Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When in Beijing

I often find myself visiting gay bars when I’m in foreign cities. I guess I do it for the same reason I like to visit synagogues when abroad; while I may not frequent either establishments at home in Toronto, when traveling its nice to know how my peeps like to keep it real (and or kosher) in foreign cities. So just as I found myself getting body checked when visiting the historic Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, so too did I find myself getting manhandled at Beijing’s primary gay club, Destination.

As a destination, Destination, is fairly typical for its ilk; think strobe lights, a large dance floor and dark cozy corners. I was dragged to Destination late one Friday night with a fellow Canadian, Chris, a PEI banker who had made Beijing his home. The club was full of what Chinese call tongzhi; in Mandarin tongzhi means comrade, but as of late, the word has been co-opted by China’s slowly emergent LGBT community as self-referential slang. It is both a pun, if you divide the Mandarin characters for tongzhi you get “same-will”, and a subversive joke on comrades obvious communist connotations.

Chris and I had met up at Destination after our plan to attend the first ever Mr. Gay China was foiled by a police raid. The event, affiliated with the international gay pageant movement, had been raided by the Beijing police and shut down due to an “alleged” permit infraction. After two years of living in Beijing Chris was hardly surprised at the evening’s turn of events, “That’s what they do here,” he shrugged his shoulders and downed another drink, “If they don’t like something, they’ll just shut you down.” Chris was weary about his time in Beijing and having made the decision to leave, he was hardly nostalgic, “the things that are unbearable about China and Beijing – like tonight – well you try and overlook when you’re living here; but once you’ve decided to go they really start to really grate on you.”

I expected that there would be outrage about Mr. Gay’s cancellation, but standing in Destination, hours after the police disbanded the event, there was nary of ripple of angst; Lady Gaga was on the loud speaker, there was end of week dancing to do. Plus ca change.

The crowd at Destination may not have cared about the failure to launch of Mr. Gay China, but I could only imagine the scene if anything similar were to happen back home. In Canada, after our Harper government decided to demote a minister for supporting Toronto’s pride parade, the angst amongst both the queer community was palpable. Even my father, a Conservative stalwart, admitted “what Harper did just wasn’t right”.

It is easy to travel through China and see what pundits call “Tier 1 China”, the country of glittering skyscrapers, massive construction sites and marvel at the fact that the Shanghai subway system has built seven new lines in the last ten years, while the TTC dithers over the cost of one. It is not as easy to read between the lines and remember that the country is still a communist relic. It is still the People’s Republic of China after all. But f you listen closely to corporate CEO’s as they talk about the country’s economic miracle you eerily begin to realize that such rampant economic success is not as benevolent as its pro-China hype.

One CEO I met in China admitted cheerfully, that China’s public health care system was partially subsidized by provincial citizenship; payments are only covered if you stay within your home province. From an economic standpoint this is a major no-no as it limits the free movement of population. It also means that China’s healthcare is not like Canada’s, which we pride on being “accessible, portable and comprehensive”. In China such limitations are admitted to rather readily;1.3 billion people seem to acquiesce to things that 33 million Canadians would, for all of our politeness, join a Facebook group and protest over. Oh wait, Facebook is banned in China.

My suspicion of China, or judgyness, isn’t of course a new sentiment. While the world generally has a collective miasma over China and her civil rights violations we do every-so-often collectively remember that all is not well at the end of the Silk Road. Most recently and infamously internet titan Google threatened to leave the world’s emergent super power fearing for government privacy laws.

And yet its hard to stay mad at plucky China, which seems caught between the country we all want it to be and the country it wants to be for itself. Chinese themselves are seemingly happy with the country’s progress and the recurring theme amongst Chinese is that this “Chinese way” is a different but also a successful way to develop economically.

When I asked a Chinese intellectual about the Christmas Day arrest of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobou, my question was patently dismissed.

“The west,” he said, “has a contract, a constitution with its population and that contract is hard to change. How many times gas the American constitution changed since it was written?” he asked me rhetorically. “We have no similar culture here in China. Our constitution with our people is constantly changing, it is under constant refinement and evolution.”

This “evolving contract” allows the government to shut down gay events, arrest dissidents, and execute British drug dealers, all of which occurred in China during my three-week visit. This evolving contract probably ensured that last year’s inaugural Shanghai Pride didn’t feature a public parade for fear of police intervention. But beyond this evolving nature of the politic I wonder if the reticence of China’s gay community to embrace such hallmarks of queer culture, pride and pageantry, is not only about a fear of police retaliation but perhaps a rejection of westernized values as well?

When the state of India decriminalized homosexuality last year, Canadian-Indian author Anand Mahadevan wrote in the Globe and Mail, that Indian gays must “look to their own past,” instead of following a western model, which he feared would “promote a McDonald’s-ization of queer culture.” “The Stonewall riots are not their past, pride marches are not their celebrations,” Mahadevan noted.

The same sentiment can be made about China. Obviously those who were at Destination were not ready to make the police’s reaction to Mr. Gay China their Stonewall. But what will be China’s Stonewall if anything at all? When it comes to queer rights, if China looks neither inward, as Mr. Mahadevan suggests is necessary to develop an indigenous queer culture, nor outward, at Western iconography of queer culture (which China seems to rebuff), then the fight for queer rights in China will stagnate.

This chicken-versus-egg problem of China is that the country is adept at both rejecting the external, in order to promote “the Chinese way”, but the lack of a Chinese political class prevents the country from championing an internal alternative. If this dichotomy continues then the praises that the so-called “Chinese way” receives for ensuring economic expansion will turn to criticisms when it comes to promoting political freedom.

1 comment:

feral geographer said...

Hi Rogue at Rotman,

I'm feral geographer and I blog at Along with Mae Callen of Driving Fast on Loose Gravel (, I'm working on creating an active blogroll of queer blogs from Canada and/or by Canadians. The project is called Queer Canada Blogs (, and we've added your blog!
Please check it out and let us know if you have any suggestions for other blogs we can add.

feral geographer

(Feel free to delete this comment... I just wanted to contact you, and couldn't find an email address!)