Sometimes you have to look beyond what
you see, to ‘see’ the ‘real’ person.
Every set of “travel misadventure” stories has at least one “ladyboy” experience, we’ve all seen them regurgitated a thousand times and it all comes down to “got this gorgeous girl back to my hotel room and it was really a ma ... ahh you know the rest”...
So how about meeting “this gorgeous girl” that you know is a bloke from the outset but you carry on and develop a completely non-sexual relationship anyway because you are so intrigued with his/her honesty, personality and life story... here goes.
I was working on an open ended decommissioning contract offshore Malaysia with no fixed rotation, some trips were two weeks, others more, the longest was seven. I had no ties in the UK at the time and instead of flying back there I used my travel expenses, usually paid in cash, to tour the area. Over the course of a few months I visited Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Singapore before eventually taking a trip to Thailand. I survived four days of pollution, noise and constant haranguing by touts in Bangkok before fleeing to Pattaya where at least the air was clean but if anything the bar and club pushers were even more aggressive, and consequently, far more annoying, I was advised to try the Island of Phuket if I wanted a more sedate and relaxing option, which I most certainly did.
I booked into a beach front hotel for two weeks at the same price I had been paying per night in Bangkok, clean air, unspoilt beaches, no noise and nobody constantly following me around hissing ‘girl missterrr’… paradise.
Phuket, Thailand in the mid eighties was still very basic and undeveloped, and in many people’s opinion, far superior to the “Majorca on Steroids” that it is today. Patong Bay was a disjointed collection of small hotels, restaurants and bars clustered around the magnificent beach. The main 'action area' being a Tee junction on the beach road leading off to just the one strip of 'Pink Pussies' 'G Spots' etc etc etc plus the de rigeur 'Oz Bar' 'English Pub' and 'Paddy's Bar'. These were all the standard type of Thai tourist watering hole, open three sided seating and back wall holding shelves of spirits, a couple of wall mounted fans, fairy lights and of course a 'Connect Four' game, staffed by an array of visions of loveliness trying to tempt the passing punters to pass an hour or three in their company, and of course buy them a few ‘drinks’.
The Phuket Tourist Police were extremely pro-active at that time, no dancing on bars, no nudity or topless and definitely no loud music, how things have changed, but back then it was down to the girl’s looks, personalities and their sales patter to pull in the customers. A few totally enclosed air-conditioned bars were in evidence, they provided enhanced facilities and charged accordingly, which was perfectly acceptable, one of these was the newly opened 'Black & White' bar.
It was a very hot, muggy night, the humidity was off the scale, the air and heat hung like a wall of cotton wool, the bar girls were listless, the air was listless, the night was listless and even the mosquitoes were listless. My clothes were sticking to every crevice and crack, mostly crack, very uncomfortable and even my sweat was sweating.
I needed to cool down and stop breathing air that seemed like it was being recycled from a 747 exhaust ... and therefore, spotting the Black & White bar, and being a lifelong Newcastle United Football Club supporter, I naturally decided to give it the once over. It was like walking into a monochrome fridge, deliciously ice cold and smelling of fresh paint, the place was fitted out completely in black and white which included the 'bar girls' it took me about ten seconds to work out everyone in the place was male no matter how they were attired.
What the hell, no problem, get a cold drink and chill out ... literally and metaphorically, take the weight off the flip-flops for a while and then move on...that was when I spotted 'Sade' the Nigerian songstress of 'Smooth Operator' fame sitting at the bar! The face, the make-up, the hair, the clothes ... Sade was 'in the house' I don't know how long I must have been staring when 'Sade' broke the spell, she beckoned me across and the hands were the giveaway, no amount of hormone treatment, cosmetics or surgery can disguise a bloke's large mitts!
Still, I was impressed at the effort and the amount of detail 'she' had went into to create the illusion, I offered ‘her’ a drink and congratulations on 'her' achievement.
With a demure smile 'she' accepted and then asked in a deep cultured English accent
“Are you a homosexual?”
I shrugged “Sorry no”
“Oh what a shame, when you were staring ... I thought ... you know ...”
“Sorry again, I guess I was intrigued and curious”
Her ‘drink’ arrived and she sniffed it, grimaced, and shook her head in disgust.
“Problem?” I enquired.
