When you have a gender, you enjoy certain privileges. You don’t get stared at, laughed at, egged or beat up on the street because of how you appear. You don’t fret about which public restroom to enter; you know which clothes to wear, which form to fill out and how to tweeze your eyebrows. You have easy access to heroes and role models. You don’t have to keep your past hidden.
We’ve all seen the sad horrors and victimhood associated with gender outlaws in this culture portrayed by characters in movies such as “The Crying Game” and “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” What’s missing are stories of transsexuals who live a joyful life passing as their new gender. When I met Allenina Wong, we were both drawing the blood of porn stars in the Valley. We worked for Sharon Mitchell at AIM Healthcare, a clinic that caters to the sexual health of people in the porn industry.
Allenina was a phlebotomist and HIV/STI counselor with the right dose of wit to keep the hectic, unglamorous tech job upbeat. When we worked together at AIM, we were both attempting to leave the sex industry in 2003. Allenina saved money for her boob job at that time and went to my surgeon. I picked her up after the surgery and took her home to recover. Seven years later, Allenina and I are no longer siphoning piss in baggy scrubs at AIM but we’re both still trying to exit the sex industry. We met in her apartment where she revealed her past growing up as a boy in Mainland China. Pleased with her Beverly Hills boobs, she easily passes as a lovely Chinese-speaking tour guide in Hollywood.
The Rumpus: What part of China are you from and what was it like growing up?
Allenina Wong: I was born in Guizhou, a poor, rural underdeveloped province in southwestern China. My family is a very traditional Chinese family. I speak Mandarin and Cantonese. English is my third language. We moved to Hong Kong when I was a year old. My mom is a housewife but she was a factory worker and teacher later. My Dad worked in a factory too and he studied geology in China. My parents met in college. China was poor, so most people who wanted to make it tried to get out. We immigrated to Hong Kong. It was like the America of Asia. My parents wanted an easier life. We were never rich. We weren’t poor. My older sister and I went to public school in Hong Kong. I wasn’t allowed to listen to radio or watch television at home because my mother was very strict. My parents thought that western influence was corruption so they limited our access to it, which is strange considering Hong Kong was very Christian. My Dad taught us a little bit of English and worked very hard to provide for us.
Rumpus: How were boys treated differently than girls in Chinese culture and in your family?
Wong: Kids were mean to me in school, and at the time I thought it was because I was really artistic, but later I realized it was because I acted like a girl. I took art classes when I was six or 7 years old. I excelled in my art classes. I was more pampered then my sister. I was supposed to be successful which means they expected me to be an engineer or study computer science. I was never interested in mathematics or calculus. But, I followed what they wanted. My mom preferred me over my sister and would make the food that I wanted rather than what my sister wanted. Stuff like that. My sister didn’t get the attention that I got. We both took piano lessons. She enforced my sister to do it and I didn’t have to. I got a way with more because I was the boy.
Rumpus: When did you realize you were sexually different than other people? When did you discover that you wanted to be a girl?
Wong: When I was twelve or thirteen, I opened up newspapers and saw underwear ads and thought the men in the ads were sexy. There was never any discussion about sex or sexual identity in my family. The first time I tried to do anything effeminate I was fourteen or 15, there was a famous Hong Kong actress and I tried to pose like her. My dad saw me do it and asked, “What are you doing?” in a very disapproving way, so I knew it was bad. From that point on, I’d sneak my mom’s lipstick but I knew to keep that hidden. I was into fashion by the time I was ten. My mom took me fashion school and I tried to enroll but I was too young. These were early indicators but my family didn’t see it coming at all. Socially, my friends were always girls. I knew I was attracted to boys but I felt like I had to keep it a secret. In High school I hung out with two boys who were very popular. They were definitely not straight. I wasn’t allowed to go places with my friends, unless I brought them boys home to meet my mother, so I did that.
Rumpus: Why and how did you get to the US?
Wong: After high school, I wanted to get away from my parents. There was a trend in the late 80’s where a lot of Chinese people would send their kids to the US for college, so my sister was sent to Los Angeles, California. I wanted out of my parents house so bad, so I took the exams and SAT. I got here at age 16 and moved in with my sister. I had to learn English and to make money I delivered newspapers at 5AM.
Rumpus: Your first sexual experience happened in the US?
Wong: Yes. At age 17, and living with my sister, I opened up an LA weekly in the back pages where they used to have these ads to hook up single men. This is how it works: You call a number and you leave a message for the personals. It charged by the minute. This was way before Internet dating. I hooked up with this guy who turned out to be an ugly old guy. I went with it and I let him do stuff to me. When we were lying in bed, I was so freaked out. He was hairy and had a big belly so when he left the room I snuck out and ran off. I never told my sister I was gay.
Rumpus: What was your progression from being an effeminate male to transitioning to female?
Wong: I was attending USC in downtown LA where I explored my sexual identity and gender for the first time. My parents were paying my tuition and to please them, I chose to study architecture but didn’t like it so I changed my major and didn’t tell them. I took gender studies classes instead and read about performance art and studied Annie Sprinkle and Camille Paglia. I finally got exposed to something I found very exciting. A friend in college let me wear her clothes so I started cross-dressing. I felt beautiful when I wore makeup. I started going out to TG clubs and I wanted to perform on stage doing drag. I impersonated “Scary Spice” and wore a curly wig. Drag is impersonation and gender bending. Drag queens perform gender but never have sex. Where is the sexuality? I wanted to have sex. For me drag was experimentation.
