Film Interview News Preview Singapore

Film Fanatic: An Interview with Opera Tang and Ada Heart, stars of new documentary ‘Baby Queen’ (SGIFF 2022)

As much as RuPaul’s Drag Race may have led you to believe otherwise, drag is more than just watching queens lipsync for their lives and donning beautiful, larger than life outfits alone. Drag is the art of self-expression, where the queen becomes the most exaggerated, elevated version of their true self, living loud and proud and strong. And that is a culture that, while still considered relatively invisible in Singapore, has begun to seep into the lives of the new generation, as an increasing number of individuals are using drag as a means to explore their identities.

Much of that is revealed in Lei Yuan Bin’s new documentary Baby Queen, the third film in Glen Goei’s Unseen, a multi-part documentary series on marginalised voices in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Following in the footsteps of Quen Wong’s Some Women, which premiered at the 2021 Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Baby Queen is set to make its Southeast Asian debut at SGIFF 2022, and follows the story of Opera Tang, an emerging drag queen, as she comes out in the public eye, her love life, entering the queer community, and her own personal life at home.

Opera Tang in her drag debut in 2020

“I was contacted late last year to come onboard a project regarding either a series or feature film about the Singaporean drag scene, and it was exciting because it hasn’t been done before,” says Opera. “I think part of the reason they went with me is because they wanted to trace the journey of someone who was just starting out as a drag queen, and also someone who was relatively close to their family, which could allow for a very positive portrayal of drag in Singapore.”

‘Born’ on 29th June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Opera Tang is what you might call a ‘baby queen’, as the film’s title suggests, or in her own words, a drag queen still in the infancy of her career, not yet an icon or a legend, but brimming with potential. “I’m not ready to let go of that label just yet, because I still have a lot to learn and am still making a lot of mistakes,” says Opera. “I still rely a lot on my drag sisters, with Ada Heart guiding me along the way, or Kak Nina Boo giving me plenty of advice.”

‘Baby Queen’ then, is a title that has no fixed expiration date, and allows for a queen to bloom into her own once she feels ready, a fact that Opera’s drag sister and onscreen co-star, Ada Heart, backs up. “I considered myself a baby queen for a long time, ever since I got my start in Drag Wars Season 2, but eventually, with more experience performing and getting engagement for private events, I finally took the leap and decided that this is my career, and no longer hold the label,” says Ada.

Ada Heart

In drag terms, Ada Heart is Opera’s drag sister, suggesting that the two share a sworn sibling relationship, thanks to their close bond and how Ada was the one who brought Opera out to the clubs in drag. “We started out just chatting over IG messages, and we found out we live quite close to each other. We also happen to both be night owls, and would stay up to talk till 3 or 4am in the morning,” says Opera, on her relationship with Ada. “The LGBTQ+ community is very small in Singapore, and it’s interesting how through drag, I’ve found closer friends than before, with so many queens who’ve been reaching out to me. There’s a certain vulnerability I can have with them, because we feel empowered and unafraid to show ourselves through our art form.”

“I think what drew me to Opera was how I saw something so unique about her, and it started off with just compliments, but we felt a real connection over time,” adds Ada. “We had dinner together one day, and we just clicked, and realised we could be more than just friends – family, and had this common goal to both give back to the community. I wanted to be there to support her, and help her flourish, so that she could bring her unique qualities to the community.”

Prior to its Southeast Asian premiere here on 30th November, Baby Queen had an international premiere at the 27th Busan International Film Festival in October, where both Opera and Ada were in attendance in full drag, walking the red carpet. “It was one of my proudest moments to represent Singapore drag on an international platform like Busan, and felt like an achievement for me,” says Ada. “And considering it’s my 5th year as a drag queen, it really is a huge milestone for me, and both Opera and I really manifested this. As we walked down the red carpet, we kept thinking about how much we wished everyone could be here, and hopefully, this is a small mark for now that will grow into something bigger in future.”

“Considering it’s the biggest film festival in Asia, Busan was a huge milestone for us. It’s funny how it made its premiere in South Korea, a society which might be even more conservative than Singapore,” adds Opera. “But from what I know, people who turned up to watch the film were very supportive of it.”

Opera Tang in 2022

Over the course of Baby Queen, the documentary delves into some very personal and private moments in Opera’s life, including footage of her family, their HDB apartment, the surrounding neighbourhood, the Catholic church she and her family attends, and scenes between her and her partner. But even with these innocent moments of domesticity, the subject matter of queer culture in Singapore proved ‘controversial’ enough to put a few dents in the filming process.

Baby Queen is not a general representation of the drag scene, it is my story, and the stories of those featured. But even then, we had to become more aware of other people’s feelings in the film, and a lot of footage we shot ended up having to be taken out, as people were not comfortable having their story shown to an international audience like that,” says Opera. “Even with my own family, while my parents and grandmother were featured, my parents were afraid of exposing my siblings on film, especially my younger brothers, as he thought it would ‘ruin their futures’. I agreed with him, and didn’t involve them in order to protect them. So a lot of the filming process also comprises having conversations and negotiations, and being sensitive to people’s comfort levels, ultimately leading to us finding new creative ways to pave the narrative.”

