The lovely “Asian Sexsation” Calamity Chang has been a force to be reckoned with in the world of New York burlesque for over two decades… often heralded as one of the best in the biz. She even has brand of coffee named after her! And now when it’s perhaps more important then ever to be an Asian-American artist and an agent of sex positivity, Calamity has got some major events to educate and titillate us this season.
Thotyssey: Hello Calamity! How have you been getting through this last year, in terms of Covid and lockdown?
Calamity Chang: Seismic changes in my life. For one, I left NYC and moved to northeast Pennsylvania in the Poconos, just 1.5 hour away. After 22 years of the Big Apple, it was time to expand and change my narrative. The pandemic forced me to slow down from my nightlife hustle and really evaluate where I need to take myself next. As in, where can I make an even bigger impact and visibility in the country? NYC gave me everything and trained me to be who I am today, and now I am ready to spread the gospel of burlesque and visibility.
We also now have an increased awareness of growing violence against Asian-Americans, blamed in part to rhetoric promoted by the former President. If I may ask, what have been your experiences with this, and what are your hopes for the #StopAsianHate movement?
My heart weeps, breaks, and shatters every time I see a report in the news–especially when our elders are targeted by these ignorant, hateful cowards! Asian cultures place a lot of respect and esteem in our elders, and I see my parent’s faces in every news report. They live in Texas which supposedly is the fourth highest state in the nation for anti-Asian crimes. I’m worried, anxious, fearful, angry, and I fall into dark holes of depression for days.
However, I have seen how the Asian community and our ally communities have come together to raise awareness and condemn these acts of violence–from Café Maddy Cab who provide free transportation services to elderly Asian women and LGBTQ Asians in need, to Dwyane Wade (former Heat legend) speaking out against these crimes and the need for all BIPOC to fight ignorance and violence together. These acts give me hope. I think it’s more important than ever for BIPOCs to stand together and rally against a controlled, manipulative narrative (from media and as you mentioned, previous president) that pit us against each other: blacks against Asians, Asians against Hispanics, Hispanics against blacks, on and on.
I would like the #StopAsianHate movement to infiltrate the public education system and add the contributions of BIPOCs in American history textbooks! I grew up in Texas, and we had two history classes: US History and Texas History. Yes, true story. I never once read about the Chinese American contributions in US history other than the fact that we helped build the railroad–that was, like, one paragraph. How about Mexico’s contribution to forming Texas culture? Texas was literally part of Mexico for the longest time. Don’t even get me started on black history and how that’s been suppressed. If we can show a more realistic, multi-faceted history starting in public education, we can start leveling out the playing field.
Let’s get a little bit into your origin story: do you have any memory of your place of birth: Taipei, Taiwan?
Yes! All my family are still living in Taipei. In the US it’s just my parents, my older brother, and my cousin. I left Taiwan when I was eight years-old, so I still have strong memories of my childhood there. I remember the night markets and the food, I remember my grandfather’s birds and how he went for morning walks with the intricate wood birdcages he kept them in. I also remember beating up someone in grade school because they bullied a friend of mine who asked me to defend her, lol! The school called my parents in for a conference. I think that was when they realized they had to take me out of Taiwan because I will become a 太妹, which is slang for a “teenage female gangster.”
You lived once upon a time in Florida, but consider Texas to be where you raised. Did anything specifically prompt all those moves with your family?
I wish I had a glamorous answer to why all the moving… but alas, that is just the reality of the immigrant diaspora. Some immigrants come here with a lot of money or family / friends who are already established here to help them get a job. But we were not. My dad had a really hard time breaking into the American job market. He was a highly respected literature teacher in Taipei, but in the US no one would hire an Asian man in his 40’s who didn’t speak English fluently. He was not too proud to take any jobs, and even applied to bag groceries. As I got older I learned to see him as a person, a man trying to feed his family but faced with insurmountable obstacles, and I marvel at his resilience and life philosophy. The fact that he didn’t drown himself in debt from gambling or in alcohol as many of their acquaintances did, I’m just so proud of him. I go through my life hoping to have his philosophical perspective in life.
What were your interests growing up as far as art, performance, music, etc?
I hate to admit this because my brother will laugh–but he really did influence me a lot through my pre-teen and teenage years. He drove me to school every morning, and since the driver gets to pick the music he played Tom Waits all the time. I hated it back then, but in retrospect he inadvertently introduced me to a lot of cool music like Bowie, 1920s big band, and weird stuff like people who re-enact WWII…he was into vintage music way before vintage scene was even a thing.
