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This article is part of Mochi’s Winter 2021 issue, celebrating Cultural Capital. In this issue, we highlight ways that we, as Asian Americans, have embraced our identities and culture, and ways that our culture has been appropriated by others. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

Whether she’s wearing a giant cup of noodles or whipping out a pair of giant feather fans, Calamity Chang is a burlesque performer I’ve admired since my college years when I was looking into burlesque lessons. I finally met the burlesque icon herself this past September while working the annual Asian Burlesque Festival. Her performance didn’t just serve up a burlesque extravaganza, but it was also a celebration of how beautiful and talented the Asian community truly is — something I sorely needed, especially with the recent racism stemming from the global COVID pandemic.

Calamity Chang’s name was inspired by Calamity Jane, an alcoholic daredevil and outlaw of the Wild West. And while Chang might not be all those things, she was raised in Texas. Through burlesque, Chang lives with the same rebellious freedom as all the women in the past she admires. Chang is a Taiwanese American burlesque performer and producer based in New York state. After training at the New York School of Burlesque, Chang has since been known by many titles: the Asian Sexsation, four-time Golden Pastie winner, and one of New York City’s busiest burlesque performers and producers. She’s traveled around the country producing shows, competing in pageants, and being featured in burlesque documentaries.

Not only that, she’s also the creator of the Asian Burlesque Festival and the Fresh Off the Boa blog. She hosts the show Cooking with Calamity and inspired her own coffee line, Calamity Chang: Coffee Tease. She is a featured model in the nude striptease magazine DAYDREAM, with proceeds going to Red Canary Song, And to top it all off, she is a soon-to-be author of her memoir. In this interview with Mochi, Chang explains how she pulls it all off.

The interview has been edited for brevity.

Photo credit: Calamity Chang

EM: What sparked your interest in burlesque?
CC: I’ve always been interested in vintage culture, even when I was growing up as a teenager in Texas. While everyone was listening to New Kids On The Block and things like that, I was listening to Doris Day. So the historical aspects of it is something that I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve always been very interested in glamor, which might have something to do with growing up in Texas. As you know, Texas women are “go big or go home.” As the saying goes, “The bigger the hair, the closer to god.” And I’ve always been interested in women who are rebellious, who contradict what society wants them to do, wants them to be. So it’s the perfect amalgamation of three things that are already of interest to me, all combined into one.

EM: What do people misunderstand about burlesque?
CC: For people who have never been to burlesque shows, they think it’s going to a strip club. They think of stripping, which we do; in that sense, we are strippers. However, the main difference between burlesque and a strip club show is that there is no exchange of money happening between the performer and the usually male patrons. Of course, there’s women patrons too, but that exchange of money for a visual performance is not there. So we are not hustling for tips or doing lap dances; we are coming on to do a song of our own choice, clothing that we come up with on our own, and when we are finished, we go off the stage, as opposed to a strip club experience where you are required to walk around and sell lap dances or private dances. So when you take that monetary transaction away from the experience, it completely changes who these performances are made for. If it’s for money, then you try to create acts that appeal to “the male gaze” or what heteronormative straight men want. If you don’t have that, then we get to see the expanse and range of what female sexuality looks like when it’s expressed visually. It just has a lot more dimension to it.

EM: How has being an Asian performer informed your experience in the burlesque world?
CC: Being in burlesque does not inform me of being Asian. If anything, me being Asian has informed the burlesque community of a lot more. When I first started, there were very, very few women of color in general and even fewer Asian performers. I’ve been doing it now for 12 to 13 years, and you’re seeing a lot more POC coming out, so that’s very encouraging to see. When I started, because there were so few Asian performers, I wanted to use my race as a way to make myself different, because I always believed in visibility. Look, here I am, Asian women are never really seen this way. We’re always seen in the media with cliche ideas, so that’s why I chose my name Calamity Chang . The first act that I did was Iggy Pop’s version of China Girl, so I guess you could say even right off the bat, I was already racializing myself.

