Magtrabaho Ka!: Manila Luzon, Drag, and the Politics of Self-Orientalization

By Guest Contributor Eric Zhang

“I am the beautiful Asian who’s taller than 5-foot-2,” Manila Luzon (né Karl Westerberg) says in her introduction video. She is one of 13 contestants competing on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race to win $75,000, a lifetime supply of makeup, a headlining drag tour, and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.* She is also one of four Asian American contestants to have been featured on the series – the others include Ongina from Season 1, Jujubee from Season 2, and fellow Season 3 contestant Raja.

While drag performance has historically been tied to working class communities of color – the documentary Paris Is Burning in particular follows the tradition of drag balls in 1980s Harlem, and the significance of drag subculture in the lives of queer African American and Latino men – Asian American queens have not been very well represented in the drag circuit. The prominence of Asian American contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, thus, caught my eye. As a queer Asian American man who has dabbled in drag (inspired in no small part by Drag Race), I became interested in the ways in which these queens were represented – and chose to represent themselves – on television. While these queens are, of course, not necessarily defined by their race, two of the contestants use a rhetoric of race in their performance: Jujubee and Manila Luzon. Because Manila is competing on the current season, because her drag persona centralizes a racial discourse to a heavier extent than Jujubee’s, and because the racial politics of her performance has actively been challenged on the show itself, I will narrow my focus on her.

Manila Luzon’s persona makes heavy use of a kind of pan-Asian motif: a quick glance through her website reveals images like sushi, chrysanthemums, and Japanese katakana; costuming choices that include a cherry petal dress with an obi, a cheongsam, and a Thai headdress and brass fingernail extensions; and a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chinatown. On the other hand, her drag name explicitly marks her as Filipino – Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Luzon, the island on which Manila is located. The discrepancy between Manila’s pan-Asian character and her identity as Filipino American, in fact, provides a key source of tension in her performance: is she relying on Orientalist stereotypes and tropes to build her character, or is she using drag to perform her Pinoy pride?

This tension comes to a fore in two episodes of Drag Race. In the fifth episode of the season, “QNN News,” the queens are challenged to perform a newscast. Manila interviews celebrity guest Kristin Cavallari. Though she normally speaks unaccented, standard American English, Manila chooses to adopt an exaggerated, stereotypical “Ching Chong” accent, speaking in broken English and switching her l’s and r’s. Although questions are raised about the appropriateness of the performance – particularly by fellow contestant Shangela – she wins the challenge. “It was so wrong that it was so right,” says guest judge Debbie Matenopoulos:

For the challenge in Episode 6, “The Snatch Game,” the contestants must impersonate celebrities in a version of The Match Game. While most of the contestants pick pop cultural queer icons, such as Cher and Tina Turner, Manila decides to impersonate Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines. (In a snide talking head, Shangela says, “At least this time she picked a Filipino.”) She speaks in an identifiably Filipino accent, although it is still exaggerated and reminiscent of the “Ching Chong” speech used in the previous challenge, and peppers Tagalog throughout her performance. Although most of the jokes kept in the aired episode center around shoes, referencing Marcos’s infamous shoe collection, one joke in the deleted scenes mentions chicken adobo.

Many blogs have already written in response to these performances, including Hyphen Magazine, The New Gay, and Yellow Peril. Although these writers are certainly in their right to be offended – indeed, what Asian American has not been mocked by this same exact kind of ignorant speech on the playground? – I found it hilarious. I thought to myself, though: Why do I find this funny? Why am I laughing when, if she did not identify as Asian, I would be fuming? Is it because she’s Asian that it’s “okay”? No, certainly not. But there was something very particular about this performance that I laughed at; was I wrong for doing so?

In the introduction to Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America, the book’s editors, Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu ruminate on their love of the character Data in The Goonies, whom they now recognize as a product of racist caricatures in an anti-Asian political era. In doing so, they raise questions concerning the politics of guilty pleasure, media representation, and identification:

Audiences now often ask of representations: Does it look like me? Does it feel like me? What can it do for or to me? Underlying these questions is an implicit desire to “look good” or to be “well represented” at a time when they know that the whole world is watching. […] indeed, the decades-long desire to generate “positive images” or more “authentic representations” has done little to undermine the power of stereotypes or ultimately to free Asian Americans from them. (16-17)

It is easy to condemn Manila’s act as reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating racist representations. In fact, I am not here to argue that she doesn’t; as I mentioned above, I readily admit that she does, to whatever extent, rely on Orientalist tropes in crafting her character. However, I am more interested in complicating my own pleasure in watching her perform. Why is it that I identify with this performer who does not conform to ideas of “good” or “authentic” representations, one who borrows heavily from imagery that I would in many other contexts decry?

