by Hank Leukart
March 21, 2006

You’ve never seen something so horrifically bad, yet so terrifically good

Dancing Asian Ladyboys are so bad they’re good.

A lip-synching, Ladyboy at Simon Chiang Mai

A lip-synching, Ladyboy at Simon Chiang Mai

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HIANG MAI, Thailand — There’s a small but growing list of cultural landmarks that we commonly consider to be so bad, they’re good: Vanilla Ice’s early-1990s rap song, “Ice, Ice Baby”; celebrity tabloids such as US Weekly that keep us updated on the size of Pamela Anderson’s breasts; mullets; Taco Bell; the “drama”-filled “reality” TV show, Laguna Beach; and many of the movies made popular by Mystery Science Theater 3000, including Teenagers from Outer Space and Red Zone Cuba.

Tonight, I found something new to add to the list: Simon Chiang Mai’s cabaret theater show in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’ve never seen something so horrifically bad, yet so terrifically good.

So that you can try this at home, I have devised a recipe to recreate Simon Chiang Mai in your backyard. First, take a high school musical filled with talentless students — make sure the students have no stage experience and have no dance skills. Now, remove all of the singing, replacing it with exceptionally badly-timed lip synching (think Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live). Add two parts Busby Berkeley musical, one part It’s a Small World Disneyland ride, and forty transsexuals. Finally, hire the worst choreographer you can find and have her mix all ingredients to taste. The result will be a close approximation of Chiang Mai’s premiere cabaret show.

“You haven’t seen the gamut of musical theater until you’ve seen fifty Asian Ladyboys (yes, that’s what they’re usually called here) lip-sync “Welcome to Havana” in salsa-dancing costumes. No, I’m not making this up.”

One of the hallmarks of things “so bad they’re good” is their consistent tendency to take themselves seriously; this requirement is necessary to separate satire from things that are just plain bad. (I could imagine an exceptionally badly-made, postmodern, satirical film that didn’t take its subject seriously but failed in its attempt at satire, but even in that case, the satirical aspect of the film would be still in earnest; regardless, that’s an essay for another day.)

Simon Chiang Mai is no exception. Complete with lavish costumes and well-designed sets, the show is a kind-of survey of world cultures through Thai eyes — rendered consistently in the most ridiculous ways imaginable. You haven’t seen the gamut of musical theater until you’ve seen fifty Asian Ladyboys (yes, that’s what they’re usually called here) lip-sync “Welcome to Havana” in salsa-dancing costumes. No, I’m not making this up.

But what makes the show especially strange is that the performers seem to have no sense of their absurdity. I know that artists only invented self-consciousness and irony in the last hundred years or so, but you’d think it would have made its way to Thailand by now. The mood reminded me of what I imagine the crowd must have felt watching Chinese pairs figure skating during China’s debut in the 1980 Winter Olympics; due to the Communist Chinese government’s tight grip on the media, the Chinese skaters were so ill-prepared for the competition and the quality of their competitors that the crowd laughed at their (unintentionally humorous) antics. Well, somewhat like that — except with lip-synching transsexuals.

My best advice is to do everything in your power to avoid Simon Chiang Mai. You’ve never seen something so horrifically bad, and by the second hour you’ll be guzzling Mai Tais by the gallon just to avoid gouging out your eyes. But, if a friend suggests visiting the cabaret, giving you the chance to transfer all blame to him, take full advantage — because you’ve never, ever seen a show this terrifically good. WB

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