It’s 15 minutes to midnight. And there’s a buzz of excitement building in Saigon’s De Tham Street’s Frolic Bar. That’s because any moment, Venus Drag Team will rush to the stage. It’s showtime.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
And despite being breathless from a previous gig that ended 30 minutes ago – a brief period that included a change of clothes and reapplication of make-up – Venus Drag Team are full of energy. One of the team, Vanessa, whose real name is Pham Thanh An, still has time before taking the stage to confidently whisper to us, “Today I don’t need breast pads. I’m just going to be myself”.
This is the art of drag, Vietnam style. And it’s not too far removed from drag shows in the rest of the world. Although, there’s something about the youthfulness of the scene here, and the contagious energy of bars like Frolic that make it feel extra exciting.
Drag was said to have emerged in the 1920s and 30’s in The States, in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Performers, known as drag queens, transformed themselves with elaborate costumes and makeup, before embarking on over-the-top stage performances. These days, it’s seen as a channel for creative expression that challenges social stereotypes around gender and sexuality. But beyond the identity exploration, it’s just so much fun.
Drag Queens In Vietnam
For Vietnam, the culture is undoubtedly more recent. Most people agree it entered the country in the 1990s – far more conservative times. And so, due to push back and prejudice, it took to around 2014 for it to become accessible and for key figures in the genre, like To Lam, Gia Ky, and Sunny to emerge.
After the show, Venessa offers up a perspective. “You know, for me it’s only in the last few years that drag has really exploded. The energy is infectious, and we see people getting hooked from their very first show. All the wonderful drag queens across Vietnam are helping our art form get the recognition and respect it deserves!”
Introducing Saigon’s Venus Drag Team
By now, the rest of Venus Drag Team have joined us to discuss how the crew, and others like them, are gaining appreciation for drag in Vietnam by providing a meeting point for influential figures in the LGBTQ+ community. “We’re fortunate that the audiences for Venus Drag Team are so supportive and respectful of diversity,” Sunny, who’s also known as Le Nghia, smiles.
It’s a large crew. There’s currently around 20 queens affiliated to Venus Drag Team. “They’re all very strong, and they all have their own distinct personalities,” Sunny continues. “And we love that mix – people joining from a variety of backgrounds and professions. It’s not easy. And it takes some careful curation on behalf of the team to create such a dynamic mix of characters. That helps us not fall into cliches or stereotypes, and to stay different from other groups in Vietnam and beyond.”
For something so joyous and expressive, it’s sometimes easy to forget all the hard work that must have gone into a performance. “Oh it takes a long time,” Venessa reminds us. “Just growing the team, and then working together – the practice, doing makeup together, and the shows. Somehow, despite all the challenges, and the size of the crew, we get along so well.”
Right now, the inspiration for their shows comes from diverse sources. There’s movie references in there – The Little Mermaid and Sailor Moon – there’s the influence of books, and social stories and memes, and pop culture.
“I’d say the inspirations are many and abundant!” Sunny decides. And each member of the drag team brings their own interests and influences to the table. And we encourage that. I’d describe our approach as professional, diverse, and transformative!”
“I mean, it’s not always comfortable…or safe!” Vanessa screams. I’ve been burnt by firecrackers. My legs have been frozen. And there’s been all manner of other mishaps. But then, I’ve also stood on stage beside beauty queens like Miss Nguyen Thuc Thuy Tien. And, honestly, I cherish all of it!”
Was There A Calling?
We wonder, then, where this all started for Sunny, Vanessa, and other members like Gia Ky, whose real name is Mac Trach Long. “It can only be described as a calling!” Gia Ky insists. “Personally, I can say that I live by art and for art.” Like other drag artists in Vietnam, Gia Ky first stumbled across drag on the internet and was intrigued by the transformations of the drag queens.
And, Gia Ky explains, it’s not about hiding or adopting a disguise. “It’s quite the opposite,” Ky shrugs. “Despite all the wigs and the makeup, and the outfits, and the cushions and bracers, I feel more myself than ever. Imagine creating your own avatar or character in a role-playing game. It’s like that. And it’s so magical.”
Sunny felt the same magic too. But, living in Tien Giang, pursuing ambitions as well as passions like performing meant leaving home for the big city – Saigon. “It was worth it because it meant that I was able to live two very different lives. I could be myself. Or I could be trans and be a girl. And the latter definitely allowed me to express an inner world I’d been harboring.”
Drag Is An Art Form After All
Despite all the progress and the opportunities for free expression, it can still be conservative here. It’s still, at best, viewed as entertainment and not art.
“That’s definitely true,” Sunny agrees. “And I think the washback effect of that is that some drag queens might pander to perceptions rather than progress the artform – with OTT makeup and silly dance antics, and outfits that verge on fancy dress,” Sunny continues, wiping some sweat – and lipstick – from her face.
“I think that, no matter if you’re ugly or beautiful, tall or short, thin or fat, as long as you approach this as an art, you will be well received by audiences,” Gia Ky agrees. “And let’s be clear, drag artists and transgender people are not the same thing.”
And with that, Gia Ky, Sunny and Vanessa are out of time. There’s another performance – this one The Little Mermaid themed – and there’s an insatiable appetite from the audience who are baying for more.
Before they return to the stage, we ask one last question: ‘who would be their dream guests to perform with?’ “Listen, dreams don’t always come true!” Sunny laughs, swatting aside the question. “So, let me substitute that with the word ‘goal’ – because goals are something we can manifest. Our Venus Drag Team has performed at lots and lots of events – showbiz parties, events at consulates, and collaboration events with drag queens from Thailand, America and Australia when they’ve visited Vietnam – so our goal is to flip that and take Venus Drag Team international with shows around the world!”
And as 2am strikes and another Venus Drag Team performance is about to begin, no one at Frolic Bar would bet against them achieving it.
Images by Venus Drag Team.