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Asia's last gay bash - for now (The Nation [Thailand])
27 Oct, 2006

The organisers of the region's biggest gay party are calling it off following last weekend's Nation party in Phuket

Never had the Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort seen so many good-looking men. Each one was immaculately groomed, hair teased into slick spikes, chests bared to reveal smooth tanned skin and sculpted pectoral muscles. Despite the preponderance of casual and beach wear, each sported more labels than a Hong Kong shopping mall.

It was Mister Universe with a cast of thousands.

Last weekend the luxury hotel was host to Nation, Asia's biggest gay party, now in its sixth and final year. Gay men and women from all over the world, but mostly from Asia, paid US$180 (Bt6,700) for a three-day pass to dance to international DJs, party around the pool and watch Japanese go-go boys and drag shows.

Some partygoers covered themselves in gold leaf, others twined themselves in light sticks, while the majority just took their shirts off.

"The venue is great, the DJs are fantastic," said Stuart Koe, founder and chief executive officer of Nation organiser Fridae. The Singapore-based firm also runs Asia's largest gay Web portal at Fridae.com and two other annual parties - Snowball and Squirt.

The DJ line-up included New York-based Tony Moran and top Australian DJ Kate Monroe, as well as artists from Tokyo and Taiwan.

The boys appeared to be loving it too. Some 2,000 men packed the Hilton's Grand Ballroom every night until dawn, roaring their approval at the music, the laser show, the cute Japanese dancers provocative in their white fundoshis and a whirling dervish of glowing fabric spun by a man in shiny tights.

"Saturday night was fabulous," said James, who would only give his first name. "Tony Moran is a miracle."

"I don't come here just to party, but also to show support and hang out with my friends," the thirty-something native of Taiwan adds.

How about the numbers?

Last year's Nation party, held at the Crowne Plaza just down the road from the Hilton in Karon Beach, attracted some 2,000 revellers.

James, who said he's been to all but one of the Fridae-hosted parties, reckoned the attendance was down.

"I think a lot of men were put off by the organisation last year," he said. "The logistics were bad. Everyone had come all this way to Phuket to party - and it's not easy to get here - and everything took place in one location.

"It's much more fun this year, more spread out."

Koe disagreed. "We have something in the region of 1,500 to 2,000 people this year, and that's what we expected."

He didn't think the coup last month put anybody off.

"The press handled the coup really well - everyone could see it wasn't violent."

This year the numbers got a minute boost from W@Nation, a concurrent event with Singapore-based lesbian-party organiser Two Queens. The 50-odd girls got to party with boys as well as having their own events, which included banquets and girls-only pool parties.

"We have the same vision for gays and lesbians," said Two Queens founder Irene Ang. "We want to create a space, a family for gays and lesbians to get together and be themselves."

Koe started Nation six years ago.

"Nation was an afterthought," he said. "I thought, wouldn't it be cheeky to call it Nation and have this big gay party on the eve of Singapore's national day.

"It was all about being cheeky."

The first party was held in a warehouse and attracted more than 1,000 people.

"We made it into something that outgrew all our expectations," Koe added. "At its peak in 2004 we had 8,000 people partying in Sentosa."

After four years there, Koe was forced to relocate Nation to Thailand after the government began refusing permission. The turn-about was seen as an end to the government's relatively liberal policy towards gays. For four years it had appeared to be actively courting the pink dollar. The official line for the ban: Large gay parties were against Singapore's public interest.

But this Nation, Koe said, will be Fridae's last.

"We have limited resources and we can't afford to commit this level of human resources to organising big events anymore.

"Our mission is to empower gay Asia. We want gays to feel good about themselves, to not have any self-doubt, to feel like they belong. In some ways our parties are preaching to the already  converted. The crowd that comes are a niche group [from within the gay community]. I think we can reach more people through our website and advocacy work behind the scenes."

Koe works for both Action for Aids and Aids Concern and serves as a consultant on HIV issues for the Hong Kong and Singapore governments.

The demise of Nation will likely mark an end - at least for a while - to large-scale gay parties in Asia. Although there are several organisers in the region, Koe said, they're all too locally focused to take over from Nation.

Back at the Hilton, gay men strolled around the resort hand in hand or pulled playfully at each other's shorts. Regular holidaymakers look a little bemused.

"I feel sorry for the families," grinned James. "They come here expecting a nice quiet holiday and they go to the pool with their kids and it's full of semi-naked muscle men."

But, he added, it's an opportunity to teach your children about tolerance for homosexuals.

"It's a great chance to educate your kids, show them what being gay is in a really friendly atmosphere… For once straight people are in the unusual position of being in the minority. And look, all the gays are very accepting!"

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