Queer Finds Family10 min read

Cantonese opera ignites LGBTQ voices in Vancouver’s Chinatown – Kimberley Wong 

Editor’s note: To celebrate Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, this column brings you three stories from queer and LGBT+ diasporic communities over the next three days, beginning with Kimberely Wong’s route back to the art of her grandfather, a master of Cantonese opera. – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

As I stood at the bottom of the stairs at the Wong’s Benevolent Association, I held a plant in one hand, my hand gripped tight to the grainy bottom of the pot, eyes interrogating the leaves, ensuring they were glossy and auspicious-looking. I wanted to make a good impression on the folks I would be meeting today. I had my notebook, with ‘Wong’ written on the front, in the other hand. I had asked my Dad and my Grandma, both born Wongs, to tell me the names of our ancestors and fellow Wong Chinese-Canadians, so that I could look them up in the manifestos and so that I could tell Uncle Tim Wong, the elder Wong historian, to whom I was related. In the scurry of looking through photos of my Yeh-Yeh, my paternal grandfather, we figured that he and Tim Wong must have been in Chinatown at around the same time, in the same social circles.

Visiting the Wong’s Benevolent Association marks another milestone in the journey searching for my family’s history. I’ve always known that my Yeh-Yeh was a Chinatown local, but seeing his face, albeit younger-looking than I remember, strewn across the walls of buildings I walked by every day for a year when I was working in Chinatown with a non-profit, while trying to search for my roots on my Po-Po’s side, is intricately heart-wrenching. My Grandfather, Owen Wong  – or Wong Git Kuun (黄傑群) as he was known in Chinatown – was the leader and teacher of many students of Cantonese opera symphonic music. He was known all around Chinatown. His legacy, as someone who mentored so many young music students, has lived on for decades.

I’ve found a reprieve in reclaiming Chinese culture through Cantonese opera – in its queerness, ancestry, migration, glamor and flamboyancy”

I nervously greeted the liaison who was helping to arrange the visit for me and my friend, and we followed her into the association building. We were welcomed by hesitant stares and waves from elders, who were sitting around the table drinking tea and reading newspapers, or filling out paperwork, while we cautiously wandered around to the front office. I tried to search for pictures that my Dad and I had looked at the night before at home, in hopes that they might have copies of the same ones hanging here. I found similar ones, taken on the same stage that was pictured in my family books, but my mind was cloudy and nervously scanning for things to say to the people around me in my broken Cantonese.

The liaison brought out Tim Wong and told him that we were here to look through the archives for my ancestors. He asked me what my Grandfather’s name was, and as the liaison translated my words, the smile on his face grew. The look in Tim Wong’s eyes when I told him that I was Wong Git Kuun’s granddaughter mirrored the yearning that I felt to understand this world that I had neglected for so long. I imagined he saw my Grandpa in me, was searching for his old friend in my smile, my nervous hands, my teary eyes. I hope that he found it. I’ve been told by people who knew my Grandfather well that I look like him. I’m so proud to look like my Grandpa. Tim Wong was excited about it too – he eagerly showed me pictures of my Grandpa, intermittently telling me how much I reminded him of Wong Git Kuun. My Grandpa was present in group shots of the former Hon Hsing Musical Society, in photos of the annual photoshoot for the Wong’s Benevolent Society taken in front of the building I stood in now, and in photos I had seen before but had never really paused to looked at.

Knowing that my Grandpa was so integral in establishing an art form from Hoisan in Vancouver’s Chinatown means more to me now than ever. I’ve found a sort of reprieve in being able to reclaim Chinese culture through Cantonese opera, something that to me represents queerness, and ancestry, and migration, and glamor, and flamboyancy, and knowledge-sharing. Wong Git Kuun was so important to so many people in Chinatown, and Chinatown is so important to me.

He saw my Grandpa in me, was searching for his old friend in my smile, my nervous hands, my teary eyes”

When I made my first foray into the complex world of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Chinese migration, and my ancestry, I quickly caught onto the art practice of Cantonese opera. When I began to imagine myself as a fully aware and fully realized Cantonese opera performer, something about it felt magical. I saw my round almond-shaped eyes and wide upturned nose painted with pigments of red, white and black. I was dressed in corduroy jackets and light wash denim, bathing in warm yellow streams of light. My ancestors were looking over me and pushing me forward, towards an embodiment of their love and their struggle, and family that they have.

