Capitalism and Gay Life in China

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An essay in today’s China Daily, “Gays live a difficult life under social bias,” tells how, although life for gay people in China is quite difficult, things are getting better. It’s a very sympathetic look at the struggle that gay people face in a traditional society. It’s discreetly not mentioned, but the situation is infinitely preferable to the public executions to which gay people were sentenced in the old days. What’s missing from an otherwise interesting story is any explanation of why things have been changing in China. My friend Zhou Xiao (those of us who have difficulty pronouncing Chinese names call her “Kate”) told me in Shanghai in 1997 that she was convinced that “China will never go communist again.” I asked her why she was so sure and she announced that she (and her very patient husband) had already been in Shanghai for a week doing field research on on changing public attitudes in China and they had found that “Shanghai is just full of gay bars. And when the gay bars come in, they’re never going back to socialism!” In her discussions with customers, she said that she asked what had accounted for the change (that was before the laws were amended to eliminate criminal penalites for sexual contact among members of the same gender) and she said that the response was that the big step had been privatization of housing. Under socialism, housing was rationed and allocated by the state. Married couples were eligible to be allocated flats; unmarried people were not. So gay people (who had not been forced into phony marriages) had to live with their parents or in worker dormitories and couldn’t create households together. When housing was privatized, however, “landlords didn’t care if you were purple and had horns, if you were willing to pay.” A little bit of the profit motive swept away a great deal of irrationality, cruelty, and oppression.

Hat tip to Jude Blanchette.

UPDATE: The New York Times (req. simple registration) has a piece today on “A Chinese University Removes a Topic From the Closet.” (And no, I’m not generally a fan of “gay studies”— or black studies, or women’s studies — programs in universities, but I’m not opposed to courses in sociology, history, law, and the like that convey useful information at a properly academic level and in a suitably disinterested manner. All of those topics do deserve academic study, just not in specialized and ghettoized departments in which the faculty members spend most of their time slapping each other on the backs about how wonderfully liberating their “scholarship” is.)

Gay Bars in Shanghai - Nightlife in Gay Shanghai - Gay China

The Best Bars and Clubs in Gay Shanghai

In the not terribly distant future, we'll be talking about the Shanghai club scene the way we discuss Sydney, London, San Francisco, or any other major international destination. It's a matter of when, not if. For now, Shanghai has but a handful of gay hangouts, but just since 2006, the city's bar and club offerings have improved immensely. Replacing the slightly seedy, ubiquitously dark and smoky spaces of yore are a new breed of stylish, creatively designed bars and lounges catering to Shanghai's ever-growing, and ever-more-cosmopolitan gay crowd. What's the surest sign that Shanghai's gay scene is on the verge of exploding? You'll now see plenty of cool heteros as well as gays and lesbians at the top alternative hangouts.

Here's a primer on the burgeoning bar and club scene in gay Shanghai. For where to go in the Beijing (another city with a gay scene to watch, but one that's still at least two to three years behind Shanghai), see my article on Destination Beijing.

Many of Shanghai's gay bars are in the charming French Concession, west of the historic Old City and Bund areas, and south of the dynamic Jingan neighborhood. Most are along blocks either on or near the neighborhood's main east-west drag, Huaihai Zhong Lu. It's in this area that you'll find Shanghai's most glamorous gay nightspot, PinkHome (formerly just "Home"), which completed a massive and impressive makeover in March 2007. In fact, now PinkHome has blossomed into a full-on gay social compound, comprising a restaurant, boutique hotel, and a cavernous and pulsing nightclub bathed in colorful lighting and futuristic decor, and with a stable of top DJs spinning the latest dance music on a super-sonic sound system. Shanghai now officially has a gay nightclub to write home about. The hotel offers modern rooms with fairly standard furnishings at reasonable rates. PinkHome is at 18 Gaolan Road, between Ruijin Er Lu and Sinan Lu (just west of Fuxing Park and the former home of Sun Yat-sen).

