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Trans Mission Statement: The Girls of AsiaSF 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015

"Stephanie from Iowa is getting married!" screams the emcee at AsiaSF, as a tray of 12 tequila shots with limes passes by.

The liquor is destined for a mostly female gaggle of Burners decompressing from the playa. Shoutouts to foreign countries (and Daly City) follow, as everyone who traveled more than five miles gets acknowledged by the emcee, and then a beautiful woman in a rumpled shirt launches into Mya's "My Love Is Like Whoa." The table to my left is full of women on holiday from Queensland, Australia, all whooping it up like copies of Meryl Streep's friend in Mamma Mia! (you know, the one who isn't Christine Baranski). Stephanie is getting married, and so, it turns out, are Crystal, Jane, and Serena.

Welcome to AsiaSF. For 18 years, this transgender cabaret at 9th and Howard has hosted birthdays, bachelorette parties, andcuriosity-seekers eager to sample Cal-Asian food and see two cabaret shows per seating. Crowds — overwhelmingly but by no means exclusively female — pay to watch the ladies strut down the "Red Dragon Runway," lip-synching to the pop canon. Ever since opening in the '90s, the club's performers have sent pitches and sizzle reels to producers, hoping to get a reality show made.

That time has finally come. Transcendent, which debuts on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 11:30 p.m. on Fuse, will follow five AsiaSF performers: Bionka (an African-American from Anaheim), Xristina (who is Turkish-Dominican), Bambiana (born in Spain to mixed parentage), LA (a Filipina), and Nya (also Filipina, but from Hayward). Transgender visibility is having its moment, and where the show seems likeliest to break new cultural ground is in drawing the distinction between drag queens and transwomen, something not always obvious to an increasingly sophisticated audience. Nor is the difference necessarily absolute: While RuPaul's Drag Race is nominallya drag show, several of its contestants — Carmen Carrera, Sonique, and Kenya Michaels — subsequently came out as transgender, and clashed with Ru over allegedly insensitive remarks. Contestant Monica Beverly Hillz announced her gender identity midway through the show's fifth season, prompting some tiresome blowback about how she was "cheating."

The women of AsiaSF are women, of course, but they can be cheeky about their gender. As the show wraps up for the night, for example, the emcee refers to herself and her colleagues as "eight miracles of modern science," one of whom wears light bulbs around her décolletage, while another plucks men from the audience to nuzzle her breasts.

But considering the earnestness with which the ladies of AsiaSF approached their foray into reality TV, I wondered if they worried about the show's producers playing up the more prurient or titillating aspects of their private lives. The fact that it's not an elimination-style show curbs the need formanufactured conflict or sound effects to punctuate moments of side-eye, but without total creative control, there's always a risk of the show becoming tawdry.

Bionka seemed confident this wouldn't be the case.

"I remember dating and having to explain to a gentleman what's different between [me] and a drag queen," she said. "You don't have to do that anymore! Now, people will see it. We get women who are like, "Oh great, I've been watching RuPaul, so I know what's up,' and we're like, 'No, you don't.' And then they come in and they're like, 'No, I don't really know what's going on.' They see that there's a big difference."

When I asked if they worried about one of them being unwittingly pigeonholed into the "bitch" archetype, everyone laughed. (If anything, they were competing for that role.)

"Going into it, they were upfront about what they wanted to depict us as," Bionka said. "Throughout the entire filming, I never felt so comforted by a film crew to know that they had my best interests at heart. I believe that we'll see on the show that everyone was depicted great. There's nothing we should be ashamed of, or worry about being a bitch character."

"I agree 100 percent," Nya said, "but I feel that we all have a little bit of bitch in us. You can't really be successful in life without having a little bit of bitch in you."

Any bitchiness is somewhat tempered by the fact that four of the show's stars have performed at the club together for years, with LA joining more recently. ("Bringing her on felt so natural," Bionka said. "It was like, 'Hey sis, where you been?'") And in addition to being the new kid on the block, she's also the newest on the testosterone blockers, which forms the crux of Transcendent's dramatic arc. After Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans this year, Laverne Cox remarked that she felt lucky not to have transitioned in public, but much of Transcendent will chronicle LA's transition and her family's struggle to accept it. While LA was obliged to keep mum on specifics, it's clear the story has a happy ending.

"I feel super blessed, because I have everybody here," LA said. "This to me is home, and that made my transition so seamless. I feel like I can conquer the world, because whatever I do, I have the girls' back."

"That's the most beautiful thing that AsiaSF is," Xristina added. "I know that when I started working here, transgender sensitivity and the resources and information weren't around as much, you know? AsiaSF provided that. It was a restaurant that was catering to our population, and it made me feel safe as an individual. I came to S.F. from Florida because I wanted to feel like I'm not alone. So our show is true to the core of who we are. You get to see the struggles, our emotional connections with our family and friends, and the complications of dating the other sex."

In that respect, Transcendent promises to be different from the spate of trans-themed shows that debuted this year. While the 14-year-old Jazz Jennings of I Am Jazz is certainly of teen dating age, that show focuses on navigating the pitfalls of high school; meanwhile, the 65-year-old Caitlyn Jenner was already famous in her own right and related by marriage to the biggest fame engines in the world: the Kardashians. Nya, Xristina, Bambiana, Bionka, and LA are women of color who date straight men. (Four of them identify as heterosexual, while Bambiana says, "I'll fuck anything.") By following their lives outside the club, the show has the potential to illuminate a sensitive subject matter — trans women's love lives — but with an eye toward emotional connections rather than genitalia.

There is a secondary benefit to a show about transwomen in their 20s and 30s: Teenagers or other closeted viewers can learn about transgender people under the guise of pure entertainment.

"When you have trans youth who are 14 to 24," Bionka said, "how do you really sit back and tell your parents, 'I want to watch I Am Jazz'? They're like, 'You want to watch this young tranny girl?' But then you get us, who come in flinging hair and bitching each other out and taking hormone shots on camera. It's like, 'Wow, this is something interesting. I want to know about these ladies.' We give you that on a platter."

Should the show take off, the women of AsiaSF are well-positioned to funnel their success back into the community. Although Bionka notes that kids love coming to the club because "we're like big Barbie Girls to them," making songs from the radio come alive, Nya related a poignant story from the Trans March, where the mothers of two 8- or 9-year-old trans girls came up to them, asking for their daughters to have a chance to "meet their sisters."

"The mothers came aside and said, 'Thank you. It's because of women like you that's it's going to be easier for them in the future,'" Nya said.

All five women welcome the opportunity to educate people, whether by schooling Stanford students on proper gender pronouns or tolerating overeager hangers-on loathe to leave the club when the lights come on.

But they're honest about their desire for fame, too.

"I want a little bit of it all," Bionka said. "I trust myself to be level-headed even if the dollar signs are rolling in. I'm not going to be like, "Here's $20, wipe your ass.'"

"My motto is, 'Keep it humble and be thankful,'" Nya said.

"Just don't keep your makeup humble," Bambiana said.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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