How Erochica Bamboo Learned to Love Burlesque and the Yakuza Life

By Victoria Linchong . March 10, 2017

She might be small, but don’t let her size fool you. Erochica Bamboo is a dimunitive dynamo of fire, whipping out a watusi and barely breaking a sweat, while the other go-go girls onstage are huffing and puffing. She was crowned Miss Exotic World in 2003, ricocheting to the top pantheon of burlesque dancers while simultaneously making history in a few other ways.

Since moving to Berlin in 2011, she’s been seen on nearly every stage in the city, while entertaining hedonists all throughout Deutschland with her playful style of burlesque. You can usually find her go-go dancing at Berlin’s top rock ‘n’ roll night, Hoochie Koo, but this Saturday, she’ll be busting out a full-on burlesque dance there for the first time.

Photo by Kaz Suzuki.

I don’t even know where to start since you have such an amazing history.

I have a crazy history.

Tell me how you started in burlesque. You were in Tokyo, right?

No I was not in Tokyo. I was university student in Kyoto. At that time, Japan has really good economy and everywhere, every night, somewhere a show. But dancer often run away from this business. And the promoter have to pay cancellation fees. Kind of like yakuza or gangster job. Then they look for another girl to replace girl who run away. So it doesn’t matter amateur or can’t dance well. They ask me because they have emergency. But I said no. I don’t want to. And they said, “So how do you know if it’s good or bad? You never done it before.” And I think, “It’s true!” And they say, “Just do it for three days and you can see if it’s good or not.”

And the rest is history?

But it was really crazy. Once I said yes, only three nights I have to practice. I never wear high heels. I never put on make-up. I was an art university student. I hated being womanish. And then I have to learn everything. All these dancers teach me to dance and show me choreography for two acts, 12 minutes each. Not only dance, but also how to make costume because I was chubby. You know, teenager baby fat. And I can’t wear this girl’s costume because too tight. So I have to cut it and sew it bigger. And then also they taught me how to talk to owners and men in cabaret. They say, I should not say I am new. I should say I already have three years experience.

There was a pianist working in the club and he said to me backstage, “Once you start this job three nights, you can’t stop.” It was true. I’m still doing this. The first three days I was really lucky. Beginner’s luck. But after, I went to more center of the city. A big cabaret with a live band. And suddenly, I got booing. “Booooo! Oma! Go home!” And I cried and I don’t want to do it. But you know, they booked me three months ahead already. And because I said yes, I can’t stop. That’s why many girls run away from this burlesque entertainment world. But I was too chicken. And also I have a responsibility. If I don’t go, if I don’t show up at the cabaret, everybody has trouble. This is my story of how I started burlesque.

Photo by Verena Gremmer.
Photo by Verena Gremmer.

You were trapped! So this was piano clubs? Because there wasn’t really a burlesque scene at that time.

It was a gentlemen’s club. The history of burlesque in Japan began after 2nd World War. It’s burlesque style. Don’t show everything. But you know, in late ’50s, burlesque was getting more and more naked. And then burlesque went two ways. One is strip joint style and the other is more nightclub style – don’t show everything, more costume, more like modern burlesque. I chose cabaret nightclub burlesque scene. But still two kinds of burlesque. Like America.

Well, in America, the burlesque scene pretty much disappeared by the 1970s. It was only strip clubs.

Similar in Japan, also. Still a little cabaret and nightclub there, but the burlesque was not popular anymore. So only few places still doing this burlesque. Later, when the economy went down, the big cabarets also closed. All the live bands and burlesque dancers lost their jobs. But I couldn’t stop my burlesque career. Even though I hated it. I hated that I became a burlesque dancer.

Really? You?

Because I was chubby and I have a complex. And the booing. But I can’t give up this world. This yakuza world. Then I was thinking, how can I dance here? This is my body. I am chubby, not pretty, small not big boobies. How can I do this? They book me three months ahead always. And then I was thinking, okay, I’m going to make some comedy routines. I was 18 and some audience say, “Boo! Oma go home!” Because my make-up is terrible and my costume is from old lady. Okay, if they say I am old lady, I gonna make some old lady burlesque. But other burlesque dancer say, “Don’t do comedy. We have to be pretty.” But I can’t do it, look at me!

So I made a comedy routine in secret. I didn’t tell the other ladies. Then one night, at the big cabaret where they used to boo me, during a drum solo, I just turn, turn, turn, and then slip on the floor. Ehhhh! and suddenly the audience applauded. And I was like, “Oh, is it okay?” Then I found a way to survive in the burlesque world. I kept going as a comedian. And then I fell in love with burlesque. It’s fun!

But then I got bored being comedian. I changed my mind. I lost 10 kilograms and changed my costumes, changed my makeup, and debut again. And I got so many bookings. Suddenly, I am new. Then I realized, being a girl is nice, and wonderful. But I was still a virgin. I was chubby and too shy. Can’t be naked in front of boys.

Right, you can be naked in front of a hundred people but not just one.

I have to keep makeup on always. And also very similar to geisha world. Because they say, “Don’t make love. Don’t fall in love with boys.” Because your body is going to be more nasty and dirty. I believed that. But why they say that? Because many girls run away with boyfriends, that’s why.

Erochia Bamboo as the character Kitty von Tits at Hoochie Koo. Photo by Victoria Linchong.
Erochia Bamboo as the character Kitty von Tits at Hoochie Koo. Photo by Victoria Linchong.

And some time too, you were in a film about Einstürzende Neubauten?

Ah yes! It was long time ago. I was in Kyoto.

So how did they find you?

