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Inside a Drag Night in Chengdu, the New Frontier of Chinese Subculture

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Point & Shoot Perspectives is a guest column by Tea Haus, centered around point-and-shoot club photography and interviews with everyday Chinese clubgoers.

Fueled by a culture of relaxation, a steady stream of young creative talent, and a regulatory environment that is — relative to Beijing and Shanghai — rather lax, Chengdu is the new frontier of Chinese subculture. It carries a sort of wild mystique that you hear about way before you even step foot in the city, but it’s a vibe you can’t truly comprehend until you’re there.

And just like Chengdu carries a certain reputation within the mainland, Funky Town has carved out its own niche in the social fabric of the city.

The unassuming bar sits on a corner obscured by construction barriers, each of which is covered by graffiti and promotional flyers for upcoming club nights and shows. Across the street, one barricade is spray-painted with the words: “FUCK DA GOVERNMENT.” Chairs and tables sprawl across the outdoor patio, where posters in bold red text warn patrons that pornography, gambling, drugs, noise, and fighting are prohibited. The phrase wenming wuting (文明舞厅, “civilized dance hall”) is used. But inside, a bright red LED sign bears the same phrase, as if mocking the moralistic cautions outside. It hangs above a doorway separating the two rooms in the venue: a small dancefloor with a turntable and bar, and an even smaller lounge with a few tables and sofas. Across both rooms, there are three disco balls in total.

Funky House Chengdu club photo by Tea Haus

Funky Town has something going on every single day of the week, a practice that sets it apart as a unique haven for Chengdu’s most debaucherous crowd. It rotates through a variety of musical genres: disco, hip hop, techno, rock‘n’roll… the only thing consistent about its lineup is that there always is one. That, and the fact that, according to its owners, there is never EDM or trap.

As a result of this diverse dedication to subculture and the underground, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who constitutes Funky Town’s demographic. It feels like anyone can just show up and find a place in the room, and it’s not uncommon to see someone pop in alone simply to grab a drink and say hi.

Related:

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On the day I’m there, it’s the middle of Sichuan’s wet season, and it has been pouring all afternoon. This night is special — it’s Funky Town’s first-ever drag show, an interesting choice given that it isn’t particularly branded as a queer space. I’m worried that the weather will deter people from coming, especially on a Sunday evening. As I wait with a friend inside, my worry begins to grow. Other than a small group celebrating a birthday (complete with cake) and a few lone individuals, we’re the only guests in the room. However, an employee quickly reassures us that the night will begin soon.

Chengdu club Funky Town drag night

Sure enough, with mellow city pop playing gently over the speakers, other people begin to trickle in. The first thing I notice is that they are almost all women ­– in a later conversation, the owners explain that they simply employ a lot of women, who then invite their friends out. By 10 o’clock, there is a steady flow of guests showing up, and by 10:30 the city pop has turned into a steady, pumping trance mix. At certain points, the music smoothly transitions in and out of a hip hop remix. During one particular flip of Jaden Smith, my friend and I give each other knowing looks, thoroughly impressed by the dexterity of the DJ.

According to the event flyer, the dress code for the night is “avant-garde, creative and gorgeous enough…” and it quickly becomes clear that attendees have taken the message to heart. With emphasis on hair and makeup, guests arrive in a range of flashy, gender-bending getups. One woman is David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Another looks extraterrestrial. One young man whom I later interview is wearing a leopard-print dress with a reflective silver jacket — he confidently introduces himself to me as a fashion designer and aspiring student at Parsons in New York.

While I can’t assume the orientation or identity of any individual, I get the sense that most of the crowd is cisgender and heterosexual. And while I’m in no position to critique anyone’s self-expression, I start to wonder what it means to have a drag-themed party in a space neither designed for nor primarily attended by queer folx.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

However, it also becomes apparent that something is occurring in the space that lies outside the oft-perpetuated binary of queer and straight. Of the openly gay attendees I speak with, most of them have come with straight friends. What shocks me the most is the small presence of a more masculine skater crowd — don’t they realize that there’s a drag show tonight? Perhaps it has something to with the normalization and aestheticization of the male dan — men acting in female roles ­– in traditional Chinese theater. Perhaps it’s just the unique nature of the people of Chengdu and Funky Town. Perhaps they have no serious concept of drag.

