I remember my debut as a drag king here in Taipei: I didn’t even do my own make-up, and the Frank Sinatra impression was simple enough that it felt safe. I was booked for an intermission slot, usually reserved for the debut of a new drag performer with a slick new look and a can-do attitude. I remember the single spotlight at the back of the club facing the stage; a blinding white light blocking out half the audience. I was in good company. Almost everyone I knew in Taipei was in the audience, but performing still made me so anxious that my hands were trembling holding the microphone and singing into the whisky glass. But after making it through the first three minutes, I knew that this was something I wanted to do again and again.
This was early 2020, and as the world locked down, Taipei continued in relative normalcy. At this point, I believe that we were the only drag performers still doing live shows anywhere in the world. It was an important year for Taipei’s drag kings, for we were forging our identities and creating memorable drag numbers. 2020 was also an important year for me: I began to cement my act as Uncle Southside, a character that I had created in response to the uncles I encountered during my childhood—those who called me chi bu ting (吃不停), “can’t stop eating”, as a pun on my Mandarin name; I wanted to be an uncle that respected boundaries and made funny jokes without hurting people. Through this process, I began to find my footing, not only as a drag king, but as a person.
Small talk in Taipei often revolves around the weather or, whenever a local finds out that I am from Singapore, bak kut teh or Hainanese chicken rice. It’s almost like bingo, except the prize is often an awkward recognition that I might look the part, I might sound it too, but I am definitely not Taiwanese. 我不是台湾人. (“I am not Taiwanese”) has become somewhat like a coming out moment: I could fit in if I wanted to, but didn’t have the same experiences they did growing up, so my difference was hard to hide. I didn’t grow up in the Taiwanese school system and its after school 补习班 (after-class academic-enrichment programme) counterpart. I also did not grow up experiencing earthquakes and typhoon days. 我就不是台湾人, I’m just not Taiwanese, that is the fact. Yes, I look like most of the people here: we share the same…ethnicity. I guess you could say 我们都是华人 (“we are all Chinese”), but this has complicated connotations. In Taiwan, when you say you are “Chinese”, it means you are from the mainland. I made it a point to introduce myself as Singaporean Chinese, including a nationality marker to differentiate myself. But this still held connotations that I was inevitably tied to China. It hit me then: in Singapore we take it for granted when we identify as Chinese—we think it merely refers to race without recognising how it marks our relationship with China. Perhaps, this is some soft conspiracy by China to keep us culturally and politically connected. After all, the less you try to define something, the more its nuances creep up on you—I was labelled “Chinese” (along with its nuances), whether it applied or not.
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