№1 Gaze at the Other, Gaze of the Other

Looking into People’s Eyes

05.07.2021, Chooc Ly Tan Whiskey Chow is a Chinese performance artist and drag king based in London. From activism to performance art, she evokes different works in which she crosses genders, categories, boundaries and identities. Here she discusses her work and practice, addressing dynamics of socio-cultural dominance and East/West exchange—from her borrowings from classical Chinese opera and mythology to culinary symbolism, othered masculinities, and imagination as resistance.

Illustration by Li Ya Wen 李雅雯

Chooc Ly Tan (CLT), Whiskey Chow (WC)
CLT
How did you start out as a Chinese drag king? And how has this developed since?
WC
I was an LGBTQ and feminist activist in China. When I moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, I struggled to bring my queerness into my work, and to transform it from an activist to an artistic form of communication. It was in early 2016 when Evan [Ifekoya], one of my queer friends on the course, invited me to try something drag. I researched drag king culture in the West. I had known drag king culture existed there since the last century, and I wanted to engage it and find my own way. How the Western drag king dealt with the face, figure and body was quite distant from me. The makeup, what’s highlighted or not, is quite racialized because most of it tries to recreate the figure of the white man, and to embody physical masculinity in a theatrical way through breast-binding, muscle drawing and mustache referencing. I also wore a mustache, but I didn’t connect with the way they were dealing with it. I had to find a personal or cultural connection. In China, in the traditional opera context, cross-dressing has a long history and does not directly reference sexuality—males playing female roles/females playing male roles—but has a completely different aesthetic. In Western images of divinity, the depiction of masculinity (and power) is muscular and angular. In Chinese opera all characters, including the males, have to be elegant and pretty: the makeup defines light and shadow and is white and pink; the face is not pointy. I wanted to bring this well-rounded beauty to challenge the definition of drag performance.
In China, in the traditional opera context, cross-dressing has a long history and does not directly reference sexuality—males playing female roles/females playing male roles—but has a completely different aesthetic. —Whiskey Chow
WC
In my first show I hid a parsnip in my pants, unzipped, took it out, cut it in half and chopped it. I chopped some pork as well, with some spring onions and salt. Later I cut the beard I had been wearing into pieces and mixed everything together to stuff dumpling skins. We distributed the hairy dumplings I made to the audience, combining the Western stereotype of associating Chinese people with Chinese food, traditional Chinese culture, and Western people’s continuous consumption of both. I produced a dumpling that could not really be consumed due to the beard fibers. Afterwards, an audience member came to me, embarrassed, and gave the dumpling back as they couldn’t really eat it. I’m not trying to please my audience, but giving them something to think about. For me performance is a way of radical questioning, and a form of resistance.

Whiskey Chow, Masculinism, Rich Mix, London, 2018. (image credit: Orlando Myxx)

WC
Later I brought in different male characters from Chinese opera, using its theatrical imagery and my fine art training in materiality. In Whiskey the Conqueror, the failed conqueror is extracted from the opera Farewell my Concubine (霸王別姬). I changed the makeup—the symbol on the forehead became a $ sign—and I played with materials, using licorice shoelaces for the beard. I lowered my beard into a blender full of gold paint, honey, and glitter, which then bitzed and cut up the beard in front of the audience—symbolic way to execute these male properties (parsnip, penis, beard) and to consider my relationship with masculinity. I claim back my power before the gaze of a predominantly white Western audience, institution and context. I gaze back. In a lot of my work, I look into people’s eyes.
I claim back my power before the gaze of a predominantly white Western audience, institution and context. I gaze back. In a lot of my work, I look into people’s eyes.
WC
I am thinking to combine pre-modern Chinese identity-philosophy with drag king practice. In pre-modern times, Chinese society didn’t put labels on people. In the Ming and Qing Dynasty, men often had both a family and a male sex partner. People didn’t call it “bisexual”, but as being “into women but also into men”. There was a lot of space for fluidity, which is common to Chinese mythology which includes many queer figures and stories.
CLT
You started as a drag king after you left China. How do people perceive masculinity in China?
WC
I wish I could bring drag practice back to China. In traditional Chinese opera, they stopped training male actors to play women in 1949. There’s a rigid hierarchy regarding training, interpretation and adaptation. My performance would be weird for them. The racial hierarchy within the masculine system is interesting. In Asia I’m perceived as tough. In the West, I’m considered soft as people also see me with the racial layer. For example, among women, white butch or black butch is considered more masculine than Asian butch. In China, I’m constantly misgendered when I go to the toilet as my masculinity level is high there.
CLT
I really admire your ongoing work as an activist in mainland China. Considering the difficulties of doing so, what gives you such a drive?
WC
My activist activities in China have been suspended since I moved to London. I’m still concerned and following what’s happening. But sometimes when you are not there, the things you see or reflect are more general. When I was 20, for a year, I had a lesbian band in Guangzhou. We performed for the gay community, but the band members never wanted to announce publicly that we were a lesbian band. It was 2009, and we were very young. They couldn't deal with issues related to sexuality in public or within their family. When I was 16, I thought if I could have a lesbian band that would be super cool. But by 20, I thought the practical need to make China a better place was more urgent than just self-expression.
They ask “where are you really from?” as a way to start a conversation. But they don’t really care.