Femme Fartale

While Ada Heart isn’t the protagonist of the film, there still remains a scene where we catch a fleeting glimpse of one of Ada’s family members – a makcik donning a tudung as Opera and Ada head out of the house in full drag, reflecting Ada’s Malay-Muslim background. “I’m not worried about getting judged – I grew up as a child actor on Suria, so was already exposed to the media from a young age. I’m an open book and came out to my family long ago; my mantra is that if you’re not the one putting food on my table, then you have no right to say what I do,” she says. “I think it’s important to show that there are Malay-Muslim families out there that do accept their children for who they are. It’s my small but important way of showing the younger generation that it is possible to live your truth.”

“I think that’s also a reason why the project decided to focus on me, instead of a Malay-Muslim drag queen, which is the primary demographic of the local drag community,” adds Opera. “Yes, these queens are fierce and stand up for themselves, but if they were to have this exposure, some livelihoods might be affected, and we were afraid of some backlash we might get due to the sensitive nature, or that people would accuse us of having an agenda if fronted by a Malay-Muslim queen. But Ada wholeheartedly remains my co-star in this, to show that family and representation matters, and will be joining be as we tour the film.”

Opera Tang as a ‘Warrior of Love’ for PinkDot 2022. Photo Credit: Khairul Mattar

Unlike most baby queens, Opera feels startlingly confident in her demeanour, and in her looks, possesses a crystal clear point of view. Drawing from traditional Chinese Opera makeup and culture to paint her unique face, craft her costumes and plan her performances, she already has a distinct brand and knows how she wants to come across to the general public.

“I am trained in classical Chinese dance and gymnastics, and that’s quite different from Ada, who commands the stage with her sultry demeanour and her pure emotions,” says Opera. “Recently at Becca D’Bus’s Riot! show, I brought my own flavour, with an ethnic Chinese dance-inspired piece set to Katy Perry’s ‘Peacock’. It’s high concept, but also really stupid, and as a baby queen, I do want to try new things in my career, whether it’s hosting or even drag storytelling.”

“Opera really is more of a family-friendly drag queen and the girl next door,” says Ada. “We have so many different queens in Singapore now, each offering their own flavour and appealing to different audiences. And for Opera as a baby queen, she’s already so advanced by knowing what she brings to the table, compared to how I was struggling to find my branding during my earlier days. Opera knows how she wants to present herself, and what she wants to achieve.”

Sapphire Blast

Other queens featuring in the film were primarily seen during a segment showcasing the Pinki Kiki Ball 2022, an event that represented vogue culture in Singapore. These included the highly flamboyant and whipsmart Femme Fartale, along with ‘Edgy Kunty Icon’ Sapphire Blast, known for her work in the vogue scene. Both Femme Fartale and Sapphire Blast will be performing alongside Opera and Ada during the premiere of Baby Queen on 30th November, as part of a fundraising event where proceeds go back to SGIFF.

“As much as those in the community are now very much aware of drag queens, we still haven’t quite made it to mainstream media just yet due to the laws prohibiting the presentation of alternative lifestyles,” says Opera. “The film is a good first step, and I think cis-het people should watch it just to be aware that there are people like us living among them in society. We’re not here to cause trouble, just here to fulfil our creative needs, and hopefully, laws and regulations change such that we get more positive portrayals of queer people in mainstream media. If anything, streaming services like Netflix have shows that have already given us more visibility to the next generation, and that trend needs to continue.”

“I remember when I first started, there would be some straight people who do come for drag shows and support our acts, and today, the younger generation are in a position and better understand and accept the queer community,” says Ada. “Then that leaves the older generation. Our goal isn’t to make them accept us, we can’t force them after all, but we just want them to see us in a better light. This film could be a baby step towards a better future for us in Singapore, and with the government having repealed 377A, it’s a step forward for the future generations.”

From left: Sapphire Blast, Femme Fatale, Opera Tang and Ada Heart.. Photo Credit: Khairul Mattar

Speaking of the future, it was also recently announced that RuPaul’s Drag Race is actively looking into expanding the drag reality tv show franchise into Asia, including India, Japan, South Korea and even Singapore. “Honestly, I would rather it be a bigger platform than if it were restricted to just Singapore alone,” says Opera. “It would benefit the queens much more, with greater recognition, if they were competing on a regional or global scale as compared to just among fellow queens in a country as small as Singapore. Still, I would be excited to see it happening, whatever form it takes.”

“Opera and I actually had a conversation about this a few days ago, and beyond the restrictions on screening the show here, an international or at least regional franchise would be much better than a purely local one,” says Ada. “With a show like Drag Race Philippines, the queens there can at least tour from Cebu to Davao to Manila, compared to Singapore where we would go from what, Jurong East to Woodlands? We need that marketability and push to expand our reach.”

And as for the future of the film and their own careers? Beyond plans to tour the film to Bangkok, European and Latin America, and even North America, Ada and Opera ultimately just want it to have an impact on the viewers. “It’s a show that starts off with just me, but eventually expands to show all these other characters that form a part of the community, including my number one supporter – my ah ma (grandmother), who the viewers are sure to remember,” says Opera. “Both Ada and I are open to more opportunities in future, whether as acting, starring in reality tv series or more documentaries, and as a queen just starting out, I keep an open mind. But most important of all is that the film acts as representation for the next generation.”

Baby Queen plays on 30th November 2022 at Projector X Picturehouse, Yangtze. Tickets available here The screening will also act as a fundraiser for SGIFF, including a live drag show. More information available here

SGIFF 2022 runs from 24th November to 4th December 2022. Tickets available here

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