Listen to Episode Three: “Unapologetic Queering: Cultural Identity and Drag”
Speakers: Minah Lee, Kendall Yan, Van Dang, Romi Kim
VAN: I just need to prepare him. So I was like, “Don’t be scared tomorrow if I have makeup on.” And he said, “It’s okay, you do you. Whatever you want.” And then–
[Theme music fades in over dialogue]
MINAH: Welcome to the pilot podcast by Cinevolution, a grassroots, women led, migrant driven film and media arts organization situated on the occupied, traditional, ancestral territories of the hǝn̓q̓ ǝmin̓ ǝm̓ speaking peoples, including the xʷməθkwəy̓əm and other Coast Salish peoples, also known as Richmond BC. My name is Minah Lee. I am a first generation immigrant settler hosting this podcast from the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, also known as Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.
This podcast is a six episode series on art, culture, and race in today’s world. Through intimate conversations with artists, filmmakers, and community organizers, we explore current experiences and perspectives from the Asian diaspora.
Today’s episode is Unapologetic Queering: Cultural Identity and Drag. All Asian drag artists from the House of Rice talk about representation, racism and redressing of their identities through their relationships and performances as chosen family members, sharing their meals.
[01:22] MINAH: I’m very excited to have three members from the House of Rice for this episode. The House of Rice, founded by Shay Dior, is Vancouver’s iconic all Asian drag family, composed of incredible artists who are hungry to showcase the beauty, talent and strength in being a QTPOC individual. With Asian cultures and societies being traditionally homophobic, the House of Rice aims to provide inspiration for other queer Asian youth to feel safe in exploring their identities. The members of the House of Rice come from diverse educational, artistic and most importantly, cultural backgrounds, but are united by their shared goal of creating visibility and representing the queer Asian community. Welcome, Van, Kendall, and Romi! I will let you introduce yourselves.
VAN: Hi, my name is Van Dang, or in drag, you’ll know me as Shay Dior, Mother of the House of Rice. I am a Vietnamese Canadian drag artist here in Vancouver. I also am the founder and coproducer of Ricecake, a queer Asian dance party here in Vancouver as well. I like to call myself, or I like to see myself, as the queer Asian revolutionist at the moment, trying to just do as much as I can to bring visibility and representation from the queer Asian community onto the main stage for everyone to see it.
KENDALL: Hi, everyone. My name is Kendall Yan or my Chinese name is 甄念菻. I am a second generation Chinese trans femme non-binary artist. I live in the stolen lands of the Squamish, the Musqueam, and the Tsleil-Waututh nations. My arts practice is primarily centered around my drag identity, which is Maiden China. And in drag, I like to explore themes of vulnerability, queer ritual, and liminal experiences. I incorporate Chinese opera, glamour, punk, and performance art into that performance practice. I’m a member of the House of Rice, the first daughter of the house. And I am also a part of the Darlings which is a non-binary drag performance collective that’s based out of Vancouver as well, and one of the co-owners of Queer Based Media, which is a media company that produces content for queer creators.
ROMI: Hi, I’m Romi Kim or 김새로미 in Korean or Skim in drag. I usually use the words queer, gender fluid and second generation to describe myself. I like to think about those words as verbs rather than nouns or adjectives. I think they’re always constantly changing or in flux. I’m currently wearing a red touque. And I’ve been thinking about the word lesbians a lot lately. [Laughs] I think I might be adding that to my description as well. And I am an interdisciplinary artist. I work within performance, video, installation and really thinking about the idea of a story, as well as histories, archives, what becomes empower and how knowledges become seen as norms, I think. And I’m currently finishing my Masters in Fine Arts right now as well.
[05:10] MINAH: Fantastic. So I’ve got some prompt questions for you, to get your conversation going. What does being visible mean to you?
VAN: Being visible to me just means like, existing and showing– showing up, and making ourselves known to the general public. I find that because of our traditional upbringings, we are often afraid to– we’re taught to keep our heads down, and to not make a scene and just go and get through life to be successful. And that doesn’t really allow for visibility, if we’re not being loud and we’re not being unapologetically ourselves. I think being visible is to showcase ourselves as much as we can to show people that we do exist, and we are here.