Whiskey Chow, M.A.C.H.O, Fierce Festival 2019, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (image credit: Paul Gregory)

The band brought me in touch with LGBTQ NGOs, especially in South China. It was a golden time: a lot of events and organizations; it felt free and safe to do things. I got involved in activism with ambition and dreams, but there are different positions within the activist circle: those at the frontline who protest; researchers and scholars who support with critical thinking so the movement can become more sustainable; those with no time or awareness but who might be hidden community members or private funders; and then the creatives who communicate in alternative ways. All the roles are equally important, and I spent some time finding my own position. Sometimes you might be good at many roles, but there will be some through which you can contribute in a certain way, which for me was the creative way. That’s why I worked with my group and created a feminist play called For Vaginas’ Sake (將陰道獨白到底), the original Chinese version of The Vagina Monologues. It was a totally localized Chinese version, featuring women's stories, including transwomen's desire. We tried to describe a woman’s body that can be born or not be born, grow up, maybe get married and relate to motherhood. We included bisexual women, lesbians and transwomen, covering the experiences from different ages, classes, regions, and social-economic statuses. I was in the core group of managing and producing the work, also acting the story that I wrote. I see my current curatorial, teaching, or art practice as activism because it is about the freedom to propose different ways to imagine.

Whiskey Chow, Purely Beautiful New Era, Friday Late: Sino Flux, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, November 2017. (image credit: Hydar Dewachi)

CLT
Which stereotypes about Chinese people do you refer to the most in your work as an artist, who performs before both an international contemporary art audience and a global queer community?
WC
Usually when I engage with the stereotypes, it is mainly in response to Asian people (women particularly) being ‘very submissive’, or to the racial hierarchy of masculinity in the West where Asian masculinity—no matter what the sexuality—is usually seen as either undesirable or fetishized, because these bodies are not ‘masculine’ enough in Western-dominated metrics. I engaged with this idea in M.A.C.H.O. (2019) at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which suggested a more intersectional and multi-layered approach to masculinity. The hidden violence or hierarchy is also to do with my everyday experience living in the UK: the confrontational moment, or, the straight (non-Asian) man looking at me as a sexual object. They ask “where are you really from?” as a way to start a conversation. But they don’t really care.
CLT
Your work explores the physical capacities of found objects and technology, projected images, materials and substances—many of them edible.
WC
Food always relates to consumption. For Masculinism (2018) at Rich Mix, London, I used 10 kilos of British sausages. Queer identity in capitalism tends to deal with the surface, or is mediated through culture and race so that it becomes intangible. To make dealing with queer identity tangible, you have to deal with bodies. Food is just the other creature’s body. In this work the vegetables are plant’s bodies, and the sausages, derived from pig’s bodies, are used to construct another “ideal body”. Also the shape of a sausage looks like a penis, and sausages penetrated and filled in the masculine mannequin I wore. I'm not intentionally choosing food, but I end up working with a lot of it, especially yogurt, mushrooms, sausages and other pork products and cream.

