Exploring Bangkok, I had a lot to go on. I’d been here many times before, and had amassed a fairly decent collection of tidbits, and knew the layout of the city well enough to have a vague idea of where I was even on crosstown buses. But I wanted to dig deeper, hence the purchase of Lonely Planet’s “Bangkok” book before bailing NYC, which I inhaled and which told me some great stuff, like about the first-class cinema options. (Seriously, ask me about it.) But it was only after arriving here, jonesing for something to read, and not finding a copy of the New Yorker at Asia Books—which I did find eventually, for a whopping ten bucks—that I picked up a copy of “Bangkok 101,” a monthly collection of listings, articles and ads that I would recommend to any farang popping into the Big Mango for an extended visit. And it was BKK 101 that told us what we really wanted to know, which was where to find some cabaret.
At Mambo, “the very popular show is somewhat mainstreamy,” 101 says, but “the gals are so good they’ve even toured London.” The other joint recommended was Calypso, at the Asia Hotel: “Bangkok’s biggest drag show cabaret features more than 50 kathoey (ladyboys) in a gender-bending and dazzling show twice a night.” Calypso it is. And nevermind the fact that the entrance fee is 1200 baht—about 40 U.S. dollars—for a forty-five minute show. This better be good.
And, lo, it was good. It was VERY good. It was smack-yer-mama good. We got off to a rough start—we were running late, as usual, and had not made a reservation. We spilled from the Skytrain into the Asia hotel and wandered around the second floor, finally finding the cabaret—and a pulsing crowd of people—on the ground floor. I was quickly told that they were “fully booked,” which really does sound more friendly than “sold out.” But the box office suggested I wait for a cancellation, and I hung right at the window like the obstinate American I am, and seconds before showtime it was “we can put you in the middle of the second row”—hell’s yeah. Descend the winding staircase into the basement, and into a wide room cloaked in red, marquetry chairs and cocktail tables. And the price does include a drink, so at least we got a Sangsom and soda for our 40 bones. (Sangsom is a cheap Thai whiskey, and you really have to develop a tasted for it. It’s often referred to as “rum,” but it’s made from grain, so I’m calling it whiskey. I’m not calling it good, but drink enough of it, and it starts to have that McDonald’s quality. Not good, just familiar.)
The first thing I notice is the fabulously mixed crowd, mixed men and women, mixed round-eye and Asian. Almost as soon as we’re seated a man in a white tuxedo welcomes us in stilted English, and introduces the teaser act, a gorgeous, stacked stunner in an updo and sparkles lip-synching flawlessly to “Kiss me once, kiss me twice.” A woman? I think so. This cabaret features men, women and ladyboys, and although I’m often wrong, most of the ladyboys are recognizable due to their height. Before she’s even off the stage, two men are rocking it to an Italian song in gondola attire, and quickly joined by a too-cute dancer with stunning legs. Amazing how three Thai performers can almost pass for Italians, especially if you squint. The pace is set, and the pace is fast—this show is a technical juggernaut, with background changes, professional lighting, and nary a music mistake in sight. MCs appear for only a moment to credit performers and make introductions, and, of course, the costumes are heartwrenching.
Four girls in green showgirl attire dance around to 60s chase music, and after an abrupt music change it’s six women in pink feather bustles, with a couple of guys faking the trumpet in the aisles. Suddenly there are more than fifteen performers on stage, dancing in tighter unison than anything we saw in that fucking “Burlesque” movie. Ok, not to go on a tangent, but am I the only one who noticed there was no passable unison in that crap-tastic flick? Largely the choreo seemed to be, “each of you girls do whatever you want,” but whenever there was the hint of unison, no two dancers could emulate each other half as well as your basic six year-old girl in a beginning ballet class. Fucking inSULTing.
Anyhoo, back to the good stuff. Here’s a great high-concept performance piece straight out of Hong Kong cinema, with six shirtless men with shoulder holsters and shades flanking what appears to be a forced wedding. The bride in white is singing in Mandarin (Ok, maybe this isn’t Hong Kong) and the groom takes turns dancing with a stunning hussy in a glistening copper dress and a second hotty in lavender. The bride puts a gun to her head, changes her mind, and ditches her gown to reveal a slinky black dress—the first one-shoulder dress I’ve ever liked. Do we have a picture of that dress? The groom gives her the kiss of death, she puts her gown back on and they walk down the aisle.
And what up, Julie Taymor? Dig these guys dancing in OSTRICH costumes. Witty, whimsical, wowsers. They’re backing a hilarious guy who ditches one costume for a Carmen Miranda get-up and rocks it out in English and Spanish, and his impersonation is spot-on. The same performer reappears later in the act, lip-synching along to an on-purpose musical malfunction: as the music speeds up, he fast-motion lip-synchs, and then loses his dress to reveal that he is, in fact, a man. Not a ladyboy, just a man in a dress. Brought the crowd to its knees.
A five-girl girl-group impress with sheer physical beauty, ultra-tight dance moves and tight vinyl dresses and… hot, hot bodies. All short-cropped brunettes. I’m in heaven. But something for the ladies, too, as they’re joined by a gang of cavorting schoolboys with briefcases.
By far, my favorite act featured a ladyboy by the name of Tuk Tik, who, I shit you not, I would never have guessed in a million years was ever a man. Until I heard her speak after the show. Usually the giveaway is the height, or the shape of the legs, or maybe the hips, but I’m telling you, it’s tough. You can forget about the Adam’s apple—Thai men don’t have them as pronounced as Western men. And the hips? The ass? Well, Thai women aren’t exactly known for the budonkadonk, either, so just because she’s narrow-waisted and flat-assed doesn’t really mean much. And Tuk Tik has a perfectly rounded ass, shapely calves, and a blatant sexual ferocity that is one hundred and fifty percent all woman. The scene: three guys sitting around a small table, wearing blue Oxfords, smoke filling the stage and a light hanging over the table; all noir. Tuk Tik enters, jumps on the table, and grabs the lamp and shines it into her own face: flashy tableau. And then she starts singing Blossom Dearie’s “Blossom Blues,” working the men, working the crowd, strutting in heels like she was born in them, and getting lifted and displayed by the three men.
In one of the last acts, a was headslapped by a half dozen men in bra and panties. Sounds minor, I know, but there’s something really, really awesome about men—manly men, no tits or falsies—strutting around in uber-feminine black silk bras and panties. It’s a kind of straight-up (no pun intended) gender bending that’s a sight for sore eyes, and begs the question: what would I look like in lacy B&P? Could I rock it?
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t divulge that there were also children at this show. Kids, man. Sure, there was no real nudity beyond a slipped nipple here and there, but show me a place in America where children would attend such a show, where they would even be allowed to attend. You can’t really appreciate the over-the-top Puritanism of American culture until you get, say, 9000 miles away from it and see what a good time can really be.
Hats off to Calypso. Freaking amazing. I want to go back, and I think you should check it out.
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