Vietnamese collective The House of Illusion use drag to freely express themselves in an increasingly open Ho Chi Minh City


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Vietnamese collective The House of Illusion use drag to freely express themselves in an increasingly open Ho Chi Minh City

COLORS’ latest mini-documentary ‘House of Illusion’ profiles one of Ho Chi Minh City’s leading drag collectives, delving into what drag means to them, how the art form has positively influenced their lives, and the growing acceptance of queer culture in Vietnam.

Defined as a form of entertainment performed by drag artists impersonating men or women, typically in a bar or nightclub, modern drag shows originated in the speakeasies and underground bars of 1920s Prohibition America. Since then, they’ve become an important part of LGBTQIA+ culture, and have gained increasing recognition and acceptance as an art form.

Drag has graced many high profile stages, both physical and digital: drag was a regular fixture at the renowned LGBTQIA+ bar Stonewall, and drag “queens”—performers presenting as female—were prominently featured in the cult documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ (1990). More recently, the American reality TV show ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, which launched in 2009 and premiered its 15th series on MTV earlier this year, has made drag accessible to the masses. Through its competition format which sees contestants battle through a series of challenges focused on different areas of drag performance—such as lip syncing, runway walking, dancing, singing, or comedy—the show has produced a new generation of drag superstars, such as Sasha Velour and Symone.

Prinz Illusion, the House of Illusion's founder

The world of drag is not limited to America. Communities across the globe engage with the art form as a means of self expression. Some are able to do so more freely than others, however. In Nigeria for example, sex and marriage between people of the same gender is illegal, as are parties and associations between members of the LGBTQIA+ community are prohibited. These strict laws have forced members of the drag community to either leave the country or take the risk to continue their art form underground. The freedom to wear and perform in drag is even being gradually repealed in areas of the US where, since the beginning of this year, at least 32 bills have been filed in Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia targeting drag performances, with more on the way.

Drag in Vietnam is mostly performed underground, yet there is slow progress in the country in terms of the acceptance of different gender expressions and the cultures that surround them: 2022 marked the official removal of homosexuality from Vietnam’s disease classification system, and the national outlaw of conversion therapy. According to The House of Illusion, one of the most prominent drag collectives in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s capital is particularly progressive. “HCMC is a cultural melting pot,” says Nhat, a photographer, videographer, and producer for the group. “People are open to different gender expressions and sexual identities.”

Nhat, House of Illusion's photographer, videographer, and producer

“Everyone has both yin and yang inside them, both masculine and feminine. We have to balance both sides of ourselves, and not discriminate.”

Loc Huynh Vu, House of Illusion's co-ordinator

The House of Illusion—also known in Vietnamese as the Lady Butterfly Association—is the brainchild of Prinz Illusion. Born as a female into a traditional Vietnamese family, as a child Prinz was forbidden to “be free to run, jump, and play” as they wanted. This caused him to question: “Why do women have to be one way, and men another?” Soon after they went to their very first drag event. There, he realized that “everyone has both yin and yang inside them, both masculine and feminine. We have to balance both sides of ourselves, and not discriminate.”

For the past five years, The House of Illusion have hosted parties, balls, competitions, workshops that introduce people to Saigon’s vibrant drag and queer art scene in the process. Passionate about creating a space for Vietnamese queer culture, the house also works with local young queer people, using drag as an art form to help LGBTQIA+ people in their journey of discovering their own identities. “Drag is an opportunity for artists to have a conversation with themselves, and to explore the darkest recesses of their souls,” says collective member Loc. “You can get a better understanding of who you are, and find ways to live more harmoniously with your values. We must bring equality, tolerance, and freedom to everyone in the community, and not just play at it.”

Last year, while COLORS was in HCMC, we met up with the House of Illusion to witness their artform in person, and to find out more about what drag means to them. The result was this intimate mini documentary with the group, featuring a range of interviews with collective members laid over intimate BTS, street, and performance footage. After its premiere on NOWNESS on 31st March 2023 in line with International Transgender Day of Visibility, the full film is now available to watch on COLORS’ channels. Head over to YouTube to see the House of Illusion in action, and to get an insight into their personal stories.

Jack Nguyen, an artist with the House of Illusion

This video and article was produced as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles from Vietnam on our editorial platform.


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