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The Unique Sichuan Art Form that Refuses to Die

Regardless, all of the groups congregate on the patio. Out in the open, everyone has room to mingle and chat. To drink and smoke. To laugh and play. The self becomes secondary — everyone is part of the whole. In this setting, I can’t exactly say that anyone is invading a queer space, because Funky Town never really was one. Instead, it seems like the culture of drag has been invited in.

Inside the bar, the drag queens are making the final adjustments to their costumes and wandering around the dancefloor. It’s impossible to miss them. Yi Hao, the first queen, towers above everyone else in a two-foot-tall wig that looks like a storm cloud catching fire. At least two of her many tattoos reference Lady Gaga. The second performer, Miss Geng Diva, stays close by, radiating in a pearl-laden garment and long, light purple hair. Both queens and their accompanying friends are followed around by a professional camera crew — adding to the already hectic energy of the night, Funky Town has been converted into the set of a drag documentary.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

At midnight, the show finally begins. Patrons file inside, occupying every last square inch of the dancefloor save for a pathway down the middle. The DJ puts on Yi Hao’s selected track, Nina Hagen’s “Smack Jack,” and the phones come out to record. Yi Hao enters strutting, lip-syncing in perfect unison with her choreography. It’s a dynamic performance that finds her splayed across the floor by the end, pieces of her outfit thrown to the side and picked up by her friends. Miss Geng Diva follows with her own rendition of the Weather Girls — when the chorus of “It’s Raining Men” drops, she opens up an umbrella, releasing a sea of silver confetti and streamers.

Between the rolling cameras and the flashes of my own point-and-shoot, I am reminded that in the end, we are all spectators. The show is an anomaly in a normally straight space, and the drag queens are still outsiders. But to say that they have been invited in passively would be to erase the powerful agency they still carry. I watch as Yi Hao stalks back and forth through the room, staring down audience members and cameras alike. Miss Geng Diva cradles one onlooker’s cheeks in her hands. She grabs another person by the wrist. She belts her song straight into their faces. When this happens, the crowd screams with effervescence. Arms are thrown into open space, hands waving to welcome the queens.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

For a brief moment in time, the space of Funky Town is transformed. After the drag show ends, the party returns to business as usual, and dubstep is playing over the speakers by 12:15. The drag queens retire to the outside, where newly christened fans excitedly approach them for photos. Standing on the sidewalk, I walk up to them and introduce myself. From her elevated position on the patio, Miss Geng Diva takes a good look at me and asks: “You’re straight, aren’t you?” I say yes, and that because of that I am a bit wary about being in this space.

Miss Geng Diva tells me that she is happy to do an interview. That the more willing us straight folks are to learn about drag, the better. She also introduces me to her friend and fellow drag queen, Alejandro. Days later, after I’ve recovered from the revelry of Funky Town, I follow up with them to learn more about their lifestyle and culture. I also reconnect with one of the straight guests I met: the man in the leopard print dress.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night - Lil Butterfly

Lil Butterfly

I usually play basketball, see exhibitions, make clothes, and watch shows. I’ve grown up in a hip hop environment since I was little. Now I’m engaged in fashion design. I am 18 years old and have not yet attended university.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night - Lil Butterfly

What are your thoughts on the vibe of Funky Town? How does it compare to other places you go to?

I think Funky Town’s atmosphere is very good. Everyone very naturally relaxes themselves and seeks themselves. Compared to other places, I think that Funky Town is more inclusive and diverse: there are people from all lines of work, all of whom are interesting. It’s like finding the home you’ve always been searching for.

Everyone is also very amicable and down to earth, so I’ll make lots of new friends. It’s not like other bars where you just get drunk or get other people drunk; getting drunk just to find a one-night stand, waking up the next day still empty, falling into an infinite loop like a perpetual motion machine, condemning yourself to always repeat the same mistakes.

What did you think of the drag night at Funky Town?

I thought it was terrific and very happy, and I felt a particular energy. These drag queens worked hard to obtain the things they like and break labels. I think this kind of undefinable lifestyle is cool. You could be an office worker during the day and the craziest young person at night, but these are all you, just every part of you, with no single part being enough to define your whole life.