Photo credit: @mikewebbnyc

EM: What was it like telling your parents about burlesque?
CC:
When I first started, as always, everyone starts as a stage kitten […] That is a very easy way to get to know the community, get to know who you want to work with, and also for producers to get to know you a bit, and then when you have an act, it’s an easy way to get a booking, if that’s where your path goes down the line. So when I first started, I took some classes at the New York School of Burlesque with Jo Boobs. I started kittening and I really liked kittening. I thought, “I’m just going to kitten, and I don’t want to perform for a while.”

I didn’t tell my mom at first. We did a family vacation, and I always end up organizing movies for all of us. For this trip, I picked out Gypsy Rose Lee’s movie called “Gypsy” with Natalie Wood because my mom loves Natalie Wood, so I knew this was something she would watch. And then I picked out a documentary called “A Wink and a Smile,” which I highly suggest you see. It’s about the Seattle burlesque scene and the Seattle Academy of Burlesque that was founded by Indigo Blue. Shanghai Pearl, who is also Taiwanese American, same age group — our immigration history and families are very similar — she is in this documentary a lot. And she was my gateway, the first real Asian burlesque performer I saw, and it’s funny because since then I had people tell me I’m the first Asian burlesque person that they saw, but there’s always someone before you. No one is like the genesis. So Shanghai Pearl is in it, and it was just such an amazing documentary that I really wanted my mom to experience with me, for her to understand what burlesque is and what it means to women who do it. 

[My mom] had this idea that being a stage kitten meant I was in a strip club picking up clothes that strippers were taking off. She wasn’t wrong, that’s what the duty is. My mom’s so sheltered, she doesn’t understand that at a strip club, women are already naked, they’re not taking anything off. There’s nothing to pick up. So during this vacation, I had this “Oh let’s watch movies,” and we watched “Gypsy” and “A Wink and a Smile.” Then, I gradually told her over the next few weeks that I’ve been taking classes at the Burlesque School of New York, and I’ve been doing this and doing that. 

Because I showed her the movie, she was less like, “What is this? You’re working at seedy nightclubs and men are staring.” That’s what her idea was at first. When she came to NYC, she came to my first show I produced called “Dim Sum Burlesque.” I was like, “You should come and see what the show is like.” My show was structured and inspired by 1920s Shanghai music, so everyone did something either old Shanghai or Myanmar Republic. Very cabaret-inspired. It was a Sunday night at the back of this nice restaurant. It was a dinner and a show. When she saw it, she cried at the end of the show and then she stood up during curtain call. She was very proud. That was how I kind of came out to them. […] And of course being Chinese, her question nowadays is, “Well how much did you make?” That’s all she cares about.

Photo credit: Brian Adam Photography

EM: What inspired you to showcase Asian foods in your performances, and how do you create food themes and costumes?
CC: What I love about food is that food unites everybody. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry. That’s the universal reaction, and food can often can unify people even if they disagree politically, sexually, or whatever. Sriracha sauce, a sushi roll, and instant noodles — those are all universally recognized icons. They are cultural icons, so I’m really proud of that. I also love that these are Asian foods that have become so globally accepted and beloved. When I created my food acts, I also wanted to be funny; a giant piece of food to me is always funny. As for creating the costumes, these are big props, as you can imagine. I have one costume maker who’s based in Las Vegas now who does all of my more structural stuff. She builds stuff out of foam and all kinds of stuff to help my vision come alive.

EM: How do you get your costumes made?
CC: I spend a lot of time thinking about an act before I execute it, but once I get into the execution phase, it goes fast. I know exactly what I want. I start out with an idea and I sketch it out. It would be doodles, or I would pull out stuff from Pinterest and show my costume designer what I’m thinking of.

Here’s a good example: the cup of noodles act. Originally I wanted to have those Chinese bowls you get for soups at a restaurant that’s classic, white with blue patterns. I wanted to take a bath in it because everyone has a martini glass, everybody has a tub. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that pertains to who I am: a wonton bath or a noodle bath.

