read the lead up: Making History: Angie the 1st Transgender fighter at Lumpinee
On September 19th, 2017 I made my first trip to the new Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok. I’d been to the old Lumpinee, this ratty old building that was just steeped in history. That night years ago Kevin and I sat in an almost empty area across from the side of the stands packed-to-the-rafters with gamblers, all shouting in unison. The wooden benches beneath us were soft, almost as if permanently damp from sweat and beer and humidity, like the stadium was digesting itself. Stray cats and dogs meandered through the empty stands in front of us, utterly unaffected by the cheers and eruptions of “Dtee! Dtee!” from the din of gamblers. It was incredible and the romance of this experience was a huge part of my resistance to the new Lumpinee Stadium, relocated few years ago to a distant area of Bangkok where tour groups have to be bussed in, as opposed to the “in the heart of Bangkok” Everyman feeling that old Lumpinee had.
Part of me knew this was a silly nostalgia for me to claim. It’s not my history, the way fighters who grew up at Lumpinee remember that stadium and put their sweat and hearts into the stands and ring and air of the place. Imagine if they rebuilt New York’s CBGB’s, the legendary 1970’s Punk Club with the gritty, graffiti and signature riddled bathroom, but they moved outside of NYC and the new building was aimed at a modern aesthetic with LCD screens instead of dank, no-ventilation club feel. The outside of Lumpinee (the new one) is ugly-modern indeed, but clearly designed to give an up-to-date sense, so much so that all the photos I’d seen of it in magazines kind of gave me the impression that it was more or less a Thai shopping mall. My interest in going to watch fights there, based on that image and based on the seemingly always-empty stands I’ve seen in photos and video from when many of our younger fighters have bouts there, was pretty much nil. I held onto my nostalgia to Old Lumpinee, even if I had only been lost myself there in incredible fights and gambler shouts only once those years ago.
But on September 19th, my teammate and friend Angie was booked as the first transgender (kathoey) fighter to enter that nominal ring. Nong Toom, “the Beautiful boxer”, had fought in Lumpinee and was known to be katheoy, but other than lipstick she wasn’t allowed to present as transgendered in the ring. Both Lumpinee and Rajadamnern have strict dress-code policies, which for a long time included no tattoos, short hair, and a bare chest (only shorts, gloves, anklet and prajaet). One stadium is military and the other is police, so you can imagine how regimented and traditional the codes are. You have to weigh in completely naked, a rule reportedly that Lumpinee wouldn’t budge on for Nong Rose, the 21-year-old transgender fighter who broke the restrictions at Rajadamnern and is the first to fight there, only a few short months ago – they allowed her to wear a top for fights. At Lumpinee, against tradition Angie just wore a top and undershorts to weigh in and nobody said anything, so the rule just kind of went unspoken and was tacitly broken there as well. Angie has breasts and has been on hormones for 10+ years already, both of which are unique to her out of this trinity of famed katheoy fighters.
In solidarity Nong Toom, who remains quite famous in Thailand and much beloved, came to support Angie at this fight, and is always seen supporting Nong Rose at Rajadamnern. It’s a wonderful thing and I believe even a step toward cis women fighting in those stadia, albeit not a direct or short step. These transitions are not without controversy and the biggest and most frequent complaint is that the inclusion of transgender fighters somehow cheapens the prestigious stadia. I see those points, honestly. Nong Rose has been fighting for a long time and is very good, definitely the same caliber as the men who are fighting on main cards. The difficulty I have in her case is that her promoter – the incredibly famous and influential OneSongchai – is now steering her fights toward show-like events. On most recent of which she fought against a former champion of the Golden Era, Kompayak Singmanee (younger brother of Hippy Singmanee), who has been retired for some 20 years already and is 48 years old. Nong Rose is 21, in her prime, she does not take hormones. If she were a cis man the match would be a head-scratcher and, to me, it’s no less ridiculous with her being kathoey fighter. Not suprisingly, Kompayak gave up in round 3. In Angie’s case, the criticism is more to her lack of experience. This was her 12th fight, ever, and her opponent has something like 8 or 9 fights. She has been training in Muay Thai about 2 years now. Neither is very skilled or experienced but the hype of the fight was pretty big and Angie is very marketable: she’s beautiful, polite, charming, and fights with a lot of heart. In any case, this was a huge historic moment, so I went to the new Lumpinee to witness and support.