KENDALL: Yeah, I would echo all of that. I think to add, maybe, I think sometimes visibility can be a bit of a double edged sword, in that to be visible is to be perceived, and thus, a bit vulnerable. And so sometimes I think about this in the way of, you know, as a racialized person, and as a trans person, to be visible can sometimes be dangerous. And some people might be looking at you, but not necessarily seeing you as the person. So it’s like taking up space can be a bit risky, depending on what kind of identity you take. But I think it is important, as Van was saying, to take up that space. And it is empowering for other people who are like you to then feel like they also have a space.
ROMI: Yeah, I think what Kendall said about it being a double edged sword is very relatable to me. I think there’s a bit of a burden, when you might have an identity that isn’t really seen in mainstream media. And so often, I think the idea of representation is kind of thrown onto you. And sometimes I think people might, yeah, see you as almost a stereotype, in a sense, even when you’re just kind of trying to exist as yourself. But I think also being visible is really important in order to– yeah, take up space. And feel– yeah, I think, feeling seen, rather than just being seen through is important.
[06:55] MINAH: Thank you for that. I think there’s something about also representing Asian identity and vulnerability in that. So all of you use striking Asian traditional aesthetics in your drag. Why is queering your traditional culture important to you?
VAN: I think for me, because traditional culture, for each of us doesn’t include queer– anything queer at all. And I think if we don’t do it, who else will?
KENDALL: Yeah, exactly. I think, in my own personal experience, I have two queer siblings, as well as some queer cousins. And I have seen just like, in my own family dynamics, some of us not be accepted by certain family members, and knowing that from a young age that that wasn’t to be talked at, at certain tables. I think it’s important for me that I can make that connection just for my own sanity [laughs], because it feels like if you don’t do that, then you have to fracture parts of yourself and separate your queerness from also your heritage, and it just doesn’t really make sense to me to do that. It feels very isolating.
ROMI: I think for me, I’m really interested in looking through my culture, my histories, because I think those queer histories and stories were always there, but I think certain powers have kind of erased them. And certain stories and histories have become the ones that are constantly being told. And I think me queering those histories, allows for, yeah, different possibilities to hold in the future, I think. And I think that’s really important for me.
KENDALL: Yeah, if I could add to that, just because that sparked something in my head of in terms of a thing that I have been really focused on in the last year or so has been queering veneration rituals and traditions. And in that vein that those stories have always been there, there have been queer Asian people for as long as there have been people. So there’s a certain element of when you are queering those traditions, or queering culture, it’s like a connection to those ancestors that you have that were also part of that lineage, right? So yeah, I really liked that you said that, Romi, because it’s definitely true. It’s always been a part of the culture, it just hasn’t– it’s been taken out of the historical document or out of the practice.
ROMI: Totally. There’s this one Korean myth that I really love called, 바리데기. And it’s about this thrown away princess, and eventually, she– the whole story is about how she becomes the first Shaman. But in this myth, in this shaman myth, rather than going back to the kingdom, or trying to be a princess again, she basically goes to the underworld and dresses as man to travel everywhere, and then marries this dude, but then is like, “yeah, I can marry you, I guess. But I’m just trying to be a shaman.” And marries him just to become a Shaman and travels the world after. It’s just a really incredible queer as fuck story, and I’m like, 바리데기, you were a true non-binary legend!
KENDALL: Yeah, totally.
VAN: Just marrying for the power and–
[12:16] MINAH: Oh, wow. Yeah. That’s so beautiful, the reconnecting that you raised– ancestors and heritage and stories– myth and also reinterpreting and drawing that connections. When do you feel accepted by your own traditional culture, if you do?
KENDALL: I think it’s interesting, because there are times when I feel accepted and times when I feel rejected, right? So I think growing up, my father has always been very openly loving towards me and my siblings, and when it came to my queerness and my transness has been nothing but 100% supportive, it’s just his first nature. And a lot of my understanding of cultural practice and spirituality comes from him. His practice is sort of like he does what feels good, and he does what feels right to him. So I’ve always kind of learned maybe that doing things in a strictly traditional way is not always best for an individual. And actually, just to– I don’t know if this is rambling, but to paraphrase, I also heard from an elder in the community here in Vancouver, Paul Wong, who’s an incredible artist and said to some artist friends of mine, “If the culture doesn’t respect you, why are you trying so hard to respect it?” Which, you know, can maybe be a bit of a contentious statement, but I think in that is when I feel accepted, it’s from the people who are going to accept me, if that makes sense, you know. There are family members who just won’t talk about queerness and if it comes up, it’ll just be a silent thing. And I think I learned through how loving my father is to me and the way that I’ve connected my culture that I really don’t need to waste a lot of time on those people who don’t understand me or who don’t want to let me into the space.
