Anyone familiar with Chinese variety TV cannot fail to have noticed Li Yugang, China’s most famous female impersonator, beloved of middle-aged ayis in particular for his transcendent beauty and piercing falsetto operatics. It is a curious paradox in conservative China that men dressed as women – so long as the transformation is either completely convincing (the aforementioned Li Yugang) or comically inept (basically every supporting male character in the films of Stephen Chow) – can occupy prime time slots on TV even as the authorities vigorously scrub shows featuring anything remotely ribald or risqué.
However, the drag queen – an unabashedly Western, queer, icon, whether a fishy pageant girl or a bearded muscle Mary – is a more contemporary and underground phenomenon. While most Chinese cities have an underground dive bar where jocks in frocks cavort for an audience of gay men and women and the occasional gawking straight tourist, China, as in the rest of the world, perhaps has RuPaul to thank for the sudden, and dramatic, explosion of drag above ground.
The infiltration in Beijing happened slowly. Drag queens became the standard comperes for Great Leap Brewing
’s Halloween party. The late lamented Funky flirted with drag cabaret, while Destination
hosted a string of cross-dressing DJs, including RuPaul’s Drag Race
runner-up Nina Flowers. The crowds who greeted hirsute heavy metal lolita Ladybeard – who got her big break in Hong Kong – on her last trip to Beijing were testament to the growing appeal of this diverse art form. The wild popularity of Drag Race
and its contestants has – gradually – blended with China’s indigenous love for a man in a dress, and thus began a new chapter in Beijing’s drag herstory.
Now, the capital’s aspiring superstars have several regular engagements. French drag artiste Hathor has joined forces with Adam’s
’ owner and part-time queen Mondo Wong to host a drag party
on the second Saturday of each month. Palms LA
crams a standing-room-only crowd in for Drag Bingo once a month, corralled by professional hot mess Tiger Lily. Across town, Migas
has inaugurated a quarterly dragged-up version of popular LGBT night Disco Extravaganza
Disco Extravaganza organiser AJ Song admits that drag queens have always been a feature of this rip-roaring rainbow shindig, but only recently have they begun to take centre stage – literally. AJ, who also helps organise Drag Bingo, is committed to nurturing Beijing’s nascent drag community – though he has yet to don heels himself. 'Drag is part of the LGBT
community in every big city. I hope one day Beijing will have a huge drag scene – Shanghai’s is already amazing, with professional queens. Beijing’s is growing more slowly. But I hope that, someday, one day each week, there’ll be a drag night somewhere.'
'Things are improving all the time. We used to only have queens coming as regular guests, but now they perform,' AJ continues. 'We added lip sync, and now dance. Sometimes people just show up, wanting to perform. Anyone is welcome to perform – in or out of drag. It’s a really mixed crowd of different nationalities. And it’s disco – everyone loves disco!'
From what we’ve seen, AJ’s assessment is right. More performers are appearing at drag nights, each time more polished, more rehearsed and more distinctive than the last, with performers keen to showcase their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent – even if they’re mostly keeping their true identities under their wigs. A WeChat group has even formed to allow queens to stay in touch, share fashion and beauty tips and ensure they get decent rates for personal appearances.
'All our queens are sourced from our social circle,' says AJ. 'Beijing doesn’t yet have professional drag queens, but those we do have are improving all the time, getting more creative. Before the last Disco Extravaganza I got a WeChat from one of our queens saying, "My hair’s too big for the taxi!"'