Living the Good-Enough Life
by Richard Ammon
impressive images of central Shanghai today are its architectural
grandeur and its material abundance. It looks and feels big, with its
14 million people, its great river harbor, towering sleek skyscrapers,
countless oldtown lanes, immense new airport, squeaky-clean subway and
an impressive new library. The central Peoples Square is a cardiac
throb of life, with museums, theatres and fountains; across town
the enormous Everbright Convention Center hosts a stream of industrious
exhibitions. Shanghai is very busy, very modern, wired and prosperous.
of this throb is the modern urban Chinese gay community. Although LesBiGays
are virtually invisible in public, it's only part of the reality.
Measured by western standards of activism, parades, TV and film, civil
unions, and HIV organizations, gay China is nowhere to be seen.
external appearances are not the only measure of gay life in
urban China today. Recently I sat with a group of gay Chinese friends
at a large dining table, flooded with food, in a private dining room
of an upscale hotel overlooking the entire harbor of Shanghai (the Bund).
The view is magical, spectacularly Disney, a glittering display with
a million city lights reflected in the busy churning waters of the dark
the nine men gathered around, six were coupled; five worked for international
corporations; three owned their own apartments; six have traveled abroad;
and all carried cell phones. The talk ranged from food to economics,
job descriptions to relationships, gay bars in Shanghai to the best
bakeries in town.
topics are not what I remember most. Most memorable was the easy ambiance
of the evening. The laughing, the playfulness among caring friends,
the relaxed manner, the campy comments aimed at each other and at one
of the cute waiters (who spoke no English). This was a group of men
in their twenties and thirties living a lifestyle unimagined fifteen
years ago in Communist China. They are out in the full light
of this megalopolis, no longer confined to furtive alleys, seedy dark
parks or badgered by police harassment. These gay yuppies ('guppies')
are the faces, the voices and the lifestyle of today's (and tomorrow's)
gay middle class Chinese.
unlike the gay west with confident and strident sounds in its public
march toward equal rights, the collective Chinese voice is, for now,
a muted intimate voice, heard mostly among such friends who keep
close company while they lead industrious lives, often as fulfilled as
It could be said these glowing descriptions ignore the
heavy reality of Communist rejection of homosexuality.
There is no permission for the formation of any public
or private gay organizations, and for a very long time
there was no acknowledgment from the medical community
that sexual orientation had valid variations. Except
for one newsletter, obliquely called "Friends" (which
never uses the words 'gay' or 'homosexuality') there
are no gay publications for the entire LesBiGay
population throughout China. Even the respected
Exhibition for Chinese Ancient Sex Culture (the 'Sex
Museum') in downtown Shanghai relegates homosexuality
to a single, rather ambiguous display in its "Unusual
Sexual Behavior" section. However, in a major change
of medical policy, psychiatrists in China, in June of
2001, decided to stop classifying homosexuality as a
mental disease. The Chinese Psychiatric Association
dropped all references to homosexuality as a
pathological condition. (For further information, see
the News Reports listed under gay China at
is China. Contradiction and change infuse its lifestream at the
dawn of this new century. Despite such official resistance, I read a
story in the English language newspaper, 'China Daily' about
the upcoming Gay Games in Sydney in 2002. The article focused
on the fact the Games expect to draw more athletes than the regular
Olympics did in Sydney in 2000.
around town are several (quiet) gay bars and clubs. I had dinner
at "Kevin's at Vogue" off Hengshan Road and a drink at "Eddie's"
at the fabulous Grand Hyatt. Both were fashionably designed and were
patronized by guppie clients sitting around chatting in
subdued voices with soft Sino-pop music in the background.
dancing and discos, a friend sent me this comment recently: "There
has been an all-gay ballroom dancing room in Shanghai for some time.
For some uncertain
reasons, (maybe the organizer's social status, or the income level of
customers) it caters to working class (low-income) gays. The organizer
usually rents a 'sleazy' dancing place located in an unpopular area
(for low rent), and charges very little for admission -- only 5 yuan (60
cents) which includes a cup of tea."
higher class gay people with better incomes, there are at least two
mixed disco bars. One is "Real Love," which has been popular for
quite a few years, on Hengshan Road. The other is "Park 97" it
has become popular more recently."
two places have not been harassed by police so far, perhaps because
they are mixed. However, similar bars in the past have received demands
from police to be shut down, for reasons not associated with gayness,
but rather for drugs or prostitution."
scene at both discos is very active in a gay/straight social way.
They are very well lit and decorated with nice atmosphere. There are
many Chinese young people, and quite a few expatriates. Straight people
are generally open-minded about the gays and lesbians there.
