Gay Times August 08 - Issue 359
Torch song: Gay Beijing
As crackdowns on the country’s gay clubs make headlines across the globe, one wonders whether China’s much-anticipated ‘coming out party’ – the 2008 Beijing Olympics – will be anything but. GT gives gay Beijing a sporting chance…
In March 2008, web-feeds around the globe were aflame with news of a ‘gay crackdown in China.’ Sauced with palpitating commentary from gay activists (mainly based in the West), reports cited police swoops on two Beijing bathhouses and raids of major gay nightclubs in Beijing and Shanghai (March 9th), interrogations in gay ‘cruisey park’ Dong Dan in the east of Beijing (March 17th), police bids to snare male sex workers by posting fake responses to adverts on Beijing Tongzhi LGBT website, and ID raids on the homes of two Beijing HIV activists and a gay website editor (March 21st).
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To a world obsessed with rising China, and its commingling of breakneck capitalism with rigorous government control, the news was simply more grist to the clattering media mill. China’s famously reactionary communist government cracking down on fringe groups in the wake of Tibet Olympic torch protests? Par for the course, surely, in a country where the government has a hand in everything: from the number of children its citizens produce to the day its capital city’s central heating cranks up for winter and even – in a flamboyantly Orwellian twist – when it rains (the government seeds the Beijing clouds when sandstorm debris and pollution reach intolerable levels).
“It makes me very angry that gay activists, who know nothing about China, and don’t even live here, report that the Chinese government is trying to stamp out gay culture.” Edmund C is one of the co-owners of Destination, the aircraft-hangar sized, industrially styled nightclub that’s the pivot of gay Beijing. It occupies a prominent spot on the buzzing nightlife strip of Gongti Xilu in the shade of the gleaming new ‘bird’s nest’ Beijing National Stadium. Today, the ordinarily sanguine Hong Konger’s spectacles glint with ire. “It’s misrepresentation. Our club was raided, but it was raided because the government had a directive against large crowds in open spaces – they are worried about crowd control and fire regulations. Yes, they might close us for the Olympics but, then, they might close all nightclubs.”
As with much in China, it’s near impossible to unfurl fact from government-line fiction in the matter of China’s official sanction, or otherwise, of its blossoming gay scene. This, after all, is a country in which national pride is bottle-fed from birth, and the world media are kept on a choking rein by the ‘great firewall of China’ (the BBC website, for example, is often blocked for days at a time) – factors that make it rare for Chinese nationals to go on the record criticising their government. Yet, of course, our perspective is necessarily refracted by the prism through which we in the West view China: extreme, inscrutable, dismissive of human rights…. different. Spend a night out on the town with the cute gay boys of Beijing, and you’ll soon realise that, in many ways, boys who like boys – whatever their longitude and latitude – will be boys….
“In the West, you’re a top or a bottom,” says LB with a sprinting laugh, grasping his Corona beer by the scruff of the bottleneck as he leans on the bar of Destination’s powercut-dark dance room, “in China, it’s the same, but we say you’re a ‘1’ or a ‘O’. My friend here, Guan, is a ‘0.5’, that’s to say, something in between.” Guan, too, smiles. The duo – LB, the irrepressibly happy southerner who looks at least a decade younger that his 37 years (a fact his many Western boyfriends love), and Guan, a 26-year-old with the smooth, high forehead typical of Chinese from the north-eastern provinces – are party partners on the Beijing scene. LB takes a frothy swig and continues to fill me in on the tribes of gay Beijing. “In Singapore, gay guys go to health clubs a lot. But here, it’s only just getting so that gay guys are very into their bodies. The muscle guys that you see over there… we call them the King Kong Barbies.”
By many measures, gay culture in China has a prouder, and more progressive, lineage than its Western counterpart. Same-sex relationships have been documented in China since the Zhou period (1100-256 BC). In official records of the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), for example, 10 emperors are listed with the names of their male lovers. Through successive dynasties homosexual expression was accepted, so long as it was an addendum to the Confucian duty to marry and perpetuate the family name. The only blister on this smooth timeline was 1740’s official decree outlawing homosexual activities. However, as the decree was largely the result of the influence of Western Christian missionaries, it was roundly ignored by a Chinese populace who didn’t subscribe to their interlopers’ trendy view of ‘shamefulness’.
