As fabulous as they are fearless, meet four Hong Kong drag queens who let us in on the physical and emotional transformation required of this art form.
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” That is the maxim of Mama Ru, what the LGBTQ+ community and fans of reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race reverently call creator and host RuPaul Andre Charles, arguably the most famous drag queen of our time.
Drag is an evergreen art form that shows how set gender expression is ultimately an absurd illusion that we all buy into. I mean, why is a long piece of fabric tied around the neck inherently masculine? And why is a loose piece of fabric around the waist strictly feminine? What about makeup? In Europe, modern makeup was actually first invented and worn by men; rouge was applied to the cheeks of pale, malnourished men at war to make them appear healthier and manlier.
Drag has been part of humanity since time immemorial. The first drag queens and kings were most probably shamans of a tribe, with important roles in the community as healers and entertainers. Drag in the third millennium moved from being a queer subculture and took over the world, in part thanks to the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, still going strong and showing no signs of stopping.
The latest rendition is a truly global take with RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK Versus The World, with contestants from Canada, Thailand and Holland. Other spin-offs include RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, Drag Race España, Drag Race Italia and soon-to-be Philippines. Then there’s Queen of the Universe, produced by World of Wonder – the same production company that produces Drag Race – a drag queen singing competition series hosted by Graham Norton, with a judging panel consisting of drag icons Trixie Mattel, Michelle Visage (RuPaul’s best friend and the cutthroat yet caring mother hen of Drag Race), Leona Lewis and Vanessa freaking Williams.
In Hong Kong, drag also seems to be on the resurgence, with drag brunches happening around town. What’s more indicative of the zeitgeist is the reopening of Petticoat Lane; the former underground gay club with regular drag shows just moved into the eighth floor of California Tower in Lan Kwai Fong, complete with a giant stage and dressing room for drag performers. The PR Manager is none other than Mocha Diva of Drag Race Thailand infamy, who coordinates with all the drag talent.
Here, we step behind the curtain to speak to four local queens about their internal and external transformation process, and what drag and their drag persona means to them.
XXXOTICA, AKA LEON YEE
Pole dancing instructor by day, Leon Yee recently appeared wearing a fluffy bright yellow Cantonese lion head (from traditional lion dance) in a short film by SUCH/, a media platform dedicated to showcasing subcultures in Hong Kong.
“Drag isn’t just about the pole dancing. Putting on everything is such a fun process for me,” says Yee. “It’s a creative outlet where I bring the fantasies in my head into reality with fashion and a concept. It’s pretty much Halloween every single time. Who doesn’t like that?”
Yee describes drag as a very visual and physical art form, where he feels a boost of confidence and doesn’t have to use words to express himself. He recently spent all his pandemic money on a grey, navy drop-shoulder body suit – very avant-garde, alien and androgynous – by Hong Kong designer Angus Tsui and can’t wait to “rock it”.
The fashion goes beyond the clothes. “A decade ago, we weren’t talking about gender, I had no vocabulary before, but now I think I’m non-binary,” says Yee. “Although I still use the terms masculine and feminine – drag is how I express the feminine side of me.”
He’s thinking of trying out for Drag Race (“The easiest would be doing Canada,” says the Canadian-Chinese) but believes that he needs to first hone all his skills. “I feel that a true artist is someone who can dance, act and sing, although I did have my Rachel Berry moment in high school.”
But before stepping up onto the international stage, Yee is currently in the process of rebranding himself into a more powerful, mature version of his drag persona. With that, comes a possible new moniker. “I mean, most people don’t even know how to pronounce XXXotica (read as “Triple Exotica”), so I’m thinking Queen Kong. I mean, I grew up here in Hong Kong, so I want to represent my city.”
MADAME MINCEMEAT, AKA BRAD WHARAKURA
A trainer at Pure Fitness, Brad teaches indoor cycling, TRX and Bodypump. He’s even led cycling classes in full drag, to a playlist of banging “gay anthems” of course. “Madame Mincemeat is a heightened, amplified version of myself,” explains Wharakura. His drag debut was during Clockenflap 2015 where he pranced around in wild abandon in a side tent.
Perhaps because of the physicality of his day job, Wharakura feels more comfortable on a mic and bringing a vibe to a room in drag more than the usual dancing and lip-synching. He enjoys and excels at being an emcee. A recent gig was at a Soho House committee meeting where he led a side-splitting PowerPoint presentation as a gorgeous businesswoman serving uproarious executive realness.
Despite that, Wharakura’s favourite part of the art is actually getting into drag, rather than the performative aspect of it. “It’s a solitary, meditative activity,” he says. He likes to allow himself a three-hour window for a full-body transformation, but can do his basic face in 90 minutes.
“The moment when the character appears is usually when I put on my lashes or the wig. There’s this rush of energy, like ‘She’s arrived.’ It’s that feeling like you’re on a film set – there she is.”
MISSTINA UGLYHAIRA, AKA TEDDY LAU
Petticoat Lane’s bar manager claims to be the oldest drag queen in Hong Kong, still performing regularly at 50 with somersaults on the dance floor and all that.
MissTina (Tina for short) is a beauty queen – think traditional pageant glamour – and has evolved into a comedy queen – think clown. She puts a lot of effort into creating glamorously stunning but hilariously farcical costumes – think detachable tits with spraying water features. Lau does differentiate between Teddy and Tina. “Tina is my twin sister who inhabits the same body as I do,” he explains.
Lau started doing drag 26 years ago and credits Tina for literally saving his life. Suffering from depression in 2007, Lau could not even go out when the panic attacks started. He told fellow drag queen and friend Coco about his mental health – how he missed the confidence he gets from doing a drag – who immediately organised a show for him. “As I went back on stage, the love from the crowd and the adrenaline rush gave me literal chills, but it felt so natural,” recounts Lau. “Drag really helped me psychologically and spiritually.”
He never did charity gigs before, but after that transformative show, Lau decided to always give back to the community. “I’ll do Pink Dot, Gay Pride, whatever. It’s really important to send the love back out.”
COCO POP, AKA BRYAN CHAN
Mother of several drag daughters, Chan has been using drag to try out numerous things for two decades, showing that there’s no limit to the art form. She’s a regular on radio show Zijiren (We Are Family) on RTHK Radio Two, and read books in drag to kids at an LGBT Reading Festival. She can also style a mean wig.
When asked when he inhabits Coco, Chan answers, “All the time; it’s not too big a gap from Bryan.” He doesn’t feel the need for another persona to deal with his daily life as business development director of a media company. “But the moment I put on my heels, I’m standing taller than most people at around six feet, and that’s when I feel it really kick in, when my aura expands.”
Every year at LGBTQ+ event Pink Dot, as well as other charities like AIDS Concern, Chan works the stage as the headlining drag performer with three or four drag daughters as backup dancers. “Even though they don’t pay as much, the feeling on the big stage is priceless, practically orgasmic.”
The culture of being drag mother for up-and-coming queens is especially important to Chan. While it’s a lot of work to become a drag queen, from makeup, padding and wigs to the performance and psychological aspects, Chan feels it’s even harder work to become a mentor for a chosen family. “I’m glad that the kids can find someone experienced to support them and show them the ropes.”
Drag represents a political statement for Chan as well. “We’re battling the patriarchy. We’re making people question: Why can’t men wear makeup or a dress?’ You need a lot of balls to wear heels as a man.” He sees drag as the ultimate act of rebellion. “Most of us were bullied in our youth, called sissy or effeminate,” explains Chan. “And now yes, I am femme, I am fabulous, and I am celebrated and adored on stage.”
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7