Local Drag Queen Opera Tang On Self-Expression And Being Queer In Singapore

"I sometimes downplay the struggles I face because I know that there are people who have it worse."
Opera Tang
Photo: Courtesy of Opera Tang

To Opera Tang, drag is a fearless exploration of gender identity in spite of the norms enforced by conservative society. In the public eye, the local drag queen is a spectacle to witness onstage, with a penchant for flamboyant costumes informed by her affinity for Chinese opera. In private, though, she has dreams she hopes to realise one day, such as opening a drag bar so that queer performers like herself have a safe space to train and perform.

All of this is lensed in filmmaker Lei Yuan Bin’s 2022 documentary Baby Queen, which Tang stars in, surrounded by her chosen family of drag sisters and grandmother. Over the course of the film, she bares her vulnerability in and out of drag, recounting her experiences growing up with staunch religious beliefs and the conflicts it created with her queerness. Still, the young drag queen remains optimistic. In fact, she has grown quite comfortable in her queerness, and even relishes the new life she has created for herself.

Ahead, Tang speaks to GRAZIA Singapore about being queer in Singapore, what inspires her, the importance of family and more.

Opera Tang
Photo: Courtesy of Opera Tang

How do you identify yourself now, and has that changed over the course of your life?

Opera Tang (OT): I’m okay with all pronouns—he, she, and they. Quite recently, I’ve started identifying as non-binary. This was actually documented in the film, Baby Queen, where I was seen familiarising myself with the term and coming to terms with my insecurities surrounding my gender expression and identity. Prior to this, I identified as gay, cis-male and have always had a feminine side that I tried to change because of the expectations from my family, church and society at large. I’m happy that I’ve grown past that and can express myself with less worry of what others might think now. It’s taken me a while and I have to remind myself to live authentically constantly.

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Why have you named yourself Opera Tang?

OT: Opera, because of the many forms of opera throughout various cultures, and especially, Chinese opera, because I love its aesthetics. It’s relatable and immediately identifiable by most people anywhere within the Chinese diaspora and there aren’t many drag queens with the name. Opera also has a feminine sound to it.

Tang represents the Tang dynasty, one of the cultural peaks in Chinese history. I especially like the hanfus of this period.

I grew up very white-washed and I’m decolonising myself through the queer lens of drag while reconnecting with my Chinese and Peranakan culture.

Is Opera Tang an alter-ego that you can transform into, or are you one and the same?

OT: I think it’s a mix of both—it depends on the context I’m in. Onstage, Opera is a performer, a dancer, a hostess, and she also tries to sing… but maybe she should stick to lip-syncing instead. 

I’m also known as Opera to all my LGBTQ+ friends. I feel more comfortable with the name I’ve chosen for myself to express my gender and sexuality within my community rather than the one my parents gave me, which has biblical and heteronormative connotations attached to it.

What does drag mean to you?

OT: Drag is a performance and exploration of gender, the creation of costumes, styling of wigs and choreographing of performances. It’s discovering a side of you that may have been suppressed due to societal norms, constructs, and expectations, and letting all of that go by presenting that vulnerable side to the world—be it on stage, online, or on the MRT.

Who were some of your earliest inspirations within the drag community?

OT: Raja on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3 was first and only Asian to ever win in the US seasons. She’s also Indonesian. Locally, of course, Vanda Miss Joaquim, because of her drive, vision and aura, and definitely, Pangina Heals. I recently went to her bar in Bangkok and I was so inspired (and tipsy) that I saw myself opening a drag bar in Singapore one day too. The production value, the service and the queens? Gag. Singapore needs to step its game up.

What is your first memory of performing drag?

OT: My first time ever performing in drag was at a musical theatre fundraiser event where I sang alongside two other drag queens. This was a live broadcast on YouTube because Covid was still ripe in our lives.

The first time I performed in person was at a circuit party and this was documented in the film. I remember running around everywhere to engage as many people as possible and dancing.