Whiskey Chow, Whiskey the Conqueror, Tender Loin #7, Toynbee Studios (Artsadmin), London, January 2017 (image credit: Greg Goodale)

CLT
Talking about food helps the work resonate with people. You seem to be a great cook according to the pictures on your socials. What are your favorite ingredients? What are your favorite non-Chinese meals, and your favorite dishes from back home?
WC
Spanish food always has a very good, strong flavor; I love paella and jamon. People invest a lot of emotional energy in eating. I was born in South China near the seaside. People in the north are more straightforward and have more simple cuisine than in the south. I’m Cantonese so we tend to make soup following a medicinal approach. Recipes depend on seasons and body natures. Because Chinese medicine begins by differentiating people according to different bases—some bodies are hot base, some bodies are cold base. You need to know what your base is, and then combine the base with the need and the season. That gets you different kinds of soup because different things are put in; the soup itself should be boiled at least two hours. In contrast, soups in the north are just boiled. These different philosophies create the whole food culture, but the Chinese medical approach applies generally.

Whiskey Chow, Unhomeliness, Tate Modern, London, 2018. (image credit: Alice Jacobs)


With Queering Now and my other practice, I try to create somewhere for people who think they belong to nowhere.
WC
In a lot of Asian countries what you eat and who you eat with define who you are. In the West it is totally different, because people sort out their lunch by buying a sandwich, but we can't really deal with cold things, especially in the winter. In the UK we’ve had to adopt this kind of lifestyle, and this has to do with capitalism and the need to produce all the time, shortening or skipping time to cook. It's very difficult to pick one favorite Chinese dish. I have some comfort food, common among Chinese students studying here: hot pot, because it brings people together, is healing and has a lot of calories. It’s a weapon for us to fight against depression, especially in the winter. Food has a lot of cultural layers. A lot of food in China is amazing, including Cantonese food. It’s a different aesthetic and way of understanding food or layers of flavor, which is reflected in the process of cooking. But, I of course appreciate fish and chips.
CLT
You presented the first Queering Now 酷兒鬧 event in February 2020 in London. You co-curated it with Sha Li, treating us to an evening of films, performances, and an after party. It was well attended, and people loved it. How was Queering Now 酷兒鬧 initiated? What's the future of the project?
WC
In May 2019 senior producer Ruth Holdsworth, who worked for Chinese Arts Now, asked me if I was interested in creating a programme. They helped me a lot. When I was developing the programme and finding artists, I found I knew many relevant artists and that my cultural insight and language access provided me with a deep understanding. With Queering Now and my other practice, I try to create somewhere for people who think they belong to nowhere. I wanted to showcase excellent work and how artists have managed to achieve it. It’s equally important that we create a physical space for the younger—and/or not always art-related— generation, to which they are entitled to go, where they can see each other or share their future works and feel safe. I keep reminding my straight friends and colleagues who have no idea about non-binary identity that some artists use “they” as their pronoun, and I keep reminding them like an old radio, “don't misgender”, so they do not repeat systematic oppression or unconscious violence. Some people might think I'm difficult to work with because I'm too detailed in these regards. But I'm not against any people who are not queer, if they come to work with me respectfully and in solidarity. Since Queering Now, I am more sensitive and curious about finding Asian queer artists. I'm in the process of talking with Chinese Arts Now for Queering Now 2021, finding the venue that best suits the programme. We were planning a live section, talk and panel, which is difficult during Covid-19. We have to think about backup ideas that are physical plus digital, so the work can stay longer and engage with more audiences from all over the world.

