Monday October 2, 2006
Life’s no drag for Abigail Chay
By TAN DAWN WEI
ABIGAIL Chay is no stranger to stares. Everywhere the actress goes, heads turn – but there are no wolf whistles to follow.
Chay, 47, usually draws confused stares because most people can’t decide whether she’s really a woman or just a man in drag.
She’s been in movies such as the Alan Tam comedy We Are Family and Jack Neo’s Money No Enough.
Chatting with the writer at a cafe, passers-by try to glance askance at her discreetly.
On trains, strangers come up to her with offers of hugs. These are for a recent revelation: Last month, this reed-thin comedienne with the broad mouth, big teeth and baritone timbre admitted that she had a sex change operation 25 years ago.
It wasn’t exactly an exposé of epic proportions, though. For as long as she can remember, the most-asked question she has had to face was: Are you a man or a woman?
“Some people are more polite. They’ll ask, ‘what school are you from?’ ’’ she says matter-of-factly.
“I normally don’t lie. I’ll just say I was from a Methodist school. Or when they ask, ‘are you a woman?’ I’ll say, ‘my IC says so’.”
Still, besides her deep, throaty voice, there’s nothing much else to suggest this talkative, fair-skinned and daintily dressed specimen isn’t of the female persuasion.
At 1.66m, she tips the scale at 42kg, which has friends calling her giam her, Hokkien for salted fish.
She picks at her cheese fondue, sips green apple juice gingerly and toys very often with her mangled mane which, you later find out, is a wig.
But then, no one has ever called Hsu’s sexuality into question.
Chay’s evasive answers about her Methodist schooldays aren’t totally off the mark.
She was born Caesar Chay Tuck Kwong and had her formal education at an all-boys school.
But even at the tender age of five, she knew she wasn’t like other boys, who’d kick a football about and catch spiders in her neighbourhood, while she played dolls with the girls.
Whenever her mother was out, she would play with her make-up. Another time, a majie (housekeeper) in the family’s employ put her in a dress and took her to a nearby provision shop.
“The neighbours all remarked, ‘wah, you really look like a girl’. I was so happy,” she says, flashing a toothy grin at the thought.
But school was hardly a drag, even though there was the annoying presence of a bully who used to rain punches on the effeminate 12-year-old Chay.
When Chay’s backlane friends wanted to teach the bully a lesson, she put her pale, frail body between him and the small mob – something which earned the respect of the bully, who stopped his taunts and told Chay she had yi qi (Mandarin for loyalty). (Yes, it all sounds like something out of a Taiwanese TV drama).
“School was actually a place to take my mind away from being a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” she recounts, absent-mindedly twirling her clumpy long tresses again.
“Whenever nice-looking guys came and talked to me and I felt attracted to them, I always felt sinful.”
That feeling of guilt – born partly out of being the only son and child of traditional Cantonese and Christian parents, both of whom worked in clerical jobs – pushed Chay to date a girl from church at 15.
“She was wondering why we never held hands over the one year we were together. She asked me what the status of our relationship was. I said, ‘I tried, but I don’t think I can’.”
Unable to love a girl and unable to let herself fall in love with boys, the teenage Chay read psychology books and decided a sex change was the solution.
But, first, there was the business of National Service, which she had to endure after her pre-university education at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“I was scared to death of going into the army. I thought I would surely be humiliated for being a soft boy.”
But, “wilfully optimistic”, she thought the experience might toughen her up.
As it turned out, not only did she not suffer at the hands of macho men, everyone was protective of the skinny boy, with some fellow soldiers even offering to clean and carry her rifle.
After National Service, she worked as a window display artist at a fashion store – “ironically, it was called Heshe”, she recalls.
Her mother also paid for her to attend a modelling course, and it was there that she met a transsexual who told her about a rumour of a new government policy that would see new transsexuals get “marked” on their identity cards by the end of the year.
Fearful of being branded for life and in a hurry to beat the supposed deadline, Chay finally came clean with her parents and pleaded with them to pay for her sex change.
“My mum was very sad, my father was very torn about whether to help me or not. Imagine, you’re sending your son to the slaughterhouse,” she recalls, falling quiet for the first time.
Chay says all four psychologists who examined her felt that an operation was best for her.
Eventually, her father handed her S$7,000 from his insurance policy that had just matured, and she underwent surgery.
