The Kiwi drag queen making a splash in Taiwan

From Dunedin to the clubs and catwalks of Taipei, in a few short years, Nick van Halderen has made a splash as drag queen “Taipei Popcorn.”

The New Zealander visited Taiwan as a backpacker in 2017 and five years on they’re one of the most popular drag queens on the island.

They said liberal Taiwan was the “perfect place” for their creation to come to life.

“This energy that had been restrained inside me, kind of unfurled like a popcorn and I felt this need to try all these different looks and costumes and personalities,” said Popcorn.

Taiwan has a thriving drag scene with about 100 queens in the capital alone. Popcorn is in hot demand with performances most weekends and photo shoots. Their signature makeup look of colourful contours takes two and a half hours to create.

“It's a little bit inspired by botched plastic surgery. I just like that idea, the fine line between beauty and disgust or repulsion and attraction. So there's something beautiful in it but also something off-putting,” said Popcorn.

Popcorn has seen rainbow rights evolve in Taiwan. In 2017, Taiwan’s top court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, paving the way for it to be passed into law but there were setbacks with a referendum in 2018 rejecting legalisation. But that didn’t stop Parliament from bringing in changes required by the court ruling and approving same-sex marriage law in 2019, a first in Asia. On the day the law passed, Popcorn married their partner, Henry. “That was an incredible time, one of the most special times in my life,” said Popcorn.

Nick van Halderen, aka, Taipei Popcorn.

Taiwan is proud of its liberal credential and displays it as a point of difference from China, which claims the self-ruled island and is pushing for unification.

Activist and writer Brian Hioe said there’s been an embrace of difference in Taiwan.

“There's the embrace of progressive values in the hope that this distinguishes Taiwan from China, that this shows how Taiwan and China are different, are not the same polity,” said Mr Hioe.

On Saturday about 120,000 people marched through Taipei to celebrate diversity in Asia’s biggest Pride march.

Popcorn walked in the parade with the rights group, Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, which won the court case to allow same-sex marriage to pass.

"This is a hub, all the gays are here. They come from all around Asia and escape. It's like a kind of magnet," said Popcorn.

Cushla’s trip to Taiwan received funding from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.