On a Saturday night, a club called Lucca on Panyu Road fills up earlier than usual. The LGBT venue is “smack in the middle of Shanghai’s gayborhood,” according to an online listing, just down the street from Celia and Telephone 6, and around the corner from Happiness 42, which is hosting a bottomless drinks deal to warm up for the main event.

Lucca is the celebrated site of Shanghai’s biggest annual drag show, where some of the city’s most celebrated queens can go all out. There are professional and amateur brackets, and even just showing up in drag with no intent to perform is absolutely encouraged. It’s a free pass to step outside your comfort zone, where a young man wearing his first wig can rub elbows with a seasoned professional.

Kimberly Kumswell is the latter. Towering over the room at a statuesque six-and-a-halfish feet, her presence is tangible. Her long, explosive cotton candy hair falls down in graceful tufts around her face, and her expertly-shadowed eyes seem to see everything and nothing.

Kimberly is from Massachusetts, where she started doing drag in 2010 after auditioning for the role of “goofy sidekick” in a play and unexpectedly being cast as an evil sister. She’s a new arrival in Shanghai, having spent the last two years in Shenzhen, but made the trip out to Lucca in 2016 to compete in last year’s contest.

Fanning out with Kimberly

“I was really impressed by the drag scene here. While I was in Shenzhen I took a little break from drag because there weren’t any opportunities. But my friend created an LGBT event in Shenzhen called SaturGAYS, and asked me to get involved with hosting and performing at the event. I’d taken almost a year long break before that, and I really missed doing drag.”

In China the difference in progressive culture between first and second-tier cities, or even just outside of the Shanghai-Beijing dynamic, is significant. Even Shenzhen — technically also a first-tier city — is more of an economic and tech center than a cultural capital. Nonetheless, drag is spreading. Despite the ongoing LGBT media ban in China, overseas space being claimed by gay/drag culture resonates with viewers here, and the presence of real-world events is on the rise.

“I think Rupaul’s Drag Race has really changed how people look at drag. Drag will never be mainstream, but the show has really removed some of the stigma surrounding drag within the gay community. There’s also an online tutorial for everything now…how to make hip pads, how to cover your eyebrows, how to contour, how to style a wig…the internet has taken the place of a drag mother or drag family for a lot of people who may have otherwise been cut off from learning the tricks of the trade because they didn’t have the support and guidance of other drag queens. I know so many Chinese people who watch drag races and are interested in drag. But it’s events like this that will really make Shanghai drag culture evolve.”

So with the help of the internet, China’s LGBT community is more and more ready to embrace drag. At the same time, it’s still a source of confusion for most people in the country. Open expression of LGBT identity was unlawful until a painfully recent piece of legislation in 1997, so having it wrapped up in the distinctly Western phenomenon of modern drag culture makes it all the more difficult to grasp. This is all despite the fact that China has its own centuries-old tradition of drag performance, in the shape of cultural treasures like Peking Opera and crosstalk comedy.

Chinese opera performer prepares to play a female role (Photo: China Daily)

“I’ve talked about it with a lot of Chinese people, and what I’ve been told is that it’s just a foreign concept. I can feel that when I walk down the street in drag. It’s just not on people’s radar. Even though forms of drag are everywhere — I might be watching a Chinese TV show and see a guy dressed as a lady to be funny. That’s drag! But for the most part, people just don’t think about it. When I’ve interacted with Chinese people while I’m in drag they usually just think it’s funny. I’m talking about older people who I see on the street. I stop and take photos with people and they laugh. The Chinese people I meet at events and bars interact with drag queens the way people do all over the world: they smile, maybe take a photo, and then tell the drag queen she’s beautiful, or tall, or both.”

At Lucca, the positive energy is overflowing. Amateur enthusiasts and first-timers crowd the dance floor and stage, to collective shouts of approval from their squads, before the area is cleared for the professionals. The diversity of acts is actually astounding. There are polished acts like Kimberly’s, and others that seem more hectic.

One is Titanic-themed, with two costume changes and a supporting actor playing Jack. It culminates in a lip-synced rendition of I Will Always Love You that’s spectacular enough to resurrect him from the grave.

One is some sort of futuristic androgyny theme (“new concept!” shouts someone behind me), the performer dressed in a genderless spandex suit with cone-shaped metallic breasts. She does robot dance moves to raucous applause.

The night’s sole drag king does not disappoint, treating us to a full-on Muay Thai spectacle, with fight choreography and topless six pack action.

Kimberly, already deep into her performance, pulls back her dress to reveal a bottle of moisturizer tucked into her hosiery, which the audience is invited to dispense onto her. I don’t get dehydrated, I moisturize it daily, I am my inspiration, I am my inspiration, the song echoes.

Later, Kimberly takes the stage to accept an award from the judges. The crowd is cheering, and so are the other queens.

“Here it’s a mix of foreigners and locals performing. In NYC, you could throw a false eyelash and hit a drag queen. There are so many queens trying to make it there that it can feel really competitive. In Shanghai, I feel like we’re all working hard, and we have a good community in place too.”

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