The metamorphosis of drag queen Taipei Popcorn

In the space of only a few years, Taipei Popcorn, the creation of New Zealander Nick van Halderen, has become one of Taiwan’s most famous drag queens. From performing at underground clubs to doing photo shoots for Vogue Taiwan, acting in art films, and lecturing at the island’s most prestigious universities, Popcorn’s rise has been irresistible and irrepressible. Ron Hanson spoke to Popcorn about their unusual journey. 

It was at an electronic music festival on the east coast of Taiwan, Van Halderen says, that a startling creature came into their head. That being would become known as Taipei Popcorn. The year was 2017, and Van Halderen was visiting the island to reconnect with their Taiwanese then-boyfriend Henry.

Backpacking across Taiwan, Van Halderen ventured to Organik Festival in Hualien, where they would have a night of sudden transformation. “It was a deep mental state and physical experience,” they say. “I had this person come into my head, this creature. It was Popcorn.”    

On the beach, Van Halderen encountered a woman dancing. “Her name was Lisa, which is the same name as my twin sister. She was bald, and I was bald, so we were both running around like these two bald creatures. She had all these wigs, and we were playing with them. And at some point, I had a sticker put on my head that said ‘erotic popcorn’.”

That night, Van Halderen, who had an educational background in industrial design but no prior stage experience beyond high school theatre, determined that they would enter the world of drag queen performance. That ambition would become a reality later that year when Van Halderen moved to Taiwan and Taipei Popcorn was born.

The name is multi-layered in meaning. It refers to the exploding of gender norms and binary definitions but also references the personal transformation Popcorn would experience upon arriving in Taiwan. Latent energy was set to explode into infinite and unpredictable baroque forms.

Taiwan was at that time undergoing a dramatic wave of cultural change. In 2019, it would become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. There has been an accompanying boom of artistic and creative expression around fluid gender and non-binary sexual identity, a queering of Taiwanese artistic and popular culture.

Taipei Popcorn at the Vogue Ball Pawnshop. Credit: MW Studio

“That huge queer change that was happening and the political movement was one of the big reasons for Henry and I to move to Taiwan and set up a life there,” Popcorn says. “We both felt there was something big and historic going on, and we wanted to live amongst and be part of it. I think this is a huge draw for a lot of the LGBT foreign and overseas Taiwanese community. Taiwan is a magnet for us.”

For Popcorn, it was a dramatic shift. “I had been in Japan for three years, and I kind of went back in the closet,” they say, “because I was teaching in this very conservative small town and school. Japan has no anti-discrimination laws, so you can be fired for being gay or trans.”

“All this energy had built up, and that’s where Popcorn came from. It was kind of like a kernel that had built up bursting — POP! — a moment where all this queer energy came streaming out of me. I was just beaming rainbows at that festival, and I realized I need to stop hiding myself.”  

Popcorn moved to Taipei to be with Henry, who had returned to the city after also living in Japan. Two years later, they would travel back to New Zealand together and marry. The marriage is now recognized in Taiwan. Theirs is an unusual love story. Both had spent time growing up in New Zealand. Henry, as a 12-year-old, moved from Taiwan to Christchurch. Popcorn, at age 11, left South Africa for Dunedin and is now a New Zealand citizen. But, the two never crossed paths in Aotearoa. Instead, they would meet at an underground gay club in Osaka.

“It was a bar called FrenZ FrenZy,” they say, “a very smokey and psychedelic hole-in-wall whose main claim to fame was being visited by Lady Gaga years before. It wasn’t love at first sight, haha, but we had some good conversation and then a weird date in which we were both very guarded. We didn’t see each other again for months until we ran into each other at Osaka Pride. Then everything clicked.”

Henry and Nick van Halderen at their wedding. Credit: Frances Scott

Not long after moving to Taiwan, Popcorn made their first public appearance in drag at Taipei’s Pride Parade, the largest event of its kind in Asia. “I gathered together this blue look,” they say, “and did the Pride Parade in high heels.” The next day, Popcorn picked up a copy of the Taipei Times, and there was a photo of them on the front page.

Things flowed from there. Taipei performance artist Betty Apple contacted Popcorn and invited them to perform at an event she was curating at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. Apple was collaborating with the Tokyo art collective Chim↑Pom in their work Street at the Sixth Asian Biennial, which the museum was hosting.    

As part of the project, Chim↑Pom asked Apple to create a Block Party outside and inside the museum channelling Taiwan's rebellious, creative spirit. Apple invited Popcorn to perform. “It was very trusting,” Popcorn says, “because she’d never seen me perform. She messaged me on Instagram. I was in Wellington at the time, just visiting. She messaged me and said, ‘Are you a drag queen?’ And I said, ‘I can be.’”

Apple had an intuition that it would work. I spoke to her about Popcorn, with whom she has continued collaborating. “Popcorn has their own unique aesthetic style,” she says, “full of queer elements with a non-binary, science-fiction feel. They collage ready-made objects onto their body to create abstract textures. Popcorn makes good use of their height to transform themself into a conspicuous and gorgeous alien queen. People can’t avert their gaze. It’s like hearing the sound of popcorn!”