While Asian American scholarship has long discussed the history and politics of Orientalism, the representation and appropriation of Asian icons in Western cultures, relatively little has been written about the use of Orientalist tropes by Asians and Asian Americans themselves. In the early to mid-20th century, as Asians gained more exposure in the United States – first through immigration and, later, through war – the use of Orientalism marked Asians as foreign and exotic, ultimately working to deny them as rightful citizens of the Western world. As these generations grew and, because of strict immigration restrictions like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, new immigrants ceased entering the nation, American-born Asians were met with a unique dilemma: they did not “belong” to the country where they were born and raised.

During the 1930s-40s, a group of Asian American performers gained popularity in what was known as the Chop Suey Circuit. Mostly, but not entirely, composed of second-generation Chinese Americans, who grew up with an acute awareness of their “foreignness” in the United States, these performers built a name for themselves by performing a variety of vaudeville, comedy, and dance routines. In her essay “Performing a Geography of Asian America: The Chop Suey Circuit,” SanSan Kwan writes:

On the one hand, the Chop Suey Circuit entertainers succeeded at “playing Oriental,” performing acts like the “Fan Dance,” the “Chinese Sleeve Dance,” and the “Coolie Dance,” in order to give Americans a look at exactly what they expected the “Asiatic” to be. On the other hand, the Chop Suey Circuit was also about performing Americanness, as equated with  whiteness. Dressed in bunny costumes and tap dancing to “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,”  the mostly second-generation Asian American dancers and singers strove towards cultural assimilation. Presenting their Asian American bodies onstage, performing popular American numbers (which, incidentally, were largely black and Latin American forms appropriated and whitewashed), these entertainers simultaneously reproduced and blurred the boundaries of racial otherness. (122)

In utilizing these images, were they embracing their heritage, critiquing racist beliefs about Asian people, or perpetuating their own marginalization? In many ways, they could only present themselves as Orientalist stereotypes – in order to book shows and make money in a time when such images were the only exposure to Asian people (whether real or imagined) available to Americans. But was it merely a marketing ploy?

Whether consciously or not, by mixing Orientalist imagery with nationalistic, all-American references, these performers raise questions about the precarious nature of their own citizenship in America, about who belongs and who does not. In a time in which race relations and racial segregation relied on a black-white axis, making no room for Asian Americans, these performers could only measure their identities in terms of foreign (Asian) and citizen (American). As neither “colored” nor “white,” Asian Americans were simultaneously permitted to spaces barred to African Americans and barred from places permitted to white Americans.

In much the same way, Manila inhabits a hybrid space. Of mixed race (her mother is Filipino and her father is white), she can “pass” as either Asian or white; she chooses to identify and present herself and her persona as Asian, and in Asian costuming. On the other hand, in other challenges she adopts a particularly American persona – she has dressed like Big Bird, carrot cake, a flapper, and patriotic “white trash” with a blonde wig. (Granted, all of these examples except for the Big Bird costume were challenge-specific, but my point is that she does not limit herself to these Asian stereotypes; many of her costumes are actually devoid of any specific racial or national overtones.) This vacillation between Asian and American and between white and non-white harkens back to the Chop Suey Circuit.

Of course, the circumstances are very different – the Chop Suey Circuit performers were popular in a time when Orientalist tropes were abundant in popular culture, long before Asian Americans began to gain respect as people in their own right and before their own personal stories became acclaimed literature, while Manila is acting in a time when multiculturalism is celebrated, being “politically correct” is expected, and racial stereotyping is a major faux pas. Whereas Chop Suey Circuit performers, to some extent, utilized these personas because they had to, Manila actively chooses to participate in this rhetoric of race in ways that other Asian contestants (particularly Ongina and Raja) have not. (Jujubee did also incorporate Orientalism into her character, most visibly in a challenge in which she dressed in a red cheongsam-like dress for a fake autobiography she titled Memoirs of a Gay! sha, but she did not employ these images to the same extent that Manila does, nor was she ever challenged on the show for doing so.)