This is part of what I didn’t tell. I started burlesque because there was a butoh company there. I joined this butoh company. And Neubauten came to Japan and one movie director, they made this 1/2 Menschen video in Japan. And they want to use us. So they shoot in Tokyo. The members of Neubauten came to our studio in Kyoto too. I remember they were stinky. But Blixa didn’t come. So lucky him, I didn’t smell his stinky feet. But he’s a star. He doesn’t smell.

So this was all in Japan. And then you somehow ended up becoming international.

So when cabaret closed, I was looking for a place to perform. And through friends, I met a sex worker activist who asked me if I want to go to the sex worker conference in Taiwan. So I went because I was interested in Taiwan, not sex worker activists. There I met an American activist, Carol Leigh. I made a short film about the cabaret closing: behind the scenes and backstage and kitchen, the workers. I showed it to her and she invited me to San Francisco sex workers film festival. So this was the first time I performed in San Francisco. It was 2001 in the Castro at the Roxie Theater. I just thought people wanted big boobies and blonde and tall in America. So I was wondering how they would react to me. And I performed and people loved my show. Oh wow, okay, it’s fun! But at that time, I couldn’t speak English well. Carol, she’s great. Even though I couldn’t speak English, she say, “You’re amazing!” And I say, “You’re amazing!” Like, we have only these words: “You’re beautiful!” “You’re amazing!”

The same year, 9/11 happened. And Carol invited me to Tucson for another sex worker film festival. Flight ticket was so cheap and no one on airplane. I did a show there and after, Carol took me to the Exotic World Museum. Even though, I didn’t understand what it meant, “Exotic World”. I was surprised, it was full of burlesque history. Tempest Storm bra. Gypsy Rose Lee’s music score and costume. Even Marilyn Monroe’s costume! It was full of dust but amazing. At that time, I was the only burlesque dancer in Japan. Everybody quit the job and there were only strip joints. For me the Exotic World Museum was like a castle or treasure island. And then Dixie Evans [the curator] came back from this town and she told me there was a pageant every year. I asked her, “I am not American, can I come?” And she say, “Of course you can, darling!”

But the next year 2002, I couldn’t come because it’s difficult to go without a car. And Carol was busy and nobody wanted to go in middle of the desert. But 2003, my friend was really interested in my job, and he said, “Let’s go Chika!” And I won! I just wanted to see the people who loved burlesque. I didn’t care about the contest. But I won. So I am the first foreigner to join this contest. And also Asian.

Erochica Bamboo in 2003 at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Photo by Nell Campbell.
Erochica Bamboo in 2003 at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Photo by Nell Campbell.

And you were also pregnant at the Exotic World?

That was later. I started coming to United States a lot. Lucha Vavoom in Los Angeles booked me. Mexican lucha libre plus burlesque. So great. I started performing there. And I found my ex-husband there. And I moved to L.A. And I got pregnant. And I had a home birth. But before, I went to Exotic World. You know Japanese doctor say, “Don’t move.” And I said, “No, I’m a burlesque dancer!” So I don’t care what doctor say and I believe myself. I have this huge belly and I am on stage in Vegas. Hey baby, mommy is gonna shimmy shake!

But I had to leave America because my mother became very ill. And old. So I went back to Japan. Then I started Tokyo Tease Burlesque. It was a huge success. Three thousand a night. I can pay the band, the girls, everybody. I only book really good dancers. That doesn’t mean body shape. I think my point of view of burlesque is energy is the best. If a beginner has great energy, I really want to book her.

When was the first time you came to Berlin then?

Berlin, I came in 2002. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt had an event called Transit. Many contemporary dancers come to perform. Me and some Japanese drag queens made a nightclub. We did three night show there and I am only burlesque dancer. Others are drag queen or drag king. And then 2011, Fukishima disaster happen. I have a child so we have to run away from Japan. So I just brought three big suitcases full of my costumes. I forgot her underwear. But you know, kid’s underwear, we can buy everywhere. But costumes you can’t.

Is there anything you’re working on now?

I recently found out one guy who came to Berlin before 2nd World War and he saw many shows and revues. He went to Wintergarten and other cabaret and then he back to Japan and started burlesque. So I really want to find out more about this guy. And also, this is more old, in 1800s, one geisha came to Berlin to perform here. And she toured everywhere in Europe. I’m very interested in her, Sadayakko. Her house is in my hometown. At the end of her life, she died there. And I often go there but I didn’t know it was her house.

Wow, and you have all these projects. You’re touring Germany with Let’s Burlesque

This is German decadent cabaret meets Edith Piaf meets Tom Waits meets rock ‘n’ roll. So mixed but really original. We really want to do it in Berlin.

And HiHi GoGo?

Berlin when I came here, people didn’t know about ’60s go-go. Even when I try to explain to them, “Go-go is not lap dancing!” But they say, “Go-go is lap dancing! Something sexy sexy. I don’t want to book.” That’s why I start HiHi GoGo. But there are no girls wanting to join me because they don’t know what HiHi GoGo means. Like this! Like this! (She busts out some go-go moves.) And then Lou on the Rocks moved to Berlin and she want to do this. So we make a ‘60s crazy go-go dance team. And then Evilyn Frantic joined us. Because it’s funny, she looks almost Japanese. Something about Finnish similar to Japanese. I’m the oldest go-go dancer in Europe now! Oh my god, why I start this high energy go-go?

You’re amazing though, you have more energy than any person I know.

How to keep energy high. This is a technique. If people can get energy and throw energy, then you can get energy back. That’s why I never get tired. Do it!

Erochica Bamboo is performing at Hoochie Koo on Saturday, March 11th. Find out more on their website or Facebook event page. More about Erochica Bamboo is on her Facebook page.

Hoochie Koo poster by Micha K.
Hoochie Koo poster by Micha K.

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