Newsweek Select, March 2007
They’re here, they’re queer, they’re Chinese
Story by Peijin Chen and Megan Shank (Shanghai)
Off a quiet Shanghai lane, China’s first gay multiplex is receiving its final touches.
For several months now, the club section of Pink Home has been pumping the beats and pulling in the punters, but the attached hotel and restaurant won’t be completed until the end of this month. That hasn’t prevented organizers from taking advanced reservations, however. Prospective Chinese guests from across the country have been slamming the phones.
“(It’s unique in that) you could party a whole weekend and never have to leave the building,” says Simon Adams, a British expatriate who masterminded the project with a gay Chinese partner Ricky Lu.
Originally, this French concession villa was known as Home Bar–one of Shanghai’s earliest and best-loved gay venues. Yet Adams and Lu felt the scene was changing and Shanghai was ready for something bigger and better. They rechristened the bar Pink Home and gave the place a facelift.
Despite its past and present challenges, the face of the Shanghai gay scene is changing too. Although Pink Home offers its patrons a place where pulsating club music, smoke and darkness conceal identities, head down a psychedelic neon corridor to a well-lit lounge and discover a group of more than 50 LGBT members emblazoned with “Hi, my name is” stickers chatting over wine and mojitos. But the scene wasn’t always this open.
In China, homosexuality once classified as “hooliganism,” wasn’t struck off criminal code until 1997 nor removed from the list of major psychological disorders until 2001. And before the emergence of nearly half a dozen gay venues in Shanghai in mid-2006, there were only a few old stalwarts–Kevin’s, Eddy’s, and later, Home Bar. These small nondescript bars attracted a regular crowd of those in the know. Tucked away in dark alleys, they would otherwise be easy to miss or to be mistaken for a regular hole-in-the wall. Lesbian hang-outs proved even more elusive. When Hannah Miller, a 27-year-old American expatriate, first came to Shanghai, the lesbian scene was next to nonexistent.
“There was only one bar, and it only had lesbian nights on Saturday,” Miller recalls.
In 2002, a gay or lesbian’s virtual reality was likewise constrained by the lack of accurate up-to-date information, says 26-year-old French expatriate Juliet(*1). Fortunately, today sites such as Utopia (utopia-asia.com/chinshan), Fridae (fridae.com), Shanghaiist (shanghaiist.com) and City Weekend (cityweekend.com.cn) provide lesbians and gays with the latest in queer events and listings. And the popularity of gay Chinese websites, such as Mollis (mollis.org) and gay blog networks such as GayBlog (gayblog.cn) have fostered a sense of community beyond the clubs. The online collective “Les in Shanghai,” a social group of mostly expatriate lesbians, has grown to 90 members, and the local Chinese group “Butterfly” uses SMS to organize regular Saturday night gatherings at various bars and restaurants.
In recent years, media has increasingly tackled sexuality and gender issues. Independent or underground Chinese films, such as “Fish and Elephant” and “Tong Zhi,” have chronicled gay subculture in Chinese cities. Popularity abounds for sexually ambiguous pop and movie stars–from the mannishly dressed soprano Han Hong to the carefully coiffed and powdered boys of the television hit “My Hero.” And Chinese voters across the country showed their support for untraditional gender identities by voting in the tomboyish Li Yichun and Zhou Bichang as two of three finalists in the hugely successful singing competition show, “Super Voice Girls.”
Zhou Dan, an openly gay lawyer in Shanghai, says the media has recently begun paying more attention to homosexuality, but he believes the renewed interest is due to China’s exponentially growing HIV-AIDS figures. According to state media reports, the official number of HIV infections grew a startling 27.5 percent in the last year. In a country where open discourse about sex is a touchy topic despite the increasing mobility of high-risk groups like male prostitutes (“Money Boys” or “MBs,” as they are called in China), some AIDS educators say outreach now is more important than ever.
The Chi Heng Foundation, a Hong Kong-based NGO, visits gay venues and establishments, such as bars and massage parlors, as well as “cruising” spots in the hopes of spreading better awareness about HIV-AIDS. Ah Guang, one of the Shanghai office’s two full-time workers, says despite their pavement pounding, there’s still a lot of ground to cover in Shanghai.
Fortunately, the center’s employees say, some problems are addressable via phone. In late 2006, the Shanghai office opened the first mainland Chinese gay and lesbian support hotline. Ah Guang says the service, which runs from seven to nine p.m., provides emotional and informational support. Phone counselors refrain from encouraging callers to make certain decisions, says Rager Shen, another full-time worker at the center.
“In the countryside, children’s marriage status is still so important,” Shen says. “I remember receiving a hotline call in which a guy told me, “If I don’t marry, my parents have told me they will kill themselves.’ We cannot tell these people what to do. We can only help them understand the possible consequences of both sides of a decision.”
Unlike AIDS, the psychological affliction of being queer is more difficult to quantify. High rates of depression and suicide within the young gay population may explain in part why the center receives eight to 11 calls on their one line each night, say staff members.
Xiao Yu, a 27-year-old lesbian who works an IT job during the week, volunteers her weekend nights in Chi Heng’s small office fielding calls from all over China on the toll-free hotline and taking meticulous notes. Xiao Yu draws on the experience contained in these notes, as well as those lessons from her own life, to help new callers make informed decisions–but some problems simply have no easy roads to resolution. Many of the calls Xiao Yu receives are from lesbians who are already in heterosexual marriages. The majority of gays and lesbians resign themselves to loveless or dishonest marriages because of traditional pressures regarding marriage and children, Xiao Yu says.