MINAH: They might just not be ready yet.
ROMI: I think– it’s interesting because I feel like the first thing I thought about was like in Korea, when I’m there, it’s interesting because I never have to tell people my pronouns, and I never really have to tell or correct them either, just because in Korean, you never really use pronouns. So in that sense, I often feel very accepted in terms of gender, because I never really have to talk about it or people. But in English when I hear, like even in my cohort, I’m just constantly correcting people, or– not even just about my own pronouns, but other people’s pronouns, too. And so there’s– I don’t know, I feel like acceptance is such a temporal kind of feeling. And that moment of feeling like you’re stumbling, or like you don’t really belong, it’s so quick. And it happens in every kind of moment in every kind of culture in different kind of ways, I think. Yeah, it’s complicated.
VAN: Yeah, I feel like with my Vietnamese culture, I moved away from home, from Ontario, about six years ago. And I don’t really have a strong Vietnamese community here. I do have friends who are Vietnamese, and we just go about– just our lives. But we don’t– I don’t totally– we haven’t created a Vietnamese specific community. It’s just been like a queer Asian– like our family, the House of Rice and our events and stuff like that have just been like an umbrella of queer Asian community. But I don’t have a Vietnamese community to be concerned about being accepted here. However, my parents did visit recently, and they– I got to share with them my drag for the first time last week, and my– it was terrifying. But it was a beautiful moment when I performed and I held my hand out to my mom, and she grabbed my hand, stood up and hugged me during the middle of the number. And that was probably the most accepted I’ve felt, for my family and forever.
[17:10] MINAH: That’s so beautiful. There’s certain responsibility we feel as family members and also just a member of the society. And when you represent something, often you feel certain responsibility. Do you feel any pressure in representing your culture, whether it be queer culture or your own heritage?
KENDALL: I definitely think that there is pressure in representing culture, both in a queer sense, and for myself personally as a Chinese person. In terms of– you know, there is that element of being unapologetic, and like, if you don’t respect me, then so be it, I don’t need to waste time on you. But I also don’t want to, you know, misrepresent myself or members of my community. And I know that when you are a performer, you hold a certain platform, and there are a lot of people who are looking to you, and a lot of people who might form their opinions of your community based on what you do.
I can think of I did a performance with lion dancing in it and my friend, Kimberly Wong, who borrowed the lion, and was dancing in the lion with me afterwards, we got a message and someone criticized us because we had no training in martial arts. And that was definitely something that made me take a step back and realize, you know, there is a certain amount of responsibility and training that someone might hold in order to be able to practice that art. But I do think that that person didn’t also consider the fact that lion dancing has been a martial art form that has been gatekept from women and from queer people, and to have it in in a queer space for me, that was the thing that I was focused on, you know, to bring the culture to the queer stage. But you know, these things are so complex, right? So I think the pressure is definitely there and that experience made me really step out of myself and to think there are there are so many things to consider every time you get in front of a group of people.
MINAH: Yeah, I remember you talking about that in the film, Yellow Peril, that featured you very beautifully. And that feeling of not being Chinese enough. And I think, yeah, a lot of second generation immigrant feel that way, and there’s certain– that sense of yearning and loneliness that I feel. Thank you. Romi or Van, do you want to add anything?
ROMI: Yeah, sure, I can speak to that. I think for me, I remember this time when I was performing in a drag king show in Korea. And I had chosen to do a song that was by U-ie, who’s a Korean singer, who I think she identifies as a woman. And it was an all drag king competition, and I was the only one that chose to do a song by a woman. And I remember getting a little bit of– going to a rehearsal one day and getting a little bit of backlash from the person who was producing it saying, like, she didn’t really see the idea of masculinity in there and wasn’t really sure about it. And was very nice and was like, “Oh, but it’s a really good performance, but would you maybe consider doing like a drag king number instead.” And so, of course, I had to really consider what my role was. But in the end, I just did what I want. I did that song and just told her, my drag doesn’t– and it’s not dependent on a certain voice or a certain idea of what masculinity or femininity or what being a man or a woman is. I’m really thinking about, yeah, how to push those kinds of boundaries, and think about what fluidity can look like. And, yeah, I think there was definitely pressure, even still is, to kind of showcase a certain type of drag with the body that I’m in.
