Passion and Pageantry at GAPA's Runway XXVI

by Jim Provenzano

Metro Weekly

Friday August 1, 2014

With a deft combination of satire, celebration and serious intent, the 26th annual Gay Asian Pacific Alliance's Runway pageant will fill the Marine's Memorial Theatre with friends, family and fabulousness on August 2.

For producer Alan S. Quismorio, the event blends his passion for community and theatre. In addition to working with GAPA, Quismorio is also the artistic director of Bindlestiff Studio, which showcases emerging Filipino American and Pilipino artists.

Quismorio has been co-producing Runway pageants since 2008, but this is his first go at producing it himself. Tita Aida will MC, as she has done for more than ten years. Quismorio talked about the Runway events' roots.

"Originally, a group of Asian Pacific men were interested in representing the community in a new way," he said. "Every year it's a whole different crowd. In the 1990s, it was really about getting the API community to be more vocal about itself, more confident about what it wants as part of the LGBT community. Now that we're sort of integrated in the community, we're looking at how we should define ourselves politically and effect other organizations. In the last few years we've encouraged the titleholders to go after issues and concerns that matter to them. If they have their own platform, we encourage that, but we also want them to represent GAPA."

Quismorio said that Runway is "not just a drag pageant. A lot of such shows represent the glitz, the glamour and the bitchery. With Runway, we want the glamour, but the bitchery only to a certain point that's not hurtful, but theatrical."

Recently, the event's producers decided to create a series of pre-events "to get candidates to trust and get to know each other and work together on the show," said Quismorio.

This year, five contestants each in the Mr. and Miss category will be judged on how they can articulate the GAPA mission, their imagination for theme wear (this year's is Villains & Femme Fatales), and the fantasy section, which is also the talent segment.

"That part is very entertaining," said Quismorio, who emphasized the aspect of the contest that asks what contestants believe an empowered Asian man is.

"It can be a song or a dance," he said. "One year a performer did a standup comedy act, and it was very different." One of more unusual Mr. GAPA contestants performed a trapeze act, made available at the Herbst Theatre, where several recent Runway contests have been held (the theatre is currently undergoing retrofit reconstruction).

Quismorio noted how the Miss GAPA portion is different.

"They're able to easily create a persona, and they have a sort of mask to help out with that," he said. "With Mister GAPA, they don't have that mask, and have to put themselves out there."

The different cultures within the Asian population are shared with nuance in the acts. But the event is more than theatrical fun, said Quismorio.

"There's a real need was to get our voices out there," he said, when I compared it to the local nightlife scene. "We don't need separate clubs to be comfortable, but we do have them. We're integrated and accepted at all these clubs. But there's still an underlying sense of racism in the gay community. We want to keep this on our radar. We need to keep vigilant with any conception or racism out there that still pervades."

I brought up the term 'casual racism,' when people of any race make what they think are innocuous jokes at some other race's expense.

Khmera Rouge crowned at 2013's GAPA Runway. photo: Freddie Niem

"Whenever we joke around, we want to be edgy, but we say these things and try to excuse ourselves," said Quismorio. "We understand you're kidding, but it comes from centuries of colonialism and decades of overt racism. We're still trying to wrap ourselves around that."

Despite the Bay Area population being around 30 percent Asian, in the gay subculture, Quismorio still sees a distance, as a minority within a minority. "We're new people at the party," he said. "Let us get our sea legs."

Of the several Asian nightlife celebrities in the LGBT scene, Quismorio sees drag as useful on many levels. "It's where you can lampoon behaviors. But we often -intentionally or not- perpetuate stereotypes that we need to get away from."

As a playwright, Quismorio does concede that the drag aspects of club culture and the GAPA pageants are a form of theatre.

"But I don't see myself organizing Runway with a narrative," he said. "The storyline is coming from the characters themselves, and how much they connect with the audience."

In his work with Bindlestiff Studio, serious issues are often taken on, as with their current show, The Gorillas of Powell Street, a drama about the plight of Asian American World War II soldiers' fight to get benefits from the U.S. government.

While a series of two-minute songs or dances may not encompass such somber themes, Quismorio said the Runway judges will still be looking for substance, "something that they can see from a candidate that can translate into what represents GAPA."

A Bit More Rouge

Miss GAPA 2013 Khmera Rouge recalled last year's pageant as "incredible. There were seven Miss GAPA contestants and four men; a great group of people who got together."

Although Rouge performed well enough to win, she doesn't recall much of it. "From the moment I stepped onstage to the crowning, I completely blanked out. But it was fun, and it being the twenty-fifth anniversary, a great milestone."

Rouge's act incorporated traditional dance from her family's roots in Cambodia. There is no small irony to her drag name (she preferred that her real name not be published).

