These Hong Kong Drag Queens Are Empowering The City’s LGBTQ+ Community
XXXotica and Madame Mincemeat (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)
Brad Wharakura and Leon Yee (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)
XXXotica (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)
Madame Mincemeat and Leon Yee (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)
“Thanks for putting this togayther,” Brad Wharakura quips after we wrap our interview. I met him at night not as Brad, but somewhere between Brad and his drag queen persona, Madame Mincemeat, and somewhere between 2020 and 2021. It was last New Year’s Eve at a mutual friend’s home and he was standing by the bar in full make-up, a flesh-toned chest plate hanging from his broad shoulders. During the day, Wharakura is a trainer at Pure Fitness, where he teaches a range of classes including indoor cycling, TRX and Bodypump.
“Madame Mincemeat is an extension of me,” he tells me months later when we get “togayther” for a chat. “I wouldn’t say she’s an alter ego but she’s me, dialled up. She amplifies parts of myself that might not be appropriate in certain settings.” Wharakura’s foray into drag began when friends bought him his first pair of heels as a birthday present. He then began experimenting with make-up, learning through YouTube tutorials.
He made his debut as Madame Mincemeat at Hong Kong music festival Clockenflap in 2015, where he lip-synced the song Frank Sinatra by Miss Kittin, a “weird spoken word track about a fashionista who likes to hang out with her friends in limousines”, says Wharakura, who recalls performing that evening in thigh-high black boots and a black wraparound dress he bought at a second-hand store, adding, “Two minutes into the performance, I took it all off and just kind of pranced around in a leotard.”
It also gave him a boost of confidence. “A lot of the toxically masculine gay men tend to separate themselves from other gay men who do things like drag,” he says. “I stopped caring what people think. That was the initial jumping off point.”
He started performing regularly, mostly at private events, then in April 2017, teamed up with fellow queen XXXotica to launch a series of drag brunches at restaurants around the city, which they continue to host.
“Those brunches really built my confidence,” says XXXotica, real name Leon Yee, a Hong Kong native and a pole dancing instructor by day. “It forced me to make new friends and get into Hong Kong’s nightlife scene. Otherwise, I would just stay at the pole studio or be at home playing video games.”
It’s hard to imagine Yee as the shy and retiring type when, in drag queen lingo, he really is “doing the most”. He’s been covered widely in the press for defying gender stereotypes in pole dancing, and appeared as XXXotica in a recent campaign by the Hong Kong government to promote HIV self-test kits, and a local campaign for American beauty label Glam Glow.
“In Hong Kong, you always see the same skinny girl with the light brown hair and the big eyes selling the same things. I’m so happy that someone finally said ‘Let’s change it up’,” says Yee. “After all, we could really use a bit more colour, especially in the area of public health.” He says seeing queer people in such campaigns is a refreshing example of awareness of the community, and an important reminder that representation matters.
Though still in its infancy compared to other major cities, Hong Kong’s drag scene has been steadily gaining traction. In 2019, RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq the World tour made a stop in Hong Kong. A 2020 tour date was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Seeing drag become more accepted, a lot of that came down to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race,” says Wharakura. “It really demystified what drag is.”
Hong Kong-based drag queen Mocha Diva, who in 2018 appeared in the second season of Drag Race Thailand, a Thai competition show based on RuPaul’s Drag Race, says the city’s drag scene “is very new. Drag shows in Hong Kong only boomed three or four years ago, when Petticoat Lane opened.”
She’s referring to the bar and nightclub that has become more or less synonymous with drag in the city. Though other queer- and drag-friendly venues existed before it, few have put Hong Kong’s drag artists in the literal and proverbial spotlight in the way that Petticoat Lane has.
“In Hong Kong, most people are quite black and white about things such as gender expression and sexuality,” says Graeson Alexandre Yeung, who takes care of communications at Petticoat Lane and performs as a drag queen under the cheeky moniker Kathy Pacific. “A lot of people don’t understand someone who is transgender and someone who is a drag queen. They put it all into one bucket. In drag, there are no labels or borders.”
It also helps that Petticoat Lane has an all-star roster featuring some of Hong Kong’s most talented queens: Gigi Reyes, one of the five members of Les Fleurs Sauvages, the city’s first ever drag cabaret show; Violette Blanche, who designs and makes her own dresses and hosts classes where she teaches how to dance in high heels; and of course, Mocha Diva.
“We have been setting the standard high since day one,” says Mocha Diva, real name Jay Venn. “Petticoat Lane was made to create a safe and inclusive space for our community. No matter who you are or where you’re from, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian or trans, you can definitely party with us.”
Formerly housed in the fairly hidden basement of a building on Wyndham Street, Petticoat Lane and its glamorous performers are moving to a new location, taking over the eighth floor of Lan Kwai Fong’s California Tower—and it’s kind of a big deal. “This will be the first time in history that a queer venue is in one of Asia’s biggest and most prominent nightlife-slash-entertainment buildings,” says Yeung.
On a more micro level, Violette Blanche, whose real name is Christian Marco, is excited for certain upgrades. “Finally us queens will have a proper dressing room,” he says with a laugh. “Previously, we had about one metre by one metre in the back of the kitchen to get dolled up. But a queen will make do with any situation.”
Beyond putting on a show, Hong Kong’s drag queens share a sense of responsibility for lifting up the city’s LGBTQ+ community and encouraging self-expression, in whatever form that may be. And while these performers might have a reputation for sass, they only want to see each other thrive.
“Drag queens are disarming by nature,” says Wharakura. “We like to poke fun at gender and we like to shock people. So when we perform, we hope that people can vibe off that confidence.”
For Yee, that individual confidence can play a part in protecting entire communities.
“When you feel strong as an individual, when you don’t feel like you have to hide behind anything and you can stand up for yourself,” he says, “then you stand up for others and build collective strength.”
Long live the queens.