“On the left is Tanjong Bungah, the right is Tanjong Tokong, in the middle is the Blue Lagoon. And let me tell you that this Blue Lagoon is voted the best diving resort in the world!”
That’s how Tanjung typically opens her act – while gesturing at her bust, of course. Without fail, the crowd roars with laughter. It’s hard to see how an association between body parts and tourist attractions in Penang can be so funny. But that’s what makes Tanjung a performer. One with a lot of sass, I might add.
After a brief exchange via email and text messages, we agreed to meet in person. Tanjung invited me to see her show. It was at a corporate gig for a hotel to honour their clients. I was welcomed to a room backstage where Tanjung and other drag performers were getting ready before they went on stage.
The lighting in the room was too bright, making the faux renaissance décor seem ostentatious. It was a surreal scene, as the performers got in and out of costume and wigs right in front of me. At the time, I remember thinking, “these drag queens drink a crazy amount of Coca-Cola.”
I was wrong, it turned out. Tanjung and her fellow performers are not “drag queens”, according to her. She describes herself as a transgender person who entertains. A “drag queen” is a male transvestite or a man who dresses up as a woman, whilst a transsexual is someone who identifies themselves as a member of the opposite sex.
The term “transgender”, which Tanjung prefers, is more vague and usually includes transvestitism, transsexualism and everything in between. “Drag” itself simply refers to wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. Drag shows are characterised by caricature, campness and riposte delivered through the self-deprecating monologues, lip-synched numbers and tightly-choreographed dances as well as the gamut of dramatic costumes and make-up.
As the headline act of the night, Tanjung has some time before she goes up on stage to perform. So, we sit down and chat while Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” plays (the theme was ‘70s night). Tanjung tells me she has been performing for almost 20 years. “Entertaining people is my career,” she says.
Tanjung, who hails from a town in Johor, started out working for an event management company in KL. “I was an event co-ordinator. Then, one day, a choreographer asked if I’d like to do a show, which I had always wanted to do very much. One show led to another and another.”
“When you’ve been in the business for twenty years you can ask for decent pay.”
She recalls her first show way back in 1994 where she performed a Hindi number and her picture found its way to the front page of Guang Ming Daily. She sings mostly oldies and jazz standards but sometimes she does corny pop songs like Emilia’s “Big Big World”. Tanjung describes her on-stage persona as “very slutty. But in real life, I’m a very good girl and very homely.”
I wondered if it is possible to be a performer full-time. Not only are Malaysians generally miserly when it comes to paying for arts and culture, there is the added stigma towards transgender performers. Can they make a living? “Well, actually you can,” Tanjung says. “When you’ve been in the business for twenty years you can ask for decent pay. When [I was] young, I did three to four shows a night just miming, but for the past 12 years I do a bit of singing, stand-up comedy & emceeing.”
Tanjung explains that in KL, it’s easy to find drag and transgender entertainers performing at private functions and clubs but they cannot be seen on mainstream media or at public events. Why? “We have to take into consideration that 60 per cent of the population are Muslims. So, the only places that we are accepted are in the cities.”
“Even if there were a change in the government, I don’t think we would be accepted [publicly]. You have to consider, within the opposition, there is PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) and half of PKR (People’s Justice Party) are Muslims.” So is the barrier to tolerance religious rather than political? “I think the line between religion and politics is very blurred.”
Perhaps, sensing that our conversation had become a little intense, Mama comes in to check on Tanjung and joins us. Mama is manager of the performance troupe Tanjung is working with that night. These days, Mama seldom performs but she always makes the effort to dress to the nines, just as fabulous as her talents.
Mama has been managing the group for more than 20 years. In the midst of our conversation, a staff member from the hotel comes backstage to make sure that Tanjung’s dress is not “too revealing”. One of the performers had earlier accidentally revealed her knickers while dancing. “And no cussing!” the hotel rep adds. Mama assures her that everything will be fine. Mama later tells me that requests such as these were quite common.
Like any manager in the entertainment business, Mama has to balance between the demand of her clients and the needs of her talents.
“Actually, what they are asking is very small. We’ve got extra costumes here should we need to change anything.” That explains the piles of dresses lying around on the floor. Like any manager in the entertainment business, Mama has to balance between the demand of her clients and the needs of her talents. This is, after all, an industry.
“We do take care of our talents but we have to maintain the business relationship. We’ve been engaged by this establishment for the past four years,” says Mama. She reveals she has done business with far more demanding clients like the Brunei Palace, where protocol dictates everything from costumes to content. However, she views whatever compromise she makes as no different to when international entertainers come to perform in KL. “We make do with what we have and if we cannot anymore, we will just move on,” she says. “Even if it means leaving this country.”
Mama invites me to see her girls perform at a venue in downtown Kuala Lumpur. She explains that the show they do there is quite different from their corporate shows. “It’s more cabaret,” Mama says. The venue is a pub called Captain’s Cabin, right above The Ship in Bukit Bintang. It’s quite a mature crowd, mostly nearing middle age with a mix of locals and tourists. For a venue often dubbed as one of KL’s queer culture institutions, the audience at Captain’s Cabin seems quite – for the lack of better word – straight.
