(Updated March 2006)
What are the chances of unexpectedly arriving in a second rate Chinese city (of only seven million) and accidentally finding a hotel across the street from a gay cruise park? Welcome to Wuhan, five hundred miles west of Shanghai.
We never heard of Wuhan until a week before we flew to China to sail down the Yangtze River. Three days later down river, our boat anchored along the wharves of this smoggy city where we virtually threw a dart at our guidebook to find a hotel. Two hours later we had checked in, showered, dressed and devoured another meal of rice, veggies, tofu and chicken (sitting a few yards from the live-snake cages) and were out on an avenue of intense traffic for an evening stroll.
Small Town Scene
“Let’s go for a walk in that nice park there,” I suggested. The eight p.m. muted light allowed us to soon realize this was not an ordinary mom-and-pop park. A few single men sat along stone walls, some strolled in pairs, others furtively yet obviously cruised us as some exotic delicacy–(caucasias delecti?).
We pretended to be cool and walked the length of the park, the sky dimming, figures disappearing down bushy paths and others moving past us with sidelong glances. As we returned to the hotel we stepped up our pace to shake off a final persistent suitor. It must be frustrating to be attracted to westerners in a place like this, I thought, since few tourists stay overnight here after their Yangtze cruises.
Big City Scene
Over the next few days, the queer scene improved considerably after flying to Beijing and Shanghai. If there is a bright future to the gay scene in China, it’s definitely happening in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and especially Hong Kong. When we called our friend Howie in Beijing for dinner he showed up with six other friends, collecting around a large table heaped with unpronounceable steamy dishes.
Most of these guys sported cell phones, beepers, western educations and fluent English. For two hours we swapped boyfriend stories, opinions about politics, careers moves, gay cruise places, food, police tactics, sex with foreigners–and mothers (they always know!)
These guys were unusual, not just for being gay but for their prosperity, education and confidence. And, perhaps for the first time in Chinese history, they also stood on the brink of choosing their own destinies.
Big Country–Big Changes
Few countries have undergone more rapid change in recent years than China. To be sure, most of the country is impoverished and third world. Poorly educated peasants and farmers eke out a meager subsistence on less than $100 a month.
In sharp contrast, the bold and brassy future has already arrived downtown, inhabited by young, bright and aggressive men and women, including many lesbigays. Armed with foreign diplomas, English skills and guppie (gay yuppie) attitudes, they are fully embracing the new enterprise of China. Prosperity and self-determination are now the call words for the new generation here.
I asked why things have changed recently. “The government has better things to do, like make money,” said Zhen, a gregarious entrepreneur who recently started his own import business. “Money is now the most important thing for them, not harassing people. They have all these millions of people out of work from the Communist factories…. Chasing us does not give them jobs!”
This view was echoed by Gary, a jeans-clad salesman for a Danish clothing company and the most outspoken of the group: “The government is not more lenient now; but before people wanted to be good Communists and spy on each other, now they just want to make money. It has changed everything.”
Their comments were similar to the words of activist Wan Yan Hai who recently said: “The change in the societal attitude toward gays and lesbians is closely related to…the economic advancement and expansion of political space for citizens. This helps the Chinese gay and lesbian community to organize for social, cultural, and educational activities.”
Although financial independence is still uncommon in China most of these men enjoyed freedom of movement from heavy traditional family expectations. Two of them actually had their own places to live, however modest. Domestic privacy is a highly desired goal since it opens the
opportunity for independence and intimate relationships.
Our host Howie reminded us that caution is still a watchword for gays in China; being able to pass in public is crucial to social survival at this time. In the past there was great risk of arrest; more recently there has been an easing of police harassment with few arrests in the parks and bars although there is still a threat of humiliation or exposure if caught in questionable circumstances. (The recent Chinese film “East Palace, West Palace’ graphically depicts police hostility and gay humiliation.)
We were told that homophobia in China does not take the same aggressive form as in the west. Among working class folks, attacking a gay person is almost unheard of. “They may be surprised and confused by it and they will usually just walk away and ignore you. They won’t try to harm you because it’s not their business.
Also, most Chinese people don’t know what homosexuality is, so they don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Howie, who is out to his family. Another mediating factor is the absence of strong religious influence in China. Communism is a secular social system that demands outward conformity of behavior and imposes less moral evaluation on personal character than religion does. Lacking the virtue/sin debate and the emotional fervor that accompanies rigid beliefs, it’s rare to find violent gay bashing.
In Shanghai, another dinner with friends reaffirmed much of what we learned in Beijing. Bar hopping there afterwards, we visited a new venue called ‘Feeling Bar’ where we were welcomed by one of the owners, Thomas. He and his partner Eddie have been together for ten years and are Shanghai’s most out couple. Our host Stephen said they are very courageous. They own and operate another venue ‘Tree Bar’. Once or twice a month there are ‘costume’ parties at the bars when some patrons show up in drag. (Tree Bar has since closed and reopened in another location.)