You are now one of the country’s most esteemed burlesquers. How did you discover the art form, and what about it spoke to who you were and what you needed?
The first time I saw a burlesque show was at Rififi (RIP) in the East Village. It was the Starshine Burlesque show produced by Little Brooklyn and Creamee Stevens. I didn’t know what burlesque was or what it meant, but I saw someone dancing in the window in a pair of black fringe-y bootie shorts and bra top with black patent gogo boots… and I was hooked! It was $5 to see the show in the back room where they screen movies. I remember being blown away and having that feeling–that sense of something life-changing has occurred that you just saw something that will influence, if not change, your life forever. Those moments don’t happen often, and it can take a lifetime to “hear” those feelings. But it happened then.
I was enthralled with how the performers used their sexuality in so many ways! Some were sexy, some were being funny, and some were being both–which is my favorite combination. It was blatantly different than seeing a strip club show; the difference was palpable, everyone in the room can feel it. And that was probably the first time I experienced female sexuality as performed not for women, or at least for oneself, and definitely not for men. I found that incredibly liberating, thoroughly exciting, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
Like all underground art scenes, burlesque has changed a lot in the last 10 years. I don’t think it is as transgressive or alternative as it used to be. Before the pandemic, Bushwick was starting to have a resurgence though of non-binary gender shows that really challenged the status quo of beauty and gender standards. I hope that scene comes back.
Was it a process to overcome any shyness about exposing yourself, or insecurities with a healthy body image, or just nerves from being onstage in general?
You know, it was not an issue about exposing my physical body. I’ve never been a shy person. But exposing myself as an Asian-American woman came with a price. I’ve been told I am perpetuating a “dragon lady” stereotype; I’ve been told I am a slut and should be ashamed to represent Asians this way. You gotta have a tough skin to be in showbiz. It’s interesting to observe how Asian women are depicted by mainstream imagination. If we are sexual, then we are dragon ladies. If we are not sexual, then we fit into the nerdy stereotype. Where do we belong? Where’s our agency for self-expression as sexual beings, like everyone else?
How might you describe your specific style of burlesque today?
Today–as in the last three months–I would say I am much darker in my acts. Dark times, dark acts. It’s the mood I’m in, and I feel compelled to explore darker ideas, feelings and thoughts. I feel helpless in these times, and expressing that helplessness through fantasy and storytelling have been my coping mechanism.
What have been some of your favorite experiences performing over the years?
I love touring and travel gigs–especially in smaller towns where burlesque is still new and exciting, and many people have never seen a brown body perform. I feel like burlesque is so saturated in NYC, its hardly innovative or exciting anymore. But when you perform in, say, Charlotte NC, New Hope PA, or Utrecht Amsterdam, people travel far to come see a show, get dressed up and are extremely excited.
I always thought of the global burlesque community as being very tight-knit.
Yes, definitely true. Burlesquers all over the world find each other.
And, is the Asian / Asian-American burlesque community particularly close?
[Yes,] because it’s so small. We definitely watch out and support each other.
Are you, like, surrounded by feathers every minute of your life?
Lol! Feathers for sure, and glitter. Overall, I would say I am pretty organized–because living in NYC for so long, you are forced to form good organizational habits. But now that I am in the Poconos, I have a huge walk-in closet for all my burlesque costumes, headpieces, boots, props. Pulling outfits to pack for a gig is a dream!
Tell us a bit more about how the New York burlesque scene shaped you as a performer.
It’s exactly like Sinatra says: if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. NYC burlesque performers can improvise like no one else in the world. No green room? No problem… we will change in the coat check closet. No stage? No problem… we will work the room and do it in the round. You lost our music? We will improvise, just play something upbeat that’s under four minutes. Drunk bachelor / bachelorette ran up on the stage? Tie them in a chair and make it into a chair act, and give them lots of photos. Seriously, nothing phases us.
NYC style is fierce and confrontational. Some of the best political burlesque acts come from NYC: Julie Atlas Muz and Little Brooklyn, to name a few of my she-ros. NYC performers also will make that audience connection due to the fact that very few venues actually have a proper stage. There’s no fourth wall, so we will make eye contact.
Is virtual burlesque totally weird, or does it have its merits?