Whiskey Chow, The Moon is Warmer than the Sun, Chinese Arts Now Festival 2019, London. (image credit: Lidia Crisafulli)

CLT
Can you tell us about an image selected from The Moon is Warmer than the Sun (2019)?
WC
I’m more interested in how you read the work. You might only recognize Freddie Mercury. You might not know the other queer idols I refer to in the piece. If I look at the work within my creative journey, it is the meeting point between the activist and artistic parts. It’s a performance that shares some social critique. There is no script. The work questions heteronormativity and how norms kill the space for queer people to survive. I feature three queer idols who have died: Freddie Mercury from AIDS, and Ellen Loo (盧凱彤) and Leslie Cheung (張國榮) from suicide. Leslie Cheung was struggling with depression and Ellen Loo was struggling with bipolar disorder. They both committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building—Ellen Loo from where she lived. They were all queer idols who had already achieved celebrity; Leslie Cheung was like a Chinese version of David Bowie, and Ellen Loo was super young, 32, and was the best female guitar player in Hong Kong. They both had loving stable partners. However, they both killed themselves. This question came from having dinner with a straight Chinese friend, who said, “I don't understand why she killed herself, given that she had everything.” And I was like, “Really? Everything?” This is the core of the problem: the standard, the norm, and the imagination projected onto stardom. Seeing that they had this life and then killed themselves. Is that really themselves killing themselves? When Ellen Loo was 23 she directed a music video for her girl band, at17. The song titled “安樂” can be interpreted as “peace” or “ease” in English; but the word 安樂 can also refer to “euthanasia”, as it’s translated in Chinese as 安樂死. In the music video she’s printed on a cardboard cutout, with closed eyes, wearing a rainbow wristband, lying on a moving vehicle. The footage was shot from the side, at an angle so that her printed body is looking upwards (with closed eyes). And the lyrics are about loneliness, emptiness, cherishing, and freedom: happiness and hope won’t reserve till the next life when everything has gone / don’t disrupt this peacefulness and coldness and don’t tarnish this beautiful scene / don’t be afraid of falling asleep alone in a dark space. Basically, the whole thing is like a funeral for herself, with the rainbow element, so we see that her reflection of queer despair comes from an early age.
WC
My piece The Moon is Warmer than the Sun questions the norm, the dominance, of heteronormativity, and shakes the illusion of privilege. Usually, the sun is the metaphor of the mainstream, while the moon relates more to the margin. It suggests that, sometimes, the marginalized area has more tolerance and possibility. This goes back to the Rabbit God (兔兒神) myth, from the Qing dynasty. The Rabbit God is the only queer god in Chinese mythology, and is dedicated to looking after same sex relationships. He used to be a human, named Hu Tianbao (胡天保) and live in the Fujian area. He was secretly in love with a local official who he followed for many years, until one day he peeped on the official in the toilet and got caught. The official asked him, “Why?”, and he refused to answer. So the official had someone beat him up until he answered, and he said: “I know what I've done is rude, but I keep doing it because you are too beautiful.” The official was not into men, and asked someone to beat Hu to death beneath a dead tree. Chinese people believe in hell, and that everybody goes there when dead. Going to hell is not about how bad you are. However, hell has minus 18 levels, and the worst people go to minus 18. So he went to hell and met its king, who said it wasn’t his time and asked him why he was there. Hutold the king the story, and the king said he died because he loved someone, which is different from those who die because they want to hurt someone. Some servants in hell laughed at him, but they never blamed or oppressed him like those who worked for the official. Since Hu was there, the king appointed him Rabbit God to take care of same sex partner’s relationships. Hu then snuck into someone’s dream in his village, and told him to build a temple for him. According to archives, there were a few Rabbit God temples in Qing Dynasty Fujian. Now the only one is in Taiwan. I put that story into The Moon is Warmer Than the Sun, and more directly in a three-minute voiceover that I read in Cantonese (as the original text is written in classical Chinese). The work addresses censorship in the mainstream narrative and archive, in light of Selection from Zi Bu Yu (子不語選集) (1988)—an important collection of Chinese myths released by a Chinese mainland publisher, which excluded this tale and other queer stories.

