When Teddy Chien (簡志澄), a young, aspiring theater major, decided to enter a drag queen beauty pageant organized by his university in 1995, he was convinced that he would easily strut away with the NT$8,000 prize. And he was right. But when the nation’s newspapers splashed photos of Chien dressed in drag across the front pages the next day, the newly crowned beauty queen became concerned.
“The only thing I could think of was what would happen if my mom and dad saw them,” Chien recalled.
In retrospect, the unexpected publicity opened the door to opportunities for the Snow White Entertaining Troupe (白雪綜藝劇團), a group specializing in drag that was established by Chien and his friends when they were students at the then-National Institute of the Arts (國立藝術學院, now the Taipei National University of the Arts 國立台北藝術大學).
Marked by its cheeky brand of entertainment and packed with showy musical numbers and risque comedy routines, Snow White is best known for the strong drag characters the performers create.
The group’s leading lady is Chien’s drag persona, Sung Tien Wan Tzu (松田丸子), a sweet belle who captivates all men.
Hu BB (胡BB) is the tough and bitchy matriarch played by Hu Hsiu-wei (胡修維), now an assistant professor in the department of performing and screen arts at Hsuan Chuang University (玄奘大學). And let us not forget the two indispensable punsters, Fei Fei (菲菲), played by Feng Yan-shuo (馮彥碩), and Pai Niao Li Tzu (白鳥鸝子), the drag personality of Hsieh Wei-ching (謝維慶).
Surprisingly, the troupe’s first supporters were some of Taiwan’s big-name politicians. In 1996, they were invited to perform at then-president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) inauguration party and soon became frequent guests in election rallies for figures such as former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷). One of the most memorable experiences during their early career was a month-long, cross-island campaign for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates for the legislative election in 1998, the drag queens said.
“We toured from town to town on a mobile stage truck called the Golden Titanic. Wherever there were people gathering, we started singing and dancing,” Chien said.
“Our shows took place in all kinds of places: next to henhouses, in front of people burning paper money or right off the road where we could practically shake hands with passengers on the bus driving by. We woke up early every morning to prepare. At noon, we would have lunch with a bunch of local folks, wearing heavy makeup, wigs and flashy dresses. It was great fun,” said Hsieh, who has performed in drag since his first year of college.
A few years after the troupe started, the artists decided to rediscover their roots in theater and have put together theatrical productions on a yearly basis in addition to their popular drag shows. Their oeuvres include The Great Escape of Prostitutes (胡BB風月救風塵), which was adapted from Yuan Dynasty playwright Kuan Han-ching’s (關漢卿) work that is set in a brothel, and La lecon des bonnes (雙婢怨), a theatrical fusion of Jean Genet’s play The Maids and The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco.
In 2011, Snow White celebrated its 15th anniversary with The Snow Queen’s Blizzard (雪后狂風), the company’s biggest production to date, which was seen by thousands at Nangang 101 (南港101).
Despite the troupe’s popularity, Chien found it difficult to tell his family about his career.
“Our families didn’t give us pressure. The pressure came from ourselves, as we worried that our being drag queens would bring trouble to our families,” he said, adding: “Performing in drag often leads to the sensitive issue of homosexuality.”
In 2006, immediately after the show that celebrated the troupe’s 10th anniversary, a member of the troupe came to Chien and told him that he had a special guest. He looked up and saw his mother.
“I was startled — as if I was caught doing something I was not supposed to do,” Chien recalled.
It was the first time that Chien’s mother had come to one of his shows. Eventually, he said, the entire family watched a performance and took great pride in his achievement.
“They liked it. With so many entertainers like Tai Chih-yuan (邰智源) and Chen Han-tien (陳漢典) performing in drag, people don’t think it’s weird,” Hsieh said.
Though drag is a part of gay culture in the West, Snow White audiences see a closer connection to the Taiwanese operatic tradition, which calls for female performers playing male roles. The most devoted fans for both theatrical styles are middle-aged women, especially mothers and wives.
Chien said the similarities lie partly in their gender-mixing practice.
“Like at the backstage of Gezai opera (歌仔戲), those mothers and wives always bring us gifts. They are our fans and also friends,” he said. “They don’t care whether I am a man or a woman. They just like me as Sung Tien Wan Tzu.”
When asked whether drag shows are related to gay culture in Taiwan, Chien chose to remain ambiguous on the topic as he said he didn’t want to contribute to stereotypes about drag queens.
“I don’t want to create an impression that drag queens equals homosexuality. I am not denying that there is a strong connection between the two. But to me, each individual is different and has his or her unique expression of self,” Chien said.
Prima Donna (當家花旦), a documentary about the Snow White Entertaining Troupe, is currently playing in theaters.