Chinese drag queens get to ‘be themselves’

Musical Kinky Boots has broken new ground in the socially conservative nation, with shows in theatres across cities

Sign language interpreters swung their hips and gestured at deaf audience members to the rhythm of a rollicking performance by drag queens singing and dancing on stage behind them.

Nothing surprising for a Broadway show, except this is China.

The Tony award-winning musical Kinky Boots has broken new ground in the socially conservative nation.

The show has filled theatres in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, lighting up audiences in a country where LGBT-themed entertainment is often censored and rarely gets major — if any — billing.

It also has reached a broader audience than usual in China: Kinky Boots was the first musical to offer sign language interpreters for the hearing-impaired in the country.

“It’s very inspiring because for many years for me as a deaf person, subtitles were the only thing available in a theatre. But now I’ve got access to the whole show,” Junhui Yang said at a recent performance in Beijing.

Interpreters memorised the entire show and never looked back at the stage as they translated the musical for the deaf audience, matching the gestures of the rhythm of the music and the dance moves.

They hugged at the same time as the performers, made forlorn faces when a character’s heart was broken, and extended an inviting hand followed by a fist pump when the drag queens sang “everybody say yeah!”.

“We really hope to make (shows) more accessible, to engage the deaf in various kinds of social settings and let them enjoy the same level of joy as I do,” interpreter Tang Wenyan told AFP.

‘Believe in yourself’

Kinky Boots, whose music and lyrics were written by pop veteran Cyndi Lauper, wraps up its two-month China tour on Sunday — a long run for a country where censors often frown upon gay entertainment.

China only decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, and withdrew it from its list of mental illnesses in 2001. Same-sex marriage remains illegal.

Gay-themed films struggle to make it into movie theatres, same-sex relationships are banned from television screens and gay content is forbidden on online streaming platforms.

Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name, the story of a summer romance between two men in Italy, was pulled from the Beijing International Film Festival in March.

Another film about a secret homosexual relationship, Looking for Rohmer, was heavily edited for Chinese theatres this year.

Online video service MangoTV cut out a gay-themed dance from its broadcast of the Eurovision contest in May. It also blurred out rainbow flags in the audience.

Kinky Boots tells the story of a shoe factory worker who saves the business from bankruptcy by teaming up with a drag queen named Lola who wanted red, thigh-high stiletto boots.

Away from the large theatre that hosted Kinky Boots, Chinese drag queens perform in dimly-lit local nightclubs where they do their makeup and hair themselves.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 2:55:05 PM |

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