Whiskey Chow in Conversation

With Grace Crannis

Article,  Issue Three

Masculinism (2018)
Photo by Orlando Myxx



Whiskey Chow is a London-based artist and Chinese drag king. With an activist background in China, Whiskey’s practice explores female masculinity, stereotypes and cultural projections of Chinese/Asian identity with interdisciplinary performance, moving image and experimental sound pieces. We met to discuss POWER, the life of an artist & cultural difference.

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Whiskey:

There’s a story about a gay god – the Rabbit God (兔兒神) in a folktale collection from the Qing Dynasty. The god used to be a human and his name was Hu Tianbao.

He lived in Fujian province, and loved a local officer for many years. One day he couldn’t control himself, and followed the officer to the toilet to look at his butt. He got caught. The officer wasn’t into men, and demanded that Hu be beaten to death. Hu descended into the underworld that Chinese people believe in, and the king in the underworld asked, why are you here? You just love that person. You didn’t hurt anyone. From now on, you will look after gay relationships. So Hu became the Rabbit God.

Nowadays, there’s only one Rabbit God temple in Taiwan and queer people go and worship. Hu was said to be a very pretty man, so he is usually offered sheet masks and makeup as offerings.

Grace:
So there used to be more temples but they got demolished? Is this a story you are exploring with your work?

W

I’m still researching, but some people say it was made up because they can’t find anything in the Qing Dynasty, but even if the stories were there, they would have been destroyed in the cultural revolution. But the whole work is about queer despair and queer hope. Queer people never have a god to protect them, the best they can see is a queer idol. But unfortunately, queer idols also often end up having tragic stories.

There was a lesbian musician in Hong Kong called Ellen [Joyce Loo]. In HK there are no other female guitar players like her. She came out a few years ago, but committed suicide last August. I met her 5 years ago when I was promoting independent music in China, I picked her up from the airport and accompanied her to a festival. We were all so shocked by the news of her suicide because she was only 32. But at the time when I met her she was already unwell. So that’s queer despair.

G

When you were growing up did you have someone like that to look up to, that was openly out?

W

Not really. I was born in the late 80s and realised I was queer very early. To survive you can always queer read something. Imagine you are the guy in the movie! I was quite masculine when I was young, but my mum desperately wanted a princess. This kind of conflict never stopped. In public bathrooms, women would punish you by talking about your gender. I sometimes have this experience in London.

G

I was about to say, obviously you’re at different points in your life now but how have you found similarities between China and the UK?

W

I mean, the people in the UK are much more chill. But there’s another kind of hierarchy. I didn’t have to realise that I’m an Asian woman in China. But living here is adding a layer. In the queer/lesbian community here, I’ve been described as a ‘soft butch’. In China they see me as a very masculine woman. In the UK I’m not considered that masculine.

I don’t like the labels, but it’s really funny. My work incorporates these themes in different directions. Mainly it’s about identity, female masculinity, queerness, Chineseness.

G

I came to your performance at Cafe Oto with Victoria Sin. You tend to use a lot of paint, and yoghurt and liquid, sticky things. Do those materials come naturally to you? Is there something about the materiality of it? And the patination of your shirt afterwards. Do you still have it?

W

Yeah I mean I when I look back, I found I really like to use liquid, like how do you find a material to describe queerness? You can’t totally control it. It could go anywhere. I have the shirt, I live with everything in my living room. Drowning in paint like a weird museum. Sometimes I just buy materials because I think I can do something with them.

Unhomliness (2018)
Photo by Alice Jacobs




Truth is not always comfortable. It’s so easily read as conflict.




G

I like that too, you never know when you’ll experience something that will trigger a new way to think about an object or a material. Hard for storage but nice for life.

W

When you own them they also own you. When you have to face them every day, they also talk to you. The living room is very noisy, because they are there. I think because of my star sign, I’m really obsessed with stability.

G

What’s your star sign?

W

Capricorn

G

I’m Gemini. You like stability?

W: Yeah I guess so. Also I’m a big control freak (lol). But I don’t always know. I feel the audience, which comes from instinct. Somebody once said I was using my life energy to do work. I don’t have a clear story to tell the audience. They don’t need to know it, they need to feel it. You know workout culture, it’s become a new religion. I think this work is coming from that.

G

Yeah, I don’t subscribe. But it’s this whole thing about optimisation of the body, and of life. Fit it all in and get results quickly. There’s so much productivity guilt!

W

Yes of course, who can escape? I’ve seen people pushing so hard to promote themselves. You can’t say no! But it’s about your energy and task management.

G

Really unsexy but so fundamental. It’s also a luxury to say no. And that’s something that I constantly re evaluate my relationship with. I’m getting better at saying no in personal relationships, but if a friend says can you help me with this, or anything that’s work related I feel pretty obligated to say yes.

