Thinking back on it, 2021 is a year for me to learn and experience lingerie more than ever. From pinning fringe to my underwear to make a costume, to background acting work for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel complete with 1950s-style lingerie under my dresses, and finally making my burlesque debut live in person thanks to The New York School of Burlesque. I devoted my debut as a tribute to my lifelong muse, Hollywood’s first Chinese American star, Anna May Wong.
In the pandemic, I was a background actor for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, where I had a lot of time to experience how pretty and uncomfortable 1950s fashion was and what a hassle it was to go to the bathroom. I was always wearing layers and layers of lingerie under my costumes: nylon stockings, lace girdle, torpedo bra, and chemise. Everything from conversative families, gender roles, and restrictive fashion, was always squashing and working against women. It struck me, no wonder women did burlesque! It was a big fuck-you to society. They celebrated their bodies by dancing and shedding their layers in their own shows on their own terms.
Girls being sensual, and owning their bodies isn’t something very encouraged in Asian families. I first learned about the legendary Anna May Wong in a little book during my middle school years. Hollywood didn't know what to do with her except cast her in the “Dragon Lady” role. She was always typecast as something deceitful, sexualized, and the villain that must always die at the end all because of her race.
Above photo: Kaya's debut performance. These stunning photos are taken by @kathrynwhiteheadphotography
Hollywood was always casting a white leading man so how could Anna ever be a romantic heroine when an on-screen interaccial kiss was banned at the time? The very idea of interracial marriage was illegal in her era. While she struggled to make a living and have her talent shine as an Asian American actress, Anna would struggle having her Chinese community accept her too. The way her arms, belly and long legs would be exposed while she danced in skimpy costumes on the silver screen would still be scandalous to Asian families today.
I always loved Broadway, theatre, and vintage fashion, so it was only natural that I’d be interested in burlesque. I took my first course at the New York School of Burlesque in late 2019. I loved it. I knew that when I made my solo debut that it had to be surrounded by a live audience. The pandemic put a stop to Broadway and live theatre till things started to get better in the summer of 2021. I had been practicing burlesque tutorials, took online workshops, and trained in silk fan dancing months before starting my in-person act development course to make my burlesque debut under the name Kaya Toast. A nostalgic nod to my own American-born Chinese-Malaysian roots.
At the end of my performance, I knew that this would be the happiest night of 2021 for me. The flow of my silk veil fans made me feel powerful as I strutted across the stage under bright moving lights in front of a cheering audience. At the end as I stuck my final pose and gave my bow, I knew that I wanted to feel like this always. Then I made a little speech explaining Anna as an Asian American ancestor to film and theatre, how chasing after her dreams proved that love and courage leads to revolution, and how I aspire to be a performer whose passion can lead to change too.
Lingerie is like a second skin that holds experiences, memories, and history. Adorning my body and waiting in anticipation in the wings before the burlesque showcase made me feel a sense of community. To perform burlesque in a lounge with lights and an audience made me feel closer to trailblazing artists like grand dame Jadin Wong, Noel Toy’s bubble dance, and Coby Yee performing in elaborate handmade costumes. It was people of color who contributed and influenced so much to create what burlesque is today. There were eras like the Harlem Renaissance and the golden age of Chinatown nightclubs where dance, music, and cabaret flourished. Jazz, shake dancing, nautch , belly dancing, fan dancing from Asian and Latin American cultures, and more influences by people of color would make up burlesque history. Burlesque has an inseparable heritage of people of color so I feel that it’s only natural for me to perform as an Asian American. It's a spectacular way to celebrate my body and my race.