It was near midnight on a Saturday in a Beijing club, and Charlie Van De Ho (who declined to use his real name) was backstage, ready to make his drag debut in a few moments.
Hair tucked, blonde wig clipped in place, Charlie jumped onto the stage when Rihanna’s "Pour It Up" started playing. He danced and twerked to the song in a pencil skirt, a tiny black bra and a pair of brown knee-high boots.
“I was the third queen to perform,” Charlie told us on the phone after the show. “My song was meant to be sexy, so I took off my bra [mid-song],” he said, laughing.
With that level of confidence, it’s hard to tell that the 24-year-old Chinese fashion designer has only practiced performing in drag for a month.
Since moving back to China from London after completing a three-year fashion design course, performing is his latest personal challenge—and an escape from his 9-to-5 gig in Beijing.
“I went to a bar where they were having a show and met two queens there,” said Charlie. Later, he was introduced to more of the community, which taught him makeup skills and how to dress up to fit the look he had in mind.
“To me, drag is not just about men in girls’ dresses and putting on some exaggerated performance. I don’t see drag as that. I see drag as a way to express myself,” he said. “And it’s also fun to pretend to be someone else occasionally.”
But more than that, being out in drag is a protest against taboo topics in conservative Chinese society, he said. “I love [doing drag] because I feel like this is something China never talks about. I’m pissed.”
As societal “outsiders” of sorts, the drag community is naturally tight-knit. Elizabeth Stride, a 33-year-old from the UK who’s lived in Beijing for 10 years is one of the city’s “big sisters” in the scene.
“It’s incredibly important to support and empower my Chinese drag sisters because these are often people who, growing up kids, were a bit different, a bit out of the mainstream,” Stride said.
Existing within China's understanding of female impersonation
Female impersonation itself isn’t the taboo, as far as Chinese culture goes. China has had a long and distinguished history of men playing female roles in the arts, after all.
Among its luminaries is late-Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang, who in the 1900s was considered one of the country’s four “greats” for his portrayal of female characters. Today, Li Yugang, an opera singer and performer, enjoys nationwide acclaim, and has been regularly touring overseas for the past decade, on the back of his successful career with the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater.
"This is something China never talks about."
But it’s the Western concept of drag that is still new to mass audiences. “Chinese-style drag, in my experience, is more about passing, about just being a beautiful woman, and it’s less about creating a character,” said Stride, who cites RuPaul as a big source of inspiration.
“In Western style drag, the character can sport a full beard and still be a drag queen,” she said.
Chinese crowds may be receptive to the drag shows’ entertainment value, but cross-dressing and gender issues still have much ground to cover when it comes to broader acceptance.
“If you’re a drag queen performing on stage in front of your co-workers, they will think it’s wonderful. But [not] If you’re a guy in China and you wear a skirt in the office,” said Stride.