Saigon woman gets back with gender bender husband

By Phan Than   October 10, 2018 | 09:00 pm PT
30 years after separating following his decision to become a woman, they are again living together.

Hai, 67, lives in a dingy rented room in Saigon’s Thu Duc District with a woman who used to be her husband.

Trang Kim Sa, born Ngo Van Sang, had been married to her for a few years when he decided he would no longer fear social stigma and become the woman he had always wanted to be.

This was in the early 1980s.

Now 76, come rain or shine, limping, a cap on her head, Sa goes around town to sell lottery tickets, earning around VND100,000 ($4.3) a day, just enough for their day-to-day life.

Without any savings or property, the couple have left things to fate, to an uncertain future.

Hai (left) and Sa (right). Photo by P.T

Hai (left) and Sa (right). Photo by VnExpress 

Sang was the youngest son in his family. By the time he was 14 he realized he wanted to be a woman. He liked to wear pretty dresses, have his hair long and hang out with boys. However, he was afraid of the likely stigma and never revealed his secret to anyone.

He then went to university, did military service and joined the air force in Saigon.

Near his house was a coffee shop, and Le Thi Kim Ngan, nickname Hai, 16, worked as a waitress there. She recalls: “Back then he was tall and fair-skinned, always spoke gently, came by the shop a lot and always talked to me, asked how I was doing.

“If I was sick, he would bring me medicines. His family had a fruit garden, and he would always bring me the best one.”

Love had apparently bloomed but deep down Sang still wanted to be a girl, wear dresses and put on high heels.

He said: “My thought at that time was to get married and have children to conceal my true self. Hai was honest, quick and easy to approach. So I felt comfortable.”

In 1978, when he was 36 and she 28, the two got married with the support of both families though they did not have a wedding or register their marriage.

A year later they welcomed their daughter.

Trang Kim Sa (right) with a friend from the Lo To band. Photo by Kim Sa

Trang Kim Sa (right) with a friend from the Lo To band. Photo by Kim Sa

“With a child, my desire to be a woman became even stronger. During the day I would help my wife take care of the kid, washing her or doing house chores. But at night, I would go to meet up with my friends who were in the same situation, and stay out until morning.”

When Hai saw her husband go out every night she thought at first he was going to work to earn some extra money for the family or just keeping away from her since she had just delivered.

When their daughter reached five, he dropped a bombshell: he wanted to become a woman, he told her.

Hai refused to believe him at first. But after seeing him hold hands with other men several times and his rejection of her – he refused to sleep with her and had turned cold -- she began to realize the truth.

She took her daughter and returned to her parents’ home in the countryside.

Sang, now Trang Kim Sa, quit her job, sold their house and began to pursue a singing career.

At the age of 44 she started to keep her hair long, buy women’s clothes and tour around the country with the Lo To band. Sa spent all of her money on clothes, cosmetics and other beauty products.

“Me and some others bought some silicone ourselves and injected it into our chest, butts, lips, and cheeks. I was lucky: I only did it once and stayed alive. Some of the others had complications, some died from the injections.”

For more than 30 years after her husband left her Hai did not marry again and took care of her daughter with dedication. She earned a living by working as a chef.

“It hurt me every time my daughter asked about her father. ‘Why is he always away, when is he coming back?’

“I had to lie, saying he’s working far away.

“There was one time when she saw him while playing at Dam Sen Amusement Park. He was singing on the stage there. She screamed with excitement but could only meet him for a little bit.”

Sa said: “When I got to live true to my real gender, I was so overwhelmed by happiness that I’d forgotten the family I left behind.”

In 2010, while living near Nha Trang, she suffered a stroke and became hemiplegic. The band informed Hai about Sa’s condition. Despite opposition from her family, Hai brought Sa to her home.

“He didn’t have anyone else. And I was old. Besides, we also had a child together.”

Two years later Sa recovered and could walk again. Seeing Hai’s income from being a house help was not enough for their living expenses, Sa started selling lottery tickets.

“It’s tiring staying at home all the time. Wandering around, selling lottery tickets to earn some money so that I can help her with the rent and the grocery makes me happy."

Photo by P.T

Photo by VnExpress 

Life together again

It is 5:00 p.m and it has been pouring outside. Hai has finished cooking dinner, but Sa is not back. Hai keeps going to the door to look and seems worried: “I wonder if he got caught in the rain.”

Life has almost returned to normal for them.

During the lunch break Hai enjoys watching reality TV shows. Under the blazing sun, their tiny room, crammed with two beds, two TVs, clothes, pots and pans hanging, becomes even stuffier.

Sa said since she likes watching news and football while Hai likes films they got two TVs.

“But apart from that, we share everything else such as meals, washing clothes, cleaning the house.”

Every day they get up together at 5:00 am. Hai cooks and they have breakfast together before heading to work. For lunch, one is responsible for buying the groceries while the other cooks, and again they eat together.

Their daughter, Ngo Thi Thuy Lan Son, 39, works as a manager at a restaurant in District 1. Despite living far away from her father for decades, she has never condemned him.

She said she heard about him from her mother since the age of 14. As she grew older she started to learn about the lives of transgender people, and realized her father was an truly unfortunate person.

“I used to be mad at my father for leaving us. After I had my own family and two children, I understood that if a parent decides to leave their children behind, they must have their own suffering.

“Now I just hope my parents can live a happy and healthy life together. I still call him ‘dad’. And my children still call him ‘grandpa’.”

Ba Kieu, owner of Hai and Sa’s place in quarter 4, Linh Xuan Ward, and Tran Phan Thuong, the police officer in charge of the quarter, said the two have been living together for more than five years now.

Hieu said: “I registered Sang as a man under the name Ngo Van Sang. I and other neighbors call him Mr Sang ban ve so (Mr Sang who sells lottery tickets). He has the features of a woman, but I don’t ask about his past. He is gentle and usually keeps to himself, and doesn’t have much contact with others around him.”

Sa has thrown away all her women’s clothes and switched to wearing men’s clothes. Her thick long black hair is gone too and has been replaced by a wispy strands of grey. She no longer cares about how she looks. People have to look closely to realize she’s a transgender from her tattooed eyebrows and eyeliner, heart-shaped lips and pale skin.

She said: “I had always wanted to be a woman. But now I’m old, I only hope for health and a happy life. People can call me whatever, ‘he’ or ‘she’.”

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