Drag queens are very creative. Their clothes are all self-made, and this part really attracts me. It’s just like my brand’s motto: “Unsatisfied Then Create It.”

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night - Lil Butterfly

How did you first get into fashion and design? What attracts you about it and why do you continue to do it?

I grew up in contact with hip hop culture. When I was young, I loved playing streetball and watching AND1 Mixtape. The courts all had graffiti around them, and during halftime, there were MC rap hosts and b-boys dancing on the sidelines. Hip hop culture really attracted me because these were all things I had never seen before, extraordinarily full of vitality and incompatible with traditional life. I was deeply fascinated at the time, and later began to do street dance and graffiti and understand contemporary art.

Different eras and different regions all have different dress styles. Taking American hip hop as an example, rappers on the East Coast and rappers on the West Coast had differences not only in the expression of their music, but also in their clothing. East Coast music style was a bit more hardcore, and they would wear Tommy Hilfiger velvet down jackets and Pelle Pelle leather. Underneath, they’d pair it with Southpole white t-shirts and wear FUBU or Ecko straight jeans. On their feet they’d have pure white Air Force 1’s or Timberlands. They all wore big clothes since they had to carry some drugs to sell or protect their guns, and this way it wouldn’t be easily seen. Another reason is rappers at the time weren’t that well-off, and buying bigger clothes meant they could be worn for many years.

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West Coast music style tended towards gangsta rap like Ice-T and N.W.A, and later G-funk and the three musketeers of Long Beach: Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Nate Dogg. California snuck in a lot of Mexicans, and these Mexicans, in grouping up to protect themselves, also led to the popularity of gang culture in California. Californians would wear more close-fitting clothes — flannel shirts with khaki shorts, long socks, Nike Cortez’s or Converse.

So when I come to understand these cultures, I think that clothing is a very important way for people to express themselves. They don’t need to talk to you. They can just feel your energy or your views through clothes. I hope that I can continue to express my own energy to everyone.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night - Lil Butterfly

What does it mean for a straight man to wear a dress? How do you view that act?

I think this means challenging yourself, breaking the rules, and giving yourself more potential.

What are your most important considerations when designing or making something?

My most important consideration is: does this piece of clothing look good or not, hahahaha. Because I rarely make products that cater to the market, I think anyone is able to make products that cater to the market. I don’t really need to go there. Some factories are bigger than me, have more resources than me, have more money than me. They can operate with more ease and efficiency. It’s not to say that products which cater to a market aren’t good products, but each person’s motive is different I guess. I think the customers who buy my products think that the clothing has a lot of personality and haven’t seen it before. Also that these clothes aren’t very similar to other people’s, and also a bit cheaper.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Who do you create for? What is the ideal audience?

I create for myself. The ideal audience is a group of independent thinkers, people with their own style. Also those who don’t just echo the views of others: today chasing Yeezy, tomorrow chasing Air Jordan, so that those who really like it can’t even buy it, creating a foul atmosphere, also driving up the foreign prices. I think that’s pretty irrational.

Is there anything else you want to say?

In the end, I have nothing to say. Everything above is my personal opinion, a lot of slobbery words haha. I hope everyone can have their own style. Here I quote the words of Yves Saint Laurent: “Fashions fade, style is eternal.”

Alejandro

I have no background, just selling cosmetics. My hobbies are just doing makeup and watching American shows. I frequent various nightclubs. I like Chengdu. I like Chengdu’s nightlife. I like Chengdu’s streets. I like the ladies selling jellies [冰粉 bingfen] at 339. I like the big brothers who sell stinky tofu at Jiuyan Bridge. I like strangers who smile at each other on the dance floor. I like myself in drag. I like getting used to this life.

What are your thoughts on the vibe of Funky Town? Have you been before?

That day was the first and only time I went to Funky Town. Actually, I arrived at the venue around an hour before the event and was a wallflower girl for quite a while because my mama [Miss Geng Diva] told me there was an event there. I saw the poster and was very interested, so I dressed up to attend. After the event, my impression of Funky Town was very good. Next time I’ll come back again.

What other clubs do you like to go to in Chengdu? What do you like about them?