Kimberley Wong as alter ego ‘Cantonese Rebel Grrl’ in makeup inspired by Cantonese opera, connecting queerness and Cantoneseness (Jenn Xu)

Cantonese opera is something I’ve been able to hold tenderly as a part of my identity through the community of local drag performers I’m fortunate enough to call friends. But it wasn’t always like this – there was a time when I would shudder at the sound of Cantonese or Hoisan Wah. Peers at school, and even sometimes family members, would talk about how Cantonese sounds like squawking ducks. My Po-Po still tells me that Hoisan Wah is a language of laborers, a language of “country bumpkins,” an unrefined, ugly-sounding language. Unlearning my internalized racism, step by step, has come through seeing others do the same.

Maiden China, my idol and friend, a gender-bending glitter alien drag performer, represents a large part of that to me. I remember the first time I saw Maiden China perform. I was at the Cobalt, an important center for drag performers, queer and trans folks, and music lovers alike, with two of my best friends. watching the Mr/Ms Cobalt competition finale that Maiden was in the running for. As their name and bio was announced, I remember feeling like it was a cue for me to buckle down, settle into the moment, and prepare for crying tears of bliss. I remember hearing dark, deep vibrations of music and seeing low smoke waft slowly up to the ankles of their shiny black gown. Then I saw their face. Eyes like mine, fierceness and Chineseness so elegantly and intentionally represented, steeped in glitter and jewels, Maiden China opened their heart to the audience with the words they mouthed and with their hands outstretched and reaching. Halfway through their performance, they unzipped their mandarin-collared black gown, whipping the stage into a glitter confetti storm, and at that point, I started weeping. Three days later, on May 8, 2017, I sent Maiden this message:

I’ve never seen someone be so unapologetically on stage, someone who looks and understands what I have been my entire life. I’ve never seen someone so Asian and so queer and so fierce with such great taste be so proud of all these qualities that society as a whole deems as a detriment to our identities. Seeing you perform brought tears to my eyes because seeing these qualities up on stage be so outrageously supported and cheered on and accepted and celebrated by a largely white space and group of people was an unparalleled experience. Your performance was like a nod to all of the feelings of not being accepted I’ve ever felt and I can’t quite articulate how much it meant to me. Thank you for being so fiercely *Maiden China*.

My ancestors were looking over me and pushing me forward, towards an embodiment of their love and their struggle”

Nearly two years later, through countless teary-eyed moments shared through our mutual search for identity and belonging, I now consider Maiden China a part of my chosen family, along with many other fellow confused diasporic femmes and folks. Having this concentric journey come together, from witnessing Maiden China’s drag practice, to learning about my Grandfather’s influence and leadership in Chinatown, to my own performance and interest in drag and Cantonese opera, makes jumping into this world of clan associations and drag all the more exciting and meaningful. As the granddaughter of a key Chinatown Cantonese opera musician, finding Maiden China feels like fate.

Portrait of Kimberley Wong (Jenn Xu)

I can only hope that the very real impact of representation, access to cultural history, and mentorship can elicit a similar response in other diasporic folks, who may be curious or in denial of the ever-expanding world of in-betweenness – of questioning, accepting and finding love in our culture, queerness, bodies and selves. We are complex, powerful people with big hearts and soft eyes, uncertain words and memories of longing, in need of places and spaces to learn and make mistakes, to begin to understand the powers at play in Chinatown, in queer communities, and elsewhere.

We should be able to ask the uncomfortable questions about identity and belonging that sometimes make us squirm, to enrich the conversations that we are having about equity, space making, and space taking. The ideas that come from these conversations can shape our self-awareness and affect our collective opportunities. Ultimately, these conversations impact future policies, sway decisions that affect our safety, and help elect people who share the same (or contradictory) values. I’m lucky to be able to have these conversations in Chinatown, which is why I think it’s vital to engage with these themes on a deeper level, deeper than a Lunar New Year parade or a visit to New Town Bakery. I want us to look into and learn the collective history in this neighborhood of institutionalized marginalization, community resilience and linguistic evolution.

The spaces we have to talk about these things are few and far between, but nonetheless important. We can have conversations that begin to peel back layers of loss in culture, heal from transgenerational trauma, and create more compassion and understanding within and beyond our own insular community, but we need the space first. Chinatown is that space for me. That’s why I care so deeply about its future. ∎

This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon. Header image reproduced with thanks to Jen Sungshine at media arts collective Love Intersections