Stereotypes of Asians as foreign also remain a prominent motif in Asian American stand-up comedy. Though not necessarily Orientalist in the traditional sense, these routines borrow from certain ways of thinking about Asians specifically and people of color more generally that have contributed to their oppression in America. Comedy, however, works on a markedly different level. While the vaudeville actors used these tropes in an arguably subversive manner, their primary goal was to entertain; they presented themselves as foreign and exotic because that was what their audiences expected of them. Comedians, on the other hand, explicitly challenge these ideas by turning them into jokes. Think of Margaret Cho, whose comedy routine often includes jokes about people’s expectations of her, as an Asian American woman, and impersonations of her mother.

In fact, Manila Luzon cites Margaret Cho as an inspiration for her own use of exaggerated Asian stereotypes. Although she is not a stand-up comedian, Manila does, as a drag queen, incorporate comedy and humor into her performance. Both the “QNN News” segment and the Imelda Marcos impersonation are meant to be comedic performances.

Furthermore, as Tom and Lorenzo point out: “drag is often about being outrageous and politically incorrect.” That’s a little simplistic: rather, drag is explicitly about parodying and challenging sociopolitical binaries – between male and female, straight and queer, upper class and working class, and, in some cases, white and non-white. Drag queens mirror existing hierarchies in order to reveal the true fluidity of these divisions. This is most obvious with the male-female binary: in itself, drag is inherently about the performance of gender and destroying the idea of masculinity. (The parody of women is in itself a completely different question worthy of discussion but not ultimately relevant to the scope of my particular interests here.) As I mentioned above, Paris Is Burning brings questions of race and class into the picture: by performing “upper class” as equated to rich, fashionable white women, the drag houses of the 1980s sought to fight against their disempowerment.

In many ways, I view Manila’s performance as parody – parody of herself, parody of Asians, and most importantly parody of caricatures of Asians. However, as I also mentioned above, she intercuts these exaggerated performances with moments of her own nationalistic pride in being Filipino. She wore a pineapple dress as a reference to former Miss Philippines Lara Quigaman:

She appeared at the premiere party in a terno gown:

And she donned this (very chic) Filipino flag dress:

The tension between Manila’s pan-Asian character and her sincere Pinoy pride and identity becomes central to her controversial performances on the show. Shangela, in criticizing Manila for using offensive stereotypes, says, “She was making fun of a culture that she looks to be a part of, but she’s not.” She implies a dichotomy between the “right” kind of Asian and the “wrong” kind of Asian; ironically, she ignores the fact that the “Ching Chong” accent has been used historically to erase differences among different ethnicities and to group all Asians as an undifferentiated mass of people. As I mentioned above, Shangela comments that, “At least this time she picked a Filipino,” when Manila does her Imelda Marcos impersonation, suggesting that Manila must limit herself to mocking Filipinos. (Also ironically, Shangela’s own performance also heavily relies on racialized stereotypes of the “black southern lady,” and created a pimp/whore character for one challenge.)

There’s a strong disconnect here: Shangela creates a paradigm in which being generically Asian and specifically Filipino are mutually exclusive, while Manila finds it necessary to embrace and perform both identities. And, ultimately, she does use two modes of expression that have long histories in Asian American performance and cultural production in order to challenge Asian marginalization. In parodying racist stereotypes of Asians, she attempts to poke fun at herself and at these representations; by boldly transforming herself into a stereotype, she forces us to confront these images (of course, whether she is successful is highly arguable). In performing Pinoy pride, she promotes ideas of multiculturalism and celebrating diversity (indeed, for a challenge in which the girls must create PSAs about why America is wonderful, she extolls the diversity – of American food).

The discomfort that Shangela, some of the other queens, and even RuPaul herself feel while watching Manila’s performance, along with Manila’s own hesitation to “make this into a race thing,” signifies what Professor Tricia Rose would call “racial illiteracy,” or the avoidance of discussions about race for fear of being deemed racist. Although Manila is clearly aware of her racialized body and of the media invisibility of people who look like her – “I don’t think we have enough Asian people in pop culture” – she is reluctant to discuss the racist/anti-racist implications of her performance.

In the end, do I think Manila is successful in critiquing representations and stereotypes of Asians in popular media? No, not necessarily. She has a definite understanding of her place in the United States as an Asian American, a group of people historically ignored in American racial politics, and uses her identity to carefully craft a sometimes well-defined, sometimes more unsure drag character. However, I think where she fails (when entertainers like Margaret Cho succeed using similar stereotypes) is in her understanding of nuance. While drag characters are, admittedly, not generally known for their subtlety, I believe successful ones do understand how to build a character in the context of their own identity, whether as queer, non-white, working class, etc. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Manila does end up merely perpetuating stereotypes, because I do think there is a complexity to the choices she makes, I don’t think she has yet figured out how to use those choices to the best of her ability.