Tell us about the aesthetic vision you have for Opera Tang.

OT: Opera Tang will always be known for her Chinese opera-inspired aesthetic. Opera bangs—a wave-like fringe—will always be a staple, I’d be unrecognisable otherwise. Bright pink blush placed high on the cheeks and blended across the mid-face section is a must too, keeping true to that distinguishable style of makeup seen in Chinese opera performances.

I love to deconstruct traditional Chinese opera looks and mash them up with modern Singaporean sensibilities (see my Instagram for examples). I’m also planning to explore more Peranakan stuff soon too, so stay tuned…

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How has your own heritage influenced how you perform drag?

OT: I’ve been trained in classical Chinese dance, which has its roots in Chinese opera movement, and vocabulary-wise, since I was seven and have always loved the genre’s aesthetic, narratives and costumes. I’ve always gravitated to the female parts, but Chinese dance is very binary, unfortunately. Maybe I’ll incorporate more of my training into drag in the future. I don’t think we see a lot of that, do we?

I’m also Peranakan and have yet to really showcase my inner nyonya, bibik or tante. More to come on that.

Baby Queen is partly about the struggles you face as a queer person living in Singapore. What are some of these struggles and what is your mindset towards overcoming these obstacles?

OT: Even though I’ve experienced quite a bit of discrimination and homophobia from family and peers [in the past], I am aware that I’m still rather privileged in Singapore society. For one, I am of the majority race, I come from a financially stable family with two present parents, and was assigned “male” at birth. I subscribed staunchly to the conservative framework of Catholicism when I was younger, and I think it still subconsciously shapes my moral compass and decisions.

Being aware of this, I am also very gay and very femme. So coming out to my conservative parents, getting bullied in school, being told not to be gay by my favourite English teacher have been quite traumatic, especially for a teen who was trying to grapple with bodily and mental changes. Then, I was awkwardly trying to fit in, trying to be more “masc” [NB: slang for masculine] to please other gay people, ironically. All these experiences, I believe, are relatable for many in the community and perhaps even beyond that. I sometimes downplay the struggles I face because I know that there are people who have it worse. I have friends who get disowned or kicked out of their homes. I don’t think I should compare my trauma with anyone’s, but I sometimes can’t help but think that I should be grateful for said privileges and just get through life this way.

Thankfully, I’m quite a headstrong person, and I believe in individual expression and equality of rights.  

What do you do outside of drag?

OT: Drag consumes my life now. Just kidding… Drag is the hobby and part-time work, I find great fulfilment in it. During the day, I’m in music/tech sales.

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What are some of your goals in general? Have you achieved them?

OT: I want to open my own drag bar someday. I want to open a space for queer performers to perform, train, work. This is a 10-year plan maybe.

As a queer person, I want to be accorded the same—not more—rights as any cishet person, maybe more activism needs to be done on this side of things but gradually, of course.

I also want to be a beautiful drag queen forever. Seriously though, I would like more queer/LGBTQ+ people to express themselves without being chained to boring heteronormativity. Being a drag queen is an example of such expression.

I hope what I do and what I have done connects with people in some way. Hopefully, they like what I do, if not, they can leave a hate comment and increase my social media engagement rates.

What do you hope viewers glean from Baby Queen?

OT: I hope they can relate to the relationships between me and my biological and chosen families portrayed in the film, and see that queer people live lives not too different—but definitely more fabulous—than theirs.

How did you find members of your chosen family?

OT: Through drag! I wasn’t really part of the “gay community” prior to doing drag but I found so many sisters through doing it. I think the drag community here is quite close-knit and small so there’s this air of family between the queens.

And what does family look like and mean to you, especially in the context of Singapore?

OT: Family is the people you feel at home with. Regardless of race, creed, nationality, blood relations… as long as there’s one person that loves you and will be there for you through thick and thin, then that’s family.

Catch Baby Queen at The Projector Golden Mile Tower on Saturday, 3 June, Sunday, 11 June and Tuesday, 20 June.

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