Seoul’s burgeoning drag scene confronts conservative attitudes

heezy yang performance

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Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

Hurricane Kimchi takes the stage at an underground bar in Seoul, dancing agilely to Wonder Girls’ 2008 K-pop hit “Nobody.”

Dressed in high heels, a fluffy white wig and a tight gold sequin dress – an homage to the song’s video – he commands a fervent crowd that cheers, sings along and throws money at his feet. At one point, an audience member runs up to shove a 10,000-won bill (around $9) inside his belt.

Drag queens remain a rare sight in South Korea. But Hurricane Kimchi’s alter-ego, LGBTQ activist Heezy Yang, is out to change perceptions in a country with traditionally conservative views on gender and sexuality.

Hurricane Kimchi marches in the Itaewon district of Seoul during the Seoul Drag Parade in May 2018.

The activist’s work ranges from writing a novel about his experience of coming out, to taking part in a mock gay wedding ceremony in Seoul’s metro. He is also the founder of the Seoul Drag Parade, an annual event that hopes to “encourage both queer and non-queer people to use drag to find their identity (and) express their true feelings, thoughts and style,” according to its website.

Then there are the weekday drag shows he organizes in Itaewon, a diverse international neighborhood that has become the capital’s main gay district and is known as “homo hill” to the LGBTQ community and locals.

With US troops setting up in Itaewon after the Korean War, the neighborhood gained a reputation for prostitution and nightlife. Trans and drag performers began appearing in clubs for soldiers’ entertainment, and the area soon became a refuge for different kinds of marginalized people, according to Todd Henry, a professor of modern Korean history at the University of California, San Diego.

“It is an incredibly diverse (environment, and) the drag scene is definitely something that has been there for a long time, since the 1970s,” he said in a phone interview. “And these days, some of the most visible and creative artists and activists come from … the drag queen community.”