[20:47] MINAH: As you know, a first generation immigrant from Korea, I really understand, you know, the kind of tension that exists just in the gender politics and the gender representations and everything. It’s really intense divides there and in people’s psyche.
A little bit more about cultural representation, but some of the national representation. I know the House of Rice have some members from other nations or other cultures. Shay, just as the mother of the House of Rice, do you feel responsible to represent Asia in broader and more embracing ways?
VAN: I do. And I also feel like it ties into the question before about pressure. I definitely feel that there is pressure for me to try and incorporate and include as many representatives of Asia in a broader kind of way. But I know that I can’t spread myself too thin, but I was– I try and do different things to kind of help represent Asia in a broader sense.
Recently, with my Ricecake party, we focused our March party around the Holi festival, which is a Hindu holiday, which is the festival of colour and life and the beginning of spring. But this being a Hindu holiday, we wanted to cast an entire lineup of just South Asian drag performers, South Asian DJs, and South Asian gogo dancers. And we took a step back as performers and we wanted to make sure that this underrepresented community would be able to get the spotlight and get that visibility and representation that I’ve been fighting for for everyone else as well, but with more focus on these individuals and it was a very beautiful, beautiful night. The amount– like the energy in the room was just magical, seeing how many of these folks, who I don’t think generally feel like they are seen, just came out and just celebrated their queerness, celebrated their culture, on the floor, on the stage. It was just so magical. I cried probably three times that night.
MINAH: That sounds really powerful. I remember– I think it was one of your digital performance the House of Rice did, mentioning the discrimination that can be felt by darker skinned Asians. So, you know, there are indeed lots of divisions and discrimination existing amongst the Asian communities. So, you know, bringing all those people together and under the House of Rice or Ricecake party and just mingle and celebrate and represent unapologetically, that sounds really powerful. So thank you.
[25:35] Yeah. So talking a little bit more about character and variety of representation. I’m curious about your drag names. And Maiden China, your name is really brilliant, as are your performances, I find some humour in it, that you know, comments on our culture that stigmatizes made in China products. At the same time, North American culture consumes a huge quantity of them, and they need them in the current economic situation and the cycle. Is there any memorable backstory in deciding your drag name?
KENDALL: Yeah, I– well, and just to speak on that, and the stigma– the stigma around even just the phrase made in China printed on a product. I remember, from a very young age hearing the sort of negative connotation with that and just subliminally understanding that if a product came from China, it was not good. And it was– there’s like– yeah, that stigma was very real. But when I came up with the name, there’s definitely humour in it. There’s definitely– it’s sassy and cheeky in the sense that I would–
I’ve been asked the question of where I’m from by white people throughout my life. It happens all the time. And a lot of the time I will say that I’m Chinese and people kind of don’t believe me because I’m mixed, and because they think that I’m, you know, racially ambiguous or whatever. And so the name Maiden China was sort of like a cheeky thing of like, I actually– I was born in Canada, I wasn’t made in China, but it’s like this reinforcement of just like, the only way that they’ll understand that is if you’re just Chinese enough for them to be made in China. And then also that that’s something that they think is negative. Yeah, but I definitely– I very much resonate with that you thought of that in the name, because I talked about it with my brother, Brandon, all the time. Just about those experiences growing up and having people throw that in our face.
VAN: I really hate that stigma of it being bad. Which is why I love you so much. [Laughter]
MINAH: Yeah, it’s really interesting, the cultural, you know, that connotation, and playing with it and being light about– kind of playing with that notion for people to digest the difficult issues of racism and labour and a lot of things. How about you too, Shay and Romi, any backstories?
VAN: [Laughing] Well, my original, first drag name I had ever come up with was Venus Guytrap. [Laughter] She is long dead. But then when I decided to actually– this was when I was doing a charity drag show and I didn’t think I was going to actually do drag. But then when I decided that I wanted to take drag more seriously, I wanted to come up with a name that was punny, but didn’t sound so gimmicky off the bat. And I literally was just cycling through different ways of– different puns. And I came across Shay Dior, which sounds expensive, but she’s just a shady whore. And my favourite thing is when people who have known me for four years are coming to me out of nowhere being like, “Hey, just got your name.” It happens every so often. And I feel accomplished every single time someone comes up to me and says, “Oh my god, I just realized what your name meant.”
