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Tights, Lights, and Turnbuckles:

The Heels, Faces, and Personalities of Professional Wrestling in East and Southeast Asia

Various Photographers


Call him Paksa. He enters the room swaggering, wearing tight blue jeans, sunglasses and a black cutoff t-shirt. The crowd jeers and boos as he commands a subordinate to act as a footstool as he sits and drinks from a bottle of water. His former ally, EK Baki, stands across from him dressed in bright red tights. Around two months ago they fought side by side as allies, yet Paksa faltered in battle and abandoned his comrade. Several days later he attacked EK Baki as he performed with his band at a small bar in the suburbs of Bangkok, the grainy footage of the assault posted on social media as further testament to their mutual disdain. Back in the room atop a shopping center in Siam Square, Paksa rises and confronts his foe, and then they lock arms in struggle. The crowd around them cheers and shouts words of encouragement and disdain in colloquial Thai. This spectacle is Gatoh Move Professional Wrestling, one of several professional wrestling promotions active in Asia.

Professional wrestling is a form of sports entertainment derived from Greco-Roman wrestling. As Greco-Roman wrestling is an actual competitive sport, professional wrestling is a form of dramatic, highly physical sports entertainment with predetermined outcomes featuring performance artist who adhere to kayfabe, a code of conduct that reinforces the alleged 'authenticity' and 'reality' of the staged events and relationships that are presented to the public, aiding with fan’s suspension of disbelief. Professional wrestling first gained a foothold in Asia via Japan in 1951, beginning with wildly popular matches featuring a South Korean former Sumo wrestler known as Rikidozan. He wrestled and beat numerous famous American wrestlers, soon becoming a national hero in Japan. He founded the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, the first Puroresu (the Japanese localization for professional wrestling) promotion in Japan and traveled to the United States and wrestled in territories belonging to the National Wrestling Alliance. He remained the most popular Puroresu performance artist in Japan until 1963, when he was stabbed to death by a Yakuza member armed with a urine-soaked blade.

His two disciples founded New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling, two promotions that also created relationships with the National Wrestling Alliance in the United States, creating a talent exchange which allowed skilled performers from both sides of the Pacific to entertain fans in foreign territory. The presence of western wrestling superstars in Japan and the influx of American soldiers and culture into the region during the Cold War created an interest in the performance art/sport in Southeast Asia, leading to the eventual creation of organizations such as Manilla Wrestling Federation in the Philippines, a promotion featuring 14 wrestlers and ongoing storylines featuring ‘faces’ (heroes) and ‘heels’ (villains). Singapore Professional Wrestling is run by CEO and wrestler 29-year-old Andruew ‘The Statement’Tang, who is fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a professional wrestler. He created his promotion six years ago and wrestles full time despite concerns from his girlfriend. Gatoh Move Professional Wrestling in Thailand organizes lively shows featuring opening performances by ‘idol’ pop groups, and simulated combat taking place on a simple purple mat in the middle of a room that holds about 80 spectators. New Taiwan Entertainment Wrestling attracts crowds from across a broad socio-economic spectrum and features wrestlers from around the world who practice a wide variety of styles, including strong style – hard strikes and throws – and lucha, a highly acrobatic style native to Mexico. In Japan, the performance art of professional wrestling evolved, leading to the creation of dozens of smaller promotions specializing in hardcore matches and bizarre themes, such as 666 (Triple Six) Wrestling of Darkness, founded by acclaimed Japanese punk rock musician The Crazy SKB and professional wrestler Onryo, a former backyard wrestler who now uses the kayfabe persona of a professional wrestler who died and became a phantasm after winning a cursed championship. His name is drawn from Japanese folklore, as Onryo are a type of ghost who are vengeful in nature and capable of actually killing their enemies – a fitting persona for a man who gained popularity wrestling in Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, a promotion known for matches involving improvised weapons such as tables, chairs, ladders, baseball bats, and chains as well as matches contested in rings lined with exploding barbed wire.