How Two Oregon Women Learned to Find Their Voice

Transgender advocate V Thongrivong and Pink Martini’s China Forbes talk performing, family, and gratitude.

By Ramona DeNies February 23, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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V Thongrivong found her voice as emerging designer and as 2015’s Miss Northwest Fierce, a platform from which she advocates for the transgender community. As lead singer of world-renowned Portland band Pink Martini, China Forbes has held the public’s ear for most of her adult life.

V: I’m a student, a designer and also Miss Northwest Fierce 2015. I moved here about four years ago from Buffalo. Prior to that, I grew up in Central New York. There’s a big Laotian community there. I am Laotian American, first generation. A lot of the families that were in that area were also a part of the same refugee camps in Thailand. 

CHINA: I’m the lead singer of the band Pink Martini, and I’ve also released two solo albums. I came from a folk rock background, and then I was asked by Thomas Laurderdale to sing with Pink Martini—so now, that’s what I’m known for. And I’ve lived here for 17 years. And I am 85 years old. No, I’m just kidding.

V: You look great for 85.

CHINA: A little secret, Thomas Lauderdale loves older women. But … no, we’re really the exact same age.

What else can I say? I have an almost 7-year old son. I named him after my father. My father was very important to me. He died 17 years ago, of cancer. My sister and I both left what we were doing and went back East. Well, she came from LA, and I came from New York. And then he died exactly six months after they diagnosed him. I just felt like I had dropped everything, and Pink Martini was something that was very positive, really moving forward. It felt like I should just ride with that tide, so I decided to move to Portland. I’ve never looked back.

V: I had moved to Buffalo to go to school for pre-pharmacy. Yeah, pre-pharmacy! I worked as a technician for about nine months and absolutely hated it. There were times when you’d have to deny people prescriptions because of insurance. It wasn’t where I wanted to be; I love designing, I love performing.

My boyfriend’s mother told me about Portland. I did some research and found that it was an amazing city, progressive. I looked into schools out here, and I found the Art Institute. I signed up—that was my main move. And I haven’t looked back! I should graduate in June; I’ll also be premiering my first collection at that time, too.

Go behind the scenes at our Oregon Woman photo shoot.

CHINA: I had a very unusual childhood, which is depicted in a film [Infinitely Polar Bear] that my sister wrote and directed. So it’s nice that I don’t have to describe it to everybody anymore. But I didn’t have a dad that was like any other dads. My parents, when I was really little, they worked in theater and public television. So there was always a lot of creative energy in our house. My dad designed lights. And my mom produced. So it was more the expectation to just express myself—I think a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to have that from their parents.

V: Being first generation, you have this immense pressure to conform. For Laotian Americans, it’s meeting that American portion. I have one brother, and now he’s in the Air Force, in Guam. My parents have seen their children grow up in different [ways], especially me, who grew up and did completely opposite of what was expected. Because you know, being transgender wasn’t even a thing. You didn’t talk about it. I didn’t even think it was an option.

[When] I moved out to college and lived by myself, I had friends who did back-alley injections of silicone, off-the-street transactions, scary things that I was afraid of doing. I thought about the possibility of transitioning in Buffalo, but it was too close to home. When I moved out here to pursue school, that was the best kind of beginning for me: you get to create your life. And this is what I’m doing: creating my life, and by doing it the most proper way possible.

You hear about Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, these people out there who are making waves. They’re talking about it. I want to open up a dialogue here, in Portland, too. I want a place where you can go for certain topics: where you can go shopping, where you can find employment, fashion and fitness and health and spirituality for the trans community in Portland—and then hopefully open it up wider, to the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast. If they can find the stories online, I might be able to save a life.

CHINA: Yeah, a lot of lives! 

V: That was kind of where the stepping-off point for me was this year. 

CHINA: [For me] there was a big nervous breakdown. I had my son. I had postpartum depression. I was really struggling to keep going on tour and leaving him at home when he was 2 years old. I was getting sick, because toddlers make you sick. And then my voice just went. I had surgery after that.

It gave me this six-month break, which was really needed. And I had to be silent because I had a hemorrhage in my vocal chords. So I just had to not speak. I went from ranting and angry and burned out to just a quiet person. When you get shut up, you know, it really helps you to not be bitchy. You can write bitchy things on a pad of paper, but nobody cares. [Both laugh.]

I came back really wanting to be a part of it, full of gratitude for what a great job [Pink Martini] is and how lucky I am to travel all over the world. It was like I needed to stop in order to see all of the things that were so great. I lost the big picture, I guess.

V: Yeah, I think that for me, it was the same thing. When I moved out here, I did it selfishly to do my transition. I didn’t tell my parents; I was very angry at my father. September 2013 was the first time I saw them in three years. I went back a completely different person. I told them, this is how I am. I think if something gets taken away from you—whether it be your voice or your family—then you appreciate it more.

CHINA: They appreciated you more.

V: Yeah. Just absolutely. I mean, I found my voice, finally. 

CHINA: Everybody must find it!

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