SINGAPORE: Putting on elaborate makeup, wigs and costumes is all part of the experience of cosplay to transform into one's favourite anime character. But the transformation is perhaps more extreme for a small but growing number of "crossplayers" - or cosplayers who cross dress.
Date (pronounced dah-teh) is one of them. The avid anime and gaming fan started out impersonating only male characters, but soon felt that he should not restrict himself since most of his favourite anime characters are female.
“Naturally as a guy you will love a female character, that's very normal,” he says candidly. “You want to bring them to life. I don't care if it's male or female. I just do it.”
Photographs of Date in his crossplay best are fodder for banter at his family's Chinese New Year gatherings. The 26-year-old hates the festive celebrations and would volunteer for holiday shifts at work but in his absence, his mother would delightfully whip out her smartphone and proudly show everyone his latest Facebook photos.
Date crossplaying for the first time in 2010 as Zatsune Miku, a fanmade anime character.
Date, who made clear he is not gay or confused about his gender identity, says his first attempt at crossplaying was in 2010 and it was such a bad experience that he almost quit the hobby. “The criticisms I got, I can remember till today,” he recalls. “At that time my makeup was not that good yet. People would say: "Oh look, there's a gay there. Oh look, ah-kua (Hokkien expression for transvestite). Oh look, a ladyboy."
But he was determined not to let critics and bullies ruin his love for what he considers an art form. While he did stop crossplaying for a couple of years, he eventually “gave in” to his passion and made a comeback in 2013. “I still wanted to do a lot more. I still wanted to improve,” he says.
This time, he sought help from more experienced crossplayers like Lee Hongzhu who taught him better makeup techniques.
Crossplayers Lee Hongzhu and Date getting themselves made up at Anime Festival Asia. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
BORROWING MUM’S BRA
Hongzhu lives on the fourth floor of an old walk-up apartment with his parents and younger brother. The 27-year-old administrative executive is home alone. It is the weekend of the Anime Festival Asia and Hongzhu is excited. He has been preparing for the annual event for months, having attended every single edition since he began cosplaying six years ago.
His room is big but cluttered. Piles of clothes and costumes can be seen everywhere - on the rack, across the floor, on his bed. There is hardly any walking space. And on his desk, amongst the mess, sits a Brother sewing machine next to his fancy gaming computers. He takes a glance at the machine, now coated with a thin layer of dust. “I bought it two years ago to sew my own costumes, just simple things,” he says, “but I don't really use it anymore.”
Hongzhu in his bedroom. He lives in an old walk-up apartment with his parents and brother. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Like Date, the former digital arts student makes no attempt to hide his hobby from the family. To improve his makeup skills, he watches tutorial videos on YouTube and does “trial and error” sessions at home.
Sometimes, he puts on his costume and makeup at home before attending an event. If the subject of cosplaying comes up in family conversations, Hongzhu keeps it casual. But his mother, who is in her mid-fifties, likes to tease him about it. “She laughs at my photos,” he says, “and she says that I look like one of her sisters.”
Hongzhu being touched up by Hana, a celebrity cosplayer from China at Anime Festival Asia. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Three years ago, when she was doing housework, he walked up to her and made the unusual request of borrowing her bra. He had only just begun to crossplay then. His mother, completely unfazed, complied by getting him the bra, and even gave him a tip: Don’t stuff until too big, or it will look very weird.
“My mum actually is a bit different from other mums. She just wants me to be like those people who don’t get into trouble,” Hongzhu says. “As long as it’s not killing people, damaging property, that kind (of activity).”
He knows he is lucky to have accepting parents. But for some of his crossplaying friends, things can get pretty rough at home.
WATCH THE FEATURE VIDEO:
“DON’T LET ME SEE IT”
When Chee See Jay was making his first female cosplay costume, he had to lock himself in the bedroom and do it bit by bit, keeping the different pieces separate so that his parents could not tell what he was sewing. “I was brought up in a pretty traditional family so guys dressing up like girls are kind of taboo,” says the 28-year-old, known in the community by his ‘coser’ (short for cosplayer) name The Conjurer.
But his parents did figure it out and got very upset with him. “They told me that we have a clue of what you have been doing. Just don’t let me see it, don’t appear in front of our friends and relatives,” See Jay recalls his parents’ reaction. “That was how harsh it was.”
The creative director of Neo Tokyo Project - a pop culture marketing company he co-founded - started crossplaying six years ago on a dare. He and a female friend wanted to cosplay a pair of sibling characters, and the friend suggested doing a gender role reversal - with him playing the sister and her, the brother.
Chee See Jay as Zhou Mei-Ling from Overwatch, a multiplayer computer game. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
See Jay confesses that like so many others, he used to judge people who crossplay. “I thought they were a little weird, not really putting myself in their shoes,” he says. “Now that I’ve actually gone ahead and tried it myself, it’s pretty much just cosplay.”
After more than half a decade, his parents’ stance has softened, particularly because crossplaying is now part of See Jay’s job requirement. “They don’t encourage me but they go around it,” says the bachelor. “If our relatives happen to see what I’m doing, my mum will explain to these people that oh, I am doing this for a job.” And unlike many Asian parents with single, adult children, his parents avoid asking him about his love life. “They aren’t so upfront about this.”
Chinese celebrity cosplayers Hana and Baozi touching up for the Singaporean crossplayers at the Anime Festival Asia. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
Chinese cosplayers Hana and Baozi are well-known for their makeup tutorials online. (Photo: Ray Yeh)
STRAIGHT MEN CROSSPLAY
Date, Hongzhu and See Jay all say that one of the most common misconceptions people have of male crossplayers is that they must be gay or that they are confused about their gender identity. But more likely than not, underneath the thick makeup and elaborate costumes are heterosexual men - just like the three of them. Says See Jay: “To me there’s no such thing as male-to-female cosplay or female-to-male cosplay. Cosplay is just what it is.”
And when it comes to dealing with hateful comments both online and off, they adopt the same strategy. “I just ignore. What can I do about it?” says Date. He also has this to add for his detractors: “I’m more confident nowadays. Imagine if you are a guy … will you dare to go inside the toilet, do your makeup, wear your bra, wear your wig, and come out like that? I dare do that.”
Besides the obvious fun factor, these ‘cosers’ really just enjoy the social aspect of attending conventions as a close-knit group - friends coming together to talk about new anime series, exchange gaming tips, and sharing inside jokes that only ‘cosers’ can understand. “Ever since I started cosplaying, I know more people than usual,” says Date. “I have so many friends I can’t even remember every single name in my Facebook.”
Crossplayers at the Anime Festival Asia. (Photo: Ray Yeh)