“Don't worry it's ok, I'm just not very good at this stuff, I'm supposed to be encouraging punters to buy me house drinks but if I drink this all night I'll drown before I get drunk” she pushed her glass back across the bar and rattled something off in rapid Thai, a bottle of Tequila was produced and she filled a shot.
Again she sniffed the contents then smiled and downed it in one gulp
“That's better, that's what you paid for”
I offered her another.
“No my shout' she called for the bottle, another glass, lime wedges and salt 'let's do things properly eh?”
Several shots later she was visibly relaxing “I'm not entirely happy with the bar drinks scam but I need to earn some money to live on whilst working on other options” 'She' went on to tell me how much she had always admired Sade and had set out to emulate her, luckily many of Sade’s songs worked well in a lower octave.
She was from England but was resident in Thailand, she had started some provisional hormone therapy but it was very expensive, she hoped one day to be able to afford the 'full operation' locally, Thailand being the world leader in sex change surgery.
I was fascinated sitting chatting with 'her' and as the level in the bottle of tequila went down, so did any reservations she had. She told me how tormented she had been as a teenager and how 'he' had thrown himself into contact sports like rugby and boxing at school to try and hide his feminine leanings.
His parents were Ghanaian and had moved to the UK in the aftermath of Flight Lt Jerry Rawlings military coup. His father was extremely successful in the import and export business, and Charles, as he was then known had went to private school in Southern England where he excelled academically, and again on the sports fields. Purely on merit, he was due to start University in the autumn and as a reward for his endeavours his father had paid for a summer trip to South East Asia to broaden Charles' horizons. He had visited Singapore and Malaysia, but it was in Thailand he had a true awakening, because it was there that he rapidly discovered they had a much more liberal attitude towards trans-gender and homosexuality.
After much soul searching Charles had plucked up the courage to visit a specialist salon he’d seen advertised on a flyer in the hotel where he was staying. He emerged a few hours later in newly purchased wig, cosmetics and costume as 'Charlene' he said for the very first time in his life he was comfortable with how he looked and how he felt, and, more so, how good it was at long last to face the world honestly.
He made several more visits and discovered that the salon also acted as a social centre, other patrons were quick and more than willing to share information about clubs, bars and restaurants where transexuals socialised, here 'Charlene' could finally talk freely with other men and women who felt trapped in the wrong body.
Much to his father's annoyance he extended his stay in Thailand, he had taken the decision that he could no longer live a lie and if Thailand was where he was accepted as he was, he had to stay. By his own admission he was avoiding the confrontation with his father which would inevitably come about as Charles would not be able to hide the truth of his inner being any longer. However, after several furious phone calls from his father plus tears and pleading from his mother and sister, with great reluctance and dread, he returned home to face the music.
He could not put it off any longer and he tried to explain to his family his predicament and how he felt. His mother was in hysterics, his father, was incandescent with rage, he promptly disowned him and threw him out of the house.
A heartbroken, but now more determined Charles, realised all of his assets and after a tearful farewell with his sister, returned to Thailand and began the permanent transition from Charles to Charlene, and then the stage transformation into 'Sade' His stage persona and deep soulful voice was an instant hit on the transsexual entertainment circuit, he found regular work in Bangkok and Pattaya and whilst it paid the bills, he needed more to fund the expensive hormone treatment required to adjust his system, but even with only limited therapy, Charles felt that 'he' was becoming 'she'
Through the entertainment grapevine Charlene learned that Phuket was developing and expanding and that soon Patong Bay's first showbar and nightclub would be opening, she decided to check things out, official opening was still several weeks away but Charlene thought it best to stay on in the budding resort and be available as soon as the club was ready to operate, she was hanging out in the Black & White bar and getting by on scamming drinks, tips and photo opportunities.
Despite her opening lines to me, which she admitted was all an act to encourage the 'mark' to buy drinks, Charlene did not consider herself part of the gay community and frowned on their often promiscuous behaviour, and, despite numerous offers, declined to 'sell' her body. Now that she had total control of how she wanted it to look, she had no intention of risking disease or abuse. The tequila bottle was well hammered 'C'mon let's raise a few eyebrows' I suggested. 'If it's any cooler out there, let's go for a stroll, have a few drinks elsewhere and maybe stop off for a meal?'
“Are you sure?” she asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “Absolutely!” Next surprise, as she slid off the barstool and even in flat heeled pumps she towered over me... oooops!
