There's this wonderful thing happening this Sunday afternoon at Daliah that you should attend, especially if you have three, two, one, nine, ninety, or even 9 million genders wrapped up in your beautiful, unique self. DKNSTRKT is a new community drag platform with the mandate to explore genderfluidity in professional performance, personal experience, and everyday expression. Coming from drag king Dorian T. Fisk, working with the Shanghai-adored queens across the aisle, DKNSTRKT is planning workshops and events dedicated to helping people find who they are through the art of drag — a noble endeavor indeed.
In addition to the launch of DKNSTRKT, the behind-the-scenes documentary of Shanghai drag EXTRAVAGANZA is also celebrating its first full public premier. Directed by Matthew Baren, the film is a look backstage (and then some) of a watershed drag performance last year at The Pearl, which saw 12 performers in the city come together to celebrate who they are. SmartShanghai spoke to both Dorian and Matthew about the concept of genderfluidity, the goals of DKNSTRKT, the film EXTRAVAGANZA, and more.
But wait that's not all. For even more eye candy we (the royal "we", no more appropriate than here) enlisted the acute makeover services of Daliah owner Daliah herself, the ever sweet and delightfully weird, to administer a makeover on our person. Sort of like a what-to-expect-on-Sunday sort of deal.
Don't even say it: we're serving Soviet BLOC matronly old bag with a heart of gold realness.
For the gods.
Dorian T. Fisk and Matthew Baren
SmSh: So how long do you think this will take?
Daliah: An hour?
Matthew: An hour is pretty good for a makeover.
SmSh: So, tell me about Sunday. What have you got planned?
Dorian: For Sunday, we’ve got me, Fantasia, and Mo Meaux, and we’re going to have four makeover models. We’re just going through the applicants now. We’ve got about 30 applicants and we’re reaching out to our first choices.
By design, we want to showcase a different side of drag and diversity. I mean like… you yourself obviously being one end, and then we’re doing all sorts of different styles of drag. So, that’s the plan.
And we’ve also got the screening of the film, EXTRAVAGANZA, which is concurrent to our makeover timing. And then we’ve got the reveal. We’re only doing head-up. We’re not tucking strangers or anything like that…
Matthew: I could definitely go for a thigh makeover… just my thighs…
SmSh: [Laughs.] Taking a step back, can you tell me about DKNSTRKT?
Dorian: Yeah, okay. Well, we had the idea to do… something… for the greater drag community about six months ago. There was a drag king in Shanghai who was my drag dad, Ennis F.W., who left, and I kinda knew that that was coming, and felt there would be a lack. So, I got Ennis’ advice on how to spawn drag babies.
And at the same time there was a scene here for drag queens performing at the LGBTQ bars, but there weren't many opportunities for drag kings. So, I thought, “okay, well, two birds with one stone — we’ll try to create more drag kings but also more diversity in the community and more performance opportunities.”
And I also got a hold of Fantasia Valentina, because — and I don’t know if this is public knowledge — but recently there've been several drag queens departing Shanghai as well, so we thought we needed to step this up and home-grow something that is both Chinese home-grown drag and also more diverse.
Matthew: Things were winding down and you wanted to ramp them up again.
Dorian: Yeah, and it’s also just the city itself, with people coming and going, and we didn’t want the drag scene as depicted in your movie to fall apart.
And also, when she [Fantasia] and I were talking about doing something, we really connected on the notion of genderfluidity, and exploring performance across the gamut. You know, the construct of gender, and breaking it down through drag as a form of personal expression.
So, that’s basically what we’re about: deconstructing the binary of male and female gender identities. Whether that becomes a performance or something else is up to the individual…
SmSh: More of a way to live your life and be yourself in the world?
Dorian: Yes, performance is one aspect but there are whole other areas and ways to express yourself through drag, and you don’t necessarily have to get up on stage and do a show.
We want to create opportunities for people through workshops and things like that, encouraging people to explore different spheres of gender expression and find who they are and be able to be themselves.
Of course, when people play around with drag they might discover that they like the idea of performing, and that’s great but that’s not the main goal; we just want to create more diversity in the community here. Not necessarily develop drag performers.
SmSh: So DKNSTRKT will have regular workshops? Can you tell me more about what sorts of things you’ve got planned?
