Wo Chan: Drag, Poetry, and Emotional Survival

Wo Chan, the poet and drag performer from Brooklyn, has a new fashion goal: “Wear whatever I want, always, no matter where I’m going. Just wear whatever pleases me.”

What pleases Wo may shift from day to day, but originates from the same spirit: “My dressing process is very childlike. I go by what’s intuitive, what feels good.” Wo is drawn to garments that are colorful, comfortable, and allow for movement. “I’ve been wearing very loose-fitted blouses a lot. I’m wearing nylon rip-stop pants right now, which is a dancer’s item.”

Wo balances a childlike delight in dressing, with an awareness of where styles originated and their cultural signifiers. A speaker at a recent fashion panel described fashion in a way that Wo finds useful: “Fashion can be thought of as the relationship between cloth and a body, or material and a body.” Wo considers that idea in relation to their own body, and the garments they choose to wear. “Of course fashion is politicized because bodies are politicized. I think a lot about how my body is politicized and what a garment is doing on me. How is it changing or reacting to that?”

 
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One thing is for sure: no dressing to meet others’ expectations. Having recently transitioned out of a day job, Wo has been reflecting on the pressure to dress for that environment. “I never thought about how draining it can be to pretend, or to not be who I am. That’s such an active task. It drains your batteries. You don’t know where all your energy goes.”

Performing for others in a business setting is something that Wo is intimately familiar with, having grown up in a family restaurant. After immigrating from China when Wo was five, Wo’s parents purchased a restaurant in Virginia, which they still run. Each day Wo went to school and then headed to the restaurant for the rest of the day. “I pretty much grew up in the restaurant. Most of my conscious hours were in the restaurant doing homework or reading library books in the back.”

“It occurs to me that I was always being watched. You have to act a certain way around clients or customers all the time. That’s probably not something that a lot of folks who had their own room growing up from a very young age would have to think about or deal with.”

Even so, privacy isn’t something Wo remembers wishing for. “Across cultures ‘privacy’ is imagined differently in the same way that ‘community’ is imagined differently and families are structured differently. I don’t ever remember yearning for deep privacy when I was younger. I wanted more people to interact with or more things to do, versus just waiting for people to be done with their work.”

 
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In college, studying and writing poetry provided Wo with a community, and a literary mechanism through which to explore early life experiences. “Poetry was one of the most open mediums for me to explore the third culture childhood that I had, and the family dynamics I grew up with. Poetry gives you a means to point out the gaps or the barriers of languages and across languages as well. When I’m writing, the voices that grip me the most demonstrate a language that is intuitive to itself and not necessarily to the rules of grammar.”

Wo’s first language is Chinese; they learned several dialects before immigrating to the US and learning to speak English in elementary school. Wo uses poetry to explore the experience of speaking multiple languages in a society that gives preference to English, and to a certain form of English. “There are multiple truths to the way that you can use language. A lot of people would say, ‘Oh this poem sounds like a broken English.’ And that’s very loaded. When you’ve learned English as a second or third language, that kind of voice can just kind of make sense, or is more familiar than you’d expect.”

Wo also began performing drag in college. “It was a summer project for me. I wanted to learn to paint my face. I wanted to see what I looked like as another person. Looking back though, I do think I was acting out of my emotional survival. Coming into my queerness in a predominately white cis space, I got so used to being ignored or overlooked as someone beautiful, someone worthy of love. I feel so beautiful all the time. I think drag was a way for me to translate to the world.” 

 
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In 2015, Wo and their parents were threatened with deportation when a Department of Homeland Security supervisor pleaded guilty to falsifying immigration documents. “I did a lot of drag acts about statehood and citizenry, but I also did acts about the emotional process of fighting the state and fighting deportation. It feels terrifying because the power imbalance is so great. It’s very lonely. And it becomes kind of existential because you grow up with this idea that it’s important to be part of a country, to have a nationality. Suddenly when that’s in question, it can become very frightening, but also eye-opening. I feel a lot of my politics are informed by that trauma.”

One performance started with Wo in a Miss America sash made of toilet paper, holding a green card in the air like the statue of liberty, and a bundle of flowers. “People go through a lot of trouble to get a green card. It’s an irreplaceable item. I’ve always loved opening that act with those material elements next to each other - something you wipe your ass on, and something you keep so dear to be able to return to a country.”

It takes courage to present such an act in public, but Wo has found pockets in the queer community, such as the Switch n’ Play collective and Sasha Velour’s “Nightgowns,” where they feel safe. “I think a lot of the risk-taking is fostered and encouraged by the fact that drag is ideally a queer art and it’s performed within a queer community, within a community of people that you know. So already before a show even starts people are living for you, people are there to support you.”

 
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A sense of inclusion and openness are inherent to Wo’s idea of queerness. “When I think about queerness, I think about inter-generational community. I think about many races, many sizes, many ability levels, and many genders. To me, queerness is an undoing of the expected, sanctioned social bonds. On a basic level this means the obligation to be heterosexual, to procreate. If you can take that idea, undo it, and place that relationship on an equal plain with every other type of person, that is an idea of queerness that I’m really attracted to. That the level of care you may put toward an intimate partner is available to you to anyone you come in contact with, that’s a queer model of care and intimacy that I’m interested in. And it opens your life up to a lot of people you would never expect.”

Wo’s poetry has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, Kundiman, Poets House, the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. They are a member of the Brooklyn-based drag collective Switch n’ Play, and an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU.

Wo will be performing as part of the multidisciplinary event series All Together Now in Boston on Saturday, September 30 at 4 PM. Advance tickets are recommended.

Follow Wo on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to stay in touch!

 
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Photography by Haley Varacallo

Anna Rae writes about the lives and fashion of queer artists and performers. She created and produces the inclusive multimedia event series All Together Now, and is a member of the poprock band, Hemway.