So all of that is background to my experience of going to be with Angie at Lumpinee as best I could. I’d just been away from a long trip up to Chiang Mai for fights and training with legends for my Muay Thai Library documentary project and had returned home late the night before meeting at the gym at 4 AM. I was tired, but so excited. I’m used to getting to the gym before sunrise, as that’s how we meet for runs in the morning, but usually when I roll up and park there are a few boys milling around outside. It felt so quiet – that dead-of-night quiet – and I moved through the dark spaces using only familiarity to guide me through the maze of kids’ bikes, shoes, some toys from the kids who live in the rooms peripheral to the gym, and tires for jumping. Angie and her friend were waiting in the garage, “you surprised me,” Angie said in her soft voice, “I didn’t think you’d come early, I thought you’d come in the afternoon.” There’s something about getting in the car before dawn and driving into Bangkok, being so sleepy and excited and bored during weigh in that I wanted to witness, and be a part of. I didn’t want to go to Lumpinee as a spectator, arriving just before the show starts. I wanted to see what the boys do every time they go fight; my trainer Kru Nu is always absolutely drained the next day because he leaves at 4 AM and doesn’t sleep all day in Bangkok, then gets home at around 2 AM the following day. I want to see that, to feel that. It’s how these things work in the lives of the Thais I train with. And, I wanted to be with Angie.
It’s about a 2 hour drive to Bangkapi area of Bangkok from Pattaya, but at 4:30 AM with so few cars on the road, coupled with the way Pi Nu drives, we got there in 1.5 hours. Kevin and I had driven past the new Lumpinee one time, so I was slightly familiar with how it would look on the side of the road, but just as in the US how highways have all come to look alike with the same pattern of fast food restaurants and gas stations, all the main roads on the outskirts of the city look the same. Pi Nu pulled off to a 7-11 to look for Muay Siam, which would have photos to promote tonight’s fight and he’s been steadily collecting those stub articles to post on the gym Facebook page. It’s pride and celebration of his fighters, but it’s also something I think he greatly regrets about his own career as a fighter. He was young, in his mid-to-late teens as he rose to fight at Lumpinee and he retired at 22 years old, so in his youth he didn’t think to memorialize the magazine clippings and photos from those days. He said he gave away the magazines and newspapers, so now and again one of these Facebook pages that share old magazine covers and clippings will tag him and he’ll go to the shop to have a scan of it printed and framed. So he’s pretty diligent about picking up copies of publications when any of his fighters are in them, especially for Lumpinee fights.
Our second stop was down this very narrow street, which is another kind of standard experience but one that’s still awesome to me, when you pull off an indistinct highway and just 10 feet away down a soi is a quiet old-market piece of Thailand. These insanely deep stretches of shops under the shade of cement warehouse structures are everywhere. At the mouth of them are always fruit or flower shops, but they go so deep inside that you can only see the bare-bulb lighting down the row in the inner parts, not the shops themselves. It’s like an immense, humid cave. We stopped at a flower stall, where Pi Nu bought 4 of these garlands that are yellow flowers on the ends of ribbons, to be hung on statues and spirit houses. He handed all 4 to Angie and I had no idea what they were for, other than what they are generally for. My mind lit up at the newness and curiosity of this, a feeling I had very often when I first moved to Thailand and everything was this scrolling, unraveling witness to exotic experiences. I’m observant and I see new things, like small cultural or social bits and pieces every day that I kind of catalog away in my brain, but they very rarely grab me like this anymore. I was caught by this moment of ceremony, which was performed in the most mundane manner by Pi Nu, like stopping to pick up milk on the way home from work. But there was also a notable difference in the relaxed, almost lazy way in which we made our way to the stadium. I’ve only been to a few weigh-ins in the US, but they were all marked by this kind of rushed urgency to get there, get on the scale as quickly as possible and then guzzle your recovery drink and inhale the food you’ve packed the very moment you’ve made weight. That urgency was completely absent from this process – it’s pretty absent from Thailand in general – and even as the fighters would complete their weight check, even when they were pretty depleted, there is no expression of desperation in drinking an electrolyte drink or water – or even getting to breakfast. It’s part of the show to be real jai yen yen (cool hearted) about it all, never showing how hard it might feel to be in that state.
