Excerpt: 'Wandering Dolls: Cosplay Journey Across East Asia ' by Katrien Jacobs


Sha Tin New Territories

From Hong Kong: Subterranean Journey into Cross-Dressing and Transsexualism:

I am walking around the densely packed suburbs of Sha Tin, catching a glimpse of the Central New Territories before heading to the Western New Territories. I will soon travel underground via the numerous stations and connecting corridors of the MTR subway system. All signs of mystical old China seem to have disappeared. Tall skyscrapers surrender any architectural nuance, though upon closer inspection they reinforce the distinctions between social classes. Regardless of their social status, their names have been bizarrely appropriated from the West—The Balmoral, Classical Gardens, Uptown Plaza, Pristine Villa, The Palazzo, The Beverly Hills. These are the royal captains of real estate planning that have been drilled into the breathtaking valleys and mountains tops. They have chipped away at the steep mountain-scape and absorbed the older Chinese villages, leaving tiny remnants of low-rise housing on isolated hillsides or in the center of older city plazas. It is a curious mixture, a subtropical suburban high-rise sprawl aimed at housing the bustling masses of people, an ongoing development project attempting to catch up with Hong Kong’s population boom since the 1980s.

I go down and merge with a stream of people who all rely heavily on public transportation, and then move inside the famous New Town Plaza mall, which is typically and directly connected to the MTR station. This is an overwhelming, gigantic shopping mall with anchor department stores and retails shops, designed by the second most influential family of Hong Kong real estate tycoons—the Kwoks. The late Kwok Tak Seng, the founder of Sun Hung Kai Properties, kept it in the family by co-managing it with his three sons, Walter, Thomas, and Raymond. New Town Plaza was started in the 1980s and was gradually and extensively expanded. One of its landmark features is the first computer-controlled music fountain to have ever been built in Hong Kong, perhaps not so impressive to the outsider, but important for the profile and mystique of the New Town Plaza. [i]  It is a Saturday afternoon in 2011 and people have endlessly (as usual) flocked to the mall. The building has five floors and is a grand cage of glass that allows natural light to brighten up the store displays. It is absolutely mobbed but the floors are never less than clean and white. One imagines skating around on these shiny white surfaces, rolling around on them without getting dirty. People are drawn to these climate-controlled shopping malls to fight the cramped alienation and introversion of their home spaces, to stretch their legs and to get lost in commodity reveries.

I can sense my own eyes wandering. They fall on a central display in the main lobby of the mall, a large pagoda of an imagined royal court, taking us back to the times of upper class mansions with their large ornate gardens. The pagoda is an outdoors resting place but is also designed as a finely laced metal cage, giving me over to fantasies of a dungeon’s play room. Even though this kind of engineered pagoda is a cheap simulacrum, it is here to challenge the actuality of dense skyscraper homes where hardworking moms and dads are mundanely raising their offspring. I am going further off and contemplating moments of simulated enchantment, as if I were darting around in a virtual sun-baked forest with large ferns and edible mushrooms. I am brought back to the actual by a phone call from costume player Maggie who has agreed to rendezvous in the New Town Plaza.

Maggie Leung as Hell Girl

Maggie is an ardent fan of Japanese animation whose identity has merged with animation, comics, and games (ACG) stories and characters. I am attracted to Maggie because she lives in whirling realms of visual fantasy culture and does not deny their impact on her body and identity. Maggie is a biological male who has a gender-fluid appearance and transgendered sexual identity. The Japanese-inspired fantasy worlds have deeply affected transgendered people like Maggie, providing mechanisms for transformation and escape from quotidian reality. Many animation characters have supernatural powers and morph between ghost-like and human entities, while also taking on android intelligence or gender-fluid attributes. Fans construct these types of alter egos and communicate online within the virtual chambers of the Internet. Sometimes they go a step further and desire to physically become like these characters by dressing up and showing off at animation fandom gatherings. I ask Maggie if these acts of identity changes have any reference to traditional Chinese cultural rituals, but she thinks of it as a global modern fashion that originated in Japan.