I usually go to Lan Kwai Fong’s Revolution, Jellyfish, Orangutan, etc. because they have my favorite style of DJ.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

How did you first get into drag? What attracts you about it and why do you continue to do it?

Of course, it was the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s very hard not to be moved (in all senses) by the sight of that many enchanting drag queens. The reason I’ve persisted is because it has already become an important passion in my life.

How does your life during the day relate to your life at night? Does one influence the other?

Daytime me is the sugar daddy of nighttime me, hahahahaha. It’s a very precise relationship. Only when you have food on the table can you have the energy to unleash your charm.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

What is the most difficult part about your lifestyle? What is the most rewarding?

Usually I am not the type of person to think about these deep questions at all. I can only answer with, “I don’t know.” In fact, in my current worldview, there are difficulties everywhere in life. There are also highlights everywhere. Hard to say what is the most difficult, what is the most rewarding. I really can’t say. I have no regrets and that’s enough.

What goes through your head when you do drag or perform?

Performance is a kind of release of emotions. When surrounded by the music, one’s entire body and mind are invested in the intention and emotion of the song, which is conveyed to the audience through the intermediary of the self. So all I think about when I perform is expressing emotion.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

How does your performance of drag relate to your ideas on gender?

Actually, I don’t have any special views on gender. The way it is, everyone can be themselves. It’s just good to be yourself. Of course, the premise is not to retaliate against society.

Who is your performance for? What is the ideal audience?

I perform for anyone who needs me to perform, including myself. For anyone, as long as they enjoy my performance, I won’t carelessly answer the curtain call.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

What is your relationship with Miss Geng Diva like? What about other drag queens? What is that community like?

She is my drag mother, which is just like a mentor on the path of drag I suppose. At first, I was also a fan of hers. I liked her performances. In the end, it was through social interaction that I became familiar with her, becoming friends and “family.” I’m not familiar with other drag queens, so I can’t comment on that.

What does it mean to be a drag queen in China? Do you feel a particular purpose?

I think my thoughts are very simple. Just live out the self, be joyful and happy, just have fun with life. It is enough to bring happiness to those who need it the most.

Is there anything else you want to say?

I would like to say thank you little brother for your interview. I wrote down all my answers while sitting at the dinner table, looking at the old streets of Chengdu at night. Other diners at the restaurant stopping and going, flood-bearing rainstorm enshrouding the horizon, the bowl of noodle soup in front of me turning to mud [author’s note: Alejandro wrote this in rhymes]. I don’t know why I have to rhyme. I only know that tomorrow, we can definitely embrace joy.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Miss Geng Diva

I am Miss Geng Diva, a drag queen from Chengdu born in 1999. I am a fashion designer and an amateur dance enthusiast. After three years of contact with drag, I started doing it myself last summer with the encouragement of my friends. I started to cross-dress while shopping, going out to eat, etc, and couldn’t stop. In my opinion, drag gives me another personality to live and do, including attitudes. I don’t think anyone wants to go through a lifetime with just one personality!

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

What are your thoughts on the vibe of Funky Town? Have you been before?

The sole DJ table and the scattered seats and bar counter gave off the feeling of an ’80s underground dancehall. Chengdu has very few such bars that have culture and that are really doing culture (actually, because there are so many good-looking people, I feel like I frequent [all of] them). I didn’t know about Funky Town before, and it was only because that night’s show had a “Drag Queen” theme and I attended and performed that I found out about the place. When I arrived at the entrance of the bar, I saw a lot of folks who came “cross-dressing,” and I was very happy that this bar tolerated and accepted us being ourselves.

What other clubs do you like to go to in Chengdu? What do you like about them?

I have my own drag show at Chengdu’s Hunk Bar. Hunk Bar attracts me because it is the home of Chengdu’s queer community, and its acceptance and inclusivity make me feel warm. I often perform there — if you get the opportunity, remember to come to Chengdu and see me.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

What attracts you about doing drag and why do you continue to do it?

My very first contact with drag came from watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and later it was through searching on Instagram for drag queens I liked that I slowly started to open this door. When I first came into contact with drag, I felt like it was actually a little more like just doing makeup, so I also did my makeup to imitate the styles of female characters and celebrities. It wasn’t until later that I realized that drag is actually a type of cultural symbol, and that through performances, queens want to convey ideas, ways of thinking, new concepts.