I went from loving it, to hating it… then I found a way to do it that suits me, and now I love it again! For the Asian Burlesque show, many supporters have messaged me saying how happy they are to be able to see this show from afar. And I take their messages to heart, so in the future we will probably offer live streaming viewing for those who cannot come all the way to NYC to support the event.
Personally, I’ve been calling my virtual acts “music video acts” vs. a straight up burlesque act. I find the kind of burlesque that we do in real life is dependent on audience energy, and the interactivity and improvisation of the moment of live performance. Obviously, all that goes out the window with virtual shows. Instead of forcing an act to happen, I’ve veered away from filming a striptease act narrative and went for a TV show format, or a more mood-based performance. I created “Cooking with Calamity: A Burlesque Show” last year featuring me cooking a dish and, while the water is boiling, for instance, I would introduce a performer doing a food-related burlesque striptease. This series was on Vimeo on Demand, and it was so much fun.
But lately, I’ve been more focused on tapping into more performance video acts, as you’ll see in the Asian Burlesque virtual show on April 21. I do think virtual acts like what I’ve been making have opened up a new level of expression that was not available to me in real shows. I feel that I can investigate a theme, a moment, or a look more thoroughly, and I can control how much information to give a viewer. Basically, I am making a short film, as abstract and short as they are. I really hope to make a short, short film in the near future.
Let’s discuss that upcoming digital event. On Wednesday, April 21, “NYC Asian Burlesque Extravaganza” will be streamed on Zoom and will star yourself alongside Damian Dragon, Adam Rei Siegel, Wang Newton and other great performers in the burlesque and drag scene.
Super excited for this, as it’s the second time we’ve tried to hold a virtual show! I’m also excited to be able to donate a portion of our proceeds to NAPAWF (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum).
This is my first time doing Ruby Mimosa’s karaoke, improvisational burlesque show! The audience will pick a song to sing to, and the performers won’t know until the moment of. I think ridiculousness will ensue, and be a really fun night. Now… what costume should I wear is the question!
This is an amazing series of educational talks created by the VIBF to be a resource for burlesque performers to learn beyond performing. From logo design to how to create new content to leverage yourself as a performer, my talk is a condensed 10 minute crash course from my usual 90 minute touring workshop.
Then a massive virtual showcase you’re a part of will be screening on Stellar on Friday, May 14 through Sunday, May 16, care of Daniel Nardicio, Sam Benedict and Taylor Shubert. “Stand Up for Asian Americans” benefits Red Canary Song (“a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers”) and stars Margaret Cho, Telly Leung, Jasmine Rice LaBeija, Poppy Liu, Damian Dragon, Frankie Sharp and more.
I have been wanting to work with Daniel for years now, and I’m so honored that he invited me to be a part of this event. I have participated in another fundraising event for Red Canary before the pandemic, and the event blew my mind. There were vendors outside, then inside there were performances, spanking stations, boot shine stations, etc. It was a safe space with all kinds of consent, supporting the kink and sex worker community. That’s where I met Damian Dragon (who is also in the virtual show on April 21). I’ve worked with Jasmine Rice many times before, as she is one of the crowd favorites at past Asian Burlesque Festival events. She gets a standing ovation every single year. And Margaret Cho… well of course she’s an icon. I watched her TV show All-American Girl way back then, I saw her standup shows, and she’s being a supporter of the Asian Burlesque Festival since year two!
Rainbow Mountain is a summer resort in the Poconos serving the LBGTQ community since the 1980s. I now live eight minutes away, so I am really excited to bring some of the best talents from NYC and Philly to their summer weekend events by the pool! We will be poolside during the day, there’s a DJ, there’s drag, boylesque, burlesque, variety, so much more.
Now tell us about your relationship with… coffee!
Coffee is my life juice! I always start my mornings with an iced coffee, and then another one in the afternoon. Sometimes I will add a shot of whiskey, if I am doing a late night gig. I used to love the street cart coffees, but now that I have my own brew I just make it at home. I am in no way a coffee snob, I just know what I like–which is light, cold, with whole milk and two Splendas. My roast is by Have A Nice Day in Brooklyn, and has a hint of blueberry. I love working with them so much; they are so supportive of my burlesque persona, too. When we were reviewing my label designs, I was worried that it was too revealing. Their response? “Don’t tame the lioness spirit.”
I can’t wait to try some! And have great shows! Finally, my favorite closing question for burlesquers: what’s the worst song ever to perform to?
“American Pie” by Don McLean. It’s bad for karaoke, and bad for burlesque.
Thank you, Calamity!