ROMI: That was literally me; I did not know what your name meant until you explained it to me eight months after I met you, when I was in the house and you were like my mom already.
VAN: It’s amazing. I love it
MINAH: Amazing. Yeah, you know, even with my English language barrier to English language, I love puns. It’s just– that’s the moment when I love this language. Thank you! Romi!
ROMI: Skim comes from my full name spelled in English so Saeromi, but it’s pronounced 새로미 in Korean, and then Kim, but pronounced 김 in Korean. And I think up until grade eight that I decided to go by Romi because as a kid, they would always say salami or they would pronounce weird or they would look– like the SARS epidemic that happened here, so then people called me SARS for a while.
[Cross talk as all react]
And so then I mean, like, I really love my name in Korean, because I think there’s also kind of an ambiguous idea around it of like, not really knowing if the person is a woman or a man. But in English, I think it just isn’t as– yeah, it doesn’t have the same feeling for me. What I wanted to have my drag name kind of be still a part of me. And I also really love the book Skim. And I can’t remember the author, but she’s a Japanese woman, and the graphic novel just talks about this teenager who’s going through their first lesbian awakening. And the main character is also an Asian girl. And I remember reading that book and being like, wow, this is the first time I’ve ever read anything, and seen a graphic novel with a queer Asian character. So that book, and then also just like my name, it just comes from my given name.
[32:37] MINAH: I really like your name in Korean, I mean it. It’s beautiful. Oh, my God. Yeah, the calling you SARS– that hurts. [Laughter] Maybe this is a time to talk about COVID-19 pandemic and your collective activism and also individual activism. Has there been a big challenge while you’re living through your activism in the face of anti Asian racism during this time?
VAN: I feel like for me, the biggest challenge was that people didn’t believe that there was anti Asian racism. Like the fact that we had to continually produce content and like posts and share to bring awareness to the fact that it was such a huge increase of hate crimes and acts that were happening around the world, specifically in our neighbourhoods, in our communities. But that was needed, because people weren’t believing that it was an issue. I think that was the biggest challenge.
Yeah, I think in a similar vein, I think it was really difficult to get to the point of you know, making a post or checking in on people or producing numbers that specifically talked about the racism that was happening to me and other people in the community because it was like, you’re already so traumatized and tired. And at the same time, there’s just a responsibility to do that, because otherwise, you know, who else is going to? But yeah, I think it’s just like the fatigue of just having to, like Van said, post about it so that people would believe you or validate that experience.
MINAH: You have one another. Romi.
KENDALL: True, yes.
ROMI: I don’t even know if I would call myself an activist. I know if you were to look at me from outside perspective, sure. Or maybe that could be a word to describe me. But I think the hardest thing was just feeling settled in my body. Because I think there was moments during all of these really terrible things that are happening, just like stories that are being told to me of people getting spat on, or people saying, like, “you don’t belong here,” or that kind of thing. I remember, there was a moment, there was like weeks during the pandemic, where I was nervous to go outside, and I was nervous to cough and I was nervous to hang out with my family.
And then the hardest thing for me that I went through was when the Atlanta shootings happened. Because– family in Atlanta, and then most of the women that were murdered, were Korean women. And during that experience, I wasn’t really thinking about oh, how should I convince people– this is terrible shit that’s happening and this is racism and this is sexism, misogyny and all of this. I was just thinking about my family and my body and what would have happened, if it was my family that was there. And through that experience, I did this drag show. And we were able to– and it was just an online drag show, which Maiden China also performed in, I think that was quite depressing and sad. But I think it kind of shared a lot of my feelings about how I was feeling at that time. And yeah, we were able to also raise some money from the audience members and donate that money to– I believe we donated to SWAN Vancouver, actually, and some of the families that the Atlanta murders affected as well.
[37:11] MINAH: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I remember that time I was actually working with you as well during Digital Carnival, Romi, and another artist who was a sex worker in America, and I was thinking about all those folks a lot and checked in, and at the time, that artist responded– I mean, her auto email responded that, you know, I really have to take this time off to grieve and care for my community. And, you know, I was trying to get work done for the project, but you know, it seemed like, that’s not important anymore. You– we really have to care about those big, big, tragedy in our community and take certain actions that are maybe a bit challenging in the capitalist society we live in. I felt very sad, during that time and also that sense of isolation and intensified fear and all of that makes me also think about your kind of like shift towards more of digital production and representations of your identities. Did the pandemic and expanded digital production of your performances change the nature of your solidarity as a family?
