LGBTQIA+ Leeds: China

To write about China has been something I have wanted to do since I began the LGBTQIA Leeds project.

I had the pleasure of meeting China in the smoking area of the Nightingale Club a few years ago in Birmingham and have followed her art since. I am nothing if not an absolute fan.

Having followed her on social media for some time through events such as Brexit, I was already aware of how incredibly articulate she is, in an almost poetic way that not only showcases her obvious intelligence, but her pure emotional intelligence and empathy. She still manages to come across as funny, daft and totally relatable as a human being despite her other-worldy appearance and aesthetic.

With this in mind, while it might come across as “lazy” journalism, I don’t feel that I have any need to break her interview down into a “digestible” structure. It would ruin the magic.

Here are the high priestess’ *cough* erm I mean, drag queen and ethereal performer’s words in full:

“I started drag about four years ago. I was floundering in uni and hugely agoraphobic so I started painting my face and inventing characters… China burst into my brain, like a sneeze, and just seeped through it. She was a remedy for all the horrible things in my life and allowed me to socialise, play and speak my truth again.

“My act itself stands alone but I’m a huge fan of collaboration. I have never worked in places with an established infrastructure like London or Manchester. It’s always been about going to places and making a new space which obviously requires the work of a team. I love collaborating with others to develop spaces, performances and events, but when it comes to my personal practice I am very picky and precise and probably very irritating. The tiniest cues can mean different things to other people than it does to me, so I do not enter collaborations lightly.

“I use dance, rituals and visual codes to try and create a liminal space where the air feels loaded with energy and potential. Like imagining a monster in dark spaces or stumbling on a fairy ring. I like to leave the meaning to the viewer, but for me it’s usually about trying to pin down a mood or an image I’ve been experiencing and creating something that will feel cathartic to perform.

“I am inspired by nature, depictions of gods, tattered things, Anne Sexton, Edith Sitwell, hoarders, dystopian visions of the future, CHRISTEENE, Adrien Howell, old northern ladies, Luis Ricardo Falero, feral children, Wilhelm Hammershoi, cryptids and monsters, dishevelled seaside towns, and the joyful unfettered imagination of children.

“When I left Leeds I was only really used to frequenting Gay Street and it didn’t particularly pique my interest. I still didn’t feel like I’d discovered that utopian vision of nightlife you hear about from queer people, but now I’m older and wiser I know where to go to taste that magic. Live Art Bistro in Leeds is absolute paradise; it’s the Leeds hub for performance art and it perfectly combines a lovely, familial warmth with the anarchic, uncomfortable side of performance. It’s like stepping through the looking glass: not for the faint hearted.

“I want to go into a venue and feel the beating heart of it and understand what that business stands for, and I want to feel safe and valued as a patron; I want to feel part of something. I’m sick of crusty white men capitalising on the resurgence in queer culture by trying to brand their hideous, soulless boozers as being remotely queer or cool, when absolutely no effort goes into it beyond sourcing the cheapest bulk vodka.

“Shoutout to all my AGEofTHE babies, the Glittershit crew in Birmingham and every working class artist in the north struggling to make it. I LOVE U.”

Hopefully now you understand the witchcraft of her words that I referred to earlier. For me, China emulates spiritual and contemporary magic all the way from what you’ve just read, to her appearance. When it comes to her aesthetic, think beautiful feather headdresses, skulls, metal adornments, earthy makeup that alludes to ancient warpaint, talon nails, beetle iridescence, wigs that transform her from a silver siren to a flame-haired woodland elf. The looks that she bestows upon us take you all the way from mythological stories of the underworld to the first time you heard the dramatic drawl of Stevie Nicks. I implore you to witness her first hand.

Luckily for all who need some ichor mixed with gin, China is now back in Leeds and available for booking.

Kitty Calderbank

Images courtesy of China. Follow her on Instagram @empressofwitches.

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