In May 2016, Lucky Cheng’s was officially reborn for the fourth time on the third floor of Stage 48, with many of the same staffers who had worked the tables back in the ‘90s still working at the pop-up on weekends. Many have expressed excitement that the venue is slowly starting to attract celebrities again. One longtime employee says he hopes the homophobic behavior he witnessed in the last location doesn't carry on into Hell’s Kitchen.
Still, when I attended a Friday night dinner show this summer, a woman’s mouth dropped open when Paulina joked that her date was gay. One would assume that the couple, on a double date with another straight couple, knew what they were getting into when attending a drag show, but the four grabbed a check for their Coronas and fled mid-show.
Most staffers, however, didn’t cite any concern for the growing commercialism of the venue, often referencing RuPaul for bringing drag into the mainstream. “It’s fun to look at the ‘90s, but that’s not a thing that’s happening anymore,” says Sister Mary Helen. “We’re like Madonna: with every album, she reinvents herself to stay with the market.”
Still, there are some parts of the ‘90s that thankfully remain alive at Lucky Cheng’s. These days, performances still invoke the cherished decade with hip-hip numbers by Von Cartier, and a squirt gun-inclusive performance to the soundtrack of Disney’s Pocahontas by another long-time queen.
“My mom passing was the biggest change [at Lucky Cheng’s],” Josephine says. “Things kind of fell apart, she was holding everything together and things just went up in the air. We’re picking up the pieces, moving forward with them and finding out who we are again.” Currently, Lucky Cheng’s only pops up at Stage 48 for three weekend dinner shows -- at 7pm on Fridays and 6pm and 8pm on Saturdays -- though Josephine sees it eventually finding a new permanent home, which she hopes can expand to incorporate a center for youth and a place where various communities can hang out more informally.
“It’s been difficult because this wasn’t my vision or my dad’s, it was my mom’s,” she says. “But it has been a home for people for 20-plus years and it’s been a home for me too. Abandoning it didn’t make sense to me whatsoever, and passing it on didn’t make sense either, at least not yet.” For now, DJ JoJo spins the music at all three weekend pop-up shows and makes candies to pass out at the end. She hopes to also make T-shirts for Lucky Cheng’s and take the show in a “more theatrical direction.” The restaurant is also bringing back beloved weekly events, including a Thursday karaoke night and a special all-male revue.
Through all the different changes, what’s remained constant over the years is that Lucky Cheng's is a haven for all different types of people. “Some of the old club kids have followed us through every one of these iterations,” says Sister Mary Helen. She also notes that about half the room is usually first-timers, while the other half consists of “drag daughters” of original performers (a newer drag queen who learns from a more experienced “drag mother”), kids of visitors who experienced Lucky Cheng’s 20-plus years ago, siblings and family members of former partiers, and even a stream of new celebrities who have started returning to the venue. For now, the handful of attendees -- ranging from a steady flow of bachelorette parties to, on a particular Friday evening, an elderly couple canoodling on a back bench “waiting for death,” as Paulina jokes -- seem enthused by the latest incarnation.
“Drag queens are making an ugly world prettier,” Paulina calls out multiple times throughout the evening. She is, of course, totally correct.