This article was first published on The Compass Asia on 6 December 2018.
“In Singapore, ‘drag queens’ are like dinosaurs.” 38-year-old Christopher Lim exclaimed to me in a crowded fast-food restaurant. “We’ve heard of them, but we’ve never seen them.” To the uninitiated or ill-informed, drag queens are just men in skirts, but for Christopher, being a drag queen is a career.
The first time Christopher Lim made his premiere as ‘Sammi Zhen’ and performed his first-ever drag performance, it changed his life. That was in 1999. In the near two decades that followed, the former student of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) has consistently redefined success with numerous stories in newspapers, magazines, and even a feature in an 11-minute short film, titled “Singapore Confidential”.
Today, Christopher is a veteran in the drag industry, enlivened by the critically acclaimed yet controversial American reality television competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Yet, he does not consider himself a pioneer. “I think I belong to the fourth generation of drag queens. Before me, there was Kumar who performed at the now-defunct ‘Boom Boom Room’ and before Kumar, there was another batch.” Christopher said.
The Makings of a Good Drag Show
Like many Singaporeans, Indian stand-up comedian Kumar was the first person that frequently comes to mind when the topic of drag queens is brought up. Widely known for his caustic remarks and for poking fun at all things controversial, Kumar is one of Christopher’s role models. In many ways, Kumar and the generations of drag queens before have set the standard for stellar performances.
A typical drag show today, exaggerated makeup aside, comprises of lip-sync performances, sensual dancing, and at times, show-stopping ‘death drops’ — a highly exaggerated jump-fall dance manoeuvre. But acts like these are a dime a dozen. For seasoned veterans like Kumar and Christopher, they don’t just perform, they engage.
“I like to make them have fun before I truly start my act. It’s all about establishing audience engagement.” Christopher explained. “For those who cannot talk on stage, they would usually head up and dance before returning off-stage. There is no audience engagement! People will not remember your name, and this is what I mean when I say some drag queens have no character.”
A Brief History of Drag
For many, the term ‘drag queen’ is commonly associated with the flamboyant stars of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Yet in the not so distant past, the term carried a derogatory connotation in Singapore. People who “dragged” publicly were often thought to be transgender, or too “different” to be properly integrated into society. Some even went as far as to solely associate them with services of the clandestine sort.
“Back then, drag shows were very common. Drag queens (and transgender women) would strip naked and dance on (Bugis) street,” Christopher said, referring to the Bugis Street of a by-gone era. “But these days, everything has changed. The ‘unsavoury’ history of Bugis Street has been covered up.”
A far cry from the commercialised Bugis Street we are familiar with today, the Bugis Street used to be an infamous destination where transvestites, sailors and tourists would congregate. It was the site of “The Dance of the Flaming Arseholes”, as well as peculiar Chinese cuisines – think snakes and frogs – and needless to say, rampant debauchery.
I then ventured a question: How did you feel when you first performed? Christopher simply replied matter-of-factly, “I didn’t feel very special. Doing drag was fun for me then.” He proceeded to elaborate, “The audience is different these days. The broadcasting of RuPaul’s Drag Race had sort of stereotyped the kind of performances drag queens conduct on stage. They forget that there has to be diversity. Drag has a lot of diverse cultures all mixed within.”
The Rise of Sammi Zhen & The Fall of Drag
The beginning of Christopher’s career was not easy. Drag shows were only limited to the few gay clubs in Singapore. Christopher confessed that he was fortunate enough to have had opportunities to perform at some of these gay clubs. It was these opportunities that had helped him hone his craft as a drag performer, and in doing so perfect his characters and stage presence.
His popularity soared over the years as he continued to perform his show at various events while taking part in different competitions. Christopher’s big break came in 2002 when he performed at the National Day Dinner and Dance event hosted by the Singapore Opposition Party. Back then, his career was hectic yet financially stable with a seemingly endless stream of gigs. But this took a turn when the industry’s taste for entertainment changed.
“These days, gay clubs are stamping down on the performances. It is unlike those in Bangkok, where there is a drag show every night at the various gay clubs.” Christopher mused. “I guess gay clubs these days are more into hunky-men shows and gogo-boys.”
Despite the changes in consumer tastes, the 38-year-old drag queen continues to remain hopeful. It is this optimism that keeps him going. To Christopher, doing drag not only makes him bolder, it also empowers him. This is clearly demonstrated to his audiences through the multifaceted and vibrant personalities he brings on stage.
A career in the drag industry has empowered Christopher and given him a source of income, but he has also dealt with many challenges.
In a society that remains somewhat conservative, a discrimination against gender norms still lingers in Singapore. Many assume drag queens are “women wannabes” just because they come clad in female clothing and present themselves as females on stage. Some even thought Christopher would get eventually a sex-change, to which he rebuked, “I proved them wrong, I am still me today.” But Christopher was careful to note that there are men in the scene who do want to be transgender women and doing drag is, possibly, a “testing ground” for them prior to any planned procedures.
Then there are those who retain the traditional mentality of the 20th century: Drag queens are sex workers. Christopher’s mother was one such believer. It wasn’t until when Christopher started refurbishing their home with his hard-earned money that she gradually changed her mind. “My mother did not know that I could make a living by doing drag until I started refurbishing our house with the money I make,” he added. “I told her no prostitute would be able to earn this much.”
I then ventured another question: Does being a drag queen make you less of a man? He replied smirking, “No, I don’t think so. Back in the days, we (drag queens) even fought with the Ah Bengs (or ‘male hooligans’), and we won! Behind the makeup, we are still men.”After facing countless bigots, naysayers, and general homophobia for nearly two decades, Christopher needed to be resilient and wilful to continue breaking the mould and rise above any regular performer. But even under the glossy veneer of the drag industry and gay community, there lies subtle discrimination. “People will call me names,” he said nonchalantly. “I ignore them. I’m not going to give them the attention they want.”
For Christopher, he has seen it all. To him, drag is an extension of his personality and a full-time career. What the layman does not know is, underneath the thick makeup, voluminous wig and curvy dresses, is a man of many facets – a filial son to a mother with dementia, an advocate for the displaced LGBTQ community, and a passionate artist. For some, drag queens are entertainers, and for others, drag queens are abominations. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay. But for me, when I see Sammi Zhen on stage at Outbar, I do not see a performer.
I see a queen, a queen with a noble heart.