W

In other people’s eyes, the artist are chill, living the life they want. People can see your CV wow you’re so blah blah blah, but they never know when you are really unwell and have to force yourself to finish the show. Now my family see that my career is progressing and leave space for me, but I struggled a lot as a teenager. My parent’s generation cannot understand or imagine my lifestyle. I completely abandoned theirs. But if I could have been happy with it, everything would have been so easy. 

I’d get everything they arranged. But I was fighting hard to do what I want, even before I knew what I wanted.

G

How did you win them over? Or do they see that you are doing what you want to do?

W

There was so much cultural stress, but they didn’t force me to get married and were glad I could study abroad. They are very happy, I’ve got a job, it looks decent, I’ve got shows in some institutions where they can use the name to show off. I wouldn’t tell them when my life is difficult, but I tell them oh I’ve got a screening in the British Museum, I’ve got a performance in the V&A. I share the good news only, and send them the Wikipedia links.

G

Look mum I’m in a museum!

W

And I studied performance! You know nothing about your life/career/ future. But in the UK art world, people respect each other in work, no matter how much they pay you. For me it’s an ideal place. You don’t have to spend time only talking with people about housing, kids, money, but not talking about their dreams.

G

Yeah I completely understand. It’s sad that that’s almost the first thing to go sometimes in conversations. How to move onto the next pre-defined step in life.

W

It’s always that inspiration from my new work or from other people’s work that makes me survive, I’m so longing for that intellectual engagement, I guess.

G

Do you feel like you have that?

W

Yeah I have that. But there comes another kind of despair when you can look at or think about the truth more easily. Some people prefer to play in safe mode. Honesty, truth and deepness are really really important for me. It sometimes makes you very direct and this kind of quality is sometimes not that beneficial in your social life…

G

Omg yes. Because people don’t like it sometimes. The whole relationship between directness/honesty and forcefulness. But for me it’s hard to not have the chance to communicate openly. Do you see what I mean?

W

Truth is not always comfortable. But it’s so easily read as conflict, or they are worried about breaking harmony. I’m not putting any kind of judgement about is better, but sometimes there are stereotypes that direct people are tough or hard to please.

G

Still working on that one. But also you don’t always have to communicate in the same way. You formulate your own way to relate to each other, even if it’s not the same.

W

Yeah I remember when I was young, I could feel the texture of people. Before knowing them completely, the texture is abstract. Over time, their character still belongs to the texture you feel at the beginning.

G

You do just know sometimes.

W

It’s also your own emotional engagement? Taking your energy as well to feel that in a person? I don’t know I think sometimes I’m just too serious you know! With a serious face, like a mask, always frowning.

G: Aha I saw a meme about this, literally what we were just saying. Okay. Ready for a two pronged question. What does power mean to you? And when do you feel most powerful? You can eat your tangerine and think about that cos it’s #deep.

W

Okay I’ll try to answer. Power is when you are still able to collect or create the possibility to make changes you want to see. Mmm. I’m thinking of the relationship between power and hope, powerlessness and hopelessness. But being positive doesn’t always mean you are powerful. I felt frustrated when I was 25 and I thought I was nobody. My friend said, why are you trying to compare your life with that 50-year-old life! They have used their entire maturity to achieve that!

G

Mmmhmmm

W

Back to what kind of moment makes me feel powerful. I don’t know, I think powerful doesn’t mean that I have a lot of power. It can be peace. Feeling secure. I think the most desperate thing is losing a sense of belonging. Or not knowing where you’re going, or not caring, or wanting to do anything. That’s quite vulnerable and powerless. So powerful for me is willing to say ‘yes I do’ every day.

G

It’s a super hard question. What really interested in is yeah, all of those emotions, or even allowing yourself to feel any emotion is powerful too. Allowing yourself to be sad. And not always beating yourself up for not being perfect, or perfectly happy.

W

That’s the thing that life experience in the UK taught me, and performance art has taught me. I mean when I just moved to the UK I could understand 60% of what people were saying. For the rest I had to pretend, ‘oh yeah, mmm interesting’. In China, I had networks, knowledge, resources, confidence. When I came here, they were gone. I had to learn all over again, and accept you will feel panicked, you will feel nervous. You will say the wrong words. I’m not used to embracing my vulnerability. When you perform, you have to do something, whether you are prepared or not.

You might experience failure. And people are watching. That’s such a lesson. It changed my whole life.

One friend in China posts interviews on WeChat to show young people alternative lifestyles. She asked me – what’s the difference between your art and your life? And I said, okay, if you are not considering your professional career, you can pull out of a show and say I’m not doing it.

You don’t need to do it. But for life, you can’t say I quit. You have to deal with that shit. I think that’s the main difference!




whiskeychow.com
@whiskeyciao



Macho (2017)
Photo by Ray Anyi Ren





Syrup 2021