It’s All Just Drag: What’s the Tea on the Drag Scene In China? – Podcast Episode 4

If you are in a major first or second-tier city in China as a Queer or even straight person, then chances are you have your finger on the pulse of the city’s nightlife, which, undoubtedly includes the “Gay” scene. And if you are familiar with your city’s gay scene then chances are, on any chosen night each week, you, along with the Queer faithful gather at the altar of Fireball and tequila shots, and while communing on a shared plate of spicy wings, have the other-worldly experience of watching RuPaul and her gurls as they minister to the Queer masses both home and away. With the catchphrase from past and present contestants freely escaping the mouths of all in attendance, both local and foreign, and everyone’s freak flag flying high, you would be forgiven to think that you were in downtown Los Angeles at a trendy Gay bar were it not for the fact that the service, as it were, is all close-captioned in Chinese.

Potential language and culture barriers have not stopped Queer fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) from fully embracing the show, immersing themselves in the worlds of the queens, defending their “faves” to the hilt, and adopting what, to SOME, might seem as “Western culture”.

It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise, I’d be a drag queen – Dolly Parton

But why? Surely a country like China, with its long history of culture, including Queer culture, had its own version of drag, as did or do most other cultures in the world, and even though the cultural revolution saw the banning of Homosexual activity until the law was repealed in 1997, surely there must have been slivers of this culture passed down through whispers, clandestine meetings, a secret language adopted by minorities in times of hardship, or even just long-lost text hitherto undisclosed? And if there is such a thing, then how is it manifested in the exuberance of young Queer individuals living as authentically as they know how? Because, as a foreigner looking in, it feels eerily familiar; western.

“I think right now, the Queer community in China is grasping at straws and other cultures to create somewhat of their own queer community. The gays here eat up everything mainstream and gay” Jay*, a Caribbean friend bluntly notes. It is not uncommon to hear niche lingo being used in Queer circles in China that you would normally find in pockets in the west. RPDR has been one of many shows on air now that are largely responsible for palletizing Gay and Queer culture to the masses globally. Now even straight dude-bros call their friends sis when recounting a story, and one who wins a rather nasty argument is now known to “read a b**ch to filth!”

There is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original- Judith Butler

All this wouldn’t have been possible without the magic of television and some might argue that this is indeed a good thing as it provides marginalized groups and other minorities the language to fully express their Queerness. But what of indigenous Queer languages that existed long before the advent of television, let alone the global sensation that is RPDR? Do those count for nothing, or are they past their prime?

Dialing it Back

Season 14 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race is well underway as it kicked off with split-premier episodes to online chatter of burnout from the show’s global die-hard fandom. In response to complaints that the show which now has 14 “regular” seasons and six All-Star seasons in the US with a seventh slated to premiere in April, two regular seasons in Canada, three in the UK not counting the recently concluded “UK vs The World” season widely decried by fans, two in Holland and Thailand, and one each in Spain and Italy respectfully, without forgetting the poorly-received solo season of Drag Race Down Under. If that tally has left your mind spinning, then you are not alone. The now-iconic show has which has come to be known as “the Gay Olympics” stands accused of bombarding its significant fan base with successive seasons of the show without much downtime between each season, to which Judge on the show, Michelle Visage, had a few choice words.

Visage termed the complaints “a bit short-sighted”, saying “We fought so long and hard to get queer programming on TV, and Drag Race has kind of blazed that trail in many ways,” adding that the show wouldn’t be here forever and urged its fans to celebrate it “right now” and to be “grateful” for what she called an abundance of LGBTQIA+ focused shows.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs. The World (2022)

