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Banana Magazine issue 005: Taipei’s Drag Scene
Photography An Rong Xu

These photographs lift the lid on Taipei’s growing, energetic drag scene

This series from the latest issue of Banana magazine shines a light onto a flourishing, colourful corner of Asia’s drag community

This article will appear in Banana magazine issue 005 – pre-order the latest issue and learn more about the magazine here

The drag scene in Taipei can be categorised into two eras: pre-RuPaul’s Drag Race and post-RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Drag came to Taipei as a western import over 20 years ago. Back then it was a small and underground scene where the queens who dominated were typically foreigners. Today, Taipei is experiencing a drag renaissance with a small but growing community of performers comprised of locals and expats from around the world.  

When talking about the genesis of drag in Taiwan’s capital, Magnolia La Manga must be mentioned. Magnolia is a non-Asian queen who has been performing in Taipei for over 16 years. Her career in Taipei started in the pre-Taiwan Pride era when the LGBTQ community wasn’t nearly as energised or celebrated throughout the country. Drag performance was relatively obscure before it reached mass audiences through RuPaul’s Drag Race. Consequently, the scene was extremely small and limited to a handful of underground events per year. Magnolia became a fixture in the community over the years, and beyond. She has garnered the most success of all the queens, thanks to appearances in a music video for Taiwanese pop star Jolin’s hit single “PLAY” and Netflix drama A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, proving there is indeed space for drag in mainstream Taiwanese pop culture. Magnolia continues to stay active within the drag community through educational lectures in partnership with a student group at National Taiwan University and creating opportunities for aspiring queens.

One of Magnolia’s contemporaries, Mangelica Blast, also plays a crucial role in fostering the next generation of drag performers in Taipei.

Mangelica is a key partner and host for one of Taipei’s only monthly gay parties: WERK, The Party For Boyz, a platform through which the next generation of queens has an opportunity to make their mark on the drag scene. WERK was founded by DJ Nina Chien (錢嘉珍) in August 2014 as a vehicle for drag shows, as well as house music DJs, both specially tailored for a most appreciative crowd in gay Taipei. She brought on DJs, promoters, and hosts like Mangelica to bring authenticity to the party and rally the community. “We get a very diverse and international crowd. (They) love to express themselves by dressing up in costumes or doing drag, which makes (our) parties very distinctive and lively,” says Nina. To which Mangelica adds, “Club kids, voguers, house-lovers, you name it – everybody goes – gay, straight, non-binary, trans. WERK parties have given everyone a place to party and evolved their motto (from) the Party for Boyz (towards) an inclusive attitude and atmosphere.”

Queens now benefit from the growing LGBTQ community and platforms provided by parties like WERK. “This decade has been the start of very good things in the drag scene in Taipei, and a revival of what was here 15 to 20 years ago,” says Mangelica.

Taipei is noted as Asia’s most LGBTQ-friendly city, attracting queer people from all around the world. On any given night at Cafe Dalida, a staple gay bar in the youth culture hub Ximending, you’ll see patrons of all ages, colour, and backgrounds – everyone speaking in a mix of English and Mandarin. The LGBTQ community’s diversity is reflected in the drag scene.

In order to get an insider’s take on what’s going on in the post-Rupaul drag scene, Banana interviewed and photographed some of the queens who are instrumental in shaping this burgeoning scene. For the backdrop, we chose to depict an environment that nurtured the performer in all of them: taking centre stage at KTV. Introducing Nymphia Wind, Rose Mary, Omi, and Chiang Wei, all from diverse backgrounds. Both Nymphia Wind and Omi have spent time in the eastern and western hemispheres but call Taiwan home, while Rose Mary and Chiang Wei were born and raised in Taiwan, the former a member of the aboriginal Taiwanese Atayal tribe.

RuPaul reinvigorated drag in Taipei. Each queen credits RuPaul’s Drag Race as their entryway into exploring drag performance. The show’s popularity and influence were heightened when local gay bars like Cafe Dalida would host watch parties. Paired with the breadth of makeup tutorials and inspiration on Instagram, the show made the concept of drag more accessible in Taiwan. In the age of social media and global popular culture, the tools to experiment in drag are more readily available than ever before.

Drag is just now “starting to gain popularity (in Taiwan). Unlike America’s drag scene, where there is a bigger variety in drag shows, we only perform in clubs for monthly events”, explains Nymphia. “Every queen knows each other,” adds Rose Mary. “Currently, (every) Taiwanese drag queen has their own style. It’s still not specialised or saturated yet,” says Chiang Wei. However, local queens “include a lot of Taiwanese specific references into their acts or personas … add(ing) local flavour”, Mangelica sums up. Experimentation and evolution are what makes this time especially exciting for performers and audience members – each queen is making their mark on the drag scene, with lasting impact for future generations.

There’s still a long way to go for Taipei to catch up to the west. “Drag-wear has to be bought online and imported,” Mangelica grieves. “It would be nice to have a local shop where queens can get good wares.” Beyond convenient access to costumes, the biggest barrier to growth is the lack of platforms. Nymphia explains that the scene is not as diverse yet when it comes to types of performers, because it’s so small. “And growth is slow because there are not a lot of opportunities for newcomers. Taipei hasn't reached a place where it can be diverse,” adds Omi. “Most people who book you still want you to look like a pretty woman.” Though limited to a small class of queens in Taipei, drag still offers them a unique opportunity to express themselves.

“The best part of the art form of drag is that we have all the freedom to present ourselves,” says Rose Mary, who teaches English during the day and waits tables at a gay bar by night. Drag allows these queens to experience transformation and freedom from their day-to-day. Nymphia, who works as a seamstress, describes drag as “the beautiful mask I can hide behind when facing the world”. Individual motivation to perform drag is not unlike what you’d find in the western hemisphere. However, the cultural nuances and contexts behind this desire for escapism are what make each drag scene unique.

At the time of these interviews, Taiwan was undergoing major elections with a referendum ballot that included questions pertaining to LGBTQ rights: LGBTQ sex education, and same-sex marriage, most proposed and driven by Christian groups in Taiwan advocating traditional family structures. The main proposal in question was one that aimed to contradict and reverse the May 2017 constitutional court ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the Constitution in Taiwan, giving the Legislative Yuan two years to amend the marriage laws. Taiwan voted against same-sex marriage in the referendum with huge margins – a huge blow and setback for the LGBTQ community. Although the referendum is a survey only, the public opinion may influence legislators.

Even as one of Asia’s most LGBTQ-friendly cities, Taipei still needs a lot of education on and visibility for queer cultures, so that mainstream acceptance among the general population can affect positive change. And without progress, drag queens will suffer the same challenges. Nymphia believes that although on the surface Taipei appears accepting of drag, there’s still a misunderstanding “Because they see drag as cross-dressing … and don’t see it as an art form and entertainment … the majority of people are still unfamiliar with the concept of drag and what it is, and what it can be” she says. “But it’s slowly changing.”

Beyond the drag scene, the queens Banana spoke to were hopeful for progressive change in LGBTQ rights in Taiwan. “We all know there’s a lot of work that needs to happen to help Taiwanese get to know who we are,” says Mangelica. “Now is the time to show family and friends who you are.” Rose Mary adds, “Drag queens are at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights (and) we’re hopeful that Taiwan is soon to become the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.”