Book review 

The third sex: kathoey: Thailand’s ladyboys’ by Richard Totman  

Wong Yingwuen, National University of Singapore  

Copyright Wong Yingwuen, to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

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uploaded 30/12/03

Wong Yingwuen did her BA thesis in the area of transgender in Thailand (a thesis which forms the basis for her TG-ASIA paper ‘Transgressing the Gender Boundary’) and is currently furthering those studies in a MA research programme at NUS, focusing on transsexual beauty contests in Thailand. Wong Yingwuen speaks and reads Thai.

Contents of book:  Introduction; Chapter 1:  Rama V School; Chapter 2: Chiang Mai University; Chapter 3: Biological Accidents; Chapter 4: Saowanee's Plan; Chapter 5: Buddhism and a Third Sex; Chapter 6: The Kathoey of Modern Thailand and Old Siam; Chapter 7: Leks' Story; Chapter 8: the Sex Industry in Thailand; Chapter 9: Transgender in Other Cultures; Chapter 10; Daeng's story; Chapter 11: Some Facts, Figures and Observations; Chapter 12: Malee's Story; Chapter 13: Kathoey and the Religious Order; Chapter 14: Changing Attitudes - East and West; Chapter 15: Old Age; Notes and References


The framework of this book is well-thought out. Richard Totman frames his book into two parts – ethnographic narratives (biographies) which he had collected during his fieldwork and contextualization/analyses from secondary resources. There is a good balance between the two and Totman’s strategy is to mix both narratives and analysis in a complementary way. Many times, one would notice that certain experiences related in a narrative are substantiated by academic research in the next chapter and it is contextualized in a larger societal framework. For example, when Lek prostitutes herself due to temptation and monetary needs, the chapter is followed by a discussion of the sex industry in Thailand. This strategy proved to be useful as the reader is not overwhelmed by biographic details or academic analyses. It made the book easy to read, informative, analytical and entertaining all at the same time.

Richard Totman is a theatre director cum psychologist. He has written another book on Mind, Stress and Health. His interest in the kathoeys’ cabaret performances and their life experiences is not unexpected. He does not seem to have been trained in anthropology, which may account for some of the short-comings of the book that are discussed in the next section. His focus was to listen to his subjects’ stories, (possibly because he is a psychologist) rather than analyze his observations, and then weave these stories together with a contextualization of their position in society to produce a piece of work that has a human touch (and therefore too novel-like) .

Totman’s anthropological approach seems to have been derived from the experiences of people from his fieldwork study or secondary reading. This is the dominant approach in the study of transgenderism, as it allows for an understanding of this culture through the lives and experiences of kathoeys themselves. However, there are some lingering questions about Totman’s fieldwork and these “experiences” he included. Firstly, 8 chapters out of 15 are narratives, or based largely on fieldwork. I had explained earlier my thoughts of these narratives and the style in which they are presented. They are largely novel-like and amazingly detailed in certain ways. Although Totman had stated in his introduction that he had allowed himself “a small artistic license in reconstructing the school years of the three protagonists, and inventing dialogues”, he insists that the “narrative passages in this book are faithful to the accounts of the individuals in question."

 “The factual details are corroborated with the help of a senior teacher at the school and professors at Chiang Mai university. The descriptions of people and places are authentic but some of the locations and all the individuals’ names have been changed for reasons of privacy. ‘Interpretation’ on my part has been kept to a bare minimum”, he writes.

 This left me somewhat bewildered.

 These narratives are detailed only in a certain way and there is some key information that has been unfortunately, or conveniently, left out. There is no mention of any timeframe at all in these narratives. The author does not mention important dates or years in which significant events occur. For example, when Daeng won the “Miss Tiffany” contest (a prestigious national contest), no year was mentioned. I did a check on past winners in the beauty contests and none of them had the name “Daeng”. Bearing in mind that there might have been anonymity or a change in name, I tried to match the profile of Daeng to performers at Simon Cabaret in Phuket. Having done my fieldwork at Simon Cabaret in 2001, I tried to look for a kathoey performer who had won a beauty contest on a national level. Only one of them fitted the profile, but while I was there, she was still in Phuket and working in the sex trade (according to Totman, he was living with her family in Chiang Mai in the same year). I can only provide two reasons: Totman had met Daeng before she headed back to Phuket or Daeng had omitted a huge chunk of her life story when relating her experiences to Totman.[1] This is a problem with the anthropological approach that emphasizes ethnographic details that is important in constructing a context for a phenomenon. An anthropologist, having to rely heavily on past experiences related by people, is subjecting himself to certain risks. A subject may choose to omit significant information from his/her life, which may make the ethnographic account inaccurate and highly selective. The author/researcher may also be selective in using certain narratives in his arguments. Totman has relied on related events more than his own observations as a researcher here, which may result in inaccuracy in analysis or even a distortion of actual events.

 Totman relies very heavily on these ethnographic information, but it seems that he had not verified these stories with other people. Nor does Totman give any information about his fieldwork, such as location, names and time. There is in fact, no mention about fieldwork notes at all. If Daeng’s name had been changed “for reasons of privacy”, it mystifies me as to why there must be anonymity at all. Firstly, all Thai people have what they call “chue len” or nicknames which are common words, such as “Daeng” which means red and “Muu” which means pig. As such, there is an uncountable number of people with the name “Daeng” or “Lek” and these names, on their own would provide anonymity. It does not make much sense to replace a nickname with yet another nickname.