The show opens with a cringe-worthy performance of “Gentleman”, the less viral K-pop number by YouTube sensation Psy. There is a lot of twerking in between anthems like Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”. Sensationally risqué, Tanjung and her co-headliner Patrisya perform a medley of songs. The crowd loves them.
I met Tanjung through another performer. Amongst KL theatre enthusiasts, Edwin Sumun is an established name. A few years ago, Edwin reintroduced Shelah – a character he played while at Instant Cafe Theatre Company back in the nineties – to the masses beyond the realms of theatre.
Edwin was inspired to bring back Shelah after watching RuPaul’s Drag Race – an American cable reality show that can probably be described as a cross between America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, hosted by a drag icon RuPaul. Unlike other drag performers, Shelah was somewhat mainstream in her reach with an advice column in Timeout KL and weekly show on BFM 89.9.
“In 2009, there was this ridiculous article by a certain minister who basically said, ‘fake’ men, maknyahs, pondans and whatever should not exist in our country and if they do, they are not allowed to exist in our country,” Edwin said. “It really pissed me off. I just wanted to come out to just prove to everyone that it really doesn’t matter who you are, what you wear. Shelah started out to be that beacon.”
With the (not quite) end of the world in 2012, Shelah went into semi-retirement – Edwin still performs as Shelah for corporate gigs. Shelah’s alter ego, Kay Elle now takes over her place. Kay Elle often describes herself as “the third unofficial tallest tower in Malaysia. When it’s official, you’ll know.” Kay Elle is a manifestation of Kuala Lumpur.
Edwin thinks the queer culture has already permeated our society. “It always has. Only now that it’s quite sensitive. You get caught, go to court for cross-dressing,” he added.
Transgender individuals in Malaysia have long been targeted by the authorities. There are a myriad of laws used against them by government agencies. Amongst them is Section 21 of the Minor Offences Act 1955 for “indecent behaviour”, which is often used against people who are caught cross-dressing by the authorities. It is worse for transgender individuals who happen to be Muslims. Depending on jurisdiction, cross-dressers can be charged under Shariah law which carries a fine between RM800 and RM3,000 or imprisonment – or both.
Edwin and I talked about drag performers in the media. Back in the 1990s, there was a daytime comedy sitcom called Baba Nyonya. The show’s main characters, Ah Chim and Bibik Neo were played by actors Kenny Chan and Chee Hood Siong. There were a couple of other television shows in the ‘90s, mainly comedy, that feature actors performing in drag.
It was not commonplace but these shows were still seen on Malaysian television. Today, even though there isn’t a clear prohibition, drag performers are rarely seen on TV. “Even the Senario gang are not allowed to cross-dress anymore,” Edwin says.
“The idea of entertainment has changed because there was a change in the rules and regulations, in what was allowed on television. Now, the same performers are still performing but are just not allowed to appear publicly. They would have a few cross-dressers but they do it in the really tacky way for whatever sketch show they have. Things like that would be allowed because ‘oh, that’s the actor being stupid.’ But to have an actual drag performer like how Dee or Moon used to do it, no.”
Dee and Moon were cast members of a popular sketch comedy show Jangan Ketawa, originally aired in 1991 on TV3, the only private terrestrial television channel then. Moon died in 2005 while Dee still performs today, mainly at corporate and private events.
“There are not just the two sides of one coin, there are the edges, the ridges, the shapes.”
“It all changed because religion came into play. You have to look back, not just socially, but politically, at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years. Everything’s changed, everything’s flipped.” He explained, “It’s not about being religious. It’s how religion has played into the social consciousness. It’s how 25, 30 ago, the whole Melayu race card was starting to be played. But now, it’s not just the Melayu card, there’s also the religion card being played.”
Here, Edwin somewhat echoed Tanjung. I wondered aloud if we had become an intolerant society? “No,” he replied. “That’s the irony of it. I think we are far more tolerant as a society than we were 20 years ago but the state has made us intolerant. We are a very young country. It changed because we had to build a country. Our cultures of hundreds of years, which was part of what Malaysia is, had to be pushed aside while we build a nation, to build a new identity.”
Through Shelah, Edwin hopes he has changed the minds of some people. Through Kay Elle, he will continue to push people to think differently, to experience things differently. He wants them “to see as many sides of the coin as possible, because you know, there are not just the two sides of one coin, there are the edges, the ridges, the shapes.”
Rather optimistically, Edwin says, “I just wish there will be a time when everyone slowly looks past the surface and realises that all the labels really don’t mean anything, what the big brother wants us to think about doesn’t matter. As a society, we have so much to offer to each other, which we’ve forgotten.” He hopes that the realisation comes sooner rather than later.
Correction: The original article erroneously cited Tanjung’s co-headliner as Dara and mis-labelled the performer in the cover photo as Dara. The performer is Patrisya. (Updated 05/07/2013).
Update: The standfirst of this article was amended from “Malaysian drag performers cast the spotlight on transgender discrimination and demand in show business” to “Malaysian transgender performers cast the spotlight on discrimination and demand in show business.” (03/07/2013).
Khairil Zhafri is a former Poskod.my Writer In Progress.