Thumping bass is reverberating from the nightclub below, and doe-eyed Loulou is pressed up against a floor length mirror, carefully turning her eye colour from mahogany to a neon shade of sapphire.
The dressing room is a cacophony of cackles, squeals and the tinny warble of Celine Dion’s overblown 90s ballad, My Heart Will Go On.
Once her contact lenses are in, Loulou whips around to face us, a whirl of feathers, tassels and sequins, and bats her false eyelashes.
The 21-year-old is flanked on either side by her taut, towering, colleagues, all preening and fixing curled and cascading hair pieces and ornate Apsara crowns to their manes.
Loulou works in a Phnom Penh beauty salon by day and for the last four years has spent seven nights a week dancing, strutting and lip-syncing around the capital’s oldest and perhaps slickest ladyboy revue: Classic nightclub.
Ladyboy performances, and all of their queer and quirky outlandishness, are blossoming in Phnom Penh Club owner Chea Sopheap says he was taken aback by how popular the shows have become with both foreigners and Khmer people.
“I started the club six years ago and I’m surprised at what it’s become. To be honest I knew some transgenders who loved performing and I wanted to give a voice to them. Well, it’s an art really, isn’t it?
Straddling the corners of Streets 63 and 288, Classic oozes with Studio 54 disco kitsch- all strobe lights, white leather lounges and reflective pillars.
Up a flight of fluorescent stairs, Classic is swarming for a Sunday night. All booths are reserved. A young family snack on fruit beside the edge of the stage, a flock of K-pop gay boys sporting quiffs order cocktails by the bar and straight couples giggle and whisper sweet nothings into their song-saa’s ears. The club can hold 200 patrons and is clearly at capacity.
At 10.30pm every night a hush falls over the crowd as the curtains sweep open, revealing a teetering damsel in a billowing white gown.
Twenty-year-old Srey Mom breaks out onto the stage in stilettos - an explosion of poses, thrusts and hip shaking to Beyonce’s Crazy in Love.
Her lip syncing is off-beat but the audience lap it up, cheering and handing her 1000 riel notes.
She’s followed by a love-triangle pantomime: a plump ladyboy dressed in a sarong jeers at a farmers wife, poking fun at her appearance and later dragging her away from her love-interest, wrenching out her bra padding and pulling up her dress. The Khmer crowd roars with laughter while the barangs watch on bemused.
It hasn’t always been so acceptable to be seen here.
While South East Asia is seen by some as synonymous with gender bending and fluid sexualities, Cambodia’s transgender scene has, until less than ten years ago, been clandestine, thrust underground alongside illegal prostitution, NGO workers say.
Sopheap says he’s witnessed a shift in the way transgenders are perceived in Khmer culture, particularly since 2004 when the late King Father endorsed same-sex marriage, and, in a way, the LGBT community in general.
He hovers by the club’s dressing room entrance, with crossed arms but a beaming smile, and quips sarcastic remarks back at Zamel, one of his star performers.
“Of course by that time I realised there was a market for it- foreigners have always loved to see it, but I began to notice Khmer people did not really see it as taboo.
“We are busy every single night and it’s become professional- we have a seamstress and dress fitter every night…we now have 15 He says locals are also drawn to his show because of the exotic look of many of the ladyboys.
“The Khmer audience loves this, many of the girls have Thai and Vietnamese heritage, some are mixed race- half western, and Zamel is African-Khmer: her father was from Ghana, here during UNTAC,” he says.
Zamel’s voice is a soft murmur.
“I earn $300 a month here now, including tips. I’ve only been a ladyboy for seven years but I have wanted to be a girl forever. I’ve never met my father and my mother died and I’m mixed race, and I was transgender, of course I had big problems growing up. I’m happier now. It’s very developed here now, the ladyboy scene. It started in Thailand and now it’s here, it’s mainstream, the public accept it, and there are kids that come with their families and watch. It’s cheeky and fun.”
Zamel says she is saving her money for surgery, although the prospect of it seems distant.
Loulou and Srey Mom dream of opening clothing boutiques and beauty salons, and long-term partners.
“I have two husbands, two song-saa’s: they’re both waiting for the show downstairs,” Loulou says coyly, “I only ever have straight boyfriends, but they’ll eventually leave me. They’ll want babies.”
“It’s not hard to be a ladyboy now when you have a job, it’s more open. When I had no job I felt scared, walking the streets and my parents didn’t accept me. They’re fine now, because I am working, and helping them with money. I enjoy the money here, looking gorgeous and fancy and being funny on stage,” she says.
During a land-titling speech in Kep Province on Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the public to be more tolerant of the LBGT community.
Phal Sophat, executive director of Men’s Health Social Services (MHSS), said he was heartened by the speech, even though Hun Sen publicly announced in 2007 he would disown his lesbian adopted daughter.
MHSS run several programs directed at the transgender community, with the most crucial being HIV prevention. Sophat says transgenders in Cambodia are at a greater risk of contracting the disease due to being more susceptible to violence and discrimination when working in the sex industry.
“Many do not have the physical power that other MSM (men who have sex with men) prostitutes do to demand a condom be used. Many straight men, especially foreigners, do not always realise the women are really men, and turn violent or rape them,” he says.
He says the ladyboy revues, such as Classic’s, and other smaller Phnom Penh cabarets at Blue Chilli and Rainbow nightclubs, play a part in the acceptance of the transgender community and fostering pride in the community.
“When we started the advocacy back in 2005 with FHI360, we promoted a performance culture amongst them. We had a boat cruise during the first Cambodian LBGT pride march in 2003 and the ladyboys performed in front of ministry of women’s affairs officials and businessmen. Mind you we had it on the boat to avoid the police arresting us,” he says.
Sophat says transgender people were further disadvantaged when it came to education, with many being ejected from school when refusing to conform.
“I believe being transgender is completely different here than in the West. It just wasn’t mainstream here before. Now that it is, it’s accepted. It all stems from (Buddhist) religion, and karma.
“Society and culture are different here. For example in Australia it’s a democracy and politically, (LBGT) equality is promoted, but really behind it all the discrimination is still there and it’s from religion and customs. In Cambodia, if the politicians do not discourage it then it’s okay, in Buddhism there is nothing written about homosexuals or ladyboys, like there is in the Bible.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]
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