I realize I also have not properly addressed my original question, which was how it matters that I am entertained by Manila, and I also realize now that I do not have a concise answer for that. I think my pleasure in watching Manila perform this caricature of my own identity comes from my own interest in these kinds of stereotypes, and the ways in which they have affected my and other Asian Americans’ life experiences. It is encouraging to see her begin to pave the way for others – even perhaps myself – to continue challenging these stereotypes, even though she may or may not have been successful herself in doing so.

As Manila herself says, “Magtrabaho ka,” or, You better work!

*Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted a few weeks ago – the third season of Drag Race has ended, and Luzon came in 2nd place.

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  • Anonymous

    The way I’ve always understood it is that the person and persona are generally separate entities (speaking about drag performance specifically here). Something akin to being in character. But that’s all just anecdotal, if someone wants to bring a more sourced perspective, please do so.

  • Mimi Thi Nguyen

    This is an excellent piece, and I’m not just saying that because you cite us!

  • Mieke D

    Thank you for writing this article!!! I have been seeking the language to explain my OWN pleasure and pride related to the (exceptional talent and) presence of Asian performers on Rupaul’s Drag Race, as a queer femme female of Asian descent. As a performer seeking to undermine racism and sexism and sexual oppression through performance, I am continually moved/drawn to/turned on by/shocked by the history of vaudeville, burlesque, and drag performance–partially because they’re all the rage in my queer community–and also because they have historically mobilized parody to both undermine AND capitalize on oppressive representations of othered bodies. I am going to share this article with the members of my emerging theater collective, the New Kongress of Ruff Riderz, the name of which comes from the sideshow of immigrants involved in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show — another American performance tradition rooted in constructing nationalism through the exotification of colonized peoples! THANK YOU!!!

  • island girl in a land w/o sea

    whatever tension may be perceived between manila’s
    pan-asian character and her identity as pilipina/o
    -american likely reflects a similar tension that pervades the individual and collective identities of many, many pinays and pinoys. we are children of the datus, the bastard kids of spain, US (and briefly, japan), and some of us (like miss ongina) clearly are half-siblings in the chinese diasporic family. to paraphrase hedwig, now that the colonists are gone, we don’t always know who we are.
    so i guess i’m not groking the point. the notion of a pan-asian identity is a US-based construction anyway. if you were to go to manila (the city) and proclaim your identity as “asian”, your relatives would likely look at you sideways and attribute your odd perspective to your US upbringing. since the notion of identity in the RP is largely based on one’s province of origin, saying one is “asian,” is almost as general and non-descriptive as saying one is a “carbon-based life form”.i found manila (the queen) amusing, and her performances for me evoked a rare feeling of being in on the joke. i would have liked to seen her take it farther, though, because i think the potential for skewering US culture via pin@y culture remains untapped.

  • swarm

    It is beyond when drag culture is subjected to same nonsense critiques as mainstream (eyeroll). Are we going to analyze ballrooms for their acceptability too? Are the drags portraying “ACTUAL” executive realness? And how dare they. After all, they are not even CLOSE to executives. Such an unfortunate byproduct of RPDR being aired on mainstream tv. Furthermore, the author fails to explain why Cho’s act is all that more ~sophisticated than Manila’s especially considering Manila was presenting these characters in context of various “challenges”, not just randomly throwing them out there. And btw, Shangela, real name DJ Pierce was just using his “outrage” as a strategy. Go watch his standup on Logo – filled with racial stereotypes. Including white women being stupid and gulible.

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  • Erikakharada

    Thank you so much for this article. I was personally somewhat offended by Manila’s performance, but I couldn’t quite place why — since I do think Margaret Cho’s imitation of her mom is rather hilarious. I think you did a great job pointing out the nuances and the history behind self-Orientalization.
    I think it was clear that Manila intended her Asian reporter thing to be ironic, but as with most things that are supposed to be ironic these days, failed in the execution. I wonder if I was bothered more at the reactions from the judges — it seemed like they applauded her political incorrectness and willingness to be a caricature.

  • Minh-Ha T. Pham

    so excellent! contextualizing manila luzon’s performance within the history of asian am performance (which has long taken place against the backdrop of anti-asian racism) is really helpful. we could include, too, the performers of the SF nightclub, The Forbidden City.

  • guest

    Raja’s drag most certainly does engage in discourses of race: “African”
    and “American Indian.”