above, Angie at the shine of Lumpinee
Arriving at Lumpinee was another of these familiar but observation-heavy experiences, where the fighters all waiting to weigh in look like any fighters waiting to weigh in anywhere else in Thailand. Kids who will be cornermen perched on the tailgaits and edges of truck beds, the heads of gyms and trainers smoking cigarettes and chatting while their fighters jog in endless circles around the parking lot, the swish swish swish of their black sauna suits hitting your ears for a short stretch during each lap. There’s a degree of boredom that’s very familiar, this kind of outside-of-time feeling that is everywhere in Thailand: shopkeepers sitting and fanning themselves between helping customers, motorbike taxi drivers waiting for fares in the shade, the milling around before fights and after fights. There isn’t nervousness or even a sense of prestigious “professionalism” just because it’s this huge, prestigious stadium. And when I thought about it, why would there be? All the fighters come from the kinds of fights I go to all the time, the kinds of fights I fight all the time. Habit is born of repetition, so what is most often practiced far from these prestigious stadia is what is brought to them by the fighters and trainers who come here. I thought for some reason there would be some kind of special conduct, but feeling the familiarity of it made sense.
As a woman, I wasn’t allowed in the weigh in room with Angie, Kru Den and Kru Nu. Namfohn (Angie’s friend) and I sat outside and watched this process of fighters cutting weight outside. Once Angie’s opponent arrived the energy picked up and every assembled in thee open as there was a slew of real news reporters and kind of amateur “Facebook reporters” doing live streams with their cell phones. Angie handles this stuff so well, with this huge smile and a cute laugh that’s genuine. I stood to the side and just watched her, kind of in awe but also feeling very protective of her. When the whole group was starting to dissipate, I was surprised that a few of the men, a combination of trainers and reporters, recognized and acknowledged me as a fighter (a knee fighter at that, as two of them mimicked the clinch and knee motion, followed by a thumbs up) and two asked when I was fighting at Lumpinee. This is the thing: I’m going to fight at Lumpinee. They were joking, or at least teasing, but the thought is there. And with the thought is the seed.
The stadium isn’t the mall I had imagined from those photos. It’s actually very much like Rajadamnern and even Max in Pattaya. Max is a bit more glitsy with their brightly colored plastic seats and red carpet everywhere, but inside Lumpinee isn’t as big as I’d expected and all the amenities they claimed (a massage parlor! shops!) that made it seem so mall-like are quite standard with what you’d find anywhere else. The food stalls are all on the perimeter and are incredibly standard food stalls (inexpensive, fast and informal service, soup and curry menus), which give it, again, an air of familiarity rather than the air of modernity that they really pushed in the magazines announcing its inception/construction. And inside in the evening when it was time for Angie’s fight, everything was standard procedure except for the hard-line control of the entrance. Westerners aren’t permitted without a ticket, no exceptions except for Filippo, who wrapped Angie’s hands, and even then it felt like you’re only allowed for one of your cornermen to be a westerner. For some reason, probably for exoticism, the sports news decided to report that Angie is half-Thai (look krung) and half-western, so Pi Nu told the gate I was her little sister. The owners at Woody Muay Thai Shop in Pattaya, upon hearing me speak Thai, also suggested I say that I’m look krung to get a discount at the gate. So, I got in with a heavy discount but still way more than Thais pay. Pi Nu’s uncle covered it for me. They stamped my arm and in I went. I took a photo of the stamp because it felt like I’d just climbed onto the first stair on the ascent into this stadium.
