It’s a Saturday night in Beijing and a popular LGBT bar, Red Dog, is packed to the brim for a pop-up drag show. Although the bar is hot and over-crowded, local drag queens Krystal de Canteur, Frozen Lolita, and Rebecca give their best performance on the tiny stage.
Rupaul vs. Beijing Opera
This was the scene of one of Beijing’s more recent and ever-growing drag shows. American TV-show Rupaul’s drag race has burst into the mainstream after ten seasons, western drag culture has made its way to Beijing. While Drag in its western form may be new to many of Beijing’s residents the concept of female impersonation in China has been around for centuries, mainly limited to opera houses. Additionally, while China’s most populous city, Shanghai has a thriving drag scene, the country’s capital (home to more than 22 million people) has struggled to grow this culture. Drag is an important part of the LGBT community, and non-cis gender identity rights have long been a taboo political issue, which could be why it’s taking longer to develop in the nation’s capital of Beijing. With recent events such as Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) banning all homosexual content then reversing its decision after backlash. Beijing’s growing demand for Drag entertainment shows progress in attitudes towards gay culture in China.
Queens Leading the Scene
Local Drag Queen Krystal de Canteur is at the forefront of the drag scene in Beijing. Krystal first started doing drag in 2016, for Disco Extravaganza at the original Migas in Sanlitun. Krystal has now been doing drag for just over 2 years and acts as a mentor to new queens who are starting careers in Beijing. When not in drag, Kris is the owner of a hair and makeup salon. Krystal’s hair and make-up expertise have made her a drag mother to many of the new queens in Beijing, and although she doesn’t perform anywhere regularly, more opportunities are arising for these queens to showcase their talent. Another Local drag queen, Tiger Lily, host a monthly drag bingo at her bar L.A. Palms. Contestants come out and play bingo with local drag queens while all the money raised is donated to a local charity, Beijing Gender, that works with the LGBT community in Beijing. Drag Bingo has become a popular event, often filling up reservations through word-of-mouth the same day they are posted. While these events have become more frequent some of them are only monthly or one-off. However, in order to further develop their talents and polish their drag, it helps for queens to have regular steady weekly performances.
While the number of queens in Beijing is growing one hurdle that remains is steady paying gigs. The number of places for queens to perform is few and the number of places willing to pay is fewer. One challenge that remains is convincing bars to pay these queens – it’s a common misconception that that drag is just for men who want to dress up as women, and often people don’t actually see these queens as the performers they are.
Educating its participants on its conventions and history remains a challenge, however, the scene is starting to get bigger and the number of safe spaces for queens to perform are growing. Drag Queen Elizabeth Stride who has been in Beijing since August 2008 remembers when she first visited Beijing in 2004 and recalls police raids on gay bars. Stride credits Rupaul’s drag race for opening up opportunities for drag queens in China. Stride as well as Beijing’s other Queens hope that more exposure and time will eventually allow the drag scene here to rival that of sister city Shanghai. Media outlets are also noticing Beijing’s growing drag scene – Krystal and Frozen Lolita were recently part of a documentary on Vice China detailing their participation in a drag competition in Shanghai and their thoughts on drag in Beijing. While the future of Beijing’s drag scene is uncertain the queens here are working hard to grow support for the community and expose Beijingers to this exciting form of art.
Photo credit – Time Out Beijing