I am researching cosplay rituals in Hong Kong and I have ended up in a suburban shopping mall. Maggie has arrived and is accompanied by her suitcase on wheels. We hop on the MTR train to Kowloon Tong, where we transfer to another type of subway line, along with a thick mob of weekend commuters. It is long ride from the Central to the Western New Territories and we exit about 45 minutes later in a train station adjacent to another shopping mall, Tsuen Wan’s City Landmark. Maggie drags her luggage through long corridors only to make a stop in a Japanese Home Center (a chain of branded stores). She browses through the goods and selects a couple of clothes hangers. She pays for them and heads back to the noisy streets, food markets, and hectic out-of-door pedestrians. 

This trip is one of several meetings that I have had with Maggie, making me aware that she lives out her appearances and fantasies on an “expanded stage.” It is a rotating stage with several platforms and changes of cultural scenery. She impersonates fluctuating characters, some of whom are online personalities that do not involve physical contact with the actual environment. But costume players can be differentiated from the more introverted otakus (computer geeks) in that they crave to live out their fantasies as physical experiences in public places. While otakus have been plagued by the Japanese and Chinese mass media and described with stereotypes of dangerous introverts and social losers, costume players are thought to be outwardly freakish and bizarre.

The spiritual center of costume players in Hong Kong is the Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai, where they meet at a huge bi-annual trade fair for ACG products. The costume players are only allowed to dress up in the corridors and designated rooms. Even though some of them also make official stage appearances within the ACG fair, most of them avoid the spotlight and stay “backstage” to pose for each other and for the general public. They hang out and socialize for hours while dressing up among a mess of makeup, snacks, props, and costumes. When their outfits are ready, they walk around and pose for photographers, who take hundreds of pictures that will be uploaded on the Internet. Just like the doll lovers, they carefully document the lives of their extraordinary alter egos, thus exploring mutual influences between the image and the physical self.

When visiting one of these conventions a few years ago, costume players from different animation stories and their “families” were present, getting slowly and surely ready for their appearances. Maggie was the one who stood out for me. I liked her friendly face and her outfit of a school suit and tie uniform. Maggie told me that she was playing the female character Mizuki from the well-known Japanese manga Hana Kimi. Mizuki is a girl who is desperately in love with a boy who attends a famous all-boys college. Mizuki cross-dresses to enter the same school and to be close to him. I conducted my first short interview with Maggie, in which she explained her gender-bending character—as a biological male, she was acting out a female character who wants to pass as a boy.

I was very much attracted to Maggie’s role-playing and we decided to keep in touch. Several months later, she contacted me, saying that she was going to make an appearance at a Cosplay Convention at City University of Hong Kong, where I was teaching at the time. This time she dressed as Hell Girl (Ai Enma), a supernatural spirit who can be contacted by people who want to take revenge. She helps them by absorbing their hatred and locating their abusers. Maggie was wearing stark red contact lenses and a kimono patterned with flowers. She showed her cursing doll, lifting up her sleeved arm to the surrounding audience, just as Hell Girl would do before carrying out her deadly spell.

Maggie Leung as Gothic Lolita

My third encounter with Maggie took place at a TV studio also at City University of Hong Kong. We now had invited her to dress up as her favorite female character and to explain her gradual identity transformation into Gothic Lolita, a figure whose impersonators are a subculture associated with Japanese street fashions and musical bands. They are related to costume players but they do not base their identities on specific characters. Except for their trendy platform shoes, Lolita impersonators look like Victorian porcelain dolls. They wear the clothes of bygone eras. In Hong Kong and mainland China they are often classified into three “types”—Classic Lolita who wears a simple white dress outfit, Sweet Lolita who dresses like a doll and in pink style, and Gothic Lolita who wears a black lacey dress and heavy gothic-style makeup. They inhabit a world of pre-sexual adolescence, their innocence emphasized through the heavy layering of vintage clothing and props. They also stage city gatherings, such as High Tea parties where they eat mini-sandwiches using knives and forks. They are exhibitionistic and media-savvy, but they also act decorously; their aesthetic of a nostalgic decadence refers to older feudal bedrooms or secluded rose gardens where sexual seductions unfold slowly and with a sense of grace. Modes of well-mannered femininity are taken to an extreme in order to develop performative subjectivities. Lolita-style love is characterized by a kind of uneven relationship between herself and an older male (Weird uncle), or vice versa, between a cute young boy and an older female (Elder sister). [ii] In these uneven relationships, the younger person is the key figure who acts out an exaggerated mode of innocence while showing an excessive desire for the lover.