It might be fair to say that when the show first aired in 2009, few expected Ru Paul’s Drag Race to be the cultural juggernaut it is today, having been fully co-opted by mainstream Queer culture as a cultural touchstone. But even this sits uneasily with many in the community. Even RuPaul, or Mother Ru as she is so loving called by her “gurls” and the rest of the fandom, despite being a drag superstar in her own right, still wasn’t that significant a fixture in the LGBTQIA+ world known as the modelesque drag superstar in the US but remained largely unknown in the rest of the world. Now, RuPaul has become a global Queer icon and the advent of Drag Race at its inception was met with quite a bit of skepticism from factions in the LGBTQIA+ community. And in recent years, a combination of Transphobic sentiments as expressed by RuPaul, and accusations levied against the media mogul by former contestants on the show like Tammy Brown from the show’s inaugural season and later on an All-Stars season, and Pearl who was a runner up in the show’s seventh season, along with leaked copies of the show’s stringent contract, have left many side-eyeing the entire operation.

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Despite the show’s attempts at presenting a more diverse cast of contestants, with three openly Trans contestants across three different franchises snagging the crown, and even featuring the first-ever cis-gender female contestant in the recently concluded season of RPDR UK, questions still abound about representation, inclusivity, the infamous “villain edit” allegedly disproportionately handed to queens of color, and the co-opting of the female aesthetic, as the show has become less about the art of female impersonation, and has firmly entered the realm of female-passing and female-presenting. In the words of former Trans RPDR contestant Gia Gunn who said she doesn’t like messy queens, cheap queens, or manly queens, the show seems hell-bent on “serving fish” in each season, with the exception being the “Trade of the season”. But a more pressing question for those of us from or living and working in the far East is, how did such a decidedly American show become a staple among Queer and straight populations in Asia, transcending cultural and language barriers, and is its wide acceptance in the region a good thing for its Queer populations?

The Long and Short of It

As an African myself, my concept of cross-dressing and indeed drag, did not correlate to one’s sexuality or preferred gender expression. As a child, I grew up watching shows like Redykyulass which consisted of ensemble male casts that would provide social commentary through parodies satirizing newsmakers of the day and historical figures, including women. Before there was the fan-favorite “Snatch Game” portion of RPDR for me, there was KJ, Njuguna, and Walter Mongare playing everyone from beloved Kenyan songstress, the late Queen Jane, to Kenya’s infamous first lady, the Late Mrs. Lucy Kibaki. Even the Waka Waka song performed by Shakira at the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa and its recollection are markedly different for me and many other African kids who grew up watching troops of performers, many in women’s clothes and exaggerated female features wildly jamming away to the original rendition of the Congolese classic.

And for Joshi, a pre-eminent drag performer in China’s capital Beijing known to her fans as Slayme Winehouse, drag was everything from pantomime shows he grew up watching, to comedian Paul O’Grady and his iconic drag persona Lily Savage and the Little Britain duo David Walliams and Matt Lucas who played a wide array of recurring female characters on their show before it was pulled off the air for issues around blackface and cultural insensitivity.

I think drag helps move us in the direction of loosening up the man/woman binary. The idea that you’re one, or the other, it’s false. The more that as a society we become a little looser, more open to laugh about gender, that’s the direction the world needs to go in – Alaska

Self-described as a punk, rock, goth, and weird chick drag performer, Joshi got candid on the latest episode of the Piquing Duck podcast about the disconnect between drag culture as it is accepted in the US and how many outside of the country might view it. Are there benefits to be had from placing RPDR on such a high pedestal and what of the often toxic fan base? And are we, as a Queer community beginning to accept such portrayals of Queer identity tied into the art of drag as the gospel truth?

As another China expat woefully lamented, “For me, it hasn’t been good or bad it’s just been very stereotypical as now straight people believe that’s how all gay people behave. I’m not a very flamboyant person. I’m quiet and quite reserved. So last night this girl was all ‘haaaaayyy’ to me and I was like ‘what are you doing?’ Just because I’m gay it doesn’t mean that’s how I behave.”

Listen to the podcast on Spotify or Anchor here.

Photos: Courtesy of World Of Wonder, Ethan Miller, Slayme Winehouse, Unsplash

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