I have to admit it felt strange to be strolling along arm in arm with another man, especially a man that was head and shoulders over me, but suddenly something clicked, what the hell, it had nothing to do with anyone else what we did or who we did it with, I relaxed and began to have fun.
As predicted we got more than a fair share of surprised stares and 'Isn't that ...' 'It can't be...' and of course the size twelve shoes confirmed this was not the real Sade, but still, a very, very good one none the less.
We spent over a week in each other's company and I felt totally at home with the situation, we would go for typical tourist drives during the day visiting temples and landmarks, even in jeans and a blouse she still maintained the Sade 'look'. Then we'd troll the bars at night invariably ending up in one of the excellent seafood restaurants on the fledgling seafront. If a 'cutie' caught my attention, Charlene would diplomatically disappear leaving me to a meaningful overnight relationship.
Two weeks flew by and I had to return to the project I was working on, I promised to keep in touch which proved difficult in pre email and cellphone days, however the occasional card and letter got through keeping each other updated.
It was to be six months until I returned to Patong Bay, and even then, only for a very brief stopover en route to the Middle East. Already things were changing, new hotels were under construction and the bar strip had almost doubled in size. The Showbar was in full swing and a huge billboard outside proclaimed.
'Tonight and every night Diana Ross - Sade - Madonna - Shirley Bassey - Little Elvis' Professional photographs were displayed next to the artistes' names and this confirmed Charlene was performing, she looked very cool and aloof, perfect.
That night the place was packed, Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey and Madonna mimed to tapes and their acts were based on imitating the original artist's make-up, stage clothes and moves rather than facial likeness, however they were still very good.
Charlene though as Sade was stunning, she sang live over backing tapes and naturally her opening number was 'Smooth Operator' followed by Edith Piaf's 'La Vie en Rose' a couple of local language songs followed but her last number was a very dramatic version of Jaques Brel's 'Jackie' it was awesome, I could have sat and listened all night.
But unfortunately your average Asian nightclub goer has the attention span of a fruit fly, and therefore a Diva singing Torch classics had to make way for the star attraction. Little Elvis aka … The Midget from Memphis, who needless to say brought the house down, crawling under tables, sitting on patron's knees, making fart sounds on the microphone and fondling women ... yes sir ... cutting edge entertainment indeed!
After the show the acts toured the tables getting photographs taken and blagging 'drinks'. The house lights were on, and despite the place being packed, Charlene spotted me. She hurried over and hastily explained she had to 'socialise' as part of her contract, and as she was on commission for pushing the 'drinks', she could not stop to chat. We quickly arranged to meet for lunch the following day, but she still managed to get in a warning to avoid all the clear spirits as they were fifty percent water, some things never change!!
On meeting up the next day the first thing that was immediately evident was that Charlene was displaying many more feminine nuances, constantly tucking her hair behind her ears, giggling shyly with her hand over her mouth, even the way she sat was different keeping her feet discretely hidden away under her seat.
I congratulated her on an entertaining performance, but complained that her spot was like the Midget Elvis, far too short! She agreed, but they had to go with what the club owner wanted, and he thought dwarfs were the funniest thing on the planet, in fact he wanted even more!
“Actually a few of us are getting the finance together to open up our own place featuring a fuller stage show with dance numbers and real sets”
The time flew by and I was due on a plane to Bangkok, then a connection on to Saudi Arabia later that night. Sadly I had to leave after a few short hours, I wished her good luck and sincerely hoped it would all work out for her. Again we tried to keep in contact by sporadic correspondence, but as I moved between projects my mail failed to follow and eventually we lost touch.
It was another eighteen months before I returned to Thailand and now Phuket was one huge building site, where before open sided taxis and donkey carts had carried passengers and produce around the island, now Japanese trucks and monster neon festooned buses forced lesser means of transport off the roads, I hardly recognised Patong Bay.
I booked into one of the new hotels, hired a 'Charley Davidson' , a Chinese Harley knockoff with a massive frame, tons of chrome and a tiny 125cc engine that could accelerate from 0-60 ... in about thirty minutes. Suitably mounted and with the wind in my hair … ok … a teensy bit of a breeze, I set out to see if I could find Charlene.
The original Showbar was now a '24hr Topless GoGo Show' no one there could or would share any information on Charlene's whereabouts, I also detected a bit of animosity.
