Chen ’14′s Dale Award film project explores gender fluidity in Thailand

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Vivienne Chen ’14 (Photo: Courtesy Vivienne Chen)
For the fourth post in our summer series about Dale Award recipients, we asked PAW contributor Vivienne Chen ’14 to describe her own project, a filmmaking venture that took her to Thailand in June and July. The Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Awards provide financial support for rising juniors pursuing independent creative projects.
Nothing seems more out of place in Bangkok than a 20-year-old Chinese American female toting a Canon 60D video camera and looking to make an artistic documentary about Thailand’s transgender individuals.
But two months later — with nearly 80 gigabytes of film footage, dozens of bilingual interviews, and a preview trailer on YouTube — I’m attempting to do precisely that.
I first became aware of the Thai community of “ladyboys,” who are born male but look like and live as females, when I visited Thailand last summer on vacation. I work closely with the LGBT community in America, including at Princeton’s LGBT Center, but until Thailand, I had never seen such open and prominent instances of Asian gender fluidity before, especially not in my native China. I wanted to explore whether our journeys through understanding our bodies and our place in the world were similar, and whether Thailand was really the safe haven for sexual diversity that it appeared to be.

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The filmmaker at work in Chiang Mai, interviewing a Thai NGO employee who works with ladyboys and gay men. (Photo: Benjamin Tyler Pratt)
The project provided me with major personal challenges. To fly solo to a country where I didn’t know the language, customs, or people, and to engage them to share intimate details about their lives and their sexuality was incredibly daunting. To top it all off, my project also demands a final product: a half-hour, artistic documentary, weaving together the stories of queer and trans Thai across the country.
Still, the Dale project was an amazing growing experience for me as a storyteller and as a person. I have never taken a filmmaking or documentary class before, but I’ve made short videos casually and professionally in the past, including for PAW. This marks my first major-length filmmaking experience.
But most rewarding of all, I learned the nuances of Thai gender and society, discovered how my own perceived gender identity, age, nationality, and sexuality affected my storytelling, and became part of a larger community of sexual activists in Southeast Asia.
Learn more at Vivienne’s film blog, ladyboyfilmproject.wordpress.com, and check out the trailer below.