China’s drag queens step into the spotlight

Attitudes toward alternative lifestyles are slowly softening in China, and members of a small but growing drag community have begun to step into the spotlight.

By Author  |  Published: 30th Jun 2020  6:22 pm

Shanghai: Neon lights lit up a Shanghai stage as a whistle from the crowd pierced the air, heralding the live debut of Chinese drag queen “Miss Cream”. Also known by his real name, Yan Anyu, the 18-year-old from the northern province of Hebei strutted out in glittering sequined gown, heavy make-up and curly blond wig to lip-synch Donna Summers’ disco standard “Last Dance” for a rapt crowd.

“When I’m dressed like a man, I’m not so confident,” said Yan, outrageously long fake lashes fluttering from eyes framed by glittering make-up. That changes when he becomes “Miss Cream”. “She’s very confident, graceful and charming — a real queen.”

Attitudes toward alternative lifestyles are slowly softening in China, and members of a small but growing drag community have begun to step into the spotlight. Until last month’s stage show, “Miss Cream” only appeared via livestream from Yan’s home in Hebei, where stage shows are non-existent. Like millions of so-called “wang hong”, or internet stars, in China, Yan makes a living through tips paid by fans through digital payment platforms.

But with drag shows now a regular — if discreet — occurrence in more cosmopolitan Shanghai, Yan travelled 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) for his stage debut at a bar popular with the LGBT community. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in China in 1997 and was classified as a mental illness until as recently as 2001.

It remains a touchy topic, and the low-key Shanghai Pride annual festival was held for the 12th time in June with organisers declining media coverage. But China’s LGBT community has quietly asserted itself in recent years, forming advocacy groups and challenging the status quo.