Queering Now, Rich Mix, London, 8th February 2020. (poster design: Sha Li)

CL
Could you talk about the performance A View from Elsewhere?
WC
Sin Wai Kin 單慧乾 (fka. Victoria Sin) invited me to work with them and perform. We developed the project together in early 2018; it's basically a project they initiated and framed. Given we both have a very strong identity in our own work, the challenge was: how would I contribute without having our identities or images clash? I worked with the dumb-bell, and the color blue from my graduation—visuals that fit perfectly, but in a completely different context. The work is about otherness and creating a narrative outside a Eurocentric dominant gaze, and how I (or we) use an othered body that carries different experiences and fights back. In the piece, Sin Wai Kin 單慧乾 mention a world famous female Chinese opera couple—Yam Kim Fai (任劍輝) and Bak Sheut-sin (白雪仙)—and uses their own image to fight the male gaze. Sin Wai Kin 單慧乾 used “she/her” to address the subject matter in the piece, but they always claim their own agency in real life—using the “they/them” pronoun, and holding a strong policy in professional negotiations. The ending scene presented multiple sexualities and sexual practices within the animal world, looking at queerness and otherness from a post-human perspective. My part, plus the voiceover, visualized violence against the queer masculine body and beyond.
CLT
Could you tell us about the performance Great Conversation?
WC
Great Conversation was first presented in the Revolve Performance Festival at the Uppsala Konstmuseum in Sweden in 2017, and I then made it into a video work of around 15 minutes. It visualizes the frustration of being an Asian, or non-white, non-straight artist being put in a gallery context, being curated and looked at by the white gaze, struggling with real agency and control. On the one hand you are something that is consumed: this is why I put a frame on me—the silver thing is actually suggesting a frame. And the yellow things on my face are yellow tissues. You spend so much energy negotiating; it’s a power struggle between you and an overwhelmingly dominant system. I’m not critiquing any former partners, but I attempt to reveal the power imbalance in the Western art world that contains collectorship, colonialism, tabooism, voyeurism, hegemony, xenophobia and essentialism.
CLT
I’ve been fascinated by music producers who make reference to Chinese culture in their work, for example Wu Tang Clan or Lee Scratch Perry. They often tread a fine line between celebrating and exoticizing, or between subverting dominant tropes and reinforcing them. I’ve always admired the work of Fatima Al Qadiri and I find some resonances with your work. It's quite notable that her first album is titled Asiatisch. How would you respond to this complex example?

Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch, Hyperdub, 2014

WC
I think this question is more about how to use cultural elements from outside your background without cultural appropriation. When a creator gets or applies these elements, do they repeat or reinforce dominance against that culture? When I listen to this track, it’s fascinating that this person has never been to China, but they tried to use elements and imagination to present their fantasy about China. I think that is very interesting because it's another way to look at Chineseness. If you think of Chinese as not equal to China, but more like a cultural heritage or impact, then why can’t a cultural work engage with a cultural heritage if it is approached in a respectful way? They [Fatima Al Qadiri] are presenting a completely imaginative China-image to us. That’s even more intriguing. If they’ve already been to China, the work would have not been the same. Instead, they’ve used their imagination to travel there; and all the materials, and all the archives they've seen... is just a fragment. The gap between these small fragments is their imagination putting things together, and creating another beautiful image. This way of working is really creative and inspiring. It’s more about how they describe the Chineseness that they understand, instead of solidly restoring the actual China.
This conversation took place in London in October 2020.
WHISKEY CHOW
is a London-based performance artist and Chinese drag king. Her art practice engages with broadly defined political issues, covering a range of related topics: from female and queer masculinity, to problematizing the nation-state across geographic boundaries, to stereotypical projections of Chinese/Asian identity. Her performances are interdisciplinary, combining embodied performance with the moving image and experimental sound pieces.
CHOOC LY TAN
is a French-born Afro/Vietnamese/Cambodian artist and DJ (aka DJ Chooc Ly). She is a visiting lecturer in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and the Royal College of Art, in London.
LI YA WEN 李雅雯
Is a Taipei-born artist/illustrator and a part-time model. Growing up in Taiwan, she has been influenced by cultural blends from the East to the West. Fascinated by intimate relationships with the people she meets, her works bring you into her dream worlds, as well as projects about identity and gender on the fringes of society.
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