Betty Apple and Taipei Popcorn at Pride 2020. Credit: Wang Newton

On the night of the Block Party, Popcorn and others returned to Taipei. “We all came back to Taipei on a KTV [Karaoke] bus,” they say. “And we went to a gay party called C.U.M, which used to be a big thing here. I was in full rainbow drag. I met Bouncy Babs, one of the stalwarts of the Taipei drag scene, and she booked me to perform at the club for the next month. I started performing at that party, and it just grew from there.

“At some point, we started doing our own party called Blush at a club called B1. It was a monthly party I held with Bouncy and Amily Givenchy, another drag queen here. We wanted to go with more of a techno, underground feel. Every month we had to produce this quite detailed drag show and promote it. People started contacting me about parties, festivals, and events. I started working with techno label Smoke Machine, and they sent me on a tour of Chengdu, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Hanoi.” 

In 2020, much of the world was in lockdown, but Taiwan had remarkably made it through the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic mostly virus-free, without shutting down. It was the year following the legalization of same-sex marriage, and queer events were thriving, unencumbered by fear of the virus. To many, Taiwan appeared to be a queer utopia. Looking back at social media posts from the time, even its participants seem to be pinching themselves that it was really happening.

In October of that year, Popcorn starred in an elaborate large-scale theatrical performance on the opening night of Taipei Fashion Week. Organized by Vogue magazine, Fashion’s Night Out was an interactive and immersive theatre event merging fashion and art according to a theme of dystopian end times. The event featured performance artists, dancers, a circus crew, and models wearing clothes by local designers.

Popcorn at Taipei Fashion Week. Credit: HIW

Popcorn appeared as a prophet/queen who is first stalked and harassed by the other characters. Fearful initially of this splendidly unnerving creature, the others come to worship the queen. The performance ends in a wild ritual with Popcorn, wearing “futuristic drag Pisces couture” created by Taipei designer B Drag, commanding centre stage behind a vintage standup microphone and surrounded by a frenzied harum of dancers.    

Next year, Popcorn will make their full-length movie debut. Popcorn is co-starring in Future Shock, a film by director Su Hui-Yu, alongside award-winning actress Wu Ke-Xi. The three held a press conference in late 2021 to announce the project, which was covered widely by the Taiwanese mass media.  

The film features Wu as the last human on earth who discovers that his (Wu plays a male role in the film) grim present is actually a dystopian future that had been accurately predicted by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book of the same name, Future Shock. Receiving a message from the past, Wu’s character sets out to find the book. Along the way, there are a number of psychedelic scenes. Popcorn’s role, Su tells me, is that of an omnipresent metaphysical being. “Sometimes they look like God; sometimes they appear evil in the human's dream; sometimes they’re a computer from the future.”

Popcorn has worked previously with Su on numerous occasions. The director, who creates work often dealing with queer culture and body politics, has cast Popcorn in his short films, which have been screened at film festivals and exhibited as installations in art museums all over the world. Popcorn in these projects doesn’t strictly appear in drag. “I think he likes to work with me,” Popcorn says, “because I can transform into all these different creatures.” Indeed, Su tells me he admires Popcorn’s “plasticity”.

When I first spoke to Popcorn, they were in Taipei preparing to return to New Zealand for a long-awaited holiday. We continued our conversation as they processed the reverse culture shock of returning home. At first, everything felt “very foreign”, but they were “easing back into the flow”. After years of frenetic activity, Popcorn says they are in need of a mental and physical break, especially after a recent bout with Covid, which left them drained.

Henry and Popcorn photographed together in 2020. Credit: Manbo Key

“It’s really satisfying and fulfilling putting on all these shows,” they say, “but it’s definitely demanding. Lots of hours liaising with organizers, rehearsing, music mixing, hours and hours of costume preparation, and then, of course, the whole ritual of getting into drag on the night: heavy makeup, corsets, high heels, and chunky jewels, usually worn for hours in crowded spaces until the early hours of the morning.”

But after a break, Popcorn expects they’ll be hungry for more. “I might go to Vietnam at the end of this year and do something again in Hanoi. I want to reconnect with people. I made all these connections right before the pandemic, made all these friends, and we still follow each other all the time and keep in contact. I want to go and meet all these communities and perform in these little underground spaces. I want to try and do some drag in New Zealand. I’m connected with some of the drag queens in Auckland via Instagram.

“My hope for the future,” they say, “is to be based more between New Zealand and Taiwan and try to connect the two more. I want to keep pushing art and performance further and meet lots of creative and interesting people. Long term, though, my husband and I would like to have a little cottage in the mountains where we can grow vegetables, keep chickens and bees, and live a quieter life. But right now, we are young and want to keep enjoying the city, the nightlife, and all the opportunities and joy that brings us.”

Banner image: Taipei Popcorn at Taipei Fashion Week. Credit 草字.頭

- Asia Media Centre