Mixing Diasporas: Drag Cabaret in SF’s Chinatown
The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in Chinatown (CHSA) hosted Mixing Diasporas: A Drag Cabaret and Beverage Archive on March 3rd. The event was an intercultural, interdisciplinary, event that encouraged community involvement in the stories of both personal and ancestral histories of the audience members. Emcee and Drag King LOTUS BOY took us on a journey along with a trio of intelligent and extremely creative local AAPI drag performers: Phoebe Cakes, OBSIDIENNE OBSURD, and SNJV.
CHSA is the oldest and first museum of its kind in the United States. The fact that there was a drag show happening in the space was a historic event in itself. With the Anti-Drag bills appearing across the US, it is more important than ever to support San Francisco’s diverse and unique community. Justin Hoover, the Executive Director was the creator of the event. I asked him what inspired him to bring this type of show to the museum.
“The drag show is an opportunity to bring a younger and more diverse audience to CHSA,” said Hoover, “It was also inspired by our archives that we have on display in the lobby. There are a number of photographs from the Kubla Khan Nightclub, which was founded by Eddie Pond in 1944. At this club there was singing and dancing, samba and jazz music and all sorts of fun things to do. We have over 900 photos from this club at this time. One of these images shows what looks like a man in cross-dress and performing topless. Seeing this early gender performance was an inspiration to me to start to reach out to other Chinese American and Asian American performance artists in town to say ‘How do you carry on the legacy of the golden era of Chinese performance and Chinese entertainment in San Francisco and Chinatown’.”
Hoover continued, “What’s also important is to think that pioneers and leadership are not just in certain areas. You know, people typically associate Chinese labor with railroad building and gold mining and not a lot else. They were open to creating spheres where people could mix and mingle. In a lot of ways the Chinatown nightlife scene in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and that period was the golden age. It was really a time of trying to make these bridges between cultures. We want to continue to pioneer legacy in more than just one or two stories but really in a broad diversity of stories that explores what still leads to representation today. It’s crazy to think that this type of show wouldn’t be possible in Tennessee right now if we did it because of the new laws that they passed. It’s important to see young Chinese Americans and young diverse AAPI people express themselves in this way,” Hoover concluded.
The show took place in the museum where the show ‘We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family’ is displayed. It opened last April and celebrates Lee’s life and career which began in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Bruce Lee was the first Asian American superstar. As a kid living in the neighborhood, we all heard a lot about him. I certainly wanted to be Bruce Lee when I grew up. He was what we all aspired to. Lee was also a philosopher and visionary who championed inclusivity. It was a wonderful cultural evolution to see the glittering performers floating through the exhibits.
The show begins with LOTUS BOY asking the audience to write what they thought their ideal cocktail was. Each of the performers had already created a signature drink to purchase and enjoy. We were asked to tie our memories and our experiences to ingredients of our choosing. The woman next to me read me her recipe which included pine, rosemary and yellow flowers warmed by the sun steeped in champagne. The man who was with her began to explain that his cocktail existed in a vessel called a klein bottle that could never be filled. I didn’t get to hear more about this (and will probably always wonder) because the performers took stage and the attention was all on them.
This is not the first time I had seen LOTUS BOY perform and I hope it is not the last. His desire to be inclusive, to entertain and to teach was inspiring. They introduced us to Phoebe Cakes, who made us laugh and had us wrapped around her little finger as she struck grand poses and lip-synced in a webbing of pearls. OBSIDIENNE OBSURD surprised everyone when they whipped out a viola during a number and showed us just how talented a musician they are.
SNJV whirled through the room as clouds of wine-stained saffron-colored cloth floated around his body and punctuated his every move. The stains are a reminder to him to be aware of the impact that alcohol has on South Asian culture. All of these artists are worth seeing and getting to know if you can.
LOTUS BOY (Ze/Zir, He/Him, They/Them) is a shapeshifting, transgender and nonbinary, unapologetically disabled & chronically ill-ustrious Chinese-American drag king and ANTIdisciplinary artist based in occupied Lisjan Ohlone land, AKA Oakland, CA. Ze explores gender fluidity, accessibility, healing from trauma, and rage through the mediums of poetry, lipsync, ancestral movement (qi gong and tai chi), monologue, and original music.
Why do you perform?
LOTUS BOY, “I perform because it is what keeps my spirit alive and pushing forward. Because I feel it is part of my gift to offer to the world and my communities; to create art that has an impact on the way people think about themselves and the world around them, in the service of collective liberation. I perform because it is a way to process trauma, a way to express myself, and a way to try and connect with others when words alone don’t suffice.”
SNJV (pronouns/ all) is an artist using dance, drag, and drama to showcase humanity. Infusing culture into dance and fashion, SNJV creates performances for stage and film. SNJV started performing at four-years-old years old and has not stopped. SNJV holds the title of Mr. GAPA (GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance) and is the first South-Asian title holder in GAPA’s history. In addition, he is the co-founder of Parivar-a social collective to support and celebrate queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks connected to the South Asian diaspora. He is also a filmmaker and educator who lectures about his research on drag, dance, and identity in university and corporate spaces.
Why do you perform?
SNJV, “I perform because I’m compelled by the force of creativity that flows through me. I find so much joy and connection to the divine because I get to tell stories using my body. Whether I am performing a Drag number or playing a character in a show, I find it powerful to allow myself freedom to be who I need to be for that moment.
I perform because I am intent on spreading the power of Drag. Drag is often exemplified through gender performance. It is thought of as a person of one gender identity exploring another through fashion, art, and performance. Sure, it can be that, and it is an ever-evolving creative expression of humanity. Drag, to me, is such a pure art form, one that knows itself so deeply and expresses with grandeur and intention. I perform because I am my purest self when I do so.”
Phoebe Cakes is an Oakland-based drag queen, house mother, and host. She hosts trivia bi-monthly at the Port Bar, produces and hosts Cake Hole with Kai Kai Bee Michaels, and can be found performing and hosting throughout the Bay—most recently she hosted Princess at Oasis. She is a curator this year for the drag festival Oaklash. She holds Best Talent titles for both the GAPA Runway Pageant and The High Princex Pageant. Out of drag, Phoebe is Robert Andrew Perez—an award-winning filmmaker, poet, and dog parent.
Why do you perform?
Phoebe Cakes, “I perform for both personal catharsis and social imperative. Drag is a culmination of all of my intellectual and creative interests and allows me to explore my own queerness and fullness, as well as champion and connect with other queer creatives. Drag is one of the most versatile, inter-/multidisciplinary, powerful, and visible mediums for story-telling; my one big hope is that I can leave a legacy through my participation in the art that inspires others to live more fully and openly.”
OBSIDIENNE OBSURD is a shapeshifter, a stunning visual spectacle, a striking silhouette, purveyor of the uncanny, and a genderless drag performance artist making and working in San Francisco. Since relocating to the Bay in 2021, OBSIDIENNE has taken the drag community by storm, appearing at acclaimed venues such as the OASIS in SoMa, Herbst Theatre, the Swedish American Hall, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and historic leather bar Powerhouse. OBSIDIENNE’s work centralizes the fusion and reclamation of their Chinese heritage and understanding of positionality in diaspora as permuted through strong visual motif.
Why do you perform?
You can learn more about CHSA here:
Where to find the Performers and where they will be next:
Lotus Boy: https://www.instagram.com/kinglotusboy/?hl=enhttps://www.kinglotusboy.com
Phoebe Cakes: https://www.instagram.com/shehaslayers/
OBSIDIENNE OBSURD: https://www.instagram.com/0bsurdly/?hl=en