By Aly Song
As society in China modernizes, its gay community is less mysterious and increasingly part of the country’s fabric, pursuing dreams and happiness like other citizens.
Before setting out to document this story, I had a somewhat stereotypical image of gay Chinese – that they lived colorful and comfortable lives, with prominent members often active in the fashion and entertainment industries, that they wore exquisite clothes and were in top physical shape. I imagined two men sitting in a bar smoking cigars and drinking wine, possibly discussing fashion trends or gossiping about showbiz stars.
But working on this story for more than three months changed my view. The reality was less romanticized, and reflected many people’s search for love anywhere, same sex or otherwise. In China, when seeking same-sex companionship, one way is to spend 20 yuan (3 U.S. dollars) for entrance to a gay bathhouse to find others sharing the same desire. Or you can pay 7 yuan (a little more than $1) to get into a gay dance club to find someone you like.
It took some time to find the main character of my story. As you might imagine, it’s not easy to find a gay person willing to be photographed intimately, much less by an international photo agency. At first, I was taken to a dance club in Shanghai where gay people meet each other. I was surprised by the scene I found – nearly 300 men, some hugging, some dancing, in a club that completely exuded the 1980s, from the décor to the music. This club attracted mainly elderly gay men, and I was told that the oldest member was more than 90 years old. I saw very few younger people.
It was here that I met Xiao Cao, a middle-aged man dressed casually, his face much brighter than his neck (I found out later that this was because he is fond of wearing makeup). He was single, unemployed, and his main pastime was to dress as a woman and dance in a park. Dressing in drag is not necessarily a strange phenomenon in China, as men usually played women’s roles in Peking operas in times gone by.