The 26-year-old has made her creative mark in multiple areas, from DJing and songwriting to fashion, beauty and installation art. But growing up in China, her unique personality and talents were not celebrated.
At 17, she dropped out of Maotanchang High School, in Lu’an, Anhui Province, a grueling test-prep boarding school, to head for the US. She took the English name “Alice” after British author Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And much like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole, Gao’s life changed drastically after she entered the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles.
Born in 1994 to an upper-middle class family in Bengbu, Anhui, Gao said that throughout her childhood she never met the expectations of her father, a glove factory owner who thought a girl should always be compliant and well-behaved.
Her father had been hoping for a boy so much that when Gao was born, he gave her a very masculine name - Longyu, which means “dragon” and “universe.”
“I hated the name a lot [growing up],” Gao said. “Every time a new teacher came to our class and said, ‘now let’s find a boy to answer the next question,’ my name was often called.”
As she grew older, Gao came to identify with how the name reflects her stubbornness, perseverance and unyielding nature.
Young Gao was curious about the world. She enjoyed hanging out in bookstores and libraries, devouring news about everything from music and fashion to social issues and foreign affairs. Her father discovered that no matter the topic, his daughter had something to say about it.
“My father detested me for that. I’m not exaggerating. He thought a girl shouldn’t be that way. In his eyes, a girl should stick to girly things, wear white shirts and blue trousers and behave well,” Gao told the reporter.
After Gao graduated from middle school in 2010, her father enrolled her at Maotanchang High School, a four-hour drive from home. A cram school with a reputation for churning out top scorers in China’s difficult national college entrance examinations, Maotanchang is notorious for strictly controlling every aspect of student life.
Gao’s father hoped the boarding school would help smooth her rough edges and direct her focus toward the exam.
At first, Gao did not resist. “I wasn’t afraid of hard work. If it was a tough trial that I had to endure, then I would take it on and say, ‘OK, try me,’” Gao said.
But her time at the school was tough. “That place tries to get rid of every speck of individuality and personality from a person and mold everyone into identical test-taking machines with only one purpose - score high on the test,” she said.
The school has been criticized in media as a test-prep factory for its military-like approach. Aside from meals and sleep, students face an 18-hour daily regimen of classes, exams and coursework. They are allowed only a few free hours on Sundays. All students wear uniforms.
One Sunday afternoon, Gao put on her favorite rainbow-striped tights and strolled on a street near campus. An instructor at the school spotted her and informed her teacher.
“My teacher humiliated me in front of the entire class. He called me a ‘slut’ or a ‘bitch.’ I can’t remember what word he used, but I’m pretty sure it was one of them. That cutting feeling of shame is etched into my memory,” Gao told NewsChina.
The incident was the final straw. Gao began looking for a way out.
“The only idea I had was to study abroad,” Gao said. “And once I made up my mind, I didn’t rest until I made it reality. After I decided to study abroad I’d think about how to make it happen, every second, every minute of every day.”