It took me three days to find the 'Famous Faces Revue Bar featuring 'Male and Female Impersonators from all over The World' The display photographs outside depicted Diana Ross, now with her Supremes, Liza Minelli and Freddie Mercury had joined the cast along with a full size Elvis, a female group The Beatelles, numerous other famous faces and of course... 'Sade'.
It was early afternoon and all of the building doors were open including the emergency escape routes, the sounds of rehearsals came from within. I looked inside and as my eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight outside I recognised Charlene standing in front of the stage directing a routine featuring around twenty dancers. She had grown her hair and it was plaited in braids, dressed in jeans and a sweat top, she looked well, slim, fit and very much in charge.
I found a seat and sat back to watch, a waiter informed me they were closed but an audience was always welcome at rehearsals and did I want a beer, and as always, I did.
Charlene was all business, stopping and starting proceedings, shouting encouragement and if necessary getting up on stage and demonstrating precisely how she wanted a move performed. The dancers finally completed the number exactly how she wanted it done and she called a time out. I applauded enthusiastically, Charlene shielded her eyes from the glare of the stage lights and searched for the source of the clapping, she pushed her way through the tables and when she got close enough to recognise me she squealed with delight “Where the hell have you been?”
Despite her feminine attire and disposition, she was still strong enough to grab me in a bear hug and lift me clean off my feet. Emotional greetings and even more hugs exchanged before we finally settled down to do some catching up.
She grabbed my beer and drained it in one then called the waiter over and ordered two more, then two more!!!
She brought me up to date, their show and consortium was doing really well despite open hostility from the girly bars who somehow considered a legitimate entertainment outlet unfair competition. As I could clearly see from the rehearsals, they were currently expanding their repertoire to include production numbers from movies and stage shows, they were playing to full houses and things were definitely looking good.
Charlene had made amends with her Mother, she and Charlene's sister had visited recently and had the truly unique experience of clothes shopping as a female threesome, despite the fact Charlene would never find anything in her sizes in a standard ladies outfitters. Her father however had not softened his attitude through time and still would not allow his/her name to be mentioned in his household, despite Charlene attempting several overtures of reconciliation.
Charlene was currently in a relationship with a Canadian of confused gender, and based on her own experiences, she was helping him through his identity crisis, she was optimistic that whatever the outcome, a long-term relationship might result.
She declared she was ready mentally, financially and emotionally for the 'full change' operation and as soon as the next stage of their business venture was stable, she would take time off to become 'as full a woman as I can'
I was happy for her, very, very happy, and told her so.
She reached across and took my hand, and, despite its size, hers now managed to look soft and feminine.
“I never got the chance to thank you properly for what you did for me when we first met”
I started to protest.
“Shut up and listen, you treat me like a normal person not a six foot black cross dressing freak, we went out for drinks like normal people, we went to a restaurant like normal people, and you, a straight guy, just made me feel so ... just so ... so normal, you helped me to accept myself exactly as I am, from the bottom of my heart my friend, thank you”
Tears welled in her eyes ... for some reason or another I couldn't answer and she passed me a tissue … errrr must have been some dust in the air.
The mood of the moment was broken by a shout from the stage, the dancers were back now and dressed in elaborate costumes. “Ok tonight eight thirtyish, table number one, front stage, see you then” and with a final swig of beer Charlene was back to business, show business.
I was given the full VIP treatment 'on the house' and the drinks here certainly weren't watered.
The show was fantastic, crossing cultural and language barriers, mixing music, dance and visual comedy. It was professional, entertaining, well thought out and produced. Most of the artists appeared several times in different guises, Charlene managed to make everyone forget her skin colour as she did a perfect vocal presentation of Barbra Streisand.
The finale however was all 'Sade's' with trademark hairstyle, pale face make up, crimson lipstick and dressed in a full length carefully fitted black dress with elbow length evening gloves, only a single high power white spotlight lit the blacked out stage. Charlene held the audience in the palm her elegant hand throughout the performance, no one was bothered about gender or background, all they heard was a superb vocalist singing powerful and emotional songs.
There was only one song she could complete her set with, a stunning rendition of the Edith Piaf classic...
'Non, je ne regrette rien'
'No ... I have no regrets'
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From Jarrow to Jurong (From Jarrow to ... Book 1) by Joe Writeson
Irresponsible antics in South East Asia including many cultural, carnal and currency exchanges with local ladies.......
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