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Grandma Nong, Bangkok’s oldest performing ladyboy passed away this week.

The first time I saw Nong perform was at Tawan, over ten years ago. I’d been cursed that night, Tawan pulls its customers in with the promise of muscled flesh and then far too often serves up a portion of ladyboy first. Such was that visit, but taken to an extreme. The diva wanna-be ladyboys came on first all dolled up in the finest and fighting a losing battle; their feathered and sequined headdresses waging war with the chains and cage work hanging above Tawan’s stage. It wasn’t the first time I’d been forced to sit through a ladyboy act at one of Bangkok’s gay gogo bars. In fact it happens far too often. But I’ve come to accept it, along with the pricey drinks and having to fend of fem boys screeching their ten syllable rendition of sawasdee ka.

If one ladyboy act is bad – and it is – two is even worse. Especially when round two is one of the infamous comedy ladyboy numbers complete with blackened teeth and water-balloons serving for sagging breasts as she lip-syncs a tale of woe. Thais find these acts uproariously funny. Farang start edging toward the door. The management of Tawan, who could never be accused of believing in the cliche that less is more, decided to devote their stage to Thailand’s katoey this night and scheduled yet a third ladyboy act. This one was different.

Traditional Thai music at a much more mellow decibel level replaced the blaring disco tunes as an old woman draped in Thai silk took the stage. The bar quieted down. The boys working Tawan all turned their attention to the stage with rapt wonder as Grandma Nong performed her short dance. The almost real looking divas in all their finery are bad enough. An ancient ladyboy taking small mincing steeps across the stage should have pushed me over the top.

But I’d come of age in Hawaii where it is not unusual for a local octogenarian to take the stage during a hula performance, her hips no longer swaying quite as well as they once did, and the sexuality of the dance being replaced by a quiet dignity. That was Nong too. Hers was a traditional Thai dance, and her age and demeanor combined to fulfil the illusion; she was no longer a man dressed as a woman, but a grandmother still spry enough to sway gently with the music. You couldn’t help but love her.

Nong prepares for a night on stage at the age of 73.

Over the years I caught her act at various bars around town; it wasn’t until a night that I was out with my friend Noom and saw her perform that I learned a bit about her story. Nong was one of Bangkok’s original ladyboy acts having first taken the stage at the age of 15 just after the end of WWII. Some fifty years later, she was still at it. Her run on Bangkok’s stages ended this week. Pa Nong passed away at the age of 76. Her death made the local papers; dressed in her ladyboy finest she’d been laid out at her local wat for three days for fans, friends, and loved ones to pay respect.

Sawing Nisakornsen, better known as Nong, came from a poor rural family. His father was a soldier in the Opium War in China, and as the seventh child Nong spent his childhood doing everything possible to make money. At the age of 15 she and her biological sister left home with just the shirts on their back but soon found employment at a cinema show in Bangkok as dancers. No one knew Nong was a man. Never ashamed of being a member of Thailand’s third sex, she spent the next fifty-odd years performing all around Bangkok. It was only in her later years that her career was reduced to the occasional show at one of Bangkok’s gay gogo clubs.

Interviewed at the age of 73 after being named Thailand’s oldest performing ladyboy, Nong explained that it took her about three hours to get ready for her show nightly. The bars usually paid her 300-400 baht, Thais in the audience passed over tips, and during her non-performing hours when her strength was good she’d sell lighters and cigarettes to bolster her income.

Her night of work would start around 9 pm; she’d often take a tuk tuk back to her room to rest in between performances but noted she had to take care to not muss up her outfit and hair. Most of the money she earned went to transportation, the rest to pay her utilities.

“I do not expect anything else in life.” she said. “But I don’t starve. Today was a good day, tomorrow it will be another show.”

During her final years she had no teeth and her eyesight was poor. But she was fortunate to have many relatives who looked after her and helped out, including a nephew whom she had helped raise since he was 14 and who lived with and cared for her in her old age. Nong said she had considered giving up show business several years ago, but had grown bored and went back to performing. Nong said she planned on performing as long as she was strong enough to do so, or until nobody wants to see her anymore.

There have been bar boys who have come and gone during the years I’ve been visiting Thailand, some of whom I miss. I think I’ll miss seeing Nong pop up to sway across the stage even more. I’m not a big fan of ladyboys, but integrity gets me every time. Nong lived her life being true to herself. At the end, I don’t think there is any other honor higher one can pay than saying that.

Grandma Nong will be missed by many in Bangkok, locals and visitors alike.