However, you don't get to see gays very intimately there -- they just
dance there. The charges are pretty expensive, about USD$5 for a drink."
reveals that gay China today is reasonably alive. But it is not a
public movement; it is, rather, a vast network of friends and contacts
throughout the country in frequent and abundant communication with one
another. There is not a major or minor city where these networks
don't extend. Friends are everywhere. Connecting them now are the
invisible frequencies of cell phones and the Internet -- which also
connects them beyond China to companions abroad as well.
I left home, I had e-mailed a friend whose uncle lived in Shanghai.
A day later I received the uncle's e-mail address from my friend. I
then sent a note to 'Uncle Fang,' and within a week I had an invitation
to join him for dinner after I arrived. That same day I logged on to
gaychina.com to see news and personal ads written mostly by gay
Chinese looking to hook up with other Chinese guys or foreigners. This
site is one of a number of sites, some of which are in Chinese some
in English. A burgeoning virtual community is happening daily.
paranoid government censors are not asleep. It's not unusual
to log on to such a Web site one day and then try again the next, only
to see that it can't be found. So a different one starts up in a game
of cyber cat-and-mouse.
Communists and Queers
such annoyances, a community of like-minded souls forms itself over
time. Given natural sexual attraction, economic opportunity, high-tech
communication and gradual erosion of the edgy Communist system, a queer
community is arising. Chinese LesBiGays here will coalesce in
the not-too-distant future. They will be apolitical at first,
yet clearly pushing the cranky old system for some recognition, respect
and equality within their ancient culture.
movement will likely come about with far less violence than the
gay community has faced in the West. The difference is religion --
the lack of it. For the past 60 years, China has been stripped of it
religions, mainly Buddhism (although the restraints have now loosened),
but more significantly, it has forbidden the spread of Bible-based and
Koran-based religions which inject their minions with distorted dogma
about sexual orientation.
there has been cultural opposition to homosexuality in China, especially
in the past 60 years, but much of this has emerged out of passive
and fearful ignorance rather than aggressive legal/religious intolerance.
For all the ills that Communism has wrought on this country, it's ironic
that stripping the country of religion now leaves China with less
'self-righteous' fanaticism against homosexuality than other highly
religionized cultures such as the USA or Saudi Arabia.
will soon be in charge of China, not the Communist Party. During my
visit to the northeast cities of Harbin, Dalian, Qingdao, as well as
Beijing and Shanghai, it became clear that China is heading quickly
down a fast and slippery course into economic freefall, for which
the government is unprepared and unable to control. The prosperity
of these cities -- reflected in new highways, sleek skyscrapers, SUVs,
cell phones, an infinity of commercial goods, vast blocks of upscale
apartments -- is the tip of an iceberg that's getting bigger by
the month. In each of these cities there are bloated shopping centers,
expanding suburbs and roads, new airports, modern buses, glass and granite
hotels patronized by an emerging middle class which is far outstripping
the life quality of the bigger and poorer populations of rural China.
side of this prosperity, as reported in Asia Week, is that much of this
new commerce involves illegal manufacturing and trade -- counterfeiting
name brands and pirating patented products sold all across Asia.)
small slice of the
gay 'underlife' of this iceberg was partially
depicted in the 1998 film East Palace, West Palace. This grim
black and white film tells the story of an alienated gay hustler and
his anxiously depressed captor, a bullying and emotionally rigid policeman
who flirts semiconsciously with his sexy captive. It is a
grim scenario of erotic secrecy, shame, and humiliation focused
on a gay character who lives outside the privileges of wealth and education.
Like so many disenfranchised and impoverished peasants, including
gays from the countryside, he is hobbled by China's restrictive work
permit regulations that require documents of permission to work
in the cities -- a feudal and unfair method of keeping provincial workers
from swamping the job markets in the cities.
gays -- and straights -- nevertheless sneak into Shanghai from the
hinterlands without much education seeking work as laborers in construction
or in the food industry. Their only hope for sexual intimacy is an occasional
furtive quickie; they usually know nothing about gay relationships or
gay camaraderie. Others, more street savvy, come to the city to offer
their hides as money boys where job security and quality of life,
like dreams, are mere whispers and shadows.
on benches in the early evening near the glowing Shanghai Museum, the
'boys' are all the more poignant for their impoverished sex appeal.
Such underprivilege is felt more sharply among the hustle and
bustle of fashionable, money-shuffling Shanghai. Poverty and sex have
always traveled and travailed closely together. Provincial gay life
in China is a very different story than modern urban life; for now
it is a sad tale with little hope or redemption.