The Khmer Rouge, followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchia, was a violent offshoot of the Vietnam People's Army, and the ruling party in Cambodia from 1968 to the late 1970s. The regime, led by Pol Pot and others, orchestrated deliberate "social engineering" attacks on crops and basic healthcare, which led to widespread famine and deaths, along with countless acts of mass murder and torture. Ousted by 1979, the Khmer Rouge lingered in a lesser form, even briefly gaining UN status, until its last holdouts surrendered in 1999.

"I chose the name for a reason, not to glorify that group," said Rouge, "but because so few people are willing to talk about it. Younger people don't know what it was or what they did, and by asking me about my name, they might learn more about it. My family was directly affected by the war. They were refugees, and that's why I'm here."

Rouge is one of many transgendered performers who deftly blend the dark truths of life with a satirical edge.

"I tend to mix a little bit of comedy and glamour," said Rouge, who MCs events at the twice-monthly ShangriLa club nights at The Endup. "Being in drag is about making a statement, with beauty or drama. I may never know going into a situation if I'm going to go one way or another. You have to read from the crowd sometimes. It depends on the situation."

But for an event like a GAPA pageant, Rouge knew to "bring on the A-game." For one segment of the competition, Rouge chose to dress as the Disney character Mulan, in accord with last year's Silver Screen theme.

"She's one of few Disney characters I could identify with," said Rouge. "It was one of the very few Asian media icons I could look up to."

Rouge also performed a brief dance excerpt that blended traditional Cambodian dance with a pop segue. She recalled it as being "almost comical; the routines have to be short, so you have to boil everything down." Within two minutes, she moved from intricate centuries-old dance moves to Britney Spears' "Work Bitch."

Asked to offer advice for this year's contestants, Rouge said, "Have fun and be yourself. I went in not thinking about winning, but to have fun, and I ended up being more relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the better an audience can connect. Men in dresses and wigs onstage can be comical. You shouldn't take it seriously, to a degree."

Miss GAPA 2013 Khmera Rouge and Mr. Gapa 2013 Nguyen "Sir Whitney Queers" Pham. photo: courtesy GAPA

A Winning Win

But the pageant and GAPA itself do have a serious side, of course, which includes building community in the LGBT Asian and Pacific Islander community, and raising funds for causes like the GAPA Foundation's scholarship fund. Both Rouge and Mr. GAPA 2013 Nguyen "Win" Pham raised $7,000 for the fund at events co-produced with members of the San Francisco Imperial and Ducal courts. A check presentation will be part of the pageant's events.

"Above all else, last year has been completely empowering, and it started when I competed in the pageant," said Nguyen "Sir Whitney Queers" Pham, who won Mr. GAPA 2013, and goes by Win. "Everyone was very encouraging for the whole day. Once the victors were announced, immediately Khmera and I began strategizing on fundraising."

Through the past year, patrons of ShangriLa supported the cause at the EndUp, and the reigning duo made numerous appearances at other local events.

"It's not really expected of Mr. and Miss GAPA to coordinate their own fundraisers, but we did," said Pham, whose passion for the scholarship programs is personal. Currently working on his MBA in Sustainable Business at San Francisco State University, the college graduate said, "We believe in the benefits of higher education, so that's what we've dedicated ourselves to."

Focusing on the younger generation of club-goers, Pham and Rouge produced dating events, and even a drag flip-flop night, where the Miss and Mr. GAPA contestants switched gender roles for a night.

"It's amazing how simple fundraising can be," said Pham. "People really rallied around it."

For his winning routines at last year's pageant, Pham went classy with the Silver Screen theme, donning a white dinner jacket and black tux pants, and playing "Claire de Lune" on a piano.

"I didn't have a tremendous amount of time to prepare," Pham confessed. He competed in 2002, but didn't win, becoming 'First Prince.'

"After that, GAPA kind of swallowed me whole," he joked. "Even if you're a runner-up, you're still part of the royal court."

Nguyen "Win" Pham performing with Cheer SF. photo: Ken Breiten

Along with obligations, Pham said he found strength in community. "They kind of empowered me. I had a network, and in the subsequent years I grew up a lot."

You may have seen Pham in mid-air as part of another community. As a thirteen-year veteran of Cheer SF, he's often one of the 'flyers,' the nimble cheerleaders who are tossed up high during the cheer squad's many rousing routines.

"I'm all about philanthropy and volunteering," said Pham, who was born and raised in San Jose. Pham said he looks forward to seeing how this year's contestants will bring a new edge to the traditional, and admittedly campy, pageant format.

"It's part drag show, but not your typical drag pageant, and there is a camp factor for both genders," he said. "While we do address stereotypes, which have a certain degree of reality, the focus of the pageant is to exaggerate reality. It's a very interesting juxtaposition."

This year's pageant theme will no doubt poke fun at classic film, comic book and pop culture icons.

"With a pageant of this scale, it's easy to fall into the formulaic, but our philosophy is to be artful within that formula," said Pham. "With element of satire, and a social event and fundraiser, we also pay tribute to our forefathers and foremothers."

Runway XXVI takes place Saturday. August 2, 7pm at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street. Tickets are $25 to $60.

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