It was during her appearance as Gothic Lolita that she first revealed herself as a transgendered person with an open-ended sexual orientation. She was really different from the other costume players in that she thought of her nature as feminine or gender-fluid. She used her female fantasy costume as a venue to express her queer identity and to be accepted by the general public. She was on a complex mission to discover a more stable lifestyle and to find peace with her biological family, who did not approve of her sex change. [iii]

Maggie: When I first participated in costume play as a cross-dresser, my family members felt that it was nonsense and a waste of time. To be more precise, they thought I was giving our family a bad reputation. They thought I was an insult to the family name. Maybe my family is especially conservative and has a traditionally Chinese way of thinking.

Zaphy: Is it because you are cosplaying female roles? Or are they negative about the whole act?

Maggie: Yes, yes, whenever I am cosplaying any characters, they think that I am insulting the family name… something like that. But they gradually got accustomed to it.

(Now sitting in front of the mirror in a TV studio’s makeup room)

Maggie: In order to look natural, the fake eyelashes must be very, very soft, as if you have not put anything on yourself. But if they are too natural, you can’t see their effect. If they are not a bit exaggerated, why should I even put them on?

(Placing glue on the fake eyelashes, getting ready to stick them on his eyes)

Maggie: You have to place them on the exact location (on your eyes), and press them into place.

Zaphy: So beautiful!

Maggie: Recently, there are cheaper fake eyelashes that cost about HKD100 per box, with eight to ten pairs per box. The price is very reasonable! Not bad at all! It is better than just buying a pair of cheap ones. These cheap ones are about HKD20. But these are good, and the price is very reasonable.

Zaphy: You mentioned just now that if you put on the eyelashes, you will look a bit slutty. Can you tell us more?

Maggie: I actually want to look more “pure”, but once I put on fake eyelashes, I feel I am too girlish and slutty! I look REALLY lustful!

(Checking his fake eyelashes)

Zaphy: What if you use less exaggerated eyelashes? How would you feel then?

Maggie: It will then look as if I didn’t put on any eyelashes. Then that is useless. If the fake eyelashes are not present, my eyes will look dull. On normal days, even when I put on mascara, it is still hard to show the contrast in the shape of the eyes. And also, it depends on the skill of putting on eyeliner. It depends on the color you are applying, and how you are applying it.

(Maggie has now moved inside the TV studio)

Zaphy: Can you tell us something about the figure of the Gothic Lolita?

Maggie: Her outfits are usually darker in color, black colored, and have some romantic connotations. It gives a feeling of prestige, royalty, and nobility. At the same time, it also has the feeling of “death.”

Zaphy: Do you feel very different when wearing this costume? We’d like you to talk about how you feel today.

Maggie: I feel that I can be my true self after putting on the outfit.

Zaphy: What about your dress? Did you buy this, make it yourself, or is it ordered to be tailor-made?

Maggie: This costume is custom-made. I ordered it from a shop called Spider in Mong Kok; they have their own brand called Spider. This one cost me about HKD700.

Zaphy: Does your character have a life? Does she have a story of her own?

Maggie: I don’t think so. I think Lolita is more like a fashion style.

Zaphy: But the social inspiration is Japanese? A Japanese notion of Lolita?

Maggie: The word “Lolita” originated in Europe. The Japanese then adapted and improved the Lolita style. In general, the Lolitas you are seeing in Hong Kong are Japanese-adapted ones.

Zaphy: Are the cosplayers interested in knowing about the historical European fashion styles?

Maggie: Actually, most people would not bother knowing the in-depth history of these styles. They simply put on the outfits because they are beautiful, or they design their own Lolita style.

Zaphy: So, would you go out dressed like this, out in public in Mong Kok for instance? Would you go out dressed like this Lolita with your friends?