VAN: I think so. Throughout the pandemic, I was working full time as assistant manager of a pharmacy general store company. So I was working frontline the entire time. And like Romi said, I was terrified of coughing in the store where the public could see me, even if it was just like a little tickle in the back of my throat and I just needed to get rid of it. I would hold it in until tears were coming down, until I could get to the back, so I can be out of sight just to clear my throat or cough, because I was afraid of how the public would perceive that or treat me based on me being Asian and coughing in public.
I did a digital number drag performance that was basically trying to bring that to light of me still being a frontline worker but still being called– being seen as a carrier of a virus and stuff like that when I’m trying to just help out the public by providing the essentials that everyone needed during this time. And then I think from there, we were able to– we were reached out to do a couple digital productions. And I think just being able to work on these productions together, we were able to kind of unify as a house and kind of send each other support and stay connected with one another, while during this time of isolation.
Our first biggest project was called In Rice-olation, which was presented by Upintheair Festival, and it was their rEvolver festival turned into an online festival called e-Volver. And it was actually the first show that included every single member of the House at the current time, because– ironically, it was when we were all not able to actually see each other. But me and Maiden China, Kendall, we were at the theatre, live, performing live, but we also used video projections of each of the members of the House and incorporated that into our live show. And we also were able to end off the entire show with me and Kendall enjoying a bowl of rice onstage while the projection behind us showcased each member of the House of Rice also enjoying rice together. So we were able to end off with a huge family dinner, even though we were all in rice-olation.
MINAH: So beautiful. I was literally crying while I was watching that. [Laughter] –family moment– you’re my chosen family. Yeah, it’s– you know, this time, we are living in a very difficult time. The world is really torn apart with all the tensions and conflicts and war. And I really appreciate the kind of unity and love and care you have in your House. So, thank you. And again, brilliant pun. [Laughter]
ROMI: Shay is the queen of puns. Every other week, she’s sending me new drag queen names or drag king names.
MINAH: Awesome. Fun. Yeah. So anything else you want to add? Other experiences, Kendall and Romi, you had during this pandemic and digital work together?
ROMI: Yeah, there was so many online Zoom shows. And of course, it’s never gonna be the same as a live show, but I think there’s still that sense of togetherness, because it’s still a live show. And I still think about those moments performing in front of a webcam. And I still felt those nerves. And it definitely made me think about performing in a very different way. I think we turned out some very interesting, creative things. Kendall especially. Yeah, Maiden China has done some really–
KENDALL: Thank you. Yeah, I think doing online shows really pushed my creativity to a new space. And I kind of– there’s a part of me that hopes that online shows will still happen even though we’re back to being in person. Yeah, I like the accessibility of it too, for people who are immunocompromised and still don’t feel comfortable going out or who have other accessibility issues.
[43:44] MINAH: Yeah. Thank you for that. Just in general, what drives you to take risks, and what was the biggest risk you took recently?
KENDALL: I think risk is exciting, because it pushes you sometimes, you know, when it works out in your favor, it pushes you to go outside of your comfort zone. And for me, this week was a big week of performance risks. I did a show with a friend of mine who’s also in The Darlings named P.M., and we did a drag swap. So we put each other in our drag and then performed each other’s music and it was terrifying. But I learned that I can do more funny, silly things in drag. Yeah, and it just opened my eyes to being comfortable with not 100%– like I said before, wanting to be obsessed with being in control. Yeah.
MINAH: What about Romi and Van?
ROMI: Mine is kind of silly.
MINAH: Oh, that’s okay. That’s the best sometimes.
ROMI: I tend to choose my words very carefully and I think I’m kind of like a guarded person. But I think lately, I’m trying to become more open with other people. And I think lesbian is a word that it’s like, come into my vocabulary. And I’m like, I love lesbians, but also like, I don’t know where they are. I’d be like, there’s no– I’m always at shows now, I’m like, where are the lesbians? Are there any lesbians here tonight? [Inaudible cross talk] Literally at the show. There’ll be one lesbian like, “Yeah, I’m here!” And then I’ll get whoever’s announcing to be like, “Okay, well, they’re looking for lesbians; give me the best lesbian energy!”