A Modern Gay Love Story
Jason and I approached Mr. Chang's restaurant along a
narrow alley squeezed between old Shanghai buildings left over from
the European days when opium was the prize commodity. Just off Hengshan
Road with its long rows of poplar trees overhanging the busy traffic,
trendy cafes and neon-framed clubs. Chang's is set back in an anonymous
alley that leads to the bright lights and bevel glass doors of the popular
restaurant. Jason and I sat in one of several dining rooms sorting through
a menu with a hundred or more items ranging from fried chicken
feet to jelly-fish heads, but he mercifully selected half a dozen less
exotic delicacies for dinner.
is very fluent in English, and can delineate the subtle aspects of relationships
and life which gay men in modern Shanghai experience daily. This particular
evening he is pleased and feels especially grateful because he has found
a loving relationship after years of wondering and looking. "I
am very happy that Stan and I get along so well. It has long been my
dream to find a man who offers back what I give." I agree with
him. Jason is a caring person who has extended his warmth and kindness
each time we have met.
Stan through a friend and both sensed in each other a lack of 'attitude'
or posturing so common in public gay bars and clubs. They both felt
at ease with each other; there was no devious or manipulative effort.
"He treats me with such gentleness. He is intelligent and listens
well. He is sensitive to others who are poorer than he is -- and I think
he is so handsome," Jason explains as his dark eyes look up trying
to capture in words the elusive elements of romance.
As he spoke,
I thought, this is the new heart of gay China -- two men in love
with each other and realistically expecting a future of fused dreams.
They are not alone in this vision: several of their friends have succeeded
in holding together love relationships for years.
parents know you are gay?" I asked.
China we have what you call 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he replied. "My
family knows, but they don't talk about it with me. My mother has said
she wants me to be happy, and I think that's her way of saying
she knows. But I still have to be careful. In China, gossip about
a person's family is the worst punishment -- worse than violence.
I would never want to embarrass them with my sexuality...but we're
still close and I see them every week.
"Does Stan's family know he is gay?"
told his sister and his sister told his mother. His father probably
knows, but won't say anything to Stan. He loves Stan and knows that he's
a good son, and appreciates the respect he shows. Stan's mother said
she only wants Stan to be 'safe and natural'. I think she meant
that he shouldn't dress or act in an extravagant manner. It's probably
some stereotype she has about gays from TV. Stan and I visit his family
every other week, so I bring gifts for his parents...I heard they like
me and think I'm a 'good catch' for him!"
Stan's relationship also raises an important issue that influences
their long-term potential: class. Stan works six days a week in a restaurant.
He has no high school diploma and earns about US$250 a month. He doesn't
mind this modest work life, and has little desire to aspire to
a higher 'career'. On the other hand, Jason works five days a week for
a multinational corporation, travels abroad, has a college degree and
intends to get an MBA; he earns more than four times Stan's salary,
a very good wage in modern China.
potential problem is silent but forceful: in China there are distinct
economic divisions among the working public. Low, middle, and upper
classes are real, despite three generations of supposed egalitarian
Communism that should have leveled the field. (It never did, since power
is a corrupting force and the Communist leaders still live like princes.)
the sweeping economic changes churning among (some of) China's
billion-plus masses, class distinctions have become even more pronounced;
there are now more princes and a lot more paupers -- and the distinctions
are even more evident now.
evident to Jason when he first introduced Stan to his friends
one evening for dinner. It was the first time Stan the waiter had met
this circle of college-educated, career-track professionals with hefty
around the table were a doctor, dentist, journalist, travel agent,
an executive-level employment consultant and a marketing supervisor.
Strangely, even among these loving friends, Jason and Stan felt
a slight uneasiness -- even though everyone was cordial and friendly.
A few days later, Jason noticed that no one said anything to him afterwards
about Stan. No playful kidding about Stan's good looks. No campy gossip
about their budding romance. Their silence seemed to speak of an unexpressed -- and
very likely unintended -- attitude toward this working class lover.
silence can work both ways: it can discern and divide
but it can also leave open a door of possibility for movement
in ideas and feelings. None of the friends disliked Stan, and he was
polite and friendly toward them. They were also very aware that their
dear friend Jason had wanted a relationship so they expressed sincere
happiness for him and Stan, at least during that evening together.
subsequent months, Jason reported, "most
of my friends have changed their reactions as they see how happy we
is realistic about the future, and he expressed some of his own doubts.
Stan is not interested in career-track corporate life. His ambitions
lie within his own hands-on efforts and experience as a food industry
worker. He will always earn considerably less than Jason, and the relationship
will always be unbalanced financially. To complicate matters, Jason
is considering the possibility of immigrating to Canada some
day and is, of course, concerned how Stan can fit into this plan. It's
a potential impasse which he said he would take one day at a time. For
now, he is joyful to be still falling in love.
story is about modern gay men in modern Communist China. There are new
opportunities, new feelings and new choices that have never been
available before to these folks. They are also engaged not just with
many of the constraints and encumbrances of a cranky governmental system,
but with some of the same age-old challenges of love, friendship and
©2002 by Richard Ammon