In fact, there is no such thing as continuing or not continuing to do drag. Everyone has more than one side, and I don’t want to grow old and die having a single appearance. I want to discover my heart and be my true self, to express myself through drag shows, to express the beauty of LGBTQ, and to let the world accept, understand, and love.

In your view, what is the drag scene like in Chengdu and China at large? Is it changing at all?

In the past couple of years there have been more and more drag queens, and there are more and more thoughtful drag queens. Everyone is giving support and encouragement to each other!!! I hope this phenomenon continues.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

How does your life during the day relate to your life at night? Does one influence the other?

My day job is teaching at an educational institution. When I’m on break, I’ll put on my idols’ songs in the office, then close the door and curtains and lip sync to imitate her singing. This is also a little secret for me to practice “lip dancing,” and it is the origin of my drag name, Miss Geng Diva.

And at night, I am a queen in the club, a performer. Of course, after I put on makeup, no one knows that I am a teacher. My connection to them lies in my position as a queen or diva communicating with them, bringing in my own attitude and traces of temper.

What is the most difficult part about your lifestyle? What is the most rewarding?

I am 20 years old this year, and I really don’t see any difficult parts. At the moment, I just want to be happy every day, even though this is a very old-fashioned saying. Actually, value needs to be explored by the self. Many things have value that can and can’t be seen. For example, I feel like being on stage, and winning applause is the reward of drag.

What goes through your head when you do drag or perform?

I will morph into a variety of bitchy female stars to perform.

How does your performance of drag relate to your ideas on gender?

Actually, for me, to do drag is just to create another person, which can be female or non-female. I believe that many drag queens also think this way.

Chengdu underground dance club Funky Town drag night

Who is your performance for? What is the ideal audience?

I will change up my costume every time I do a new show. I suppose this is my responsibility to those who like to watch my performances, and in order to create new forms! I prefer to perform for myself or people who love drag and LGBTQ. They can understand this culture, the meaning of the performance, and the humor. On the down low, friends who come to see me often ask if I am a shemale, as in the term from Thailand. Early on I would be very angry and wonder why this group didn’t know and accept more. Now I don’t get angry at all. If you can’t understand and accept, then you must simply be ignorant!!!

What is your relationship with Alejandro like? What about other drag queens? What is that community like?

I met Alejandro at Hunk Bar. He came to see me perform and we met! Our relationship lies in mutual encouragement and support. I let him privately send lip sync videos to me and give him guidance and encouragement. I think that every gay drawn to drag is worthy of being supported and protected. This is what I hope I can give him.

Another drag queen I know is Long Ma [龙妈, “dragon mother”; @莲龙青 on Weibo]. When I first encountered drag, she was the only queen I knew in China, and the only well-known queen outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I admire her courage in paving a path for China’s drag circle. I love her very much!!!

What does it mean to be a drag queen in China? Do you feel a particular purpose?

As a matter of fact, this question is very simple. Do what you want to do. Only after doing something first can you discover the meaning of its existence. In fact, my purpose is very simple. I want more cheers (of course, this is impossible without my own efforts and endeavors).

Is there anything else you want to say?

I am very grateful for the opportunity to display the graceful demeanor of the drag queen. I am very grateful for these questions. Maybe my answers are not that exciting. Maybe I am not the drag queen readers are anticipating. However, I hope that every friend who has the seedling of interest in drag can confront it and be themselves. Be the most beautiful queen in your heart. Be your own diamond, one of a kind yet with millions of faces that shine on others. This circle is really really small, and I hope that everyone can encourage each other and love each other to spread drag. Thanks again for giving me this opportunity to express myself. Love you ❤️

More underground club culture in China:

Searching for Space and Place at Shanghai Club ALL

Drag in China: An Intimate Conversation with a Queen Who Slays

Peace, Love, and Hip Hop at Kunming’s CLUB ICON

Tea Haus
    Tea Haus is an independent creative media agency specializing in Asian anthropology. Conceived in New York during the summer of 2018, we pride ourselves in our diligent fieldwork and candid, compelling visual storytelling. Instagram: @tea.haus