How Canadian drag artist Kara Juku found their community on stage

Kara Juku’s journey to the top of Vancouver’s drag scene broke ground not only in their family but also for queer Asians who scarcely saw themselves represented.

Meet Vietnamese Canadian drag queen Kara Juku

A lantern glows, cutting through the darkness of the crowded room. A tall figure in a flowing red velvet dress glides through the crowd with the lantern, before walking on to a misty stage. The opening notes of the Mulan ballad, Reflection, begin to play as they emote every last heartbreaking lyric under a spotlight.

“When will my reflection show who I am inside?” 

The drama, the camp, the artistry, it must be a drag show. Not just any drag show either. After that performance Kara Juku made history as the first Asian performer to ever win Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar, a long-running local drag competition in Vancouver’s queer community, just shortly before COVID-19 shut down drag performances and live events in 2020.

Meet Kara Juku, a nonbinary drag artist and content creator who danced and performed their way into the top of Vancouver’s drag scene. They ooze confidence. With a whip of their hair and a dip off a stage, all in heels and a form-fitting bodysuit, Juku commands the stage as the crowd goes wild.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Ho from Kara Juku’s Instagram

Juku’s rise comes at a time when Asian representation is surging in Vancouver’s queer community, largely due to the creative work of them and their ever multiplying local drag family, House of Rice. 

The reality is that the intersection of queer and Asian is rarely modeled in either community, on or off stage. Even if the specifics are different, Juku’s journey through drag rings familiar for many queer Asians as a story of perseverance, joy, pride, and finding power in community. For their art to be celebrated in a very visible way breaks new ground for the next generation of queer Asians to take pride in who they are. Almost as important, it offers a hopeful glimpse of who each of them could become.

Finding Community

Beyond the fierce performer on stage there is another softer, more vulnerable side to the artist.

“I am very shy, very introverted when I’m out of drag. But when I’m onstage this weird energy that I don’t know where it comes from, makes me so confident and sure of myself and really happy,” they explained. “It’s how I wish I was all the time.”

They hint at the challenges they faced when first starting drag and how far they’ve come. The first time Juku ever performed in drag was in 2015. At the time, drag wasn’t a symbol of power but an excuse for bullies to attack. For a high-school-aged Juku, this meant putting drag on pause to avoid harassment.

The talent stayed dormant until 2019 when they met Shay Dior, the drag mother of the House of Rice, an all-Asian drag family in Vancouver. The concept of drag families is a queer tradition that goes back decades, rooted in the need for creating a support system and place of belonging with chosen family, especially when many queer people face rejection from their own biological families.

Photo Credit: Christian Jones from  Kara Juku’s Instagram

Juku joined the House of Rice family and was taken under Dior’s matriarchal wing. With their immense support, they officially debuted as a drag artist in 2019. Kendall Gender, another prominent Vancouver drag artist, would also adopt Juku as her drag daughter. 

“Having a drag parent means they are guiding you, helping you, someone you can trust and always go to. They are your chosen family and mentor at the end of the day,” said the performer.

Having a queer Asian drag family in the House of Rice to support each other, talk through creative inspiration, and be part of a community was something Juku expressed much gratitude for.

“It’s hard to put into words because they are my chosen family. They were there supporting me when I didn’t know how my family would take it,” said Juku, on what House of Rice means to them. “It’s a place I can go to without being worried about being judged or competition. We uplift and support each other’s success and they are a group of core people I always go back to. It’s something I don’t take for granted at all.” 

Celebrating Vietnamese Heritage

It’s that system of support that encouraged Juku to embrace their Vietnamese heritage while performing. That intersection of art and heritage are two worlds they never thought would meet. 

“When I was younger I was constantly being told I was too Asian because I liked Vietnamese and Korean music or dressed a certain way,” they said, adding that there was hesitancy to even wear black hair.

Juku performing Reflection on stage at Celebrities nightclub for Vancouver’s Next Drag Super Star 2020. Photo Credit: From Kara Juku

When they first began to dabble in drag, Juku described feeling left out because the lineups were mostly white performers. 

To be able to shift from being made to feel ashamed about their heritage to then having it be celebrated and a symbol of pride was a powerful unlearning process made possible through their journey in drag.

“Through the House of Rice, Shay Dior, and Maiden China, I’ve been able to be proud to be Asian and incorporate that into my art more,” Juku said. “Being proud enough to wear a traditional garment and reflect things from my past that I loved in my art, but had [previously] pushed away because of society.”

That change in their proverbial posture allowed Juku to better show up as their full self on stage. By wearing an áo dài and incorporating Vietnamese music into the performance, all while checking in with their mom and grandmother to respect the heritage.

The Support of Family

For many Asian drag artists, the valid fear of ostracization and shame can make it very difficult, and sometimes outright impossible, to share their work with their parents — who may see queerness as a social taboo. 

As the competition for Vancouver’s Next Drag Superstar drew closer, Juku knew this was an incredible moment they wanted to share with their mom and grandma. Yet there was still worry about the reaction to learning about their work — and incredible passion — in drag.

“It was a big thing I was dreading because I didn’t know how [my mom] would take it. But the way I explained it to her, in Vietnamese culture we have a show called Paris By Night that she loves, where one famous celebrity who is a Vietnamese man dresses as female characters,” Juku said. “I related it to that so that it was familiar to her.” 

Their mom accepted it and was even excited for them, eventually getting to see Juku perform for the first time at the finale of the competition.

Juku hugging their mom and grandma after winning the drag competition. Photo Credit: From Kara Juku

The feeling of performing for their mom and grandma at the competition and then winning the whole thing was a moment Juku will never forget. To not only be able to show them their craft, but that they were widely celebrated and at the top of their game. That this was something they could be proud of.

“The feeling I got from them being there isn’t something I can really explain,” they said. “I have these pictures, and I keep reliving the moment. Just to be able to perform in front of them and show that I’m successful and that I’m good at this was just the most amazing feeling ever.”

Their family’s reaction was something to behold for Juku.

“My grandma was crying the whole time. It was crazy to see them be proud of me doing something I love,” Juku shared. “My mom was worried about my health because I did a dip off the stage and she was like, never do that again, but was really happy for me [laughs].”

That pride was amplified by the queer Asian community who came out in force to support Juku’s win. They described the astonishment and how much it meant to them that so many people came out to support, even when they didn’t know them personally.

Juku’s friends, family, and community showing up to support them at the drag competition. Photo Credit: Kara Juku’s Instagram

As echoed in the iconic Mulan lyrics, there is a yearning to see our full authentic selves in our reflection. To be able to see on the outside how our interior world feels on the inside.

Juku’s art and performance acts as that mirror. They reflect the stories of their community in all their joy and messiness under a thumping club beat and neon spotlight.

At the end of their performance at the competition’s finale, with a long red cape billowing behind their back Juku declares, “My name is Kara Juku and I will bring honour to us all.” With the crowd cheering wildly behind them, it’s safe to say they already have.

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