Maggie: Yeah, we do, sometimes. I would go out with my male friends for photo shoots or café meetings, putting on the female Lolita outfits. But most people of course would only dress like this at home or for private functions. They’d seldom wear those outfits publicly.

Zaphy: Do you also dress up at home sometimes?

Maggie: I actually can’t do that, because of my family’s rejection.

Zaphy: What about other cosplayers? Do they accept you? How do you feel among the other cosplayers when you are cross-dressing?

Maggie: I don’t feel anything special. Cosplayers just focus on whether you can be exactly like the cosplay “character” or not.

Zaphy: OK, so they are not interested in sexual identity or your sex role?

Maggie: Actually… some girls get very excited about it! But I don’t know why. They get very excited about a guy cross-cosplaying a female character. They always want to take photos with me.

Zaphy: What about reactions of the general public? How do people react to your cross-dressing appearances?

Maggie: I think that people here are too conservative, but there is also a more open transgendered community. Usually we cross-dress and communicate with each other through online forums or meetings/gatherings.

Zaphy: So, do you identify as gay and “trans”? Do you like girls or boys? Or both?

Maggie: I have thought about that question a lot. I think that the concern is not whether I like boys or girls. When meeting other people, I don’t care so much about physical sex/gender. I’d rather focus on the feeling when we meet. And also I am mostly “in a female role”, so I would like others to take care of me.

Zaphy: Would you like to date a boy who can to take care of you?

Maggie: A boy or a TB (Tom Boy). If it were a “boy”, he would be a true male physically. The feeling would be very solid. For a “tomboy”, although she is not a real “male”, she would understand what a “girl” would be thinking about. So sometimes I would prefer “tomboys” over “boys.”

Zaphy: Is it difficult to find a partner in Hong Kong?

Maggie: You can say that, yes. It is because others may find it hard to define whether you are gay or transgendered. In the world of lesbians, they would sometimes reject transgendered people like us. The lesbians generally like “real” girls.

I won’t reveal myself so easily and let them discover my identity. Whether I am male or female, I want them to love “me”, my inner self, and not my “body.” If we have feelings toward each other, regardless of gender, we would still get along with each other. This is what I believe.

(Maggie describing the outfit to the interviewers, after he has taken off his Lolita costume, and also removed all his makeup)

Zaphy: So how do you feel now?

Maggie: I don’t know… I feel troubled. When I go home I have to sort out all my costumes!

Zaphy: Yeah, OK, but do you feel OK now to be a male person? To go back, home, back to your family, back to your mum?

Maggie: I hate them now…

Zaphy Why don’t you let your mum know… let her know that you don’t like being male? To what extent do they know about your sexual orientation?

Maggie: They know that I have to consult a therapist.

Zaphy: Do you also want to take hormones?

Maggie: I am already taking them. They have already changed my metabolism, and in some ways affected my thoughts. Sure, definitely, I become emotional. It also makes me feel unwell. For example, I feel tired easily, suddenly… physically unwell and uncomfortable. Sweating, panting involuntarily and I’m also having pain in the bones and stomach, near the chest area.

Zaphy: But you still want to take them?

Maggie: The hormones are effective in some ways. It improves your skin condition, and also makes you feel different. I think they make the shape of my face look very feminine.

Zaphy: So that means you really want to transform your gender and have breast implants and sexual reassignment surgery?

Maggie: Yes, but there is still the family problem.

Zaphy: Is there a big social problem in the Chinese culture, in that you have to live with your parents?

Maggie: And live with what your parents have given you. So, it is an exhausting inner struggle for me.

[i] An overview and analysis of Hong Kong’s real estate tycoons can be found in Alice Poon, Land and The Ruling Class in Hong Kong (Richmond, BC: A. Poon, 2005).

[ii] The definitions of these relationships were taken from the Chinese interactive encyclopedia Baidu. and (accessed 21 May 2009).

[iii] A full version of the interview can be found in the catalogue, Katrien Jacobs and Anne Peirson-Smith eds. Extra/ordinary Dress Code: Costuming and the Second Skin in Asia (City University of Hong Kong, November 2009).

Excerpt and images republished with the permission of the author