Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In Manila, there are a lot of choices if you’re a straight person looking to go out and have fun on a Friday night. But for queer people, there’s only a handful of places you can go to. So it was a little surprising to find out that in a megalopolis like New York City, the situation is similar for Asian-American queers as well.
“We’d be like that group of Asians in the corner and frustrated,” says Filipino-American Pedro Vidallon, also known as DJ Tito Vida, of the Asian dance party collective Bubble_T. The group is responsible for setting up popular queer Asian-American parties that have made quite a splash in their side of the city.
“We kind of constantly complain, like, ‘God, I wish there was a place where — like I just wanna hear hip-hop and R&B,’ you know? I love a Britney song here and there, but it’s like, hot damn, every time I go [somewhere, it’s] Britney, Ariana — it’s sort of like a list of divas. We were just talking about like, yeah, there’s not really a space for Asian-Americans.”
Bubble_T is made up of Vidallon, Stevie Hyunh, Pauly Tran, Karlo Bueno Bello (also known through his drag name, Bichon), and Nicholas Andersen. The group is named after the milky drink that’s known to produce lines anytime a new one pops up.
“We just wanted to be inclusive to all Asians,” says Vidallon of the group's name. “Bubble_T kind of really stuck. It’s really cute. We wanted it to be a fun party, not like a too-cool-for-school New York party. And everyone has some form of bubble tea drink, like we have sago, tapioca, gelatin or something.”
Vidallon says that while African-American and Latino communities have created spaces for themselves, Asians have assimilated into a kind of Western mentality. “Skin-whitening and whatever … so they’re kind of ... doing whatever it takes to be a part of White gay culture,” he says. “I feel like that’s a part of it, why there’s not a lot [of Asian spaces]. So we just kind of start talking about [it] — ‘We should just do a night at a bar somewhere.’”
The group took about six months to talk about their plans and then a new bar in Brooklyn opened. “My friend started going to it and kind of befriended the manager, and said, ‘Hey, we have this idea. We kind of just wanna throw a cute party, like an Asian kind of party.’”
This was in May 2017 and Vidallon recalls that “it was just going to be twelve people or something.” But word got out and people actually showed up.
“We’re like, ‘Oh my god, there’s people here? Cool!’” [Laughs.] We had a really good time. And then so the next one was [during] Pride [month]. We did a Pride party, and that’s when word kind of really got out, and all of a sudden we were filling the bar completely of all these Asians. We’re like, ‘Who are these people? Where did they come from?’ [Laughs.] We didn’t really promote it or anything, just sort of on Instagram — it wasn’t this big plan, just really to our friends, just word of mouth.”
Bubble_T has thrown some pretty huge parties since, enough to get the attention of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The group was invited to throw a party in one of the rooms in PS1 MOMA’s Back to School benefit in September 2017.
Vidallon recalls, “Since it’s supposed to be a school, they handpicked different collectives, artists, whatever, and gave them a room and [said] do whatever you want. They gave us a room and we decided to do a karaoke room so we built a stage where you could sing and as you’re singing you’re being filmed and that’s being projected right behind you, so you’re having your own Beyonce moment [Laughs]. So in between we have music and we had food as well.”
MOMA loved what Bubble_T did in their room that they got invited for a second time to do their annual Lunar New Year party this year, which the collective called "Bobadome."
“We were like, ‘Are you sure? Why? We don’t do this for a living! [Laughs].’” "Bobadome" was sold out at max capacity. It involved interactive installations, drag performances, DJ sets, and food. “It was kind of like a Disneyland of Asian stuff,” says Vidallon.
Another huge party by Bubble_T was for the Robyn and Björn Borg collaboration. Bubble_T hosted the party along with Papi Juice, another POC collective. The invitation had a strong message that goes:
“THIS EVENT IS A SAFE, INCLUSIVE SPACE CARVED OUT FOR QUEER AND TRANS PEOPLE OF COLOR. RACIST, CLASSIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC, AGEIST AND/OR TRANSPHOBIC BEHAVIOR WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. IF YOUR BEHAVIOR IS FOUND TO BE DISRUPTIVE, YOU WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE. IF YOU ARE BEING HARASSED PLEASE ALERT SECURITY OR CREW.”
We got to talk to Vidallon, who is a performance-wear designer, on a bright summer morning in Pasay City, on the heels of his recent visit to the Philippines, which was actually met by a fiesta in his parents’ hometown. “Every day we woke up to the sound of a parade band!” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Why do you think it took so long for a queer Asian party to start in New York?
I don’t know! I’m from the West Coast and I’ve experienced queer Asian parties there. Even in my early 20s. I feel like in the West Coast it’s more second generation, they’ve already created these communities, especially in California where they’re like all farm workers and so they’re in these concentrated areas with all these Asian groups and Latino groups, that they’ve already formed so much support and the queer spaces were already created. And I didn’t know about that.
I went to a dance school and my best friend went to University of Washington in Seattle. When you’re in a university, there’s always clubs and there’s this Asian club, Asian heritage that kind of thing. He introduced me to these queer people who were Asian and they were doing stuff together. They took me down to California, there was a party and it was 19 and over and predominantly Asian and POC and I was like, "What is this world?!" On the West Coast there have always been things happening, art collectives, musicians, artists, a lot of girl groups [Laughs]. I feel like in the East Coast it’s just a different thing [...] different in the sense that there [are] no specific queer Asian spaces, whereas in the West Coast there is.