At 22, Caesar Chay started a new life as Abigail Chay. Her father had given her that name because it symbolises “chastity”.
But womanhood took some getting used to for those around her. For the first five months, her mother asked her to “dress more unisexually”.
And because she was already giving tuition full-time before the sex change, she had to disguise her new femininity whenever she taught her students, such as hiding her newly permed hair under a man’s wig.
The masquerade proved to be too much and she stopped teaching five months later, passing her students on to a cousin.
But one person couldn’t wait to embrace her new sexuality – a man she had met in modelling class before her surgery and who wasted no time in proposing to her after the sex change.
The couple registered their marriage two months later, and the haste upset Chay’s father greatly. “He thought I jumped into it because I wanted people to know that, hey, I sex change also can find a husband.”
The marriage ended soon after the papers were signed. Insecurity seized Chay’s husband because he thought people were laughing at them.
A year later, the couple divorced, but not before Chay had borrowed S$7,000 from her father and friends for her husband to start a modelling agency. She never got the money back.
At this point, she suddenly speaks up again and lets out her signature hearty laugh which sounds like a motor revving up loudly.
“My whole life has been one man disaster after another,” she says plainly and with no hint of bitterness. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be a woman, a girlfriend, a wife, an adoptive mother.”
There were to be at least five more heartbreaks, including her last relationship which ended in 2002 and which left her S$45,000 in debt.
The man had asked her to invest in his entertainment company which, Chay says, looked to be doing well. But once she sank her money in and became a director, she realised the company was mired in debt.
Four years on, she’s still working to repay the money she borrowed from “merciful close friends who won’t chase after me”. Three-quarters of what she makes a month now – mostly from hosting corporate D&D parties and teaching speech and drama at community centres – goes to paying off her loans. Her 80-year-old father also gives English, mathematics and science tuition to supplement the family income.
She leans back in her chair and sighs. “After you’ve experienced so many broken relationships, there isn’t pain anymore. You’re left with this frozen hope that one day you’ll still find love. I’m moving on.”
Now, she can tell you, almost without emotion, that none of her six boyfriends could accept her for who she is, and even said belittling things like: “You think anyone will marry you?”
What will thaw that frozen hope? A man who is “real”, she says.
“Don’t pretend anymore. I’m already 47 years old,” she rails mockingly, before lowering her voice and qualifying: “This person must not harp on my past.”
She revisited her past recently when MediaCorp approached her to tell her life story in a docudrama called, well, Life Story. She thought it over thrice before agreeing to concede what most people already suspected.
Yet there was a need for closure, especially since Chay’s late mother had always wanted the truth to be known.
Agreeing to the show was Chay’s way of telling people “that my parents are the heroes of the story”.
In a small way, it’s also for those who have done her injustice, “for them to know how much they’ve hurt me”, she says, before adding: “But I’ve forgiven them.”
You ask her what her regret in life is and her eyes suddenly well up. “I didn’t make it up to my mother,” she says, her voice breaking. “I just wished she could have lived a few more years to share this moment since she was ready to tell this story.”
Then she reverts to funny face mode. “I guess my whole life is quite comical. But I can laugh at my tragedies and that keeps me going.”
She longs to please. When you meet her, she excitedly fishes out three sets of Toto and 4D tickets and asks you and the photographer to pick one set each.
“Hope you’ll strike rich, so you can do charity,” she says.
“She doesn’t let anyone see her sadness,” says Garrick Wong, 33, a DJ and a friend of 11 years. “She’s a kaixinguo who is very good at bringing joy to others.” Kaixinguo is Mandarin for “life of the party”.
Chay’s foray into showbusiness was actually her mother’s doing; the latter had cajoled her into auditioning.
Her single, desperate and ugly Aunty Abigail persona has become something of a trademark, and she hams it up at live shows, teasing revulsed men with her seductive routine.
Her audience hasn’t always paid her back in kind. She’s been thrown on the floor by drunk patrons. One man even tried to lift her skirt because he thought she was a drag queen.
“It doesn’t bother me. If it made people laugh, it’s okay. That’s the duty of a comedienne,” she says earnestly.
She then says: “Sometimes I’m surprised, after all that’s happened to me, I didn’t end up crazy.
“Maybe my release is through acting. When you laugh at yourself and with other people, you get cured.” – The Straits Times Singapore / Asia News Network