Photos by Teirra Kamolvattanavith
Surrounded by foxes and cats, leopards and hirsute aliens, I tiptoed through the downtown hotel conference room braced for a freaky, polyamorous scene.
This time, the internet education which prepared me for the worst at Thailand’s fifth furry con turned out to be wrong. Instead, I found a natural environment for human-sized creatures waltzing around hugging one another like old friends in a place safe to let their animal sides out.
Way out. A pair sprinted through, tails ablur, in pursuit. Another two were locked in mortal balloon combat with overly long inflatable “swords.”
A black cat in a plaid shirt and jeans leaned against a wall holding a Japanese spring onion. She purred as I walked by. Before I knew it, she skipped over and rubbed her rough, synthetic ears against my shoulders. I froze, unsure how to respond.
Deciding I’d feel like an asshole ignoring her, I let my animal instincts take over and began scratching her neck as I would any kitty.
That’s when “Meow,” as I would later learn she was called, burst out in giggles and totally glomped me before slinking away.
It was a recent Saturday afternoon and curiosity had brought me to the Arnoma Grand Hotel near CentralWorld. There, hundreds of people gathered in costumes to meet, share cosplay tips, draw cartoons and play games at an annual convention for Thailand’s furry community.
But most of all, the participants were eager to show off the ravishing fursuits that took months to assemble.
Tails of Nerd Culture
I brought an open mind. Though researching “furries” online quickly leads down a rabbit hole of pervy DeviantArt kink, it’s completely PG when Thai furries get together.
“All the R-rated stuff is not really our culture, as Thais are generally more reserved and conservative than Americans,” said Makham, the 27-year-old packmaster of Thai furrydom. “Children are welcome here, and we don’t allow alcohol consumption.”
This is part of why the shyness of Thai furries goes beyond regular Thai shyness. For this article, I agreed only to refer to participants by their character names.
Thai furries are more like those found in other otaku, or superfan, communities – similar to the Potterheads obsessing over Harry Potter and Trekkies dressed full Borg at Comic Con.
“I’ve liked anime and (human-like) cartoon animals ever since I can remember. Just seeing them makes me unbelievably happy,” said 17-year-old, from behind his sparkly gold half-face cat mask. “I feel genuine love for the characters – like I could marry them.”
As one would expect, the Thai scene has been spawned by social media – just three years ago only 100 people attended the first Thaitais convention.
“Before I had a computer, I’d be able to talk to maybe two out of 1,000 people at my school about furries,” Maiden said. “But when I got online, I found a whole community.”
Furries also intersect with other identity-shifting nerd realms.
“I’ve always liked cartoons, but I didn’t know about furries until I started playing Second Life,” Makham said, referring to an alternative, free-form virtual world where people can appear as most anything.
“I started connecting with more and more like-minded people over web boards and forums until, one day, we decided to hang out in real life,” he said. Now he has a crew of friends and says they usually leave the fur at home when they go out.
Though he was out of his suit, Zaf, a 26-year-old software engineer had photos of his cheeky monkey fursuit and human-sized, blow-up banana prop, which he didn’t want to risk getting through customs.
He can attest that Thaitails is an animal planet away from the furry scene back in his homeland.
“In America cons, it’s half comic book convention, half rave, half kink space. The E is so good at these cons because you’re surrounded by people in amazing, elaborate carpet suits,” he said. “It can get really wild.”
What came up time and again talking to attendees, is the shared notion that furrydom is their safe space.
“The community is accessible. You make friends instantly,” Maiden said.
A Safe Space
Makham said most furries are by nature “quite shy and introverted.” That was extremely generous. In about five hours hanging out at the convention, no one seemed happy to break character and have real talk about themselves. These are people more comfortable going unnoticed, at least until they put on their fursuits.
“I change a lot of ways when I put on the suit,” said Katsuke, a 29-year-old Malaysian wolf who brought Zaf the American to the con.
For example, Katsuke said he can’t stand children until the moment he puts his suit on, when “I suddenly love them and enjoying playing with them.”
Katsuke explained that the fursuit makes him feel “free,” which is his favorite part about being a furry.
Makham said it gives him the confidence to do things he wouldn’t dare otherwise – like going dancing at an anime club.
Why would this appeal to the many notoriously shy and socially withdrawn Thais? The costume may liberate them from all that.
“It’s this idea that you’ve removed a lot of the social barriers to behaving. So, normally I wouldn’t walk to someone on the street and have a hug,” said social psychologist Courtney Plante, who is co-founder of the Anthropomorphic Research Project and a furry himself. “But as soon as you put on a mask, a big fuzzy head, and no one knows who you are, you’re functionally anonymous.”
A graphic designer, Katsuke got involved in the community when some other furries asked for help designing their costumes and characters. He learned that furries not only want unique looks, they also want to establish specific personalities and create the right “fursona.”
“Usually one’s fursona is similar to who they are, with the added element of who they wish they could be,” Katsuke said. Though only a select number of furries have fursuits, almost all have fursonas.
Psychologist Plante, who takes animal form as a blue cat in a lab coat called Nuka, said people usually make new selves that are smarter, funnier and better looking. “Imagine you got to interact with people as the best version of you,” he said.
They also tend to act the way they wanted to be treated, he added, which isn’t always well.
A survey of several hundred furries by the Anthropomorphic Research Project found they experienced significantly more bullying than normal during childhood. Nearly two-in-three said they were bullied between 11 and 18 – nearly double the rate non-furries are picked on.
Outside their world, the stereotypes and stigmas endure.
“My family and really close friends know about me, but I don’t openly disclose it like at my job or anything because I don’t want people to judge me and ask, “Why do you like that stuff?” Makham said. “It’s weird.”
And it keeps many in the closet.
“We have members that are doctors, company managers and stuff but they have to keep this part of themselves a secret,” he added. This became apparent when a black-and-white wolf sternly turned down an interview for fear of jeopardizing his career as a surgeon.
“Do you think I’d be able to get patients if this gets out?” he said.
Makham wishes the masses would keep an open mind.
“I wish more people would come and see these conventions for themselves. It’s a whole other world, and it’s not like what lots of people imagine. If you don’t like it, just pass by, but if you’ve been curious, you should come check it out. You might end up liking it,” he said.
After all, he added, Thaitails is all about embracing diversity and creating a safe space to just be.
After the photos were taken, seminars were attended and a sufficient amount of creatures were pet, I headed out, a little bit more broad-minded than when I arrived.
I saw someone fiddling with a spring onion. I wouldn’t have recognized Meow otherwise, for she had removed her costume and her head was slumped over her shoulder, her exuberant movements replaced by stillness and lethargy.
She didn’t approach this time and seemed reluctant to even talk when she was greeted. She offered a game response to one question, however: Why a cat?
“It’s what I want to be,” she said, then once again hurried away.
— RicricWa (@RicricWa) March 25, 2019
Subscribe to The Coconuts Podcast for top trending news and pop culture from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong every Friday!