Ngoc Phung Tran is getting ready in her room, which is partitioned from the other tent-like rooms by a piece of fabric slung over a rope. All of the rooms are jammed with makeup and sequined dresses. All accommodate drag queens, who just like Phung are checking their lipstick before beginning another long night.
This is just one of Vietnam’s nomadic drag queen troupes. Known locally as “lotto groups,” these groups travel the length of the country, bringing lottery games to cities and rural villages. Queens like Phung sing out winning lottery numbers in full drag while her coworkers run games and rides for kids.
Phung is one of hundreds of transgender women who live and work with such a group. These traveling drag carnivals are just an everyday part of Vietnamese life. As collectives they’re mostly embraced by society, but as individual performers, Phung and her colleagues all carry stories of sadness and rejection.
As Phung explains, when she came out to her family as transgender in the 7th grade she received nothing but anger from family and friends.
“My father reacted pretty explosively,” she says. “He told me ‘if you keep behaving this way then you will leave the house, I don’t want you here’ and he started throwing my stuff out of the house.”
After that her mother implored her to stay, but was reluctant to defy her husband’s command. This was during the 1980s, when Vietnamese society was more conservative and patriarchal. The Vietnam War had ended less than a decade earlier, and the country was still closed off from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until 1986, when Vietnam introduced the Open Door Policy, that outside ideas, businesses, and tourists began influencing local values.
But without her parents’ support, Phung chose to leave home. She found work at a local bakery in her town, helping around the shop, and she slept onsite with the other workers. Then at age 16, she joined her first troupe. By that time her father was talking with her again, but still wouldn’t welcome her inside the family home. She would visit her parents in men’s clothes as she didn’t want to openly identify as female around them, and they would stand and talk together out in the street.
But then Phung discovered the troupe, and everything changed.
“[Here], we don’t face any sort of judgement,” she explains. “We can perform as a woman, dress as a woman, we can live as a woman without judgement from other people… We have a space for ourselves to express ourselves.”
When Phung began her lotto career as a ticket seller, she earned just $5 to $10 USD a month, but she says it was the best thing that ever happened to her. She lived with the troupe doing odd-jobs for the stars.
Most lotto troupes are built around an unofficial hierarchy. They will employ three or four lead singers or Verdettes, known as Stars (Ngoi Sao) in the south, and a host of other less established performers who support the singers and run games stalls. Over time Phung learned how to sing like they did and she taught herself costume design and makeup, but because of the hierarchy she was never able to change roles.
“Everyone just knew me as the ticket seller,” she says. “The other performers wouldn’t accept me as a fellow singer so I started searching out other troupes and whenever [one] needed an extra singer I would sign up and sing with them as a freelancer.”
Eventually, Phung moved to the now-famous Bich Phung troupe, run by a transgender woman of the same name. Her new troupe was the subject of a Vietnamese documentary film Madam Phung’s Last Journey, released in 2014. The film’s director, Nguyen Thi Tham, spent just over a year with Phung’s troupe in 2013, observing their way of life and documenting the challenges they faced.
According to her, life in the troupes is pretty basic during the day. Performers work late, sleep in and don’t begin fixing up their stage and game stalls until about 5pm—a schedule that’s a product of show biz culture, as a much as a genuine desire to avoid sunlight.
“[They] are very afraid of being dark so no matter how hot they are, they cover themselves with coats, socks, gloves, even hats and masks, even if they are inside,” film director Nguyen Thi Tham explains.
But things are never stable. Most troupes only stay a week to 10 days in any one location before moving on.
“The biggest difficulty is the weather,” says Tham. “Sometimes when they come to a new place they meet the rain for a few days [and] they only need a week of rain to have enough losses for things to get hard.”
Their length of time in an area also depends on the local government. Troupes have to get permission to work in each new region, but grants rarely extend beyond a week. Then other times they’ll move simply because they’re failing to attract audience numbers, or in other cases because the local communities want them out.
“From what I witnessed, every time the troupe went to a new area… they were always teased and people touched them, children threw stones at them,” says Tham.
It’s a sad hangover from an earlier, more conservative time, but all troupes encounter a level of bigotry as they travel. Most of this manifests itself as name-calling, but Phung says they get property vandalised from time to time.
This kind of discrimination is common for all LGBTQ people in Vietnam, who lack both social acceptance and legal rights. Gay marriage is still illegal in Vietnam and while the state revised its Civil Code in 2015 to legalise gender reassignment, the law is poorly implemented and it can take years for a case to be processed.
Saigon Queen and activist, Jessica Nguyen, applied for her gender recognition four years ago but her application still hasn’t come through. And according to her, unless you grease some pockets it is almost impossible to get the job done.
“I already completed my documentation but they still tell me things like, you know, ‘it’s in progress, it’s not there yet,’ and I’m still legally as I was when I was born,” she says.
Because of this, it can be impossible for transgender people to find work outside the troupes or even to forge long-lasting relationships.
Phung is one of the lucky ones. She was actually born Tran Cau Van but is now legally recognised as female by the state, as she affirms with her new identity card. Because of this, she has been able to marry her partner of 19 years. Marriage equality still hasn’t passed in Vietnam, so Phung was only able to marry her husband after she had changed her gender—even though they lived and travelled together as partners from the beginning of their relationship.
For many transgender men and women, finding this kind of love can be hard, and particularly in lotto groups. Relationships between coworkers are often products of loneliness and necessity rather than true connection, and affairs with lovers outside the troupes are notoriously tumultuous.
“[The performers] are always prepared psychologically that one day, their lovers will leave to get married,” says Tham. “Often they will suffer the emotional and financial difficulties of [their] relationship.”
But things are slowly changing, mainly due to efforts by the LGBTQ community to support one another and defend each other’s rights. A support network for transgender and other LGBTQ people is emerging in the big cities, and people like Phung are pioneering transgender rights across the country.
According to Phung, it all began in 2014 with aforementioned film, Madam Phung’s Last Journey, which was the first to shine a positive light into the Lotto performers’ personal lives, bridging the gap between the trans community and mainstream society.
“Before that, the public didn’t really understand what our lives were like,” says Phung. “They saw us as caricatures, basically objects to look at and entertain themselves, to ridicule.”
Nowadays, Phung is a something of a celebrity in her community. At the peak of her career, she travelled across Southeast Asia to perform as a queen, earning $200-400 USD per show on top of living expenses. Today she is semi-retired, living back with her family, and freelancing on invitation with troupes that pass through her hometown.
She is proud of what she and her generation of transgender queens have achieved.
“We had no voice. We had no way to be ourselves,” she says. “We were basically the first generation to be openly trans… so all we could do was just live our lives as best we could.
"Things are changing and I’m happy for the young transgender people nowadays because my generation paid for their future.”