15 Jun 2007

thailand to archive gay, lesbian and transgender heritage

Launched last Saturday, the Thai Rainbow Archives project aims to archive Thailand's gay, lesbian and transgender heritage. Douglas Sanders has more on the project and history of gay magazines in Thailand.

With Rainbow Book Day, the Thai Queer Resources Centre publicly launched the Thai Rainbow Archives project last Saturday, June 9. Over 50 people met at a hotel in Saphan Khwai, a Bangkok neighborhood with a smattering of Thai-style gay host bars and the offices of Bangkok Rainbow. The project of collecting the magazines, movies, and books produced over the last decades officially began.

Organised by the Thai Queer Resources Centre, Rainbow Book Day 2007 is held to help save Thailand's gay, lesbian and transgender heritage. Top of page (left to right): Midway, Neon and Gay People. Above: Mithuna, Thailand's first gay magazine which started in 1983.
Lots of magazines have come and gone in Thailand. The first gay magazine, Mithuna, started in 1983. Various gay magazines have been published since that time, none of a mainstream character and none lasting.

The only place in Asia that we know of with earlier publications is Japan. The first modern gay bar opened in Tokyo in 1948. Books were published in 1949 and 1957. The first gay organisation began publishing Adonis magazine in 1951, initially privately circulated. The huge cluster of Japanese-style gay bars began in the Shinjuku Ni-chome district in 1959.

Japanese gay magazines emerged - Barazoku (The Rose Clan), 1971 - 2004, Adon, 1972 - 1996 and Sabu, 1974 - 2001. Gay Times, in London, mourned the end of Barazoku in 2004, calling it "one of the world's oldest gay magazines."

Gay magazines have been published continuously in Japan since that time. They are marketed openly - mainly in small gay stores selling videos, magazines and sex toys. One mag is for bears.

The thick magazines are packed with personal ads. Sexy pictures, yes. Full nudity, no. Genitals are covered or digitally blurred. In some of the posters of Sadao Hasegawa, erect cocks were highly visible by being blank white spaces in orgy scenes.

In Thailand, Mithuna magazine used a pocket-book size format. Other similar magazines emerged, full of advertisements for the various gay bars and saunas in Bangkok and Pattaya. Nikul, the editor of Neon, became a bit of a public gay figure at the end of the 1980s. But Neon was the product of a straight publishing operation, and Nikul was not kept on. In the 1990s the leading magazine was Midway, published by a gay male couple who were editor and photographer.

Both Neon and Midway attempted to spread their audience to English speakers, even trying to get some overseas subscriptions. Eric Allyn, the author of the pioneering English-language gay guidebook for Thailand, was a columnist for Midway. Midway itself published an English-language gay guide at one point. But, it seemed, the appeal to foreigners didn't pay off, and English content disappeared.

Magazines like Neon, Midway - and various other similar ones - could be bought on street stands in the Patpong bar area, and often at bus stations in urban and rural areas. They did not show up in stores. The models in the photographs worked in bars, which were named. There was no full nudity, though sometimes you could order nude photographs.

Then the magazines got racier. A series of regular size magazines appeared, seemingly linked to only a couple of publishers. There were K, M, MM, Heat, His, Xstory. They were usually well produced, with quite sexy pictures. Some seemed to be evolving into real magazines, with news and fiction. The crème-de-la-crème of printed gay porn was Door magazine. Full nudity. Sex scenes. Fucking. Cum shots.

These could not be sold openly, though the tamer versions appeared in cellophane wrap at street stalls on Suriwong Road. The most reliable source was a street stall in the Saphan Khwai area. For some publications you were shown a cover (itself taken from hiding). If you were interested, a phone call brought a motorcycle driver with the goods.

This was not sustainable. When Prime Minister Thaksin came to power there was a well-publicised "social order" campaign. And Thaksin established a Ministry of Culture, which became a watchdog against porn. The Ministry hated the hi-so Thai fashion/life style magazines with their sexy covers. And the Door was closed. The sexy gay magazines disappeared.

The sexy magazines had killed off the market for magazines like Neon and Midway. When the sexy magazines disappeared, all that remained were the newish free English language magazines aimed at tourists. The pioneer was Thai Guys, published by an expat Swiss-German. Then came Variety, Max (largely in Thai), Sticky rice, Tai Puen, GGlamour - and gay maps, published every three or four months. The give-away magazines lived on advertisements for gay bars, saunas, hotels and restaurants.

Very recently, a new crop of sexy magazines has started to appear - but very hard to find - Dude, GG, XMen and Mean. Generally, they are much more discrete than the now-classic Door. One small format magazine, Show Time, featured full nudity and erections in its first issue.

Back to the Thai Rainbow Archives project. The launch on June 9 featured Australian academic Peter Jackson, projecting great pictures of early Thai gay and lesbian magazines. Then a panel featured Thai academics - Sant Suwatcharapinun from Chiang Mai University (on commercial gay spaces in Bangkok - his thesis topic), Purin Nakhasing from Kasetsart University (on a distinctive cruising area in Bangkok), Kingrak Ingkhawat, a creative director at J Walter Thompson Advertising who also lectures at the Thai Chamber of Commerce University (on current images and ideas about gays in popular culture), and Sarirat Sukomonsan, a masters student at Thammasat University (studying host bars for women).

The various Thai organisations set up display tables - Bangkok Rainbow, Sapaan, Swing, MPlus, Rainbow Sky, Cyberfish Media. Yollada, of the Thai kathoey pop group Venus Flytrap, autographed copies of her new book (available everywhere in Thailand at Smile Book stores). Lots of displays of Thai movies, a couple of movie posters, various DVDs, old copies of magazines - and copies of eight or nine Thai language theses on LGBT topics. They included the new masters thesis of Prempreeda, who is now the secretary to the Thai Queer Resources Centre, the host organisation of the Rainbow Archives.

Doug Sanders is a retired Canadian Law Professor now living in Bangkok. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb@yahoo.ca.