House of Rice: In Rice-olation illuminates the intersectional and political scope of digital drag

Set to the tune of Rina Sawayama, House of Rice performed with a strong anti-racism message. Courtesy of Up in the Air Theatre

By: Kitty Cheung, Peak Associate

Intrigued by the idea of digital drag, I saw House of Rice: In Rice-olation on June 27 as part of rEvolver’s online performance festival, e-Volver. The rEvolver Festival is a theatre and performing arts festival which takes place annually in Vancouver. While the 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID-19, the e-Volver Festival sprang up as a digital alternative featuring a variety of media performances, including House of Rice: In Rice-olation

Advertised as a “drag and multi-media installation performance exhibiting the intersectionality of queer, Asian artists in Vancouver,” I was initially skeptical about how much the performers would be able to shine through a digital platform. Having attended live drag shows in a pre-quarantine world, I figured the experience of being physically present in an intimate venue, where you can hear the cheers of fellow audience members and feel the collective energy of the crowd, would be difficult to embody through a computer.

Streamed on Twitch, the show featured a variety of media art by members of the House of Rice, an all-Asian drag family based in Vancouver. Most artists filmed from their own homes and neighbourhoods to stay safe during this global pandemic, with drag mother Shay Dior and fellow artist Maiden China performing together from a theatre.

What amazed me about In Rice-olation was the thoughtfulness and attention to detail that went into its curation. Each creative decision, from the music choices to the makeup to the costumes to the video editing, were done with intention. For example, rather than featuring a variety of musical artists as is customary for drag shows, the House of Rice performed music solely from queer pop icon Rina Sawayama. The Twitch stream started off with a land acknowledgement before launching into Sawayama’s “Dynasty,” a powerful track about intergenerational trauma. I found it suiting to start off with this song since inherited pain can be a significant part of the diasporic family experience, and Sawayama’s lyrics focus on fighting to “break the chain” of this pain. 

It was also lovely to see how In Rice-olation demonstrated the vast creative possibilities within Asian drag. From Rina’s upbeat pop song “Cherry” to her raging metal track “STFU!”, this show featured a variety of performances each tailored to a specific aspect of the queer Asian experience. 

Musical performances were cut between clips of artists sharing their thoughts and personal experiences. These artists, who were primarily of East and Southeast Asian heritage,  spoke about coming out to their families, dealing with fetishization and emasculation, combatting Eurocentric and patriarchal beauty ideals to achieve self-love, and so much more. 

My favourite performance of the night came from Maiden China, who prefaced her rendition of Sawayama’s hard rock thrasher “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” with a speech. With the flood of sinophobic racism fuelled by COVID-19 earlier in 2020, it was important to address these issues while still holding space and focusing support towards the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Maiden China explained that despite the intricately different struggles of our respective racialized communities, the white supremacist structures which harm the Asian community are the same institutions which inflict violence upon Black and Indigenous folks. After offering a content warning for images of violence, she began a multimedia lip-sync performance which included footage of police brutality layered with bold typography featuring Rina’s lyrics and the “ACAB” slogan. This performance was a prime example of drag as a medium for radical activism.

The overlapping identities of being queer and Asian can be ferociously difficult to navigate. During a time when COVID-19 forces us to be physically distant from our communities, the House of Rice created a digital space for those isolated in the queer Asian community to find visibility and inspiration. Throughout the show, the Twitch chat box was generously flooded with rainbow heart emojis and supportive words from audience members and artists alike. In Rice-olation highlighted the importance of queer family and community support, while also illuminating the political power of drag.