chon Buri, Pattaya and Nakhon Pathom. Couch surfing hosts still greatly appreciated.

About the LadyBoy Film Project

My name is Vivienne Chen, and I am a freelance writer, amateur filmmaker, and student at Princeton University.

In March of 2012, I was awarded the Martin A. Dale Summer Award. The Dale scholarship gives financial support for Princeton sophomores to pursue summer projects that “provide important opportunities for personal growth, foster independence, creativity, and leadership skills, and broaden or deepen some area of special interest” (which, in my case, is NOT Princetonese for “a paid vacation”).

This summer (June-July 2012), I’ve decided to use this project to create a short artistic film/documentary about the lives of gender-nonconforming people in Southeast Asia, known as kathoey or ladyboys. I will be documenting my travels around Thailand, primarily in Bangkok, recording the narratives of ladyboys and their journeys through understanding their bodies and their place in the world.

Despite this being an “independent” project, I simply cannot do this alone! If you are a Bangkok resident, fluent Thai speaker, filmmaker, ladyboy, or have any connections (however tangential they may be) to any of the above, please do not hesitate to contact me at: viviennexchen [at] gmail.com. Check out my guidelines here.

You can also find me on Facebook or Twitter or through my website, VivienneChen.com.

Read more about my story, my project, and my call for assistance.