All dolled up and ready to go, Saigon’s drag queens are taking over the city’s nightlife, one venue at a time. By Andrew Headspeath. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Christina is out of drag, in a white sweater and blue chinos, sitting on a bar stool at Republic Bar in District 1, her regular performance venue. She shows me pictures of herself in drag; adorned in towering headdresses and shapely gowns, she poses for the camera like a supermodel alongside her drag sisters.
“[Great drag queens] have a natural, innate talent that they have a chance to unleash onstage,” says Christina with the help of an interpreter.
Christina, who goes by Nguyen Huy Vu in her everyday life, has over 10 years of experience in the world of drag. By day, she is at work in her main jobs as a professional dancer and clothing designer. But a few times a month, the nails are on, the wig is fit and her passion is unleashed onstage with a fanfare of lights and music.
There are a growing number of individuals like Christina in Saigon, taking the art of being a drag queen to a professional level. Across the city, more and more venues are opening up for these ostentatious performers, from local funerals to nightclubs.
Still, drag is relatively new in Vietnam. It wasn’t until 2008 that performances began to take place in nightclubs and bars. Before that, drag queens would grace the stage at places like saunas or cafes, local funerals or lottery-style ‘lucky-door’ events, where contestants choose from behind a door in a bid to win money. With the introduction of a club scene, however, professional drag was born, complete with heavy makeup, elaborate costumes, lip-syncing performances and comedy.
For Jessica, who has been involved in the drag scene since 2008, performing onstage has been particularly empowering. The 28-year-old Saigon native, born Nguyen Huu Toan, quickly became captivated by the world of drag and its extravagant costumes and moving performances.
Since turning pro in 2012, Jessica has become a sought-after performer on the drag stage and owns her own costume shop, where she sells and rents handmade costumes and accessories to other drag queens. In her boutique, various trophies for drag competitions are proudly displayed.
Jessica’s introduction to the drag scene came online. Over time her interest blossomed, taking her as far as the clubs of Bangkok to explore drag performance.
“Before when I performed as a drag queen in Vietnam, people would say I was crazy or stupid because they found it very strange. No one else was performing drag at that time,” she says. “I saw a lot of performances on YouTube from drag queens in Europe and the Philippines and I really liked them. I loved their outfits and their makeup; it’s just my style.”
While some prefer to marvel at the costuming and makeup of drag queens, for Jessica the most important part is the performance.
“People don’t understand what drag is,” says Jessica. “People think you just stand there and look pretty, maybe dance around to a little song. No. It’s about becoming another performer, acting wild, telling stories.”
When she’s not onstage, Jessica’s passion has opened up business ventures and professional connections, allowing her and her team of queens to develop their talents. These days, she doesn’t perform as often but instead manages a group of young performers, helping them with their acts, as well as creating costumes for foreign drag queens who find her shop online.
The blossoming of Saigon’s drag culture has increased the number of performers in the city. At present, Jessica’s core team of drag queens consists of 15 people, growing to 30 or 40 performers for big shows. At birthday parties, up to 200 queens will attend. In total, Jessica estimates there are over 300 professional drag queens living in Saigon alone.
However despite the expansion of Saigon’s drag community, there is still a long road ahead. According to Phan Bao Thai Binh, owner of District 1’s Republic Bar, it will take time for drag queens to reach the standard set in countries like Thailand.
“In Thailand, drag shows can book out theatres. People go out exclusively to watch a show. In Vietnam, it’s more of a small part of the night,” he explains.
District 1’s Centro Cafe hosts shows twice a week, while Republic holds performances once a month. This is infrequent compared to Thailand, but Vietnam also boasts far fewer queens than its Southeast Asian neighbour.
“There are thousands of queens over there and only a handful in comparison here,” says Binh.
Performance styles, too, are different between the two countries.
“Vietnamese queens pay a lot of attention to physical detail,” says Jessica. “For each look, they will get down to making sure everything looks perfect, down to the nails. In Thailand, a queen can come out with hideous make-up, supposed to be Celine Dion or Whitney Houston. But when they start performing, you really believe in them.”
Binh puts this down to experience, as Thailand’s drag queens have had decades of practice and a strong community in which to grow. For Vietnam, drag is still very new and so the scene here is less polished. Still, he sees passion in this country’s young performers.
“Sure, Vietnamese drag queens haven’t been doing the same act for 10 years, but they really love what they do and are trying their best,” says Binh.
Because drag is in less demand in Vietnam, Christina cannot maintain her livelihood on performing alone. Thus she is unable to devote all her time to it. With her network of drag sisters however, they are able to collaborate and keep the craft alive and strong.
“The drag community is really sweetly close because being a drag queen is not a job in Vietnam,” she explains. “It’s not enough for a pro queen to sustain herself on shows but we all do it for the love. Together we can help each other.”
Earning an income isn’t the only challenge Vietnam’s drag queens face. While Centro and Republic are the main spots to catch performances, many straight bars and beer clubs employ drag queens as part of an evening’s entertainment. This may seem like the demand for queens is growing, but Binh reveals it isn’t all good.
“If you go see a drag performance at a beer club, you’ll see a lot of straight guys in the crowd yelling and hollering. They see it as something stupid, pointing and laughing. These performers are putting their hearts out, but get absolutely no respect,” he says.
However, passion within the drag community persists and the performers continue to regard themselves with dignity.
“I don’t choose someone to become a drag queen based on their look. They can be thin, fat, handsome, ugly. It doesn’t matter. They must have passion,” Jessica says.
Despite the challenges they face, Saigon’s drag queens continue to prove that they are a fierce bunch with a lot of heart. They are here to stay, not sashay away.