Life Stories: ShayShay – Co-founder, The Bitten Peach Collective
I’ve been following ShayShay for a while having first seen them at The ShayShay Show in Dalston. The evening was a heady mix of high camp fun but also sobering realities moving from Britney’s Toxic to mental health with aplomb. They have such a captivating stage presence and speak so eloquently in the way they break down complex subjects. Most importantly, they have been vocal in their support for queer people of colour by taking actual action be that creating platforms like The Bitten Peach, speaking truth to power to challenge norms surrounding White cis gay men to supporting and uplifting our community. I knew it would be a cracker and I was not disappointed.
28, non-binary/genderfluid, queer, they/them, Japanese-Irish, Californian kween
Life Right Now
Right now (during lockdown) it’s the small things. My housemate has organised an Easter Egg hunt in our house. We’re having dinner together later (a nut roast) and I’ve become better at cooking. I took Shiva Raichandani’s Bollywood dance class earlier – actually I’ve been doing more dance classes. I’ve always enjoyed dancing since I was young, but was way too self-conscious and was often the only ‘boy’ in a class. I’ve been posting content of me dancing with my housemate on my Instagram – it’s just a great way to get some exercise and allow the body to move. I can’t wait to go out dancing again!
Being Queer and Non-Binary
In terms of my sexuality, I became aware of it when I was 11 or 12. But everyone else knew since I was a child – my first toy was a Barbie. I didn’t feel the need to come out until I was 19. As for being non-binary, it was a much longer process. It wasn’t until I moved to London 6 years ago that I began seeing lots of drag, anything from high camp to feminine. I found that I was more at home in presenting in a androgynous way, embracing a masculine and feminine balance, first in nightlife spaces, and then out on the streets.
As my understanding of non-binary deepened, I came across genderfluid and that fit right, it’s fluid for me. I switch from being excitedly presenting as femme/girly to then sitting, manspreading and leaning in. I flip between the two and don’t think about it as much; it’s more than just clothes - it’s how we move through the world.
My Family & Culture
I’m lucky to have a supportive and accepting family. I grew up in a liberal family and California itself is a liberal bubble. As I mentioned, the tell-tale signs were there as I grew up that I was going to be a gay/queer person and so my family had come around to this before I did. To put this into context, my Dad is Japanese-American and his family has been in the US for more than a 100 years. So, whilst there are some elements of the Japanese temperament intact, other cultural aspects (such as language) are not. My Mom is Irish, and so that’s a familiar part of my culture too.
I grew up in Silicon Valley and went to a school that was 70% Asian (East, South East & South Asian). Given my background, I didn’t feel Asian enough when I was around them – even though to other people, I just looked like another Asian. That changed when I moved to the UK and began to be in queer spaces that were White dominant. That’s when I felt like my Asianness was something different and set me apart, not being one of many. This made me miss being around other cultures and the way things were in California as my Asian friends’ families had emigrated more recently and so still were close to their language, food and customs. It’s one of the reasons why I started working with other Asian performers and founded The Bitten Peach – it brings me so much joy. There are enough similarities across our cultures that everyone just kinda ‘gets ‘it’.
I’m a very organised person, so I made a list of who to tell and in what order – from easiest to most difficult. Most people were not shocked and knew already, but they gave me the space to talk about it. I remember being out for lunch with my Mom and she flat out asked me if I was gay. At the time, I was annoyed that she took that opportunity away from me to tell her, but from her perspective, she wanted me to be honest with her and for me to know it was totally fine.
Within 3 days, my Dad had also asked me the same question in his own way (my parents were no longer together by this time). He asked me as I was leaving his house. Haha! But I appreciated him asking as I hadn’t been sure how to start that conversation with him. I think they both could sense change was coming, because at that time I was coming out almost every other day to someone.
My identity has definitely shaped my work, especially in creating spaces for queer people of colour and non-binary people. It shaped The ShayShay Show, which focused on creating space for these different talents to have a platform. We’d keep a big tub of leftover drag items (wigs, dresses, heels, etc.) and let people try them on and keep them if they liked them. It was liberating to be in space where we could play with their identities and just have fun! And with the fun stuff, we didn’t shy away from talking about difficult things either such as trauma and mental health. I wanted it to be authentic.
Bitten Peach launched in 2019, but in 2018, just before Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year) I first had the idea of a queer East Asian party. I approached The Glory at the time who had helped launch Hungama, and they were interested, but that were already booked on that night – so we reserved the spot for the next year (2019) and I worked with Lilly SnatchDragon and Evelyn Carnate to build out this all East Asian queer cabaret type show. We did 7 events in 2019 and they were all sold out; and we began to expand beyond East Asian performers to just Asian performers of all backgrounds. It was the best decision as people tend to think of Asian through the lens of East and South East. Here we’re all united, it’s Asian futurism, all of us with our beautiful skin tones and cultural garments.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I went to University in San Diego and the gay scene there was built around being White, cisgender and having a beach body. Anything different was either fetishised or discriminated against. I had such bad experiences there from trying to befriend or have a romantic relationship when I was there. Living in San Diego, where you receive messages on certain platforms/apps such as ‘No Asians, No Femmes’ right off the bat, messed up my thoughts when it came to gender and race; I’d assumed that I’d come out and everything would be OK.
There is femmephobia in the queer community, people assume that a feminine Asian person is going to be a certain way and it’s annoying having to constantly push against these stereotypes. In London, I find that the racism is not as direct but the brainwashing to find White masculinity attractive still prevails. And we’re all fucked up and complicit in this, so we need to un-train our minds and decolonise our thinking to recalibrate what we find attractive.
Sometimes after I have been with people and created intimacy, I often receive vague messages such as we’re not the ‘right fit’ or they’re not ‘having that feeling’ – and this could be true, but it feels coded.
I’ve found London’s queer scene to be overwhelmingly supportive and truly like family. There are genuine friendship circles that treat each other like family, reaching out and supporting one another that you just wouldn’t see in the straight world. As an example, we raised over £400 just by pitching in together to offer one of our friends a birthday present across friendship circles, because this person is so loved. The community spirit in East London’s queer scene is alive and well.
What needs to change is that for the few queer spaces we do have, we need to diversify the power from the very top, all the way down if we want to create truly inclusive places for all of the queer community. It can’t be White cis gay men in charge of everything. If there was distributed power, things would be more diverse – otherwise we keep perpetuating the same thing, spaces for White cis gay men. Some people who book at these venues have no idea of talent outside their demographic – all this amazing talent that exists in London. They are not given platforms at the same rate as White artists, even when the White talent is mediocre, queer people of colour are expected to be exceptional.
We just need more action to move towards equity, beyond all the statements - that will make the biggest difference.
Words of Wisdom
Everything you believe to be normal was made up by someone a long time ago. Everything has been socially constructed and you’re allowed to deconstruct all of it.
People of Colour in White dominant countries, your culture is one of your greatest assets. Your connection to your heritage and culture, both today and in the future will always be a super important asset that makes you stronger, more interesting and adds to diversity – it will benefit you on your journey by providing powerful tools within your skillset.
Use the knowledge of your struggles regarding your identity to have greater empathy and solidarity for other marginalised groups. All marginalised people are fighting the same fight and need to work together to enact change.
It was time for ShayShay to begin the Easter Egg hunt – and I couldn’t hold them back from undiscovered treasure. Especially if it involves chocolate. I was struck by how soothing and kind their energy is, how considerate they were of other people and their passion for making our community truly inclusive.