Gay lifestyle and issues in China


Stephanie Cobon battles a hangover while considering the increasingly visible gay lifestyle culture in China:

I kept my eyes tightly shut and became conscious of the hot mass sitting at the bottom of my stomach that slowly slid around as I rolled over like a rubbery over-cooked omelet. My brain was half a sun-dried pinapple that had been washed up on a beach for a week, filled with sand then used as an ashtray. When I opened my eyes, it was past 12pm – by far the latest I’d slept in for at least the past six months. I lifted my head from the pillow and assessed the room I found myself – not mine. But I knew where I was. My friend yelled goodbye from the front door as she left for work and I groaned.

The room smelt like straight spirits and dust and my pants were nowhere to be found. I sat up, lay down, sat up and finally slumped to the front door. I traced my steps from the door back to the bed. And back again. And once more, back to the bed. I slowly sat down completely at a loss. Where the hell are my pants? I looked down at my hand and a smudged stamp that I’ll discover later printed all over my face also. There’s a rainbow wristband around my wrist. God damn it. Pride Party.

The first ever official Guangzhou Pride party was a few months ago now, but this image still marks the worst hangover I’ve had in my life and one of several nights that I would gladly relive if I could. I’ve said that a million times but this one was all kinds of messed up. I couldn’t walk for a whole week after because I twerked so low my leg muscles spasmed under the weight of every step. Staircases were out of the question. I used a wooden beam as a strip pole, forced grown men to climb it and of course wouldn’t have remembered unless I had to pick the splinters out the next morning. At 5am, amongst all the chaos, freaking, jungle beats and dripping glitter-sweat was a group of 150 or so people just totally ecstatic to be celebrating their homo-ness together.

Gay lifestyle and issuesBetween retaining a strong Confucian influence, the intimately dwindling and resurgent currents of the Cultural Revolution and the progressive attitudes more common in the last ten years, it’s not so easy to gauge how Chinese people view gay lifestyle and issues. As one of the primary things I try to flesh out about any city or country I plan on visiting, China left me particularly unsure. One fact that I’ve been stuck by since living here, however, is the massive amount of gay men (both locals and ex-pats) who live here. In the present climate, a few people have told me that the south, particularly Guangdong province, is one of the more progressive regions in China, being so far from the regional Communist centre of Beijing and responding accordingly to the stereotypical tensions every proud city has with another. It’s a pointless competitiveness that I’m very happy to support; however, it seems that so far, the acceptance hasn’t been offered to lesbian women.

As for pre-PPC vibes, I’ve read a few Shang Dynasty stories that demonstrate the presence and openness of homosexuality in ancient China. I’d highly recommend Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiji (Tales of Anomalies from the Studio of Leisure) and Ji Yun’s (1724-1805) Yuewei caotang biji (Random Jottings at the Cottage of Close Scrutiny). I’d recommend them if you’re into sexy ghosts and confused young men or old farmers and sodomising dragons. Who isn’t? During the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.) nearly all Emperors were recorded as having had male lovers. Although that speaks for the ruling classes only, there really aren’t reliable records of general attitudes until later when Buddhism was introduced in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), and Christianity in the Ming dynasty (1368 C.E.-1644 C.E.). After Christianity was formally introduced to literary circles and later the general public, records of conservative attitudes toward sexuality and sexual morality demonstrate the influence.

It seems that this little event held at a new performance space called Alive at Redtory in Yuancun came at particularly blossoming period for the gay scene. Looking around at the business background of the movement, it’s pretty obvious that its impetus is developed by and for western concepts of pride and acceptance. The Tianhe district is the central CBD of Guangzhou and is home to the most recently gentrified ex-pat community. Here, you’ll find the most popular western bars, cafés and restaurants owned and operated by Australian and American investors, and they are international class venues. One in particular, the thriving and delicious So&Co hosts a monthly Drag Bingo night with matching cocktail deals and a sassy British queen Dictoria Beckham. There’s also Hunting Cocktail, The Happy Buddah, Rich Guys and Velvet. They’re all serious contenders on an international service level who happen to support the gay community here in Guangzhou.

As is true of capitalist functionality, the nuclear family unit remains foundational to Chinese society in the Taoist model. As long as this is the case, alternative lifestyle choices will be treated as an abnormality and will face vilification. In Guangzhou, as a trade and business centre of modern China, as long as communities continue to generate wealth, it seems they are safe. Confucius said many, many things but one of my favourites is “Shi se xing ye” (food and sexuality are natural urges). It’s absolutely true of Cantonese culture that food is a natural urge that is pivotal to daily functioning, and whether its rejuvenation primarily reflects the attitudes and needs of ex-pat communities or not, gay lifestyles are increasingly visible, challenging and flaming.

Stephanie Cobon


Words by Stephanie Cobon.