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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Temple Town, Cambodia's new ladyboy capital

Temple Town, Cambodia's new ladyboy capital

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The ladyboy ensemble performing Madonna’s Vogue in French Versailles-style. Photograph: Nopporn Pisuwong/Phnom Penh Post

Last week I had one of my favourite songs, Franki Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, gloriously belted out to me on a stage, by a six-foot blonde. She was accompanied by a troupe of Vegas-style lovelies with pink ostrich feather headdresses, on an extravagant set featuring a giant shimmering heart. Only she wasn’t singing, she was lip-syncing.

And she wasn’t a she, nor were any of the dancers. This was rehearsal night for Rosana Broadway, the new ninety-strong ladyboy cabaret extravaganza just opened in Siem Reap.

Following its soft opening on Monday, Rosana opens its doors to the paying public from September 16. There will be two performances a day, at 7pm and 8.45pm, seven days a week. Tickets cost $25 or $30.

The cabaret is managed by Mr Atth Saengchai, a Thai club-owner with several venues under his belt including the famous Calypso club in Bangkok. He says the idea came about when his Thai boss visited Cambodia five years ago and remarked on how pretty the girls were, only to find out they were ladyboys. He adds that some people were surprised Siem Reap was chosen as the venue over Phnom Penh, but explains Temple Town was the obvious choice,  being Cambodia’s biggest tourist destination.

Rosana Broadway hopes to follow in the footsteps of Thailand’s popular ladyboy revues, some of which seat up to two thousand people with five performances a day.

Of the 90 performers, 75 are Khmer and 25 Thai, making Rosana quite possibly the biggest employer of ladyboys in the Kingdom. In addition to the dancers, Mr Atth employs 60 staff including office workers, backstage crew and costumiers, making 150 staff altogether. The newly-built theatre seats 900,  and boasts plush, reclining cinema-style seats and a state of the art sound system. There are plans to build a restaurant soon.

Having only been to small UK drag-shows before, I was expecting something risqué – lots of innuendo and comedy drag queens. But I was blown away by the professionalism, variety and stunning costumes. Seven Thai choreographers have been working with the dancers for three months to perfect routines, ranging from traditional Apsara dance to more modern numbers, including a rendition of J-Lo’s ever-popular On the Floor (we’ve all heard it at Khmer weddings), and a Folies Bergère style Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, complete with sequins, twirling, and the lead performer being lifted above the heads of a bevy of white-suited men. The ‘girls’ were beautiful; frankly I’d give my eye-teeth to look like half of them and I’m not ashamed to admit I may have developed a girl crush on one particular sashaying goddess.

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There was some humour with a chubby, Japanese-style geisha act who wiggled her way into the whooping audience, much to the delight of one gentleman who planted a kiss on her cheek.

All in all it had the feel – as the name suggests – of a West End or Broadway musical.

Mr Atth expects a significantly Asian audience, and wants the show to reflect this. Therefore, the show has different themes, including Japanese, Korean and Chinese.  In the Indian ‘section’ dancers performed Bollywood-style to Jai Ho (You are my Destiny), the track made famous by Slumdog Millionaire, a song that seems made for Rosana’s dancers, all sass and joyous energy.

Anna, 39, is the star of the show (playing both ‘J-Lo’ and ‘Marilyn Monroe’), and has been performing since she was 18. She talks enthusiastically about performing, saying, “I like dancing, I like making myself beautiful. I always wanted to be a girl. I started to learn Thai classical dance at the dramatic art college.  “Since I was a teenager I wanted to stand on a stage, and for many people to come and see my show. I had a dream in my mind. Now the dream has come to me. I work because I love it. Money – that comes second.”

Anna, who Mr Atth describes as chief actor and actress, has been helping the Khmer dancers who were largely inexperienced when they came to Rosana. Mr Atth says, “Some of them were selling steamed corn and, sorry to say, were very, very poor. But most of them could not choose what they are born to be, man or woman.”

He says Cambodia is similar to Thailand 50 years ago when the ladyboy culture was not as widely accepted, something he hopes to change. He has already encountered some wariness from locals: “The rumour came out, this is a gay show, like a sex show. No, we are cabaret, we are like a drama.”

So will ladyboy cabarets ever become as popular in the Kingdom as in Thailand? Mr Atth hopes so. He wants to support the ladyboy community and to change peoples’ minds, to “Make Cambodians proud of our show, because we built this in Cambodia.”

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