By Vivian Luu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Jenny Ku’s apartment is cloaked in sequins, feathers, and fishnet stockings. Her laptop is red — a shade almost as bright as her lipstick — and so is her tea kettle, which brewed jasmine tea on one of spring’s sunnier days. But that doesn’t compare to the 17 pairs of peep-toe pumps peeking out from her rows of boas, dresses, and masks.
Ku says she gets to play for a living. She is, after all, The Shanghai Pearl, one of the few Asian American burlesque dancers. The clothes, jewelry, and shoes aren’t merely for dress-up, but for her performances at venues such as The Pink Door, El Gaucho, and A Contemporary Theatre.
At her performances, Ku wears her costumes — a sequined, sheer mermaid outfit, a black dress glistening with rhinestones for her dance to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and others. She gets angry, silly, and happy, depending on her act for the evening. These performances include a careful and artful removal of her clothing until she is down to jeweled underwear (cute) and dazzling pasties (even cuter).
While it appears close to stripping, Ku says, burlesque is something entirely different.
“Modern day burlesque comes from stripping,” she said. “But there’s an entirely different power structure.
Strippers’ intentions are to get as many dollars as possible. Power is in the customers’ hands. In burlesque, [the performers] decide how much, when, and what time. You bring what you have and play with [it]. It’s so powerful and so important to have.”
Stripping and burlesque were one and the same from the 1930s to the 1960s, said Indigo Blue, burlesque dancer and headmistress at The Academy of Burlesque, located in Capitol Hill. What transpires between the audience and the performer sets the two apart.
“Expectations in a strip club are that the audience is non-participatory and observes. They expect some degree of sexual arousal,” said Blue, who was a stripper before she found burlesque. “In contemporary burlesque, entertainment is about pleasure and humor. The audience is part of the performance. Burlesque doesn’t work if there’s no audience.”
Ku started in the audience. She heard about burlesque through pin-up photos of celebrities such as Dita von Teese. She went to shows, eventually making her way to the Tease-O-Rama, a burlesque convention in San Francisco.
The lack of Asian presence struck her, compelling her to get into burlesque.
“Powerful women of every shape and size do it,” she said. “I never saw women of color performing, and it surprised me.”
Pearl wasn’t the only one who added a minority presence to the burlesque community. Blue noticed that there were neither Jewish nor lesbian performers when she attended the 2001 Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans. She changed that.
“The best thing to do is to infiltrate it and make a presence,” she said. “It helped expand the art form and population of people involved. We create more models and more visibility within that community.”
Ku infiltrated the burlesque scene five years ago when she took “a little class through Babeland.” She means the Academy of Burlesque’s Art of the Tease class. A year later, Ku talked to Blue and signed up for Burlesque 101 at the academy.
“It was a six-week course where you came up with a character and performed in a recital at the end,” she says. “I became obsessed with it. It changed my life.”
She says that’s where her stage name, The Shanghai Pearl, came from. Shanghai, considered the Hollywood of Asia, is glamorous and decadent. Pearl represents a beautiful rarity.
But dancing came with its own troubles. Ku said that it’s tough talking to her family about her work. Her mom lives in Tulsa, Okla. and her dad lives in Phoenix, Ariz.
“I haven’t told my mom because I don’t think she’d get it. She wants me to get married and have babies. I told her I’m in theater,” she said. “She kind of knows now. She hasn’t been to a show, and I’m hoping to change that. But she knows I’m happy.”
Ku isn’t the only Asian American burlesque dancer struggling in “coming out” to her parents. Calamity Chang, whose real name is Isabel Chang, dances in New York and is going through a similar situation. After she saw Pearl in the burlesque documentary, “A Wink and a Smile,” the two became friends.
“They would be ashamed,” Chang said. “I [could] tell my mom that I’m producing shows, but not performing. I think she’d say, ‘You’re dancing at a strip club where men are trying to grope you.’ But when she sees that it’s a dinner and a show, maybe she’ll be more accepting. A father never wants to see his daughter naked.”
Especially with Asian families, the idea of being open about sexuality and femininity is a struggle in and of itself, Chang said.
“You’re not supposed to be powerful,” Chang said. “It’s a taboo to be a sexual person. You see it all the time when you go to China or Taiwan. Women are perpetually arrested at this cute stage.”
She points out Hello Kitty and cartoons.
“When you try to be strong, it’s threatening. This is a male-dominated society — it’s patriarchal. The sexuality thing is a culture threat. Women are supposed to be demure, make rice, and have babies.”
Ku says Asian Americans could very well shy away from burlesque because, after all, it is theater — a risky business where fame comes and goes.
“Our parents who made the decision to come to this country took a huge risk,” she said. “They don’t want their children to take risks.”
Ku immigrated to the United States from Taiwan with her family when she was 3. She thinks a longing for security could explain why in Asian families, success and happiness are often defined by money.
“There’s no ‘look at this person following her dreams. That’s awesome,’ ” Ku said. “It wasn’t until now that I recognize how strong the women in my family are, not being able to celebrate who they are and taking on traditional roles to support the family.”
Ku still plans on taking the road less travelled. In addition to dancing, she has a day job, preparing costumes and teaching at The Academy of Burlesque.
“The generic roles of women and ideals of success that I was told were my choices did not interest or resonate with me, so I didn’t pursue them,” she said. “It may be for some, and I think that’s grand for those people who choose that and are happy. I consider myself very lucky to have that choice.”
Ku said she wants to dance well after she has a family of her own, if that’s where life will take her. There are many burlesque dancers who continue performing into their 60s and 70s. Chang and Blue want to do the same thing.
“I’ve gotten to explore and celebrate my femininity, sexuality, and gender,” Ku said. “You don’t get to explore that in real life. It’s helped me to be fearless.” ♦
Vivian Luu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.