It’s very funny. But also, I’m just– I’m thinking about lesbians because it’s always a word that I wanted to call myself, but of course, as someone who uses they/them pronouns, as someone who’s gender non conforming, gender fluid, I wasn’t ever sure if I was allowed to use that word. But of course, words change, and words can be very personal and they can really mean whatever you want them to mean. So I feel like using the word lesbian to identify myself and look for other lesbians and kind of try and open up that word and de-gender it, it feels like a little bit of a risk, because I feel like sometimes people want to keep certain words to mean certain things. Yeah, it’s kind of silly.
MINAH: It’s great.
VAN: Yeah. I think for me, the biggest– I mean, I feel like the only thing I think about was the biggest risk that I took is inviting my dad out to my drag show. I had told my mom back in Thanksgiving, so back in October, about my drag, and then they asked– they wanted to come visit this past month. And I was trying to find a time to book them and get them over here. And then I realized that I wanted my mom to come see my drag, but my dad had no idea anything about my drag. And I decided to book it, their trip, so that their departure date would be a day or two after my show. So I would spend the week with them, but then they would come see my show. And if my dad had an issue or it was just negative reception, that he would just leave the next day.
And then it was– I think it was the night– the day before the show. He had gone to the restroom, and I asked my mom– I was like, “So he knows about the show, right?” And she’s like, “Yeah,” and I was like, “He knows I’m wearing makeup, right?” And she’s like, “Sure?” And I was just like, “Uh, what?” She’s like, “Yeah, sure. Yeah, he knows.” And I was like, “Okay.” And then later that day, I was like, I just need to prepare him. So I was like, “Don’t be scared tomorrow if I have makeup on.” And he said, “It’s okay, you do you. Whatever you want.” And then he said something along the lines of “So what do you mean by makeup? Are you going to have also a wooden leg and something for your– like a hook hand or something?” And I was like, oh my god, does he think I’m being like Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depp? I know Johnny Depp has a smoky eye, but that’s not my drag. [Laughter] And so that was like the base that I had to go off of when I invited him to the show, that that’s all he knew what was happening.
VAN: It ended up being well received and he enjoyed the show a lot, actually. But it was definitely terrifying thinking that his only idea was me being Johnny Depp.
ROMI: Your parents are so cute.
MINAH: I’m really happy that he enjoyed it.
VAN: He even had– he took interest in the tipping culture and asked– because Kara Juku was also in the show, and her sister was in the audience next to my parents, so she was translating in Vietnamese and speaking with them in Vietnamese. So they were able to ask more questions about it and kind of understand the whole drag situation a little bit more. So it was really nice.
[49:51] MINAH: Yeah, that’s great that you also really put so much care to prepare him to actually face you as you. Oh, that’s beautiful. So I want to ask you about celebration habits and family relations a little bit. Rice is so essential for all of you. Other than rice, is there any other significant ingredient that keeps your family together? It’s a silly question.
KENDALL: Yeah, definitely. Definitely noodles. And soy–
VAN: –sauce, kimchi.
MINAH: Oh yeah. I need them.
KENDALL: I think also maybe not an ingredient, but I don’t think House of Rice has done a hot pot, but I’ve done a hot pot with Van and other friends. Hot pot was a thing that through the pandemic, just in my apartment with my partner and our roommate at the time that was really, really important. Just eating together and trying to keep some semblance of some routine in the timeless era of the pandemic.
VAN: We’ve done a Korean barbecue together at Romi’s place.
KENDALL: Oh, yeah. That was really nice.
ROMI: Yeah, well–
VAN: We’ve done a lot of dimsum.
ROMI: Yeah, I think dimsum is the big one.
MINAH: That makes me hungry.
KENDALL: Yeah, me too.
[51:31] MINAH: It seems like eating together is really your shared ritual. Is there– do you have any individual, personal, mundane, or regular rituals you practice these days?
KENDALL: Mundane rituals: I’m pretty obsessed with skincare. So, that’s one of my very key self care things that I like to do for myself as a performer, just because we wear so much makeup. And then culturally, through the pandemic, I set up an ancestral altar in my home. So I try to remember to do that daily. And there are photographs on my altar table of different trans icons throughout history who have passed. And so I tried to queer the ritual that way by incorporating them as well as keeping my family members in my mind too. Yeah, and then I guess, weekly, I take an estrogen shot. So that’s that’s also a very important ritual for me.