In my classes, I studied feminism and I wanted to prove that porn was empowering. My friend in school was in the porn industry. We shared the same interests so I sent my pictures to a porn production company who was doing transsexual porn. I started doing movies and getting paid. The porn industry was a great performance space for me to act out my sexuality. I learned how to have sex while being filmed. I wanted to have butt sex with men but they paired me up with women at first. I learned how to have sex while being filmed. I started taking hormone therapy at age 24, while I was doing porn and I was transitioning. I realized that in my daily life, I was living more and more as a woman. I would shave my legs and use products. The materials I had been collecting over the years was a natural part of this process. But instead of putting stuff on the outside, I started putting stuff on the inside.
Rumpus: Were you comfortable around other women in the porn industry and were you accepted?
Wong: The porn industry excited me because there’s a big part of me that’s exhibitionistic. It excited me to have sex as a woman and get paid. I was doing speed at that time and my skin was bad. I wasn’t really welcomed by the porn industry and I wore wigs I wasn’t that pretty and lots of other trans girls were gorgeous. I read reviews on my videos that were really mean but I had strong drive to make something of myself. All the other girls had websites that they used to charge customers money to see them naked so I created a website to post images of myself to advertise and promote myself like they did. They taught me a lot. At the same time, I was insecure and wanted boobs. I also started escorting during my porn career, which wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to remain in the sex industry. I remained in the porn industry for about six years. I got my boob job in 2003 after I discovered TER, the erotic review: an escort review site. I made 60K in six months because I got some great reviews from Johns. So, I got boobs, got a better apartment, got a car. The problem those review sites is that it’s too public and there’s a danger of getting in legal trouble. I stopped it because I was only here on a student visa and I didn’t want to get busted.
Rumpus: Why are so many trans women escorts?
Wong: Who’s going to hire a man in a wig with bad skin and facial hair? It’s hard and awkward to find a job somewhere. Girls can make a lot of money working out of TG clubs as escorts and it’s such a high compliment to be paid for sex as a woman. It’s very empowering for trans women.
Rumpus: Were you worried about your parents or your sister discovering you?
Wong: In school, when I started doing porn, it was out of sight, out of mind. But, when I stopped returning my parents calls they sensed something and insisted I go back to Hong Kong to visit them. I dressed in boy clothes, but my eyebrows were tweezed. When my mom saw me, she said, “That’s not how you do your eyebrows.” My parents didn’t see any of this coming. It didn’t register because it didn’t fit in to their ideas of me at all. While visiting, I was uncomfortable when I met my relatives. My parents were blind by their love for me, but my relatives were not. They looked at me like there was something wrong. They studied me. I lied to my parents. At that point, I was doing more than just drag. Even though my mom was a theatre major so she’s kind of hip to the arts, it’s a different cultural and generational difference.
My parents didn’t talk to me for a year after I came out to them when they were living in Hong Kong. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I had boobs. I told them everything. My sister was about to give birth. My mom confronted me and was very upset about it and that I didn’t tell her earlier. I should’ve been more honest but I couldn’t be. We stopped talking for a year. My parents will always disapprove of what I’ve done.
Rumpus: Do you prefer porn or escort work? Why?
Wong: I liked doing porn better. I’m a messy person and it was annoying to me to have to keep my apartment clean. With porn, I could just show up on set and leave when it was over. The reviews scrutinize your toilet and apartment. I had to clean and prepare my place for the men, so I was always cleaning. I was doing escort for money but I loved getting paid for sex on set. With escort, I always looked forward to the next client but I take whoever comes to me. Porn, I decide who I am in the scene with to a certain degree.
Rumpus: How has the Recession affect your ability to support yourself?
Wong: Some good things came out of it. I had to get really creative with my website. I started selling my panties to my fans on my website and sent them signed pictures. I did private lap dances. Also, I held a full time job at AIM Healthcare. It was 5 days a week and everyone knew me and accepted me, not just for who I was sexually but as a person. I had some money saved up. I was doing some escort but I tried to stop at that time. I cut back on my overhead.
Rumpus: What are you doing now for work? Are you out of the sex industry? Do you want to quit the sex industry and if so, why or why not?
Wong: I’m (Mandarin) Chinese-speaking tour guide in Hollywood on the back lot of movie studios now. People think of me as a young Chinese woman, which is who I wanted to be. I do want out of the sex industry completely. Like any other industry it’s hard to have a smooth exit when you know the ins and outs of the job so well. After so long, I’m used to it. Even though I have a regular job that I like, I’m unable to support myself fully with that right now. I have to survive. The only type of sex work I’m doing is modeling from my website http://www.allenina.com not any escort-type of work or at all. But, it’s a difficult transition out of the sex industry especially when admirers still contact me about it, because it’s a temptation that I don’t want. I don’t mind if they contact my website. Part of me wants out of it and it fights the other part of me that is still fed by the creativity and familiarity of it.
Photos by Romy Suskin.
The Rumpus Sex Blog.
More from Antonia Crane’s Recessions Sex Workers series.