The audience is roaring at the jam-packed Anchor bar in Beijing’s Chaoyang district. Lola Du Jour is about to start her performance alongside Anita Schwanz. But first, a word of warning from Lola: “Ladies and gentlemen, before we start the show, remember the three rules: do not touch the queens unless they touch you first; address all queens by their full drag names or ‘Your royal Highness’ – never by their boy names; do not forget to tip your queens.” Drag Queen Story Hour lesson to Hong Kong kids in gender diversity The two drag queens hit the catwalk, prancing about on nine-inch (23cm) heels, flirting with the audience and lip-syncing to carefully chosen songs. Lola is wearing a beautiful turquoise gown, while Anita has opted for a revealing nurse’s outfit, and gives it all she is got on stage while offering the audience sips of vodka from her prop – a large syringe. Anchor’s manager, Sherry Zhao, looks pleased. She has been running the gay bar for four years but drag shows are a relatively new, and hugely popular, addition. Anchor puts on the shows every second Thursday. Zhao, a strong supporter of the drag community, has dressed up in the spirit of the night. Miss Fiona is watching the performance from a table near the wall. Her real name is Richard Dong, a 27-year-old man from Guangdong province in southern China. Dong is dressed in drag but has not yet performed as Miss Fiona. “I’m worried that I’ll make a fool of myself,” he says. Dong came out as gay to his family at the age of 22. “I’m lucky that they took it so well because homosexuality is still a taboo subject for many families in China,” he says. Dong is generally positive about the future of the gay community in China. “In the ’90s, being gay was defined as immoral behaviour, but now we have our own bars, shows and parties – and there are many gay people in top positions in industries around China,” he says. Dong has still not told his family about his dream of performing as a drag queen, “but when I was home for Lunar New Year, I showed my mum an episode of [reality TV show] RuPaul’s Drag Race and she loved it”, he says. A few days after the show, Jack, a 34-year-old British man, shows how he transforms into Elizabeth Stride – his drag persona. Jack has lived in Beijing for more than a decade and has performed as a drag queen for the past five. He begins the long process by opening up what looks like every girl’s dream; a treasure chest of expensive make-up, fake eyelashes and sparkly accessories. Jack learned to apply his own make-up from Kris, 39, whose drag name is Krystal De Canteur. Kris, Chinese but born in Sweden, is a make-up artist and hair stylist, and the owner of the salon where we meet. “I used to just copy make-up looks from YouTube tutorials, but thanks to Kris’ guidance, I now know what I need to focus on. I believe my eyes and my lips are my best features, whereas I really have a man’s nose and a man’s jaw, so those are the features I try to soften,” Jack says. He owns 13 wigs, while Kris has lost count of how many he has. “The wig is a very important part of my drag persona and I feel that I finally become Elizabeth Stride the moment I put on the wig,” Jack says. Kris has been a drag queen for three years. When a friend from the Beijing NGO Beijing Gender asked him if he was interested in performing, he thought “trying drag once is not going to kill me … but it almost did kill me”, he says with a laugh. “It was the first time I wore a corset and it really hurts if you’re not used to it. When I finally took off my newly acquired, cheap stilettos in the taxi on my way home, I was bleeding from my toes. Now I wear open-toe shoes – size 45,” he adds. Krystal de Canteur and Elizabeth Stride are part of the same “haus” – a sorority-like troupe of drag queens – and Kris is the “mother” of the haus. “I happen to be the oldest, but more importantly I’m the one with most professional experience when it comes to hair and make-up,” he explains. Haus of Lily got its name from their “mama-san” – or manager – Tiger Lily. “We sisters help each other because life as a gay man is already hard enough. Life as a drag queen is even harder,” says Kris. Meet the brave drag queens tearing up Hanoi’s nightlife A lot of pressure and planning goes into performances, he says, and it’s all about creating an illusion. “There’s a corset, padding, silicone breasts, and make-up, obviously. Choosing the right song for performances is also an important part of the illusion. If you sing, you do not sound like a woman, but if you lip sync, you look and sound like one,” he explains. When they are not in drag, the Haus of Lily members are just regular guys who play video games, go to the gym and hang out with friends. They all have full-time jobs and Jack is married to a Chinese man with whom he has two surrogate children. They’re comfortable in their own skin and are by no means men who dream of becoming women. It’s all about the joy of performing and keeping the illusion alive. Asked if there is rivalry and drama in the Haus of Lily, Jack says without hesitation: “Eight gay men together – what do you think? We’re a group of eight massive egos, all of whom perform, all of whom have their own style and their own way of thinking, all from different countries. So we do not always agree. “However, no one is superior. We all have to be treated with respect, and for us there is no correct way of doing drag. It’s very much ‘anything goes’ for us”. For the time being, Haus of Lily’s members can perform freely in China, but they worry that things might change and drag could one day be regarded as morally unacceptable. “There is a conversation happening right now in China about the feminisation of men, and that obviously worries us,” says Kris, referring to young men with fresh features and soft personalities who have been dubbed “little fresh meat”. We’re just entertainers. Chinese opera is a traditional art form and it requires so much talent as well as years and years of training Jack, also known as drag queen Elizabeth Stride The Communist Party has in recent years sought to step up social controls to minimise Western influence on Chinese pop culture. TV stations are now blurring out tattoos, earrings on men, and other elements of subculture. “The style that is getting the most hate is not even coming from the West. The feminine boy look comes from Korea and Japan. It’s basically the K-pop look. But the authorities are characterising it as a Western phenomenon, and that is just not fair,” Jack says. He points out that female impersonation has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries – mostly thanks to Peking opera. “There were performers like the famous Mei Langfang. He exclusively sang female roles and was known as the ‘Queen of Peking Opera’, with Chairman Mao as one of his biggest fans,” Jack says. Today, performers such as Liǐ Yugang continue the tradition. Still, neither Jack nor Kris (who both say they love Chinese opera) would ever compare what they do as drag queens to the classical performance art. “We’re just entertainers. Chinese opera is a traditional art form and it requires so much talent as well as years and years of training,” he says. Jack says there is a lot of pressure for performers in China and many Chinese drag queens are worried that people might laugh at them. Chinese audiences tend to be quite frank and are likely to tell you straight to your face how they felt about your performance, he adds. South Korea’s debut drag queen parade held in Seoul It is almost 8pm when Jack finally finishes his transformation, after four hours in front of the mirror. He was right about the wig. The moment he puts it on, the sassy and elegant Elizabeth Stride emerges. Today she has gone for the 1950s housewife look, and after the photo shoot (which, judging by the way she flirts with the camera, is clearly not her first) it is time to wipe off the make-up, take off the corset, and change back into a far less glamorous outfit of check trousers and a pullover.