MINAH: Nice. Van and Romi?
VAN: I don’t think I really have any rituals. I’m just struggling to organize all the things that I have going on.
MINAH: Aw, your responsibility as a mother! The mother! Yeah, maybe that’s that’s your personal ritual. Van, in one of your media interviews, you talk about your drag children from mainland China, and you imagine their struggles. I think you’re such a good mother, really emphasizing similar but different challenges your children go through. And have you ever felt like your mothering is not enough, as many mothers often have this kind of feeling towards their children? My mom does.
VAN: Yeah, I think there are definitely times where I worry that it’s not enough. I think there are times where I am focused on trying to get as much– as many shows for the House as possible, or trying to organize as many events and bookings for each of the members of the House that I forget to focus on the connection between the house members, and I think I worry that sometimes if there’s tension between any of the members or something, I’m failing in that sense. But then I also have to remind myself that we are a family and families are never perfect. And our goal is to just work through things together and it’s not all on me. But as a mother I a lot of times put that pressure on myself and that expectation on myself.
[54:32] MINAH: Yeah, absolutely. That’s not easy to navigate, family politics. Every household has its politics and you know, some days are great. Some other days are not easy. I have a last question for each of you. What is your favourite holiday and why?
ROMI: Mine is my birthday!
MINAH: Oh, yay!
VAN: is that a holiday?
MINAH: Yes, national holiday! You have to claim it.
ROMI: My birthday is on February 11. I just really love birthdays in general. I love celebrating everyone’s birthday. I think it’s just a reminder to be grateful for that person and celebrate another year of survival, I guess. And it’s a really fun excuse to see all your friends, eat cake. And yeah, I just remember as a kid, that was the only time that I would see my mother consistently. Every year she would always throw these really elaborate parties for me. It was always just like a celebration of love. So I like to celebrate everyone’s birthdays, and especially my own.
MINAH: Of course, and it’s quite interesting that Koreans eat seaweed soup on their birthday because it’s the soup your mom will likely have when she gave birth to you. After losing lots of blood, it’s just the best food you can have.
ROMI: Yeah, I also heard that it was this myth in history: Korean people used to see whales give birth and then eat seaweed.
ROMI: –give them strength. And that’s why [inaudible] too, but I’m not sure that’s just what my mom told me.
VAN: I think my favourite holiday is Halloween. Because I love the monstrous side and the dark evil side. A lot of my drag is inspired by villainous, evil characters. And Halloween, I get to explore that even further and have fun with that. I think the last Halloween, I did this very terrifying skull monster. And I had so much fun just painting it on and creating the look. And the performance was basically just the look itself.
KENDALL: It was really scary. That makeup was so good.
I think I also like– Halloween is one of my favourite holidays. Yeah, I love spooky-ooky things. I also identify in some ways as a witch so it feels very appropriate.
KENDALL: Yeah, I loved dressing up as a kid and I feel like I have a lot of positive memories with my birth family, like my blood family around Halloween. And then I think in a more cultural context, I love Lunar New Year. I think– I love to eat, so always getting together with family and it also was a time, I think growing up in, you know, a white suburban neighbourhood, where I felt like it was okay to really celebrate Chinese culture, for me and it was very present in my house. Where I think most of the time it wasn’t usually so.
MINAH: Yeah. I think it’s great to end on food. And thank you so much for the feast, this conversation feast. I really appreciate it, and it was fun. Thank you.
For more information about In Tanglement, and the list of resources for information mentioned in this episode, including links to CBC’s interview with Shay Dior, a short documentary following the story of Maiden China, and more information about their In Rice-olation, please visit cinevolutionmedia.com/podcast.
In the next episode of In Tanglement, we’ll hear from artist and educator and Annie Canto, and interdisciplinary artist, performer and collaborator Kimberly Ho. They will talk about the multi-dimensional role food plays in their pedagogical approach and filmmaking, and how immigrant experiences, intergenerational dialogue and critical race theory informed their work.
This episode was lead produced by Minah Lee, with assistance from Yun-Jou Chang and Rebecca Wang. Editing and music by Leiwa. In Tanglement is produced by Cinevolution Media Arts Society, and made possible with funding support from the Government of British Columbia. Thank you for listening.