By Kaela Cote-Stemmermann

Frozen Lolita, otherwise known as Neil, has been in the Beijing drag community for almost two years. “Drag is a good escape,” he says, “when you step on stage it’s like stepping into another identity.”

During the day Neil works at an advertising firm, but tonight she is sitting at an open-air bar as Frozen Lolita, waiting to be called to the stage for the monthly disco extravaganza night.

Drag queen beijing
Frozen Lolita backstage at a Beijing drag show. Photo: Neil Li.

She is one of about eight queens in Beijing; many of them are here tonight. They take long drags on grape-flavoured cigarettes and complain about their silicone getting sticky and wet in the heat.

Frozen Lolita offers one of the other queens a cigarette. “I don’t usually smoke,” says the queen “but something about this smog makes it seem inconsequential.”

Drag has become a cultural microcosm in Beijing. Where “Chinglish” is a primary language and Madonna and Gaga are the reigning queens. The infiltration of drag in Beijing happened slowly. Starting in underground LGBT clubs and expat bars, the capital’s aspiring superstars now have regular engagements around town.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997 but only removed from the government’s list of mental disorders in 2001. Therefore, openly queer spaces are relatively new in China, despite the fact that it has its own centuries-old tradition of drag, in the form of Peking Opera, where male performers cross-dress to perform female roles.

Drag queen beijing
Frozen Lolita. Photo: Neil Li.

While most Chinese cities have your typical underground dive bar where “jocks in frocks” can dance with a mainly queer audience, the modern unabashedly western drag queen is a contemporary phenomenon.

“We don’t have a very developed drag scene in Beijing,” Frozen Lolita comments, gesturing to the small cluster of local queens. “Bars won’t hire us,” she explains, “we just do it as a hobby. It is a small group, but it has become an important part of the growing gay community in Beijing.”

While after dark the queens are becoming an essential part of Beijing’s rip-roaring nightlife, most have full-time jobs. During the day you can find these Chinese and expat queens working as hairdressers, teachers and makeup artists around the city.

Originally from Inner Mongolia, Frozen Lolita moved to Beijing after college for an advertising internship. “I was always the sissy boy in our family. My grandmother used to say, ‘Oh, this boy is supposed to be a girl. He is in the wrong body.’” She paused and continued, “I like dressing up but I don’t want to be a woman. You know?”

Drag queen beijing
The streets of Beijing. Photo: Neil Li.

Frozen Lolita’s favourite part of doing drag is making her own outfit. “My drag style is high fashion couture, influenced by fashion legends such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano,” gesturing to the hand-stitched masterpiece she wears. “My dream is to be an artist,” she says.

Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry” sounds across the rooftop. Hearing her cue, Frozen Lolita moves to the stage and begins to perform with the full emotion of the lyrics. Her chest is exposed, only covered by carefully woven white ribbons that drip across her face and neck.

Most notably, she holds onto a life-sized stuffed linen doll presumably crafted by hand. Frozen Lolita lip-syncs to this object, pouring out the repeated lyrics “I love him, I love him.” She finishes the performance by falling to her knees and clutching the doll in her arms.

A whistle pierces the crowd, revealing AJ Song, the development manager for one of China’s oldest LGBTQ+ organizations, Beijing Gender. While AJ does not perform regularly himself he has become a well-established supporter of the drag community.

“I am basically their manager or something,” AJ says laughing. “I really just give them the space to feel safe in and make sure they have an audience.”

Drag queen beijing
Photo: Neil Li.

According to AJ, the formation of a drag scene in Beijing has not only brought together queens but has also brought more attention to queer spaces in Beijing. He says, “We get a lot of transgender and queer people coming to our parties saying that we have created a very safe and diverse place for them.”

AJ flashes a toothy smile to catch the bartender’s attention and orders a dangerous sounding two-dollar tequila sunrise. “The Beijing drag scene is unique because it is so small,” he says. “We feel like we are a family, and just want to have a good time.”

The queens never get paid. They perform almost exclusively for charity or to fundraise for Chinese gender rights organisations. “Of course, this poses challenges as well,” says AJ. “It is not cheap to be a drag queen, so we are working on ways to make it more sustainable and to support each other.”

China, as in the rest of the world, perhaps has RuPaul to thank for the recent explosion of drag above ground.

Frozen Lolita admits that “western media plays a huge role in Chinese drag culture, I myself am heavily influenced by it. I think RuPaul educated all drag queens on some level.” However, unlike the often commercialised US drag community, she makes it clear that, for Beijing queens, “getting noticed by mainstream media is not the mission.”

Drag queen beijing
Photo: Neil Li.

The sky turns a deep grey. It is approaching early morning, but the bar is still packed with people staying in the rooftop microcosm for a few minutes longer. The crowd is mostly gay men and young Chinese women, with the occasional expat and gawking tourist thrown in.

While there are no formal restrictions on drag performances and the political climate is generally improving for LBTQ communities, prejudice remains.

“In general, Chinese people view drag as entertainment and nothing beyond that,” AJ tells me. “Young people are relatively accepting, especially when we are performing on the stage. But in terms of culture, and in real life, we still have a long way to go.”

“Everyone should just talk to a drag queen,” AJ says, grabbing Frozen Lolita from a huddle of selfie-taking fans, “they are just like any other people.” They head for the elevator, shoving in Frozen Lolita’s decadent skirt and life-size doll behind them.

“Ultimately,” says AJ, “Beijing needs to support its drag queens, to talk to them and to show up.”

Drag queen beijing
Frozen Lolita. Photo: Neil Li.

Once on the street, Frozen Lolita slips behind a corner to make a quick change, reemerging as Neil. They walk down the street, dragging the large faceless doll behind them.

Eventually, he gets tired of holding the handmade behemoth and stuffs it in a nearby trashcan. Its floppy head sticking out limply. The pair stamps out their cigarettes and hail a cab. The sky is almost completely light.

“I am hopeful for the future of drag in Beijing,” says Neil. “More and more people in the gay community are interested in doing drag and we are gaining more media attention. I think people want something new and exciting in their nightlife and drag helps fill that desire. But, in terms of acceptability, we have a long way to go. People need time to understand it.”

Drag performances in Beijing are only getting bigger, funnier and more professional. “I feel very proud to be part of this community,” says AJ.

“I know that some of our queens will do fantastic things, and become stars in the future. They love what they do; it is in their bones. They will go far, for sure.”

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