Profile: Rising From the East

Seattle's only Asian burlesque star toys with stereotypes.

As Taiwanese burlesque dancer Jenny Ku (stage name, The Shanghai Pearl) flirted and flaunted her assets during a recent performance in El Gaucho's Pampas Room—suggestively stroking Asian icons like a rice-paddy hat and an abacus—I was torn between finding her intentionally stereotypical routine offensive, hilarious, and sexy. But when The Shanghai Pearl responded to the crowd's laughter and cheers with a knowing smirk, it became obvious that the number—aptly titled "Yellow Fever"—was cleverly calculated.Advertising herself as the "tantalizing temptress from Taipei," The Shanghai Pearl is the only well-known Asian in a local burlesque scene that (as in most places) is overwhelmingly white. She's also one of the city's most popular burlesque artists, appearing regularly at venues like the Pink Door (this weekend, for example) and Wallingford's Seamonster Lounge as well as teaching classes at the Academy of Burlesque.Meeting me for happy hour at Café Campagne to talk about her work, the 28-year-old stood out, much like the women she's admired from afar for years. Ku arrived with her dark hair perfectly coiffed and apparently unaffected by the drizzle outside. Her liquid eyeliner was applied immaculately, as was the ruby-red lipstick that matched the shade of her fingernails."These ladies were glamorous," she emphasizes, recalling her first experience with burlesque in 2002 when she attended the Tease-O-Rama convention in San Francisco. "I had never seen anything like it. They were able to be funny, ridiculous, and sexy all at the same time...I fell madly in love with that."But, she concedes over a glass of rosé, "It never occurred to me at the time that I could be a burlesque dancer. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I never saw anyone onstage that looked like me."Born in Taipei, Ku was 3 when her family emigrated to Chandler, Arizona. She grew up in a conservative household ("I wasn't even allowed to wear tank tops in the summer!"), and, much to her parents' chagrin, decided to pursue painting and acting before turning to burlesque."I grew up in an environment where boys were everything and girls were nothing," she explains. "So I was very attracted to being a part of a world filled with powerful women. Onstage they [burlesque performers] exhibited such radical self-acceptance."The year she attended Tease-O-Rama, Ku moved with a friend to Seattle and immersed herself in the local burlesque scene, attending as many shows as possible over the next few years. In 2005, she enrolled in the Academy of Burlesque."As soon as I tried it, I thought, yes! This is what I want to do always!" she says. Her entertaining persona, combining seduction with wit, quickly caught people's attention, and venues across the city began to book her.Ku's stage name and tagline are obviously inspired by her ethnic background. But it wasn't until recently that The Shanghai Pearl broached the subject of race in her work. "I try to avoid the ethnic route most of the time," she responds when I bring up her provocative Pampas Room performance. It isn't her responsibility to represent an entire continent. But sometimes it happens that way. Just last month at BurlyCon here in Seattle, she appeared on a panel to discuss diversity in burlesque, and says she was the only Asian in the room.As I did, Ku grapples with the loaded imagery in numbers like "Yellow Fever," but hopes that ultimately the audience will perceive that she's mocking the hyper-eroticism with which Asian culture is often associated. Presently, she's better known for, and is more comfortable with, cheeky and often ridiculous shows inspired by '40s and '50s glamour girls. For instance, in the number "Teach Me, Tiger Shark," she attempts to woo a shark by wriggling out of her clothes to the crooning of April Stevens. "It's so dumb—but it cracks me up," she admits. "I love to make people laugh."Those people still don't include her parents. But she says her mother is coming around, now that her daughter has established herself as a prominent figure in Seattle."I think she's starting to accept that I'm not going to be a doctor or a lawyer," The Shanghai Pearl says with a smile as she finishes her wine. "She understands that this is something that has transformed me into an incredibly happy person. She could probably watch me dance and be funny...she still wouldn't be so thrilled with the stripping."ehobart@seattleweekly.com

 
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