Bartender Olivia Hu’s love of drag performance comes from a deep and familial place.
“My mom is kind of a drag queen,” she tells me at Old Timers, the bar in Bushwick she co-owns. Hu grew up in Reno, Nevada, and some of her fondest memories are of packing into the car with her mother’s many outfit changes to head to the university for the annual Lunar New Year party.
The holiday “is meaningful in a lot of ways for Chinese people,” says Hu. “We go by the Lunar calendar, and we consider the nine months in the womb as one year of your life. Everyone turns an older age all at the same time.”
At these parties, the city’s community of immigrants would take a break from their jobs, often cooking Chinese-American food in restaurants, to bring giant foil trays filled with the traditional foods eaten at home to share. In Reno, which she characterizes as a “small town,” all the Chinese immigrants were familiar from helping each other with the bureaucratic process of coming to the U.S. The yearly party acted as reunion.
“It was nice to have food people were cooking at home, not just what they thought Americans wanted to eat,” she says. “One of my favorite things was sliced duck with scallion and Hoisin sauce, rolled up in a doughy rice paper wrapping. They were stacked in a pyramid.” The elaborately decorated mooncakes, too, hold a special place. “Even though I love mooncakes and love looking at how beautiful they are,” she says, “around Lunar New Year, you cannot decline a bag of mooncakes, even if you’ll never eat them.”
Her mother, a “fiery personality” who worked three part-time jobs to raise her daughters, acted as host and performer. “There were tall glass ceilings, and there were artificial lakes at some places on campus,” she remembers. “My mom would have all these outfit changes, sing songs, and in between hosting other people’s performances, she would go into the dressing area and come out in a whole new ensemble with giant head pieces and fan choreography.”
When creating her Lucky 88 cocktail inspired by her mother’s many outfits, personality and her iconic Lunar New Year celebrations, Hu went with red and heat. “Red and gold are the primary colors for Chinese New Year,” she says. “I infused some tequila with lao ji peppers and ground Sichuan peppercorns.” This brings out a steady and intense heat, tempered by the floral notes of the St. Germain and acidity of lime, with balance provided by the salty rim. Hu says it could be considered a “Chinese margarita.”
2 ounces Chinese-chili-infused tequila (see below)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
.5 ounce St. Germain
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Himalayan pink salt for rim
Chill a coupe. Rim half of the glass with pink salt. Shake above ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fine strain into coupe, and garnish with a whole chili.
1 cup tequila
2 tablespoons ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppers
Photos of Olivia Hu’s mom courtesy of Olivia Hu, others by Alicia Kennedy.