At ‘Bluestone’, a busier and smokier bar than Feeling, everyone appeared to be having a relaxed, bubbly and friendly time. Artfully provocative pictures of men dotted the walls. The music was not loud and people could talk. Philip, the owner, dressed in a tank top and fashionable trousers welcomed us with open arms escorting us to a table. Over cokes and beers he told us he was opening a new business at a larger location with a disco as well as bar. He didn’t expect any trouble: “the authorities want you to make much money as long as you can; as long as it is clean–no drugs or sex.”
The fragile peace between gays and the police was briefly strained a month later when President Clinton’s visit to China prompted a three-day closure of Thomas’ two bars by the Public Security Bureau which claimed Clinton would be attending a party in the area. Philip’s new bar ‘Asia Blue’, however, opened on schedule and was not affected by the security efforts.
In the past few years, homosexuality has been increasingly featured in books, radio programs, magazines, stage drama and films. Even though the government may dislike or attempt to suppress the representation of homosexuality, grass roots advocacy has urged the topic onto the social stage in China.
‘Hope’ magazine is a mainstream magazine by Guang Dong Women’s Association (which is a part of the government). The issue of June 1998 published twenty-one pages of articles on gay issues. Most of the articles were positive, according to our friend Jason in Shanghai. The magazine is one of the most popular magazines among young people with its primary target of young girls as it focuses on fashion, jewelry, music, romance and movies.
A second, less well-known new magazine is ‘Friends’ which has no pictures but focuses on homosexuality: love, coming out, family problems
and self-acceptance . It was started in February 1998.
In Shanghai, a professor, Li Dailin, sponsors a talk show program on Shanghai Radio which has been educational and helpful for people in Shanghai. His public position on the radio is that homosexuality is just another life style and should not be discriminated against. There is also a call-in session during his program.
From Shanghai, a friend wrote: “The radio station is run by the government. (no private media is allowed in China.) Most audiences enjoy the program because they can know more about sex, which is actually not easy in China. In Shanghai, I believe most people have a very open attitude towards homosexuality. A friend of mine just came out to his parents. And his parents even invited his boyfriend home to dinner.”
(In September of 1999, Professor Dailin opened China’s first and only ‘sex museum’–The Shanghai Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture. Unfortunately, Li’s open mind appears to have closed somewhat; he displays one ambiguous “homosexual” artifact in the section labeled ‘Unusual Sexual Behavior’.
In the fall of 1997, a small but remarkable debate occurred in the pages of the Zhejiang Province Mental Health Institute journal which is distributed to professionals as well as the public. The issue openly debated depathologizing homosexuality. It was the first time in China that sexual orientation was addressed in such a widely public forum. The contributors were doctors and scholars who held opposing opinions about the condition of homosexuality and its place in society.
Over dinner in Shanghai, another friend Jason related a story about his friend who recently went to a Chinese doctor specializing in sexual problems. With some hesitation, the friend revealed he was gay and wanted some help to change. Surprisingly, the doctor did not urge the patient into some lethal reconstructive program, but rather counseled him wisely suggesting that a gay person does not have to change; rather, he should consider a more honest way to face the truth about himself. We all agreed this was another sign of healthy change for China, although it was not likely a common therapeutic view.
Not since the Communist takeover in 1949 has so much information been generally available to the people in China in all media forms. Thousands of Chinese are now using the Internet. Despite attempts by the authorities to block web sites, China’s users find a way around them. The Net has quickly become a major channel for gay contact. Along with its virtual access to international sites, China’s gays are accessing each other in unprecedented numbers. (See links)
At one Internet ‘cafe’ I visited in Shanghai, all twenty terminals were busy with young men cybering away. In Xi’an, the city of the terra cotta warriors, a large banner hung across a central building: “Internet Club–Join Now”. (In 2000, there were numerous trendy Internet cafes and shops across Shanghai, including one in the grand new library.)
In March of 1998 the Southern Daily newspaper, printed an article entitled “If Society Were Tolerant”, discussing a survey of gay men in all 30 of China’s provinces. The survey was conducted by Dr. Zhang Beichuan (who is also the editor of ‘Friends’ magazine). The preliminary conclusions were that loving relationships between people of the same sex is not rare in modern China and that lesbigay subculture exists all over the country.
The news report ended with an appeal by the reporter, “If more people can understand the nature of life, expand the space for life, improve the quality of life, enrich the substance of life, all of this would help society as a whole to establish a harmonious and beautiful living space.”
From Wuhan to Shanghai, there are innovative people and places which are able to take advantage of the ‘new China’ in the throws of economic and social reform. Quietly but persistently their presence is being seen and heard. As the nineties were the decade of ‘coming out’ in the West, it seems China’s lesbigays may well see their place in the sun during the next generation.