In the morning, after we’d had breakfast at those stalls outside the stadium, Angie used 3 of the garlands at shrines just to the side of the stadium. One is the four-faced Brahma god, called Pra Prom in Thailand, who you’ll see in markets and large institutions, as he’s a deity of good fortune and protection. About 30 feet over are two more shrines, both of those being spirit houses that are standard practice for any construction in Thailand. So, Angie offered to the deity of good fortune and protection, as well as the spirits of the stadium. This part was very interesting to me, as offering to the spirits of the ring is absolutely something promoters do before every event and you’ll see garlands, incense and rice offerings at each corner, but I’ve never seen fighters do it. Pi Nu is very Buddhist and he took Angie to tam boon (make merit) at a temple after she won a big side-bet fight at our local stadium in Pattaya, a win which made this opportunity at Lumpinee come around. Often you’ll see fighters give offerings to the shrines above the rings in their gyms before fights and maybe a “thank you” offering after a win. So this is an important step for some fighters, but why it’s interesting to me is that the step of offering to the spirit houses is totally in line with the omission of women from Lumpinee. Anyone can tell you that women shouldn’t fight at Lumpinee or Raja but they might not necessarily be able tell you why, and if they think they know why, they likely aren’t doing this offering to the spirits that supposedly were so pissed at the “women touching the ring” incident that became the standard lore for why women are prohibited. Pi Nu as an ex-fighter of the stadium and a trainer of Thai boys for the stadium has one foot on the platform and one foot on the train, so to speak, introducing his fighter as the first transgender/kathoey at Lumpinee (the spirits have no issue with kathoey, only cis women) and, even if he doesn’t realize it yet, eventually he’ll have to bring me there; he’s taking part in transgressions of tradition but he’s also upholding very strong traditions at the same time. The fourth garland was for the spirit house at the hotel they stayed at to rest during the day. Anytime you leave home you are supposed to let the spirit house know you’re going and when you arrive you’re supposed to acknowledge the spirits of where you’re staying. There’s a huge shrine outside of Petchrungruang Gym, which is also Pi Nu’s family home. They did a ceremony there before we left, then these three at the stadium, then one at the hotel. The auspiciousness of fighting at Lumpinee goes with the fighters, it’s carried in the practices of the fighters – it’s not the stadium itself. And in a way the spirit house represents this process perfectly. In constructing something you’re disrupting nature and space, you’re building on land that belongs to the spirits, where they live, so you give them their own space, an auspicious space, and give them respect. Lumpinee is a traditional space, a “holy” space in many regards, so if you’re going to build on it – disrupt that space – you provide space for those spirits. That’s what I see Pi Nu doing, that’s how I feel.
Angie and I are oddities, to be sure. We’re the only women fighting out of Petchrungruang and we’re both not the norm in any sense. I’m western, small, muscled and a rogue fighter going out to fights without my team and fighting prolifically; Angie is all the things I’ve described thus far. When I go to fights and am being gawked at, my arms squeezed by gamblers, saying unkind things in a semi-joking manner either not knowing or not caring if I speak Thai to understand it… it can be hard. I’ve got a fairly thick skin but putting a brave face on it and actually being unaffected are different things. When I saw men doing exactly this backstage for Angie’s fight, saying nasty “jokes” about her through the doorway to the dressing room, staring at her, squeezing her, being inappropriate, all of this made me angry in a way that I think I don’t allow myself to get angry when it’s me. What was remarkable about it, however, was that I figured a lot of what I experience is because I’m not Thai and so I read it differently; but Angie is Thai and the method to deal with any and all of this is either to completely ignore it (which most of our team did, rather than protecting her, which is what my instinct was) or to laugh, which is what Angie did. At one point a large group of young men barged into the dressing room and surrounded Angie. They were all talking and joking and touching her, making these dramatic sounds about how strong her arms were and that she should fight her opponent “gently,” and gradually it dawned on all of us that they were her opponent’s posse. They were wearing white and red baseball style shirts with the opponent’s image on them. They were trying to intimidate Angie, but in this very joking but still aggressive way. I was furious and everyone else from our gym just ignored them completely. My non-Thainess threatening to burst through my skin, I took a short video of the group (after the harassment), and one of these informal sport reporters coming in to tease Angie about whether her boyfriend was Thai or western. Filippo, who is not Angie’s boyfriend but has a solid Italian machismo about him, teased back to the reporter, “I’m her boyfriend.” It was the one moment of protection I saw throughout the ordeal. But mostly it was just awesome to see how poised Angie remained, how calm she was able to be before this monumental event in her life.