Do you guys have a signature thing that people will recognize that it’s a Bubble_T party?
Yeah, definitely the decorations [by Nicholas Andersen of CONFETTISYSTEM]. That’s really … you can tell that it’s a Bubble_T party with confetti and stuff. We always have drag numbers with these really young queens and give them a platform to perform, which is actually good for them because we were able to launch some careers and some of them have been in Vogue Magazine [Laughs]. Yeah! Cause when we did the Back to School one, there was a lot of press for that, W Magazine came, and Vogue and they took photos of our room.
Do you think that the response to your parties was an indication that there is a need for Asian-inclusive parties?
Yeah. The fact that so many people were coming […] it wasn’t just us going crazy in our heads [Laughs]. We really do need that space. And hearing all the stories from all the kids that come in, it’s really why we continue to do it. We hear time and time again [people] just thanking us for having a space and stories like, "Gosh for one night I can just be myself. I don’t have to explain myself, who I am, where I’m from. I can just dance and have a good time and see faces that look like me. It’s a beautiful thing that no one’s really ever experienced."
Especially like having to explain yourself because in America, in gay spaces where people are like “Wait, let me guess where you’re from .. Oh you’re from Vietnam!” or “Wait, [what kind of Asian are you?]” So it’s nice that we don’t have to play the guessing game with white people. So yeah, it’s a need. We’re just hoping more and more people do these kinds of stuff. We shouldn’t be the only one. There should be options for us.
The response that says “Faces like mine” kind of indicates that the party is more than just that, it’s about representation.
It’s really about visibility. And seeing your community and actually speaking with your community. I think a lot of times, in these spaces you almost become competitive with the other Asians in terms of getting a date or whatever, it just becomes this weird thing … [Here,] there’s no competition, we’re all just Asians [Laughs]. So what are we gonna do? Dance. Party!
Are there non-Asians that come into your party? What do they say?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We’re not exclusive like, “You can’t come in,” no. Our motto is “Where Asians rule but everyone’s welcome.” But we’re very clear about like, this is a space we’ve carved for ourselves so respect that. Don’t take that space, you know? But yeah, a lot of different people come to our parties.
[What do they say?] … That it’s fun? I don’t know, that it’s a good time. I don’t know [Laughs]. I always hear things like, “Wow you guys [throw] such a fun dope party.”
I also love that your flyers are also spaces to carve up cultural representation...
Yeah! A lot of it comes from karaoke stills, old movies from Asia, just remembering the movies that we used to watch [...]
A lot of our music is very pop. So there’s Cantonese Pop, I play a lot of R&B and hip-hop from the West Coast, a lot of Filipino artists like old ‘90s girl groups, Jocelyn Enriquez. I know where all the Filipinos are because they go “Oh my god!” [when it’s on].
You also had parties for the fashion brand Opening Ceremony and Solange was in one of your parties!
Umberto [Leon of Opening Ceremony], he’s like family. Some of us have worked with him already in the past. And he’s always been a big supporter of Bubble_T, from the very beginning. He would just come and hang out with us so it really felt like family. As we grew and everything he would ask us to do stuff with him.
One of the first ones was we DJ-ed at his birthday party in the East Village and then eventually that led to us DJ-ing at their Kenzo fashion party, which is amazing, I got to wear Kenzo! [Laughs].
Most recently we did their big fashion week party for Opening Ceremony and that was really special because their whole campaign, they didn’t do a whole campaign or a presentation, they just did a lookbook, and they featured … it was all about Asian identity, and casted amazing trailblazers, like Anna Sui. We got to be a part of that so it’s a mixture of pioneers of Asian artists to people who are doing stuff now. They even asked a few club kids to come. So it’s kind of cool, a lookbook of iconic people. So they just had a big party and had three collectives do a room so we had the ground floor big room, upstairs was Gush by Angela [Dimayuga], this fierce Filipina chef, and downstairs was Glam: three queer Asian collectives taking over this giant hotel doing a big party and we had drag queens as well. There were celebrities there!
We just did the Robyn party. I got to do the DJ set before Robyn. It was insane. I was freaking out. I was nervous! It was us along with Papi Juice, which is another collective, and Robyn and Kindness.
What’s coming next for Bubble_T?
It’s kind of like, one party at a time. We try to keep it casual. But this year, we’re trying to plan ahead of time. We find that if we do one month after one month it’s just never-ending stress. So we have a lot planned for Pride because it’s a huge city and it’s Pride worldwide so there are a lot of events happening the whole month. Since it’s world Pride, it’s also the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, so it’s this really huge milestone in New York City.
Last January we did a party in Hawaii. It was our first adventure outside New York City. We always get asked by people like ‘Come here!’ and we’re like ‘We have no money!’ [Laughs]. We’re not for profit. But it kind of worked out. A few of us are from Hawaii. I lived there for a little bit but Karlo and Nick grew up there so they really go back there and everything. They’re already going back in Hawaii. It was in collaboration with Lei Magazine, which is like the queer, beautiful art magazine in Hawaii. They collaborated with Papi Juice and threw an awesome pool party and a party at night. So that was the first one. Now we’re [thinking, maybe we can do this outside NYC]. So that’s kind of what I’m exploring here [Laughs]. Maybe hopefully something in Escolta. [Laughs]. I learned about the history of the area and had an awesome tour.