Being gay is pretty popular amongst the Shanghainese college set. But Shanghai only has one very popular gay bar and gay club. In a city of 20 million, it’s not surprising that Shanghai has more tonzhi (同志) venues than say, Milwaukee, but still … Shanghaiist was surprised to learn of the existence of a gay ballroom.
Shanghaiist didn’t go there to dance, but to follow some HIV prevention outreach workers from the Shanghai Sexual Minorities Hotline (同心热线). The organizers of the outreach activities — Dr. Tong, from the International Peace Maternity and Child Health Hospital of the China Welfare Institute (中国福利会国际和平妇幼保健院 — whew!) and his team of volunteers — were already inside. They had bags of condoms, safer sex information and Friend Exchange, one of mainland China’s first gay publications.
Shanghaiist arrived at about 8 pm — dance floor rush hour. Admission was five kuai and the bouncer wanted to know how Shanghaiist could have come alone (since we’re so cute?).
The interior of the club is anathema to just about every gay establishment in Shanghai. It’s only gay from Thursday to Sunday. Dancing stops at 9 or 9:30 pm. It appeals mostly to middle-aged men who would otherwise have nowhere to get their groove on.
As one visitor said, “Customers are more free to be themselves and don’t get looked down upon for not fitting a certain stereotype of what gay men should be.”
Indeed, ageism and classism seemed almost nonexistent. Old gentlemen in high waisted Chinese slacks were dancing with 30 something guys in shorts and tank tops. Most everyone looked like the average proletariat male pedestrian. Only difference is you don’t often see your average proletariat male pedestrian fox trotting with other men.
The place resembles the old Paramount Dancehall (百乐门), except the Paramount doesn’t have old Christmas decorations or three years of accumulated Shanghainese dust. Still, a three-piece band (guitar, keyboard and sax) accompanied a man on a karaoke-style echo mic. A few Chinese lala (拉拉, lesbians) joined the fun too.
“We don’t know if people with lower education levels are at a higher risk for contracting HIV,” said Steven Gu, director of the Shanghai branch of Chi Heng, a Hong Kong-based HIV/AIDS foundation focusing on mainland China. “We do know they’re less likely to get information from other sources, like the internet. We do know that older gay men are about three times more likely to have contracted HIV than younger men, so that’s why it’s important to target this population.”
These outreach workers have to deal with more than just ignorance from the targets of their education. Shanghaiist had barely arrived when the owner of the establishment found the outreach volunteers and began yelling at the lot of them in Shanghainese. A few weeks earlier, the police had been giving them some grief. The owner obviously wanted to limit exposure and the good doctor hadn’t phoned ahead.
Soon the bouncer was involved too. He took the bags of Friend Exchange and threw them out into the street, where we soon found ourselves — in the typhoon. That was a shame, because patrons usually go to listen to gays sing local opera with neighborhood housewives in a nearby park. The men sing the female roles, of course.
Though Nationalist-era Chinese laws against “hooliganism” were taken off the books in ’97, police still use “tax evasion,” “looking weird” or “not giving me enough kickbacks” to give gays and their allies a hard time. As openly gay Shanghainese lawyer Dan Zhou told Shanghaiist, “People often overstate the significance of the repeal of this hooliganism law. It was not an intentional decriminalization of homosexuality, just a happy coincidence.”
Other bar owners have experienced police hassling, too. The owner of one of Shanghai’s top gay establishments, Eddy’s, described having to deal with a new cop on the beat who asked him to stop allowing gay people into his bar.
“How do I know who’s gay and who’s not?” Eddy said. “It’s not like they have ‘gay’ tattooed across their forehead.”
For details on the location of this fine gay ballroom, do a search in Chinese for gay dancehall (同性恋舞厅) or contact the author of this story. We don’t blame the interviewees and participants for not wanting to come out. Shanghaiist doesn’t want this story to add to any dancehall owner’s worries.
Photo not taken at the bar described in the story.
Note: The Sexual Minority’s Hotline website won’t be up for another few months because it was attacked by hackers.