above, some video in the dressing room
When it was time for Angie to fight, we all went out to the “on deck” area for fighters. We sat and waited through the fight before hers. There’s no special attention paid to fighters like we have in the west. There’s no motivational talk, no hitting of pads, it was almost as if we were waiting for a bus. I had talked with Angie before about this fight, at her drink shop in Pattaya. She was very nervous about it, saying that it seemed “very fast” for her to be fighting at Lumpinee after only so few fights. It’s a big stage. The promotion on this fight was pretty big as well. When it was booked, Angie had just won a 300,000 Baht side bet fight in Pattaya by KO, so the phones started ringing to get her on some big shows – the success and exposure of Nong Rose has made this a good time to promote Angie as a kathoey fighter – and Angie stared at the table between us, then, and she confessed that her win in Pattaya had left her feeling like she had a lot of work to do. She needs more technique, “if he had power, I would be in trouble,” she said, indicating that her Pattaya opponent had been out of shape (although not giving herself credit for how hard she trains or how much this guy outweighed her). I happen to be a good person to offer insight on this to Angie from my position as a fighter who fights very frequently. There’s no time for me to “get better” between fights that are only 2 weeks apart, and I explained to her that nobody expected her to be any different between the two fights. “They don’t want you to be better,” I put my hand on the table near to hers, “they want you to fight exactly how you already fight. They think you’re ready right now.” Angie nodded. As she was on deck to fight at Lumpinee I stood up and took her gloves in my hands, shaking out her arms as she’d been sitting for a long time, waiting for the fight before her to be done. Your arms can get tired from the way you can’t sit comfortably with gloves on, so I massaged her hands through the padding and shook her arms vigorously. “Angie,” I said. She looked at me, this very slight tension in her mouth she gets when she’s thinking, “you don’t have to win, you just have to fight hard.” Angie nodded and took a deep breath. Then everyone stood up and headed to the corner. I was supposed to live stream the fight for Petchrungruang fans, something that I’d promised to do on the page but then was shut down by an official near the ring who said live streaming isn’t allowed. I tried to play dumb, like I don’t speak Thai or know what he’s talking about, but he stayed on me. It’s an issue with gambling, so Pi Nu had assumed it wouldn’t be a problem for a falang (westerner) to live stream, whereas a Thai person might have gambling connections. But this guy wouldn’t budge on it. I tapped Pi Nu on the shoulder as Angie began her Ram Muay and told him the wouldn’t let me stream. “Go sit with my wife,” he said, pointing to the stands, where no officials would be checking. I hesitated for a moment. I didn’t want to leave Angie’s corner, I was there to support her and wanted to be with the group, to be close. But I also wanted to make possibilities out of this event, so I ran up the stadium steps and found a spot, very unfortunately by myself to watch the fight.
From that far vantage point you couldn’t see details (the live stream here), but you could get a feel for the fight that up close wouldn’t have allowed. You could see the wall of gamblers, all cheering for Angie’s opponent on every strike, which made me curse them and scream alone, to myself, for every shot Angie threw. In a way, it was a revival of my experience at the Old Lumpinee with Kevin, sitting across from the gamblers in a more or less empty area. But this time my heart was connected directly to the ring. I saw Nong Toom arrive in Angie’s corner after the first round and scream encouragement for her; I could see Pi Nu and Kru Den’s reactions from a distance as Angie fought, their body language rather than being stuck behind one of them, as would be the case if I were in the corner, as I’m not allowed near the ring as a woman. And I was connected to the people watching the live feed, I was allowed to kind of offer commentary and context for what might not have been visible – something that I have made a lifestyle out of through my projections of my experiences in Thailand, as a fighter, on the outside and inside at once just as I was at this moment watching Angie in the ring. My heart pounded out of my chest when Angie was cut in the 3rd round and looked like she might lose the fight. But my heart exploded when she overwhelmed and knocked her opponent out in round 4, so much so that I stood up and ran down the stairs of the bleachers to go celebrate. I’d have never been so excited by any other fight. I’d have never been so connected to any other fight, it was this moment that collapsed the nostalgia of the Old Lumpinee and the promise of the New Lumpinee. I shot a quick vlog about the incredible importance of this moment, how it had to happen exactly like this for it to have impact on the possibilities for those of us who don’t “belong” in that space.
