Tag Archives: Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu

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?

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Review: The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion

By Guest Contributor Catherine A. Traywick, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

Perhaps the most celebrated Fall collections to debut at this year’s Fashion Week were those that creatively incorporated technology. Several designers showcased computer-generated prints, retooling traditional craft textiles into computerized patterns comprising ultra modern garments. But even as fashion critics overwhelmingly celebrated this preponderance of technological innovation, most seemed similarly enamored of Ralph Lauren’s far less pioneering embrace of one of fashion’s oldest tropes: Shanghai Chic. Critics eagerly dedicated valuable column inches to the collection, which featured all the mainstays of Asian-inspired fashion: jade jewelry, golden dragons, cheongsams. While some candidly wondered whether the designer’s invocation of China was a statement about the nation’s growing economic competitiveness, others were simply happy to break out as many tired euphemisms for “Eastern” as possible. (Not only did the “Orient Express” make several stops but East, inevitably, met West.)

The familiar scenario aptly reinforces a key observation made by culture critic Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her newly published book, The Beautiful Generation: “Even when freed to dream and invent,” she writes, “[designers] seem only to return to long-held ideas about an exotic and erotic orient.”

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