The most recent SMS-organized Butterfly party presents a typical case. Xiao Yang, 29, and Xiao Dong, 31, passionately clutch each other on the dance floor, but at 1am, as the party winds down, Xiao Yang sends her husband a text message to tell him she is on her way home.
“He will worry about me otherwise,” Xiao Yang, a petite woman with blue contact lenses says. “I don’t want him to worry because I never intended to hurt anyone.”
For this reason, she has kept Dong, her partner of five years, a secret from her husband, from her family, and from her child. For people like Yang, Saturday nights provide a precious escape.
Regarding the marriage question, opinions within the gay community remain divided.
Even as scholars such as Li Yinhe and He Dongping publicly argue for China to legalize some form of same-sex marriage, most homosexuals in China end up in a heterosexual partnership. Dylan Chen, a 22-year-old marketing student based in Shanghai doesn’t know whether he will get married, but he doesn’t believe same-sex marriage needs to be legalized. Sugar Shu, a 25-year-old bisexual (*2) bartender at Shanghai Studio, wants to have children.
“Other gay men tell that this way of thinking is very naIve,” Shu says.
Xiao Yu believes that because familial pressure remains great, in China it would be especially helpful to establish an international chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Some couples do face up to the fact that their marriage is a fraud, and when they need legal advice or assistance on how to go about the divorce, they visit Zhou.
“It’s not because I’m a better lawyer than the others,” says Zhou, “but because there are certain things that I understand better.”
In addition to keeping a queer identity hidden from family, there is additional pressure. Blackmail and extortion cases relating to closeted gays have made homosexuals in China even more wary. In many cases, gay men meet “friends” online, in gay chat rooms and websites who then lure the unsuspecting victim to hotels where they are “caught” and photographed. Extortionists use this “evidence” to blackmail the victim.
Chen says he has told about 90% of his close friends and acquaintance but none of his classmates, and Juliet came out in Shanghai, but only among other lesbians. Chen, Juliet and others say they fear becoming the subject of office gossip or even workplace discrimination. The don’t ask, don’t tell policy seems to be in full effect. In China, excluding Shanghai’s Zhou, the lawyer, and Coco Zhao, the gay internationally acclaimed jazz singer, there’s no precedent of openly queer public figures.
Nevertheless, the discourse of alternative sexualities has found refuge within the ivory tower of academia. China’s gay-friendly scholars and activists have long struggled to bring public attention to gay issues. Zhang Beichuan, trained as a dermatologist, wrote “Tongxing Ai” (“Homosexuality”) the first book on homosexuality in China in 1994, followed by writer Fang Gang’s “Tongxing lian zai zhongguo” (“Homosexuals in China”) in 1995. Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s premier schools, offered a graduate course on homosexuality and public health in 2003 and, in 2005, an undergraduate course on homosexuality that became so popular that the standing-room audience included many who weren’t even Fudan students.
Professor Sun Zhongxin, one of the teachers of the undergraduate course, believes this bespeaks of the freedom of the university setting. But Sun, who was trained as a sociologist and has done research on sexual orientation and identity, says that in China even the university setting’s freedom doesn’t yet lend itself to the full development of a queer studies program such as one might find in the West.
“There are not even real women’s studies programs in China” Sun says, “so something like queer studies, which involves sensitive issues like sex, will take even longer.”
In regards to legal studies, Zhou will soon publish a book, though most of it focuses on laws in other countries.
“Part of the rationale behind this book is to point out the relative lack of research here in China,” Zhou said.
If academic and legal research are lacking, then market research lags even farther behind. With venues such as Club Deep, Max Club, Frangipani, and Pink Home, the gay scene is moving from parks and dive bars to upscale clubs and international yuppie culture. Kenneth Tan, a 29-year-old Singaporean expatriate and owner of the men’s underwear store Manifesto, believes that ultimately, the gay service industry has to transcend the party and bar scene.
“Flip through any gay magazine and you will see gay financial services, gay weddings, and also you have big international brands that have gay icons endorse them,” says Tan. “I don’t see anything on the horizon in China that is not bar or party related.”
But to Coco Zhao there are some things money can’t buy. Prior to a recent show at, JZ, a local jazz club where he regularly performs, Newsweek Select asked Zhao if he believed the new profusion of gay bars and clubs was burgeoning evidence of an increasingly accepting society. Zhao expresses a cautious optimism about the changes he has seen in Shanghai during his thirteen years here, but points out a difference between what he called “hardware” and “software.”
“Hardware is what money can buy, like bars,” Zhao says.
If Shanghai aspires to be a global city, one thing it needs is the “software,” which Zhao defines as a culture of tolerance.
“The degree of any society’s development or civilization is measured by its level of tolerance,” Zhao says.
If Zhao’s thinking–that it is intangible concepts such as tolerance, rather than concrete evidence such as buildings that demonstrate a widening acceptance–is correct, then progress may also be witnessed on that front.
In the wee hours of the night at one of the city’s oldest gay bars, two customers, the manager and staff, Kevin You, 21, sit at the bar exchanging stories about the rich gay businessmen that frequent the place. You laughs at the lewd jokes and salacious stories, but unlike many of the customers he isn’t gay. However in the several months that he’s worked in this gay establishment, he says he’s realized that “all men (and women) have some kind of homosexual leanings, maybe 1%, maybe 5%–it’s just a matter of whether you discover it or not.”
With Megan Shank in Shanghai.
(*2 Sugar has since corrected us in that he is not specifically homosexual, but instead does not consider gender to be an issue when selecting a mate.)