Backstage a bling-bling night, a drag-queen drama

By Thanh Nguyen   July 17, 2019 | 04:14 am PT
In the darkness enveloping the edge of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, drag queens meticulously set the stage for a fun evening.

Backstage a bling-bling night, a drag-queen drama

Every weekend night, the darkness explodes into bright colorful lights, loud music beats and loud, raucous laughter surrounding the Rubik Zoo stage.

It is a typical lo-to spectacle, Vietnam’s unique version of drag queen shows, where trans-people perform a mixture of musical numbers, plays and comedy skits while drawing and calling out numbers for the bingo games of the night.

While lo to has been particularly popular in the Southern countryside, the Sai Gon Tan Thoi  (The Modern Saigon) are among the few that have been trying in recent years to make their cabaret act part of the urban scene in Ho Chi Minh City.

Although the colorful, bustling stage only spills its laughter and bestows its luck between 7 p.m. and 10.30 p.m., when eager crowds flock to the open air "auditorium" where plastic stools and low tables have been placed, action has been hectic behind the bling-bling curtain for hours.

"We started out with only four members, performing in fairs across the city," said Lam Quoc Khai, who goes by her stage name of "Lo Lo," recalling the troupe’s first days in 2017. "Now we are running with 25 members, most from the LGBT community, and we book the Rubik Zoo for our stage in the weekend," said the manager of Modern Saigon, adding they were trying to make their craft more professional.

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For its members, Modern Saigon is the place to express themselves and be celebrated in the spotlight. "I have always loved singing, dressing as a woman and having makeup on," said Nguyen Ngoc An, a 28-year-old office worker who spends his spare time participating in the flashy shows. He joined the troupe over a year ago.

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Vuong (C), known on stage as Luna, rehearses with his colleagues amid piles of costumes before the show. The 20sq.m attic on the side of the stage is where the magic unfolds.

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Before stepping on to stage, a troupe member lights incense and prays for blessings and good performances for the night.

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At precisely 7 p.m., the stage glows pink, and the lo to show begins.

The audience usually tops 200, but on lucky nights, the troupe can draw in 2,000 people.

To be on track with contemporary life, The Modern Saigon shares information about their gigs on their 27K-subscriber YouTube channel and updates their schedule on a Facebook page with 60,000 followers, hundreds of whom have given them a five-star rating. Many followers are regular, familiar faces in the audience.

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Before and during the performance, tickets of bingo numbers are sold to the audience for VND10,000 ($0.43) each. The prizes vary from stuffed animals to TV sets.

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Anytime a ball is drawn from the wheel, a performer would step up front and sing out loud the number. The songs, either self-composed or lyrics re-written on popular melodies, must rhyme with the number in Vietnamese.

A glimpse of songs that performers take turn to sing.

Although their performances have difference themes for different nights, show-runner Lo Lo said in a televised interview aired on the local HTV channel that the troupe prefers dancing and singing in either the traditional tunic ao dai or the ao ba ba, a traditional attire worn by women in the south.

Although they are playful and "naughty" on stage, the young troupe has strict rules to retain a family-friendly atmosphere for their performances, including not using vulgar language and actions.

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The Modern Saigon hopes to revive the reputation of the "cute culture" of lo to.

"For so long shows like this have been deemed to be a form of illegal gambling," Lo Lo told VnExpress, "and performers have been stigmatized as lazy people who would fake their gender to entertain others and make easy money."

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"In fact, each one of us takes this very seriously," she said. "We sell our labor and shed our sweat and tears to make sure the audience have a great time, enjoying songs and playing games and engaging with the artists."

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Lo Lo, who works as a designer during the day, believes their efforts are proving worthwhile. The small, young group has made their name known and been invited to perform for overseas Vietnamese communities in Taiwan and Australia.

"I hope with our lo to show, members of our local LGBT community will be less marginalized by the society, and people would respect us and appreciate our work more," Lo Lo said in the TV interview.

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The stage lights are finally off at midnight. Thao Nhi is among the last members leaving for home after cleaning up. When asked about her wish for the future, Nhi said she and her colleagues hope the show will keep gaining in popularity and given them a stable income.

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