Ladyfest returns for its second edition on International Women's Day

Ladyfest’s inaugural chapter was opened by volunteers in Olympia, Washington in 2000, as a non-profit music and arts festival aimed at female and feminist artists – and now spans hundreds of cities worldwide. This is only its second year in Shanghai, but it’s clear that the group of six women behind the city’s edition– Jen Childs, Jessica Lum, Jessica Martinelli, Amber Mizerak, Joanna ‘Asia’ Palmowska, and Beili Peng – have a talent for hitting the ground running, because last year’s event, which was attended by more than 500 people, was put together in just one month. 

How did they manage that one, then? They look at one another and burst out laughing. ‘It tried our friendship, it really did,’ admits Palmowska, who first began working with Ladyfest in her home country of Poland. ‘And it showed us our strengths and weaknesses. But more than anything it was amazing to see that this group of women always have each other’s backs. We organised an event with a 500-person turnout in a month, but it was still well-planned and wellcoordinated.’ 


The solid foundation of friendship between the women seems key to the overall ethos of the event, which advocates inclusivity, honest communication between its participants, and emphasis on shared experiences. These themes bear particular pertinence in China, and Ladyfest has, according to Palmowska, ‘filled a niche in Shanghai where there was a personalised outlet where people could share their passion.’

Shanghai-born Beili Peng speaks about the issues of ‘misunderstandings, misleadings and miscommunication’ between Chinese women, as well as the pressures that they face from society: ‘In China, it isn’t easy for women: we take care of our families, we take care of our careers, our lives, and even more, we take care of our husbands’ families. Family is the world. But Ladyfest is a free platform for us to talk about who we are, and what we stand for.’ 

At Ladyfest, talk is key: the overall aim of the event is to create dialogue in the context of an environment that so often discourages it. Americanborn- Chinese Jessica Lum is afforded a unique perspective on this, thanks to the disparity between the values of her heritage and her upbringing. ‘A lot of Chinese women I come across are very reserved, and conservative with sharing their opinions,’ she says. Last year Lum posed nude as part of an art installation entitled ‘Acrimony of Cunts’, and found the reaction from Chinese women in attendance humbling. ‘I feel like I’m very Western, but I have this Chinese face that I don’t recognise,’ she says. ‘But they felt that I was representing in a way that had a voice of empowerment.’ 


The experience is very much cross-cultural, however, something illustrated last year during a martial arts lesson, during which participants were asked to shut their eyes, and share experiences they’d had of anything ranging from street harassment to rape. If others had also had experienced it, they would clap. ‘I don’t think [participants] had ever had the opportunity to listen to the experience of what other women’s sexual harassment experiences were,’ says Jen Childs. ‘I felt like there was some solidarity in that moment – it didn’t matter what our backgrounds were, whether we were expat or Chinese. We had all experienced, and suddenly we were all sharing and learning and preventing.’ 

It’s this spirit of inclusiveness that opens up Ladyfest to other marginalised groups, particularly the LGBT community, but crucially, men, too. ‘This is an experience of femininity. And everyone has access to it,’ says Palmowska. The group is keen to show us feedback they received from male participants last year, who were invited to offer their perspectives on feminism. ‘We want the men who attend to be able to see this kind of dynamic and understand it, and feel more comfortable with the idea of all the different things females want to talk about, and what we find important,’ Childs asserts. ‘It’s not just a safe place for women; it’s a safe place for men and women.’ 

"crop5"It’s by cultivating a level playing field that allows Ladyfest to accommodate everyone’s experience, of whatever magnitude. Throughout our conversation, we blaze through a legion of news-worthy headlines, from Kurdish women fighting ISIS in Syria, to the protests against sexual violence in India, to gender stereotyping in toy shops. These muchpublicised narratives are, reminds Palmowska, the other side of the coin to what she terms as ‘smaller private victories, like those who move out of a violent domestic situation, or somebody who comes out as gay during their sixties. We can talk about important moments in the history of feminism from two perspectives – about what makes a good story and what makes money when you write and read about it, or important moments that empower women in their everyday lives.’ 

As it champions a mentality of diversity, the ‘festival’ format of Ladyfest is of course a natural fit, with everything from workshops, ‘vagina dialogues’ and art installations to bands, book lists and local food vendors adding to the mix. The full line-up was still being confirmed as we were going to print, but here’s a few of the things you can expect, among much, much more: 

Burlesque workshop

Tattoo-laden pin-up model and Burlesque dancer Anna Fur Laxis – who has previously performed as ‘a goldfish with glamorous ambitions’ and laid on a fetishistic tea party – brings her unique style of Burlesque to Ladyfest, which includes knife and axe throwing. Yikes. 


Basement Six’s Katie Roseland, who has previously brought dancing-in-darkness extravaganza ‘No Lights No Lycra’ to Shanghai will be executing her installation performance, ‘Validation Chamber’, which she remains intriguingly tightlipped about. 


Kung Fu Komedy’s premiere comedienne Leai Luo brings her brand of surreal humour to the festival. Here’s a sample joke: ‘I love staring at my own reflection in car windows, but I can’t afford a car. So I’m looking for a boyfriend who is shorter than me and wears sunglasses all the time.’ 


Women should be free to be women, and so should men – and no one knows this better than Victoria Chanel, the winner of last year’s Annual Drag Queen Competition, whom we interviewed several months ago. She assured us that we all have high heels inside of us. 


Ladyfest’s Shanghai chapter combines its artistic showcase with more practical concerns, particularly pertaining to women’s health. Daytime workshops will focus on femininity and health from a Chinese medicinal point of view, and offer the chance to address problems in a safe environment. 


Once you’ve seen to your well-being, it’s time to do some damage to it. Just round the corner on Xingfu Lu from the daytime festivities, LOgO will be hosting the annual Ladyfest after-party, which goes from 8pm until late, and includes performances from local rock band Smoking Area, plus DJs Velvet Robot and Elsie Liu. 

Ladyfest is at Uptown Records on Saturday 7th March. See full event details here and the full schedule here