Holding a Mirror up to Society: Whiskey Chow
Chinese-born Activist turned Artist and Drag King, Whiskey Chow, arrived in Manchester to showcase her newest performance adding to her already impressive catalogue of work. With a thoughtful but energetic demeanour Whiskey met me in the gallery she performed in, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
From the beginning of our chat, Chow launched into a discussion of her experiences in the world of Performance Art and Drag, as well as the issues surrounding gender and sexuality both in China and the UK.
MCR: What drew you to performance art?
Chow: As I began to grow as an artist, I began to use my body as a material. Performance Art is interactive and very human. Sometimes there will be a happy accident. In one performance in China, I was handing people a cigarette. Some refused but one woman took the cigarette from me, we finished our own cigarette while looking into each other’s eyes, in the end, she started kissing me. It adds layers to the performance, you never know what could happen but you have to let it happen and work with it in front of people. It’s an adventure for me. It also develops my own personality to become much more fluid. To do a performance, I can’t spend too much time thinking/planning, I have to follow my instinct because when the show time comes, I have to just do it!
MCR: Your performance at the CFCCA, ‘Unhomeliness’ communicated vulnerability against an assault of typically ‘Chinese’ imagery added with the use of a mirror covering your face it implied that people see the fact that you’re Chinese rather than you as a person. Is that what you wanted to say?
Chow: When people come to mean and think one thing, then someone else says another, it’s great. I don’t like giving a standard answer because then 100 people have one interpretation and by not defining what I mean it allows 100 people to have 100 different opinions. In my understanding, all the work isn’t limited to the/its performance but all the work is a combination of different symbols. The use of the mirror was playing on the fact that you might see your face on my face but you can’t see mine, I think my work such as drag, is all about performing as the Other. Regarding the Chinese imagery, the footage is shot in Chinatown, London. I go there very often and the feeling of a magical reality around there has never gone. They use too many strong symbols together to trigger a sense of belonging or directly informing those not from the culture, and both become a target. These things aren’t in China constantly and intensively, because Chinese people don’t need to have these dominant symbols every day. Chinatown and the London Gay village in Soho, another area full of dominant symbols, are right next to each other. One set of symbols is inserted among the other set and they don’t necessarily combine, but when people see them they are. It’s interesting to see what has been triggered by this random but ingenious combination for people from different places.
I have to point out that the timing of my work is poignant, this year is difficult for the Chinese LGBT community with the issues surrounding Eurovision, the removal of gay content on Weibo (which has now stopped) as well as many other incidents highlighting an obvious repression of the queer community. But people on Weibo protested the ban on gay content and the outcome is very exciting, many (non-activist) people have sent their voice to support the LGBT community. The movement isn’t small.
MCR: You created a show in China, ‘For Vagina’s Sake’. What was the response like?
Chow: Some men felt uncomfortable. They said we should have ‘The Penis Monologues’ and then a gay man said we should have ‘The Anal Monologues’. But we did have a Q&A with the audience and a lot of people would say that it’s too heavy – why did you display that on the stage or what’s the solution? We mixed heaviness and happiness with more proportion of heaviness because that was the reality. We showed and shared what we see, but we’re not politicians or social workers so we are not providing solutions. The Hong Kong audience couldn’t understand the problem with sexual harassment between professors and students. Coincidentally, there was a famous case in China recently where a student committed suicide after being coerced and manipulated into a sexual relationship with her professor.
MCR: Is sexual harassment in Chinese universities that prevalent?
Chow: I won’t use the word ‘prevalent’, but we can’t deny that the exposure of these cases has been increasing. When students plan to study aboard, some of them have to ingratiate themselves to their professor to get the reference letter. Some male students also undergo this because the professor could demand everything. This kind of power abuse becomes common. Since the socio-political context and higher education system in Hong Kong are hugely different, they couldn’t understand how this could have happened – but that was actually the starting point of our conversation. People are very keen on going to the theatre to watch gender-related work as there were not many in the mainstream scene, so we reached the maximum capacity for the shows in Mainland China and had to turn people away. They really wanted to see the show and engage with this topic.
MCR: What are the gender norms like in China? we’ve heard of ‘Leftover women’ but there aren’t any leftover men.
Chow: It’s a harsh gender culture for both men and women because most of the parents are expecting the man who wants to marry their daughter to own a flat, a car and have a decent job. The responsibility for men to provide is very heavy and intense. But there’s a saying in China that the female PhD is the third gender in Chinese society because most of the men are intimidated by their intelligence and independence. The whole society requires everyone to be the same so if you are different, even a little bit, you can expect to be questioned by people, like “why isn’t she married?” “why are they married but have no children?” This kind of culture has a strong family value emphasis. A lot of queer people will say that Chinese New Year is a disaster for them because they are questioned about marriage when they reunite with their families.
MCR: What goes into your process when creating a show?
Chow: I went out a lot when I was studying and witnessed different types of performance including contemporary art, live art, queer cabaret and drag itself. I gained inspiration from everywhere and to do my piece at the CFCCA I did research of the work of Joan Jonas. Her practice is very interdisciplinary – she used video projection a lot in her live performance. My own practice is usually messy, I normally use paint and yoghurt, whereas Jonas’s work is quite clean. To keep getting inspired, you just need to look at the world carefully and curiously, not even need to visit galleries too frequent. For example, when I finished my most recent performance, I gained a lot of inspiration from exploring Manchester and taking pictures of anything I thought interesting. I remember when people were asking me about Chinese performance art of the 80s and 90s and its influence on me and I replied with “not a lot”. My motivation is not only from the study of performance art but also from myself. It focuses on the now. My activist experience also has a big impact on my practice. Making art is one of the careers in the world that you never really have time off, because everything you see, everything you think of, everything you make, are all somehow connected.
MCR: What interested you about drag?
Chow: For me I think the masculine woman always has a special dynamic with their own female body, my MA dissertation researched into ‘butch in performance’. I read a book on drag kings in the 90s in London and New York and you can see the masculine performance as either the hyper-masculinity which is stereotypically the gay man’s sexuality or a straight man’s but there’s no in-between. I talked to Jack Halberstam who published the book and they asked me if I thought the drag scene is still radical and I think it’s a good question. I don’t go to drag shows very often now because I know what it’s going to be like and it’s very interesting to see it done in a new way. For my own drag practice, I am interested in creating the drag character in a different way to do with race and culture. As well as challenging the nature of existing drag shows themselves and the imagination towards the drag shows. I dragged myself by using the reference from my culture (Chinese Opera) and it’s history of cross-dressing from its own to the context of western drag scene.
MCR: What’s next?
Chow: I’m not sure, it depends on what kind of opportunity I receive, I’m quite open about it. I would like some kind of long-term research based work and I want to explore more about cultures in China and have more of a conversation with the Chinese audience. For now, working in the UK allows me to have conversations with institutions and individual audience about queer culture, post-colonialism and Chineseness. To digest the feedback from the different audiences is an important way for me to look back at my practice, but the inspiration only happens when the conversation is at the same level.