However, when I talked to Miss Tickle, who was the designer, she was like, “Well where are you going to store it?” At the time, living in New York City, where are you going to store a giant soup bowl? We don’t have garages. So that evolved into a cup of noodles that can be transported and broken down for easier travel.

I talk to [Miss Tickle] about the technicalities like how many pieces are there in the whole outfit and how do they come off? Then we would talk about the reveal. That’s a really big part about a burlesque performance. What are some innovative ways for things to come off that’s not just a zipper? Once I get a costume, I troubleshoot, so you work through your wardrobe malfunctions together. 

EM: How have you been practicing and performing burlesque in the pandemic?
CC: During the pandemic, everybody moved to virtual shows. Some were really well executed and very high production value, but many were not, and it was really a year where we saw socioeconomic privileges: People who have the money and the tech skills to film themselves at home with beautiful backdrops and beautiful lighting, and people who don’t. It just comes down to people with these resources and where you are. Some people just don’t have that technical background, and some people either have friends who can help them or knew how to do those things themselves. Besides that, the burlesque community became very creative in continuing on performing, even if we were performing at home and with virtual shows. I did a virtual Asian burlesque show as well last April and it was hugely successful, but it does take a lot of work, even more work than a real-life show.

Photo credit: Sachyn Mital Photography

EM: Any self-care tips for burlesque artists?
CC: People should save money, but I know no one’s going to listen to that, because I didn’t either when I was younger. A lot of younger performers who are starting out in their twenties are spending all of their money buying rhinestones and not saving money. Not just for burlesque – artists and younger people have to have a skill, and taking off your clothes is not really a skill. You need to have a skill that will help you have all the things you want in your life. There’s a reason why they get into [burlesque] when they’re younger because you’re not really thinking about “What am I going to do for retirement? What am I going to do for those things?”

I don’t think anyone should place their entire self-worth to their hobby. For example, if I decided to take up knitting and I take a knitting class and I suck at it, I’m not going to come home and berate myself like I’m worth nothing because you can replace knitting with anything. It could be burlesque, it could be skiing, it could be skating, it could be scrapbooking, but the important thing is you’re trying and stepping out of your comfort zone. The most important thing is to give yourself the grace of trying and the opportunity to let yourself make mistakes, but learn from the mistakes. That’s key. 

EM: Why and how do you manage organizing the Asian Burlesque Festival annually?
CC: We don’t have a platform. From a pop culture view, Asian people in nightlife being entertainment is so, so rarely recognized. That changed in the last few years with the call-outs of white-washing in Hollywood, but it’s still an issue. This festival was a way to feature performers of Asian heritage, the acts that they choose to do that are not geisha — or sometimes they are geisha, but not how someone else interprets it. 

Any burlesque performer you ask will say, “I like sensuality,” and there’s a variety of ways to be sexy and Asian that are not cliche. Next year will be the tenth annual. We always [have the Asian burlesque Festival] in May because that’s Asian [American and Pacific Islander] Heritage Month. 

EM: Any future plans you’d like to tell us about?
CC:
I am going to finally start writing something. I started out thinking I was writing a memoir, but now I want to collect a bunch of recipes that my mom makes that I grew up eating, or that I made for myself, like a showgirl diet. Along with the recipes, I would have pictures of my childhood and little stories about why this dish was significant. So half cookbook, half memoir.

EM: Do you have a title yet?
CC:
Fresh Off the Boa.

Learn more about Calamity Chang at https://www.calamitychang.com.

Cover photo credit: @cicchetti.multimedia

Author

  • Born and raised in Lenapehoking, also known as NYC, Kai Xing Mun (she/they) is Malaysian-Chinese American, and an ace and nonbinary actor and writer. Kai is a freelance writer whose essays focus on intersectional feminism and Pan-Asian American issues. Their writing has been published in HelloGiggles, Mochi, April, and Here You Are. Their original monologue “Anna May Wong: PERSONA” was published in "In Full Color: The First Five Years Anthology."

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