Dorian: One of the first workshops I want to do is a drag king boy band workshop.
Dorian: Which is Ennis’ idea, as an easy entry point into it. It would be something that’s easy to understand and easy to rock up to, without having to commit to a larger show. Maybe I would get one of the dancing queens like Mo Meaux to help come up with a short routine just for fun, without having a set performance booking at the end of it.
It could lead to that for some people, but it would be more about just having fun and exploring.
SmSh: Have you got a good boy band name yet?
Dorian: No, no! That would be part of the whole fun of it, working as a group. Everyone would be coming up with their own personas…
SmSh: Right, there’s the sporty one, the bad boy…
Matthew: The secretly gay one…
Dorian: It took me a while to develop this persona. It’s evolved. It’s a process, right, you discover things about yourself.
SmSh: Okay, as we’re there already then, can you tell me more about Dorian T Fisk?
Dorian: Yes, well. I came out about a year and a half or two years ago, and then I decided that I should probably figure out what the lesbian scene in Shanghai is like. So I attended one event and it was like a dating auction — my first foray into the lesbian scene — and I had a chance there to see Ennis F.W. in drag as the host, and then not long after that I saw that Ennis was producing the 2016 Pride’s Got Talent show that year. And I volunteered to help backstage.
And then of course, I thought it made more sense if I didn’t show up to that just looking like this, but perhaps I should make more of an effort. And I thought, ‘well maybe I could be in drag’ and spent some time between then and the show, thinking of who Dorian could be. I came up with a mood board, and some images on the web, based on, when I think back, guys I liked as a teen who were in like ‘80s glam rock bands. But he was more of a roadie-type guy.
SmSh: Like a Motley Crue type?
Dorian: Yes! Very much… [laughs]. He was something of a bad ilk. Working backstage as a production manager of the show. And then after that Ennis and [burlesque performer] Anna Fur Laxis were producing semi-regular shows at The Pearl with a range of performances including drag, burlesque, comedy, and song, sort of stuff, and they hired Dorian to be backstage. So, the persona sort of developed by being backstage at The Pearl for six months.
Matthew: I think it’s worth pointing out as well that literally anyone who was at the shows then was like, "how the fuck is this dude — the straightest guy ever — fitting in at The Pearl’s scene."
Dorian: Yes, I was rarely out in front of the curtain — just dealing with rigging or putting out mic stands. So as time went on, Ennis was like ‘you should just perform,’ and the open mic night at The Pearl was not high pressure, not a big ticket night, so I came up with my first act, which was an Alice Cooper song.
SmSh: “School’s Out”?
Dorian: “Feed My Frankenstein”.
SmSh: [Singing] Feeeed myyy Frankensteiiin!
Dorian: Yeah, exactly. So I did that with a few pole tricks. And he’s developed from there. He’s got Dorian the gunslinger; Dorian the Thai boxer; Dorian the vampire… taking him into a bit more of a glam vein.
SmSh: What other workshops are you going to have?
Dorian: Well, this is up for discussion with the drag community. But we’ve had 30 applicants in advance of Sunday’s event, and a hopefully a few more after Sunday in the database. And we’ll see what people want to know and learn, really. We’re just looking to provide opportunities for people to express themselves.
SmSh: As a drag king in Shanghai are you receiving support from the drag queen community here?
Dorian: Some of them, yeah. We’ve been asked to be in shows, to get pulled into larger shows, but some venues are specifically looking for queens. So, yeah, we have to develop our own shows, and we’re looking to do that. Have our own variety shows and things like that. And also work with people and venues who are looking to promote diversity in drag.
We’re also looking at venues, not specifically bars, but galleries for pop-ups. More raw industrial spaces.
I would like it to be more like not “tonight we have drag” but more as a general inclusive, safe space. ALL is a good example of that sort of more inclusive space.
SmSh: This is harder to do than I though it was going to be, with Daliah working her magic here. Daliah, I think you’re drawing outside my lips a bit with the lipstick…
Matthew: You look amazing…
SmSh: I’m sure. Daliah, is there an overarching aesthetic we’re going for here with this look?
Daliah: Well, we’re going for some DIY drag… with some condoms here and there.
SmSh: Oh good.
Matthew: You look like some kind of children’s character that was broadcast in Austria during Daliah’s childhood. Sort of very Cold War meets New Romantics… on a bad period.