 Also, surprisingly, nowhere in the book, not even in the acknowledgements, were real names mentioned. There were no real names for any of the kathoeys interviewed or the teacher at Rama V school Totman mentioned, or the professors he consulted at Chiang Mai university. From my experiences in fieldwork, none of the kathoeys I spoke to declined to give me their real names. In fact, when I told them it was for acknowledgement purposes, they gave their real names to me very willingly. The only difficulty was that some of them could not speak English, so their Thai names needed transcription. Even if Totman had decided to withhold the kathoey’s real names, there was no mention of who were the professors he consulted at Chiang Mai University. He only mentions a few names in his acknowledgements, with no reference to who these people were. Not in a single instance (not even in footnotes) were these professors referred to with names at all in the main text. There were also no photographs of these people he spoke so fervently of. Would an anthropological approach be complete without these information? I doubt so. It only made his fieldwork ambiguous, questionable, dubious and at times even unconvincing.

 The amazing part was the reproduction of the live experiences of the book’s three protagonists. Totman manages to write in such details that one begins to wonder if this is in fact possible. He had mentioned that he did not use a tape recorder as he found it intrusive. Yet, he could reproduce stories in colourful details. At one point, he could even elaborate 8 pages of reconstructed dialogue between Saowanee and the three friends, as a third person! Even with conscious note-taking during my fieldwork, I would not be able to construct dialogues like these. There seems to be little limitations imposed upon himself to avoid a subjective account of events. One begins to wonder if this is an academic book or a novel. This “reconstruction” of past events not only reduces Totman’s credibility as a scholar, it may also lead to misinterpretations and stereotyping of the transgender culture in Thailand by the reader. It undermines the academic and scholarship values of the book and I would say that this is the greatest weakness in this piece of work.

As for sources, the bibliography is not extensive, but this does not come as a surprise because the transgender culture in Southeast Asia is seriously under-researched. However, there are some problems with citations. For example, Totman discussed extensively about “Satree Lex”, the transsexual volleyball team which emerged as national champions and national heroes. But he does not acknowledge where this information came from. It seems to be based largely on the movie (by the same name), which I think to an extent is exaggerated and glorified. His references, startlingly, is not comprehensive, given that the book is one that aimed to discuss everything about the kathoey culture. There were also no primary resources used (except for the introduction where he mentioned the newspaper article in The Nation, which caught his attention), despite the availability of information on kathoeys regularly in newspapers or magazine articles.

 Compared to other scholars such as Peter Jackson (in his work of homosexuality in Thailand)[2] and Teh Yik Koon (in her work in examining the mak nyahs in Malaysia)[3], Totman’s work seriously lacks in empirical data. Jackson’s book, “Uncle Go: Male homosexuality in Thailand” is also largely anthropological with analyses drawn from collection of letters to “Uncle Go”, aunt agony in a male homosexual magazine. Yik Koon’s study of the mak nyahs, though lacking in in-depth analysis of their experiences, is supported strongly with empirical data (a total of 507 participants). This makes Totman’s book and his approach seem weaker in comparison. 

Nonetheless, Totman must also be given due for his contribution to the existing literature. His book is the first attempt in filling the vacuum about transgender studies in Southeast Asia and it is indeed a commendable effort. In the chapters dealing with analyses, Totman accurately interprets and collates existing academic works and manages to weave these analyses successfully into the book. Discussion of biological factors, Buddhism and information on the history of kathoeys and the sex industry are enlightening and easy to read. Prior to this, most research had been isolated in parts. The layout of the arguments are well-thought out for a maximum impact and credit must be given to his attempt in making a coherent and wholesome argument about the social and historical context of the kathoey phenomenon in Thailand.


This book, I feel, has been clearly written with one goal in mind – introducing the scholarship of transgender cultures to a first-time reader in an entertaining way. Totman tries very hard to make this book entertaining and at the same time, informative. Although there are limitations to this book, I would highly recommend this book to anyone reading or trying to understand the kathoey phenomenon in Thailand for the first time. However, the reader must keep in mind the ambiguity of narratives presented. The book should be read with a cautious eye, but it is still somewhat valuable because it is the first book that gives a wholesome ethnographic and analytical account of the kathoey culture in Thailand. The analysis and arguments presented would be enlightening to any reader. For a person presumably without training in social sciences, Richard Totman is remarkably successful in producing a book that is long overdue.

 There are yet many other approaches and issues that need to be addressed. Other than this ethnographic approach, one might also gain insights into the transgender culture by looking at the role of the government, its policies towards these people, the informal communal groupings of these people, power structures in society and the role of economics (in this case, tourism plays a large role) in the formation of a larger social context in which transgenderism exists. Hopefully, this book will spur more scholarly research, with different approaches, about this phenomenon, which deserves more attention that it does. 


( 1 ) During my fieldwork I had indeed heard of a kathoey performer who had won a national beauty contest, but she had left teh cabaret before I got there. I never got to know her name as the performers at Simon Cabraet did not seem to like mentioning her at all. I have yet to verify the identity of this person.

 ( 2 ) Peter Jackson, Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand, (Bua Luang Books, Thailand & USA, 1995)

 ( 3 ) Yik Koon, Teh, The Mak Nyahs: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals, (Eastern University Press, Times Media Private Limited, Singapore, 2002.


Jackson, Peter, Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand, (Bua Luang Books, Thailand & USA, 1995)

 Teh, Yik Koon, The Mak Nyahs: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals, (Eastern University Press, Times Media Private Limited, Singapore, 2002)

 Totman, Richard, The Third Sex: Kathoey – Thailand’s Ladyboys, (Souvenir Press, London, 2003)