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

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It’s wintertime in Shanghai. Wind whistles against the windows of a nondescript hotel room, on a night that would later yield white flecks of snow.

Inside, Kudos and Chyna are getting ready to perform.

Kudos

Chyna

Kudos is a pioneering queen in China’s drag community, and Chyna is a relative newcomer who started making waves in college. Both are putting the final touches on their looks for the competition this evening.

The most metropolitan (and drag-friendly) city in China is Shanghai. And in Shanghai, the biggest event of the year is at Lucca 390, a central hub for LGBTQ culture in town and a stalwart supporter of the scene. The venue’s annual competition is infamous, and over its 13-year run, has been graced by a host of the most influential queens in Chinese drag.

Shanghai’s international identity shapes the feel of its drag community — local Shanghainese and immigrants from the rural countryside mingle with expats from around the world, giving birth to a unique, amorphous take on drag.

For those coming from faraway provinces or from overseas, Shanghai represents a zone of isolation where one’s drag identity has space to manifest. The city’s scene runs the gamut from standard RuPaul-era drag to experimental gender performance art.

Shanghai may constitute the frontline of China’s drag scene, but equally important are the geographic threads that converge here — and the clearest example of the diverse international influences at play might be Kudos.

Born in the southwestern province of Yunnan at the border between China and Southeast Asia, Kudos later moved to Bangkok, where she first came into contact with Thai ladyboy culture. She brought that influence with her when she eventually moved to Beijing, where she started to dive deeper into makeup and drag performance, gaining notoriety and recognition through a Chinese LGBTQ livestreaming platform. Today, a host of young queens look to her as an originator.

We met up with Kudos and Chyna at their hotel in Shanghai for an intimate conversation as they prepared their looks for the evening.

KUDOS: My name is Lian Longqing, but most people call me Kudos. I’m originally from Yunnan province, and I grew up in Thailand. I lived there for nine years, until I came back to China two years ago. I’ve been living in Beijing since then.

It was in Thailand that I first came to know drag. I didn’t really understand it yet, I just knew I liked it. I never thought I would be working as a queen like this.

Two years ago I didn’t know anything about makeup, I just liked how it looked so I wanted to try it out. Talking to me now, you’ve still never seen me as a boy — I’m pretty handsome in everyday life, and I know how to dress myself. But I was running out of new looks as a boy, so I started trying out looks as a girl. Eventually it turned out like this.

The first time I performed drag was in April 2016, back in Bangkok. It was the real deal, wearing bras, makeup… not just a game.

CHYNA: My name is Chyna, and I’ve been doing drag since my sophomore year of college.

The first time I saw drag was on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think that’s probably true for most queens in this country.

But it was Kudos’ videos that redefined drag for me. I first got to know her through livestreaming. She’s a leader — one of the first to stand out doing drag in China.

KUDOS: When did China first start having real drag? Well, since I came back, of course!

Actually, China does have a cultural tradition of crossdressing in classical opera. It was the standard for men to wear makeup and play the roles of women. But it’s very different from drag. Drag is more freestyle — you can wear all these colorful wigs, you can do whatever makeup you want.

But Chinese opera is different. It has specific plots, characters, and history. So the whole design has to be done exactly according to the rules. You have to wear red instead of green, and you have to sing the classics instead of lip syncing your favorite song. That’s the difference. So I feel Chinese opera is the more professional form, but modern drag culture is more interesting.

CHYNA: I did drag for the first time in college, sophomore year. A lot of people at my school didn’t know much about drag, and some of my classmates really didn’t get it. But my friends knew what I was doing and they loved it.

For today’s performance, I was going to sing a very niche Korean song… but everyone said I should do a song people know, so I ended up going with “Gee”.

KUDOS: I did a lot of livestreaming. I used Blued for a while, and I used to stream on Xiandanjia, another LGBT livestreaming app. But it’s been shut down now by the authorities.

I wasn’t actively trying to spread drag culture through livestreaming. At first I just wanted to watch, then I started streaming my own general content for fun.

But I felt like I didn’t have anything to stream about. So I started wearing wigs, trying out makeup… and I realized that when you’re working on something seriously, people notice it. They’ll encourage you, and you’ll start doing better and better.

People know me for my social media presence, sharing things online and letting people know that China has drag, too. I was one of the first wave of people to really stand out.

Back then, nobody understood what I was doing. A lot of people called me names, others praised me for it. But I don’t pay attention to any of that. I just have to make sure that every time I show up, I’m beautiful. And people will respect you for it.

Professional or amateur drag… I don’t think there’s much difference. It depends on how you feel about your performance, whether you feel it’s professional or not. There’s all kinds of drag nowadays. If you think you’re doing drag, then it’s drag.

Drag in Shanghai has been in full swing for about three or four years. There are some big performances if you go to the right clubs, but very few people are actually aware of it.

Over time, people like Chyna started to appear. I helped give them a leg up on social media. There’s not much opportunity in the real world, so if you want more people to know you, it’ll be through the internet.

I’m not streaming drag for money. My motivation is just that I like it. Right here in Shanghai, for instance, I wouldn’t come if I wasn’t being paid. I’m the most expensive queen in China! But it’s for the LGBT movement, and I consider that an honor. So I pushed off my work to come here, and let people see me in real life.

I’d say there’s no difference between drag in China and in the US. I mean real drag, not Beijing opera.

Drag is already at a commercial standard worldwide. And it’s not about live performance, it’s about the internet. I’ve done some collaborations with brands, and they’re always resistant at first. But when I come out wearing their makeup, they’re like, “wow!”

I can do whatever I want in drag. I can go by a different name. If I’m talking with you in real life, I may feel awkward, shy, or sad… but in drag, I can make you feel something. I’m calling the shots.

All photos by Thanakrit Gu (IG: @dollarside) for RADII.

Special thanks to Kudos, Chyna, and Lucca 390.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.