Prospects for gay Chinese, however, took a grim turn under Communist rule. During Mao Zedong’s eviscerating Cultural Revolution, homosexuality came to be seen as ‘disruptive to the social order’, and the persecution of gays was sanctioned by the state. Happily, this is a situation that has improved dramatically over the past decade, as control loosens and China kicks its door ajar to foreign influences under the economic reforms instigated by Deng Xiaopeng (with his rallying cry: “Poverty is not socialism”). The watershed came in 2002, when the government rescinded its somewhat bizarre 1989 edict describing homosexuality as a ‘psychological disorder’. Today, although some gay men do marry and run parallel lives to better fit the iron maiden of social acceptability, this is increasingly a practice that defined their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
“There is a huge gap in thinking between my generation and my parents’ generation,” says LB later, as Xtina’s ululations pulse through an increasingly sweat-drenched Destination. “Our country underwent 100 years of social change in a few decades, so it’s almost as if the two generations are from different planets. My parents know I’m gay, but they find it hard to accept and they never talked about their emotions. I’m lucky in some ways, though, because I’m not an only child. Many of my generation are products of the one-child policy, so the pressure on them to get married and have children to continue the family line – it’s huge.” Intriguingly to Western thinkers schooled in attributing homosexuality to the inexorable forces of nature, LB and Guan subscribe to the nurture argument when considering why a generation of gay men has exploded, arms aloft, onto China’s club podiums in the past decade. “The one-child policy, I think it spoilt a lot of us. If it didn’t create more gay guys, it certainly turned them into the type of gay guys you see in Shanghai – self-assured, a little bit arrogant.”
Big-city gay culture, of course, offers the best stage for this peacock parade of young gay boys strutting their stuff, but what about small-town gay culture? If Western reports have it, escaping the ambit of China’s buoyant big cities is like stepping back three decades to a repressed climate of closeted men and miserable, repressed teens. “It’s certainly different when you leave the cities,” says Guan, “but not in the way you think. The scene is just old-fashioned and a little seedy – made to cater to the extreme fantasies of men who are in the closet. As an example, my home city is the coldest in China, it often gets to minus 20 in winter – so the gay scene there is all about saunas. I went to one with my first boyfriend when I was 19, and it was crazy – full of Chinese lady-boys. Everyone just arrived, stripped off and got on the stage to have sex. Not that classy.” LB was surprised at the development of the gay scene when, earlier this year, he returned to his hometown of Nanning for the annual Chinese New Year celebrations: “I discovered a drag bar right on the street where I live, which was really surprising – all these Chinese lady-boys… crazy.”
Lady-boy culture, of course, is an influence from Thailand, the indubitable nexus of gay Asia. How do Guan and LB think the Chinese scene compares to its sequin-bedizened South-East Asian cousin? “Bangkok is definitely the gay capital of Asia: boys there are very open and very comfortable about being gay. They’ll shout out, ‘I love you, I love you’ if they like the way you look. And, of course, the Thai boys are soooo cute. Japanese love the Thai boys, Koreans love them, we love them. And, you know, as party boys, they’re into everything – they have no limits.” Guan rolls his eyes in agreement and continues. “Thai boys are very direct. If a Chinese boy is into you, he’ll just glance or give you some eye candy. It’s very subtle… it drives you mad sometimes.”
Do the scenes differ between Chinese cities? “Definitely,” says LB. “In Shenzhen [the modern city in the south of China that’s become a playground to Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen] the scene is very developed; there’s a large gay area. Shanghai is more metro and much more image-orientated. The guys there look good, but the scene is very much about drugs, so they have more of a problem with the police [seminal Shanghai gay club The Dip was closed down last year after a drugs raid].” And Beijing? “In some ways it’s more conservative,” says LB, “but it’s the best. It has the style nights on Thursdays at LAN club – very glitzy, very attitude. And, you know, it has Destination,” LB waves his hands around in a sweeping arc to illustrate the point.
How do Western boys cut it on the Chinese gay scene? Glancing around, I take in a smattering of lumbering white forms, largely the grizzled expat brigade out for kicks. LB admits to being a connoisseur of Western men. “Western boys are very cute… I luuurve the blue eyes. I was with an Aussie boy for a long time – although it did start to annoy me that he checked other boys out all the time. Western boys are fun because they dirty-dance a lot. Chinese are more conservative. The last Chinese boyfriend I had was very sweet, but he wanted to be monogamous. He bored me in the end.” What does Guan think of Western boys? “British, I think, are very gentle and very stylish. They’re like the Americans in the way they behave. Spanish and Italian are different entirely; they carry themselves in a different way.”
Western boys also distinguish themselves, Guan tells me, by making incorrect assumptions about the Asian gay scene, based on their experiences back home. “I had a friend visiting from Paris a few months ago,” he says, “and because in Paris so many of the hairdressers are gay, he thought it would be the case here in Beijing. But that is most definitely not the case here!” But, in many ways, the scenes are melding under the homogenising influences of globalisation. “You get many gay Chinese who’ve spent time in the United States, say, and they bring their ideas back with them. We call the American-born Chinese the ABCs, or the bananas – yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.”
Xtina segues into the hissing synth-kick of an early Madonna as the dancefloor plumps out with Beijing’s boy tribes: the trilby-hat sporting, modish cool boys; the King Kong Barbies, muscles glistening like oiled walnuts; the newbies, their eyes a mile-wide, taking in this newly discovered Shangri-La. China is modernising with a brute force, tearing the fabric of society at its seams as it stretches over the chasm separating economic progress from societal behaviours. But the Chinese gay community is racing to catch up to this brave new world. Or dancing, to the strains of Xtina…
Words Sally Howard