Farther west in the French Concession, you'll find the intimate, arty, and decidedly stylish Shanghai Studio. You'll typically find a nice mix of cool locals, engaging expats, and gay Shanghai scene-makers in this underground bar - and it's literally below ground. You reach it down a flight of stairs, which leads through a mazelike hallway hung with intriguing art installations. You'll finally reach two groovy little lounges with mod bar stools and relaxing music at decibels that allow for conversation. Off of the main bar you'll find Manifesto, a slick and sexy gay menswear and undergear shop that carries a number of trendy imported lines. Many nights you'll find Manifesto's charming young owner, Kenneth Tan, in the bar. Shanghai Studio and Manifesto are at 1950 Huaihai Zhong Lu. As you approach walking west along Huaihai, turn right into the short driveway and walk to the back, where a sign will lead you to the doorway and stairs that descend into this one-of-a-king subterranean haunt.

Shanghai Studio is practically across the road from one of Shanghai's longest-running gay hangouts, Eddy's Bar, a laid-back neighborhood hangout that's less visually interesting than many of its newer competitors but is still a fun place to mingle with locals. It's an especially good place to kick off an evening of bar-hopping in the French Concession's little gay quarter.

A 10-minute cab ride east, you'll find Shanghai's closest gay bar to People's Park and the Bund, Frangipani, a narrow, dark space with a post-industrial look - metal bar tables with red candles, bare walls, and the dimmest possible lighting. Farther back you'll find a cozier split-level space with a mix of sofas and bar tables on each floor. Inexpensive appetizers are available from the kitchen, and the drinks won't set you back much either - there's a long menu of elixirs. Frangipani, which opened in 2006, is at 399 Da Gu Road, just west of the skyway overpass that runs along Chengdu Bei Road, between Chengdu and Shi Men Yi.

On weekends, an excellent gay clubbing option is Club Deep, which is down a rather discreet path on the eastern edge of Jingan Park, near the fabulous Citic shopping center (home to Jean Paul Gaultier, darling) and within walking distance of several hotels and shopping malls, including the gay-friendly (and super-cushy Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai). It can be a little hard to find Club Deep (it's next to a daycare center, of all places), whose official address is 1649 Nanjing Xi Lu, but late at night (when it really gets going), you'll typically be able to locate it simply by listening for the thumpin' club music blaring from within. On weekend evenings, this is one of the best gay spots in China for dancing, pulling in the same voguing vamps and shirtless party monsters you might expect to see in any major international city.

As Shanghai continues to develop into one of the world's great see-and-be-seen cities, many of its straight clubs and lounges are developing at least modest gay followings. These include the big-name spots along the Bund, such as M on the Bund and its giddy and touristy Glamour Bar (for a more dignified experience, skip Glamour Bar and sip cocktails in the low-keyed bar in the restaurant), and Bar Rouge, inside swanky Resto 18, where a fab terrace affords stunning views of the higher-than-heaven skyscrapers across the river in Pudong. Another cool spot is the bar at Kathleen's 5, which is perched enviably atop the Shanghai Art Museum's fifth-floor roof.

More resources on Gay Shangha

Gay Shanghai listingsAn entire site dedicated to travel in Gay ChinaA great story in Newsweek's China edition on the emergence of Gay Shanghai

gay china
The Night Cat by Rian Dundon.

Backstage at the ‘Night Cat’ gay bar and cabaret in Changsha, Hunan Province. She is a trans gender performer preparing to go onstage.

The ‘Night Cat’ is located in a converted theater on the second floor of a whole sale electronics market near the center of Changsha. It caters to a low-key crowd of mostly gay men, providing nightly performances and an inconspicuous atmosphere. Gays in China are for the most part a fringe group. Society at large still eyes homosexuality with suspicion and denial. Many people refuse to acknowledge its existence or simply blame it on negative western influence.

Changsha, China.

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