By Lena Price
Drenched in neon light, about 300 men packed into the grimy Lai Lai Dance Hall in the Northeastern part of Shanghai—but even in the crowd, it was impossible to miss Alysa.
The petite drag queen strutted to the middle of the floor in a pin-straight pink wig, a strapless wedding gown and a pair of elbow-length white gloves. She grabbed a microphone and belted out a Chinese pop song in honor of Father’s Day as middle-aged men in the audience catcalled and threw 100 RMB ($15) notes at her.
Alysa is 21 years old and started doing drag less than six months ago, but she seemed unfazed by all of the attention. Along with about eight other drag queens, Alysa performs at Lai Lai up to three times every week. She earns about 5,000 RMB ($773) a month.
Lai Lai is the only club in Shanghai, and possibly the only one in China, to regularly feature full-length drag shows, said Min Min, the club’s owner and a frequent performer. He started the venue about 10 years ago, using all his savings from his former job at a transportation company.
“I just love dancing and I love art,” Min Min said. “I wanted a big venue where gay men can come to experience these things and to be themselves.”
Drag in Shanghai is still mostly an underground form of entertainment. The city has about 30 drag queens total, but they perform sporadically and mostly in small venues or gay clubs. There aren’t any reality television shows dedicated to drag like there are in the U.S., but Min Min said people who aren’t interested in the shows leave him alone.
On top of drag performances, Lai Lai also provides a place for older gay men to socialize. Many of them have wives and children and are not publicly open about their sexuality.
Min Min said for the most part, the Shanghai community supports his dance hall, but he can remember several instances of police harassment when he first got into the club business.
“I’ve had police come in and order everyone out during performances,” Min Min said.
He said recently he’s been able to run his club without any major incidents. By charging 10 RMB ($1.50) for admission, Min Min is able to pay his performers and the club’s rent.
The building is located on the second floor of a seedy karaoke club in the Huangpu District. Potential patrons need to climb a flight of narrow steps to reach the football field-sized dance hall.
Inside, dozens of strands of Christmas lights cover the low ceiling and a thin layer of dirt coats the chipped wood floors. For Alysa, the place has become like a second home.
“I love support and the encouragement I get here,” Alysa said. “When the claps are loud, it gives more confidence to keep performing.”
Alysa said she has been a performer as long as she can remember. She spends two to three hours practicing before every show, and almost as much time getting ready. She taught herself how to apply thick layers of glitter make-up and to design her own costumes, but she had some help from some of the more experienced queens.
Sixty-year-old Teacher Zhang, who prefers to use his stage name because he is not out to his family, has been doing drag for the past nine years and dancing since he was nine years old. The recently retired dance instructor from Shanghai University offers lessons to the younger drag queens at Lai Lai.
“Even once they get the performances down,” he said. “I still like to watch the rehearsals.”
Teacher Zhang has studied the history of drag in China. It dates back to the days of the Peking Opera, when males played the opposite gender. Mei Lanfang, one of the opera’s most well-known singers, often took on female roles. Teacher Zhang called the performer one of his idols.
“His heritage has been passed down to current performers, and I’m very happy to see that,” Zhang said.
Zhang puts on up to five shows in an average week and plans to continue performing at Lai Lai and around the city as long as he is physically healthy. He said the dance hall is leading the drag scene in China, and he hopes it will become progressively more popular.
“Drag is an elegant art,” Zhang said.