Daliah: Some cultural appropriation elements.
SmSh: Good, good, can’t wait to get this on the internet then and seen everywhere. That would be great for me… So, Matthew, can you tell me about EXTRAVAGANZA?
Matthew: So… I don’t usually make documentaries. My background is in film but more with festivals and screenings and that sort of stuff. But I work with a company that specializes in documentaries. EXTRAVAGANZA came about because I was having a conversation with Miss Jade and Fantasia, and someone had recently approached them about doing a photoshoot with drag queens in Shanghai, and they were moaning about the fact that they get so many of these requests, they agree to them but they’re not being paid for it — they’re offered portraits — and the portraits always show them sad, oppressed, underground, in the shadows…
SmSh: Is this the Western media coming in and creating this narrative? Look at the oppressive regime?
Matthew: I think it’s a lot of foreign, independent photographers, looking for political and artsy sorts of angles. They’re depicted half in and half out of the light — that sort of thing. So, what they were really bitching about is that it’s a sort of poor representation of their experience of being drag queens in this city. Which is usually filled with laughter, filled with joy, filled with creative energy.
This was maybe two weeks before the Extravaganza show, and I said ‘well, maybe let’s come backstage, and we’ll just film backstage.’ So, it was an amazing show. Which I didn’t actually get to see any of. But we got some amazing footage.
SmSh: This was the biggest drag show in Shanghai up until that point?
Matthew: Oh god, it was 12 performers? I think?
Dorian: Yes, there were two acts each, and then group numbers, and a finale.
SmSh: A watershed moment kind of thing?
Matthew: Yeah, Jade kind of describes it as a milestone sort of show. In the three years she’d been doing drag the scene had gone from being dead — like boys in wigs doing Peking Opera-style — you know, doing the drag that everyone else was doing instead of developing your own character and finding who you are through drag — to something else.
But yeah, at this show, half the audience was straight and half the audience was from the queer community. And it was a massive crowd. And in that respect it also showed that drag is big business. And venues can afford to take a chance on performers because they bring the crowd, and money can be made.
Which is ultimately how it’s going to be sustainable.
SmSh: Is there newer talent rising up?
Dorian: There’s some, right?
Dorian: Miss Jade has departed us a host but we’ve got Kimberly Kumswell…
SmSh: A memorable name.
Matthew: There’s the new Erica. She’s like twice as tall.
Dorian: Cocosanti is new. We’re putting two performers on the stage on Sunday that are up-and-coming. To give the community a chance to see them. We’ll see in the coming months. One of the messages is that you don’t have to be an LGBTQ community member to do drag.
Matthew: It helps.
Dorian: [Laughs] Does it? I follow lots of straight drag kings on the Instagram…
SmSh: So, the film screening on Sunday…
Matthew: Right. The film sort of sat on the hard drive for ages. We had something like 15 hours of footage. From this one event. We’re there from the rehearsals, the makeover, the main event, right the way through to the end of it.
So, I’ve spent every day off, every evening over the past two months editing it. Michael Cignarale has written a track for the end credits, so I got that a couple of days ago. But yeah, literally, it will be hot off the press on Sunday. Nobody has seen it yet.
SmSh: Looking at the film in its completed state, what does it say about Shanghai Drag?
Matthew: I feel like it shows that Shanghai drag is not smaller than any other city in the world by virtue of being in China. And if you talk to people outside of China about what is East Asian drag, you get what these photographers are presenting, which is, you are oppressed gay people; you have no expression; you must be miserable and all your families reject you — this kind of thing.
And that’s not the case at all. Looking around Shanghai you see people doing very interesting stuff. It’s the same sort of thing you’d expect to see in London or New York. Maybe not as genderfucked as those places, but it’s pretty strong.
SmSh: Would you guys like to discuss anything else?
Matthew: What can people do to support the Shanghai drag community?
Dorian: Come to the shows!
SmSh: It’s the least they can do.
And also get in touch with DKNSTRKT over their WeChat for upcoming workshops, events, and performances. (WeChat ID: DKNSTRKT)
DKNSTRKT launches this Sunday afternoon at Daliah with a screening of EXTRAVAGANZA, the make-overs, drag performances and more. Details here.