Drag, Diamonds & Dim Sum: Club kid and photographer Karen Stanley explores Hong Kong’s queer scene

Words & Photos by Karen Stanley

Hong Kong! By god it’s hot, but fuck me is it beautiful. For those of you who don’t know, Hong Kong is known as an ‘autonomous territory’. So kinda China, but kinda not. It was a British colony for 156 years and now they’re self-governed, until becoming China again in about 30 years. Politics regarding this are a HUGE topic of conversation, and as a queer person who’d just moved over, I hadn’t realised how different London to Hong Kong really would be. Because it’s known as one of Asia’s world cities, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The food’s fab, the beaches are fab, the skyscrapers and the ladies’ nights are really bloody fab, so what about the queer scene? I thought to myself “everything else is vibrant and big, this will be too… right?” So I set off to find myself some queers.

For some background info on me, I’m a London based drag queen from Wales, who you’ll usually find on the streets of Dalston or Soho with her tits out and a camera. I wasn’t really sure where any of this would fit into Chinese culture, or what the heck they’d make of me, but luckily my friend Cain Jennings introduced me to the lovely Disnay Chanel. She’s gorgeous, all the men and women and everyone in between want to go home with her, she’s funny and just as messy as me, and I LOVED it. We hit it off over a lovely dim sum lunch in Mong Kok, and she hasn’t been able to shake me off since. She taught me so much over there, especially how different East and West culture really is. I went over as part of my degree, and thought Asia would be a fun experience. From cottage pie to chicken feet, I knew I wouldn’t miss certain things but I also knew I’d miss a lot.

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Over the six months I lived in HK, I learnt that the scene itself is progressing really slowly compared to places like London and New York. In London, there are hundreds of fabulous people out every night, but in Hong Kong it was maybe four drag queens out only once or twice a week.

The gay bars are fun, but there aren’t many. Cleo Moans hosts a gay bingo night once a week at FLM in Sheung Wan. They also have other nights and a drag race viewing party, but in terms of drag, that was kinda it. When I would go out with Disnay, a lot of the time we would be the only ones in drag, which again was something that shocked me. Instead of blending into the crowds of glitter, fishnets, and latex I normally find at Dollar Baby, it was me, Disnay and some low profile gays who unfortunately don’t feel like they can be ‘out’ when out of the clubs.

The few drag queens I met were great. Everyone’s doing their own thing, but it’s still not London. I think there’s a huge influence from RuPaul’s drag race on how to dress and act, while London has a lot of its own character. A lot of the locals look to the west with this sort of thing, and I guess America has a bigger influence than Europe. In London I’m used to being a messy bitch who’s out most nights, but here? That just doesn’t happen.

This is where I believe one of the biggest culture differences lie. The Chinese really don’t drink much, and when you’re out clubbing, it’s usually the western gays who are on the floor while everyone else is at home working or tucked in bed. OBVIOUSLY I don’t want to generalise, but this was the overall impression I got, and from what those around me had said.

Ladies night though, was a bloody godsend. It was sexist, but when its free drinks and entry for women all night, who cares?! Yes a creepy man called Ming wanted to take me home to meet his lizard, but us ladies looked after each other. A lot of the policies and legalities of the country don’t agree with me, but as a whole, I thought the place was brilliant. Going out as a girl compared to a drag queen was very different. You could argue that that’s also the case in London, but the difference? People in Hong Kong were really scared of me. In London, you get an odd comment or even a threat, but in HK I witnessed people cowering and running away. They’re really not used to the LGBT being shown in the media. It’s still incredibly heteronormative and still mainly influenced by Chinese culture.

One of my first nights in drag, I was hired to photograph the Naomi Smalls event at Ozone, (the world’s highest bar! Ikr?!) at the Ritz. Being a bio queen, I did wonder what they would make of me, and I’m not exactly drag race looking either. Out of all the queens working that night, the only one who would speak to me was Naomi. The others wouldn’t come over, smile or even look at me. I found out later on these drag queens only do something about once a year. This kind of attitude I’m not sure if its because of how I look or whatever, but I think its something that’s progressing. They were a bit older than the others who I’d made friends with, and after that night I didn’t have any more trouble for being a woman in drag. Maybe they still lean towards Chinese values, or they just thought I was a bloody nutter.

Queer Hong Kong

I decided to photograph as much as I could. I took some fab photos following Disnay around the clubs, and we had a fun shoot in one of the wet markets. Ignoring the smell of fish and stepping around the suspicious puddles, it was great to enjoy and laugh at how crazy everything was with a fellow London queen. I did a lovely shoot with Madam Mincemeat and Exxotica at the temple on Repulse Bay beach, and by showing Asian drag and showing off the gorgeous location, the photos really scream Hong Kong to me. I wanted my photos to keep my fun analogue style while also showing off crazy Hong Kong. It has a very unique character, a bit more British than China but definitely nowhere near what we have at home. While you can look at the photos and go ‘ooh that’s a bit different isn’t it Barbra’, I’ll never be able to capture the moment to its full extent. The flying cockroaches, the fish heads, school girls asking if I’m anime, being taller than everyone else even though I’m about 5”5. There’s something about this place that doesn’t feel real. HK was incredible to see, and even more incredible to become a part of.

More and more queens are getting involved and joining the scene, I’m not sure if it will ever be what London is, but within the next few years, it will definitely grow. I 100% recommend anyone to go for the experience. Drinking in the street is legal, the markets are amazing for outfits, and if you can stand the heat and humidity, the noodles are bloody good. The clubs are welcoming, and while the locals are curious and intrigued, I never experienced any hatred or violence. It’s a safe space, they’re probably just wondering why the strange-sounding woman with the blue afro has her tits out again.

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