above, the broadcast video edit of the fight
above, Nong Toom holding Angie by her gloves just as she came out of the ring
above, my vlog just a few minutes after Angie’s victory, totally ecstatic
Angie and Petchsagon sharing a table in the doctor’s room after the fight. Angie got 7 stitches.
The first time I saw a show at Rajadamnern, I almost cried just being in the space. I felt like I wanted to fight there the way I want to breathe. It quickly became my favorite stadium; this was after Old Lumpinee had already been demolished. And I resisted the new one for all the ways in which it wasn’t the old one, for my perceptions about what it was representing, for what “we” seemed to be losing in the changes. I reckon that’s what critics are feeling when they complain about fights like this one happening in these hallowed stadia – that it used to be that you had to be a certain caliber of fighter before you could enter the rings. That making room for trans fighters is a kind of modernity that doesn’t feel good to those who are gripping the familiarity of tradition, simply because that’s the way it was done before. I didn’t grow up with Lumpinee the way these old fighters and fans did. But Pi Nu did; he moved from one stadium to the next one and just carried all his respect with him. You can have these fighters waiting to check weight in the middle of nowhere or you can put them outside a fancy building, but the practice of Muay Thai is the same. There is a romance to the broken down, gritty, palpable history of the Old Lumpinee stadium that I loved – that all the men who grew up in those rings loved – but that’s not Muay Thai. Muay is alive, it breathes and moves and changes. After Angie’s fight she, Namfohn and I were all sitting outside sipping on lime and honey drinks. Around the corner came Dieselnoi, the Legend of Legends, my mentor and a man I’d trained with just the day before. I jumped up and went over to greet him, and he put his arm around me and asked what I was doing there. I pointed to Angie and said I was here to support my friend. Dieselnoi is old guard and not an advocate for huge, leaping changes in the traditional practices of Muay Thai. He writes posts about how referees and judges are scoring fights wrong, how gamblers are out of touch with real Muay when they boo a decision that he sees as very clear-cut, and he definitely belongs in the camp of those who believe that the National Stadia are spaces where only the best fighters belong. But here he is, this larger than life monument to the Golden Age of Muay Thai, coming to see the fights any night of the week in this new version of the stadium where he lived out his best years as a fighter. He loves Muay Thai, he has to be near it, so he goes wherever that living Muay Thai is.
Let me try to sum this up. Dieselnoi is this heart of Muay Thai and Muay is what drives his heart; forever. Can’t be changed, it’s who he is. Seeing him at this event, at this new stadium, walking through the space like the pillar that he is, it represented for me the nonsense of just imaginary nostalgia for the old ways and fear of the new ways. If you love Muay, you go to where it’s alive, you must. And it’s the lovers of Muay that breathe life into it. I resisted this new, fancy structure and it’s apparent ethic toward modernity for the sake of showiness, but that’s not what I found. Instead, I saw collapsed in front of me the way Muay Thai is practiced anywhere and everywhere throughout Thailand, because it’s the bodies and hearts of the fighters who bring Muay into that space… it’s not the space at all. When Pi Nu made sure that Angie gave offerings to the three shrines at the stadium, the practice was touching on traditions older than any of us can remember. The important part was giving respect and recognition to them, not putting them in a glass case to forever be unchanged. When building on land, you make a place of honor for the spirits you’re displacing. You don’t exorcise the spirit of the old ways and you don’t kill it by putting it in a preservation box. You live with it, together.
above, me with Angie at the traditional Lumpinee photo stage