Amid the burgeoning and shifting queer nightlife scene in New York City, a Honolulu writer is transported to the comforts of a hometown dance club, where the faces always mirrored his own.
In May 2017, the five founders of Bubble_T, a nightlife collective, wanted to throw a party that celebrated their world: a scene of queer Asian creatives colloquially known as the “Slaysians.” Post-Trump’s election, there was a political undercurrent to the concept, which existed against the predominately white backdrop of gay New York nightlife. But mostly, they just wanted to have fun. To kiki to swishy throwbacks and spotlight beefy Asian go-go dancers and high-concept drag on their own terms. So the collective—Nicholas Andersen, Karlo Bello, Stevie Huynh, Pauly Tran, and Pedro Vidallon—threw together a flyer for this party, to be hosted at The Rosemont, a gay bar in Brooklyn. They expected a few friends to show up, nothing major. It was a Thursday night after all.
I arrived close to 1 a.m. to a packed bar. Disoriented, I shuffled through hordes of people, trying to find my bearings. Everything looked like a typical night out in Bushwick—the wispy fashion gays and the tattooed gender-queers and the septum-pierced lesbians—except nearly everyone was Asian. I knew this was the point of the party. And yet I was shocked by seeing my own reflection en masse in a space where I had learned to least expect it: nightlife. It made me uncomfortable, this salve for a wound I did not know I possessed. It felt like coming home.
“Home,” literally, was Honolulu, Hawai‘i, the place I was born and raised. I went to my first gay bar in Honolulu, the now defunct Venus Nite Club, which was located on the ground floor of Ala Moana Shopping Center. Saturdays were “gay night,” and since it was removed from the Waikīkī strip, it catered to a mostly local clientele, a hodgepodge of Asian Pacific Islanders spanning the gender spectrum. Thirteen years later, I hadn’t been to a nightclub as diverse.
Of course, having grown up in Hawai‘i, this was an afterthought. What struck me as a teen was the sensation of levity and abandon, the kind afforded by chugging vodka cribbed from your parents’ liquor cabinet and being in the company of other queers—though we never used that word then—touching and kissing and articulating our bodies in ways that were never available in the light of day.
Despite the affirmations of growing up on an island surrounded by faces that mirrored my own, I moved to New York at 18 years old to go to college and stuff, but also to be gay. A scarf-wearing, macchiato-drinking, Broadway musical-attending gay. What I only marginally understood was that by aspiring to one identity, I would be encouraged to abandon another. Entry into mainstream gayness, I quickly learned, was predicated on whiteness, demanding the ability to self-tokenize, to be “not like other Asians.” I still remember that satirical image in Details Magazine titled “Gay or Asian?” Through a single page, it managed to perpetuate the most servile stereotypes of Asian men—neutered and inscrutable—while simultaneously negating the possibility of being gay and Asian altogether.
Trying to reconcile this discord through nightlife, typically an outlet of salvation for the LGBTQ+ community, proved taxing. If I wasn’t repulsive, I was exoticized. Even at The Web, the now-shuttered “gay Asian bar” in midtown Manhattan, large numbers of older, white men, known as “rice queens,” stood luridly in the corner. They often outnumbered the Asians there, who I often felt like I was in competition with, vying for limited resources. It was one of the few gay bars in the city that were happy to ignore that I had an awful fake ID—Michigan was spelled wrong—and looking back, I understand why. We were roped in like cattle.
Bubble_T, since that first party in 2017, has been an antidote to these alienating experiences. It has continued with semi-monthly parties that wear the collective’s politics lightly, with a slyly self-aware wink, through themes like “Joy_Luck_Clurb,” “Haute_Pot_Pride,” and “Tropik_A_Zia,” at which Spam musubi was sold (a nod to Hawai‘i from Andersen, the co-founder of the design studio Confetti System, and Bello, a textile designer, who both grew up in the islands and graduated from Moanalua High School). Within a year, the party garnered buzzy media attention from the likes of New York Magazine, spurred in part by the cool factor of hosts like Humberto Leon, the co-founder of Opening Ceremony, and locations like MoMA PS1 and The Standard. But all of this feels secondary to the communities that have been fostered on the dancefloor, the shedding of years and years of ingrained self-hatred, the celebratory communion around a collective wound. Since those long-ago days at Venus, it’s the first party at which I’ve been able to feel kinship with other queer Asians, rather than a sense of competition.
The party is part of a broader shift happening in New York nightlife, away from muscular white dudes and toward fostering safe spaces for queer communities of color. Since 2013, Papi Juice has been throwing parties in Brooklyn centering queer and trans people of color, mostly black and Latinx; in March of 2018, it teamed up with Bubble_T for a sold-out party at Elsewhere, a sprawling Bushwick nightclub, music venue, and arts space. Through its expansion as an economically viable business, Papi Juice has paved the way for other queer collectives of color to flourish.
Also in New York is Yellow Jackets Collective, a self-described “intersectional collective of queer Yellow American femmes” that hosts parties and panels, including a recent talk titled “Angry Woke Asians.” For an explicitly sex-positive take on queerness, there’s Onegaishimasu, which featured a flogging booth at one of its underground parties. As its Instagram bio states, the monthly S&M charity party seeks to unite queer and trans people of color “during the Golden Age of the #slaysiandynasty.” All are testament to the multiplicity of the queer Asian experience. We’re not a monolith, so why should our parties be?
It’s funny, looking back, that what I was seeking this entire time was a return to where it all began: that seedy nightclub on the ground floor of the Ala Moana Shopping center where the entire world opened up to me, one pop song at a time. It doesn’t exist anymore, except through the smoky haze of memories. So I go to Bubble_T, and I remember.