Friday, December 12, 2008

Harvard Student Observing Beijing's Gay Club

(Introduction: Samantha Deng, who speaks fluent Chinese, is a Harvard student studying abroad at a renowned university in Beijing for a year. The following is an excerpt from her report for a Medical Sociology observation project, posted with permission. – Xujun)

Destination is a Double-Edged Sword

by Samantha Deng


Building designed to escape rather than attract attention

Destination ("目的地") is the most well known gay bar and nightclub in Beijing. Located on Gongti West Road, it is directly across the street from a strip of popular nightclubs, bars, and restaurants frequented by expatriates and locals alike. I visited the club on a Friday night in November with two other girls and arrived around 10:30 at night.

Unlike its flashy neighbors with their ground-to-roof neon lights and large flat-screen televisions, the exterior of Destination is very modest and discreet, seemingly designed to escape (rather than attract) attention. The building that houses the club is about six stories high and looks modestly residential.

At the time of our arrival, all the windows were dark, and the blinds were drawn. A dark brown stone wall about two meters tall surrounds the building and blocks the first floor windows from view. On the building is a small lighted sign with the club’s name in English and Chinese. There are two doors facing the main streets but are sealed off with a red string on which hang small gray signs that point the visitor left with the words “酒吧入口” in Chinese and “Enter” in English.

A male staff member dressed all in black stood near the blocked doors and helpfully directed confused visitors to a gate on the side. Through this rusty iron gate, one stepped into a small courtyard, and on the other side – effectively in the back of the building – one finally sees the entrance to the club, guarded on either side by traditional Chinese stone lions.

Seven people staffed the well-lit room one first enters. Two were men dressed all in black who visually scanned every visitor walking in. The entrance fee was 60 RMB, and the ticket stub is redeemable for a drink up to that price inside. Based on my experiences, this price is comparable to middle-ranged clubs in the city, but it may nevertheless be expensive for the average Beijing resident and prevent frequent visits.

The club does not have separate restrooms for women and men; instead, each floor has one restroom that has both urinals and stalls. This arrangement is most likely a reflection of both the dearth of women visiting the club and the lack of sexual threat between people of different sexes here.

Women far fewer and noticeably less vivacious than the men

At its fullest, Destination held close to two hundred people, the overwhelming majority of which was male. The handful of women that were present was scattered in male-dominated groups and were noticeably less vivacious than the men.

The majority of men at Destination are the Hip Youths type, look to be in their late teens or early twenties, and exude an air of familiarity, even ownership, in the club.

One young man who typifies this came in a small group of about four. He wore a fitted white t-shirt with a colorful design in front and tight black jeans. Upon arriving in an upstairs room, he saw that a large vacant sofa, plopped himself down, and loudly beckoned his friends to join him. A moment later, he recognized another group of young men standing near the bar and rushed over, loudly exchanging greetings and hugs.

Another core type is the Older Men, though far fewer than the Hip Youths, they nevertheless occupy central positions within the club. In their early- to mid-thirties, the Older Men dress more conservatively than the Hip Youths in looser fitting clothes and are generally less active. They seem to frequent the bar and know other people there. One group that consisted of perhaps four foreigners and a slightly larger number of Chinese sat at a bar for a long time chatting animatedly with each other. More than once, one member would stop someone walking past that he recognized and the newcomer would stop to talk with the group. Both the behaviors of the Hip Youths and the Older Men described above suggest the existence of a “community” at Destination.

There are also Peripheral Observers and Outsiders. For example, during the course of the night I saw two old men who were at least sixty years old. They were in the club separately talking with a few young men, and neither stayed very long. The Outsiders, numbering very few, are people in the club who are not gay. One white heterosexual couple, for example, danced affectionately on the dance floor for about ten minutes before exiting. Another example was a twenty-year-old Korean man who did not realize that Destination is a gay club before entering. He expressed shock and slight disgust upon discovering the sexual orientation of the men around him.

"Five minutes into our acquaintances, he bluntly asked me to marry him"

We spoke with three men, who were of the Older Men type, for over an hour. They have been to Destination many times and befriended each other at the club. They did not know that we were at the club for an observation study, and they may have assumed that we were homosexuals as well.

Walter[1]

Walter is a 30-year-old pop-music composer originally from
Shanxi. Except for a small black round stub on his left earlobe, he bears none of the stereotypical “gay” traits. He is about 1.8 meters tall, broad shouldered and fit, and his hair is cut in a neat buzz cut. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt with jeans. He readily told us about his experiences as a gay man in China and expressed his views on politics, culture, and homosexual life. Despite his openness, however, even after a full hour of conversation that touched upon many sensitive topics, Walter disclosed only his last name and nickname and withheld his full name, suggesting an impulse to preserve anonymity.

From the very beginning, Walter emphasized how lonely it feels to be a homosexual in China, repeating the phrase “孤独” two separate times. Consequently, he loves going to gay-concentrated places like Destination and saunas around Beijing to be with other gays. Even though these places present high-risk situations, he feels relaxed there. Despite the existence of these locations, however, he expressed disappoint in the gay scene in Beijing. Like many gays who are not native to Beijing, he had high expectations for this international city but found too many restrictions when he arrived.

For Walter, strained relationship in the family is a large factor causing the sense of loneliness. Although he criticized the religious-moral casting of homosexuality as a sin in the West, he nevertheless applauded Westerners’ recognition of homosexuality as being a distinct separate category from heterosexuality. He, however, gets no such recognition from his family. His parents had described his behavior as “disgusting” (“
恶心”); his sister, who is less socially conservative, had expressed regret that he cannot marry and have children (and thus continue the bloodline). Walter’s description of his family members’ opinions implied that they only see and condemn the deviant behavior without recognizing the innate difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In doing so, his family members are effectively denying him twice: with respect to both his homosexuality and his moral judgment.

Walter’s own views on homosexuality are a combination of the theories that sexuality is genetically predisposed and that it is environmentally cultivated. He argued that since ancient times, people have always displayed an aesthetic appreciation and attraction for the body, whether male or female. His sexual attraction for the male body, he implied, is only an extension of that primitive impulse. On the other hand, he off-handedly remarked that had Hu Jingtao grew up in a more socially liberal society in the West, the Chinese president would be gay (Walter pointed to Hu’s effeminate gestures and high-pitched voice as evidence). Walter phrased this assertion in such as way to suggest that Hu is not currently in the closet, but rather, he did not have the space to develop his homosexuality in China.

Walter’s overall attitude toward Chinese politics and society was critical. He especially cited the education system for the stifling constraints it imposed on children and criticized the Chinese government for masking many cruelties it performed to present the Olympic Games. He described himself as a deviant who has always been last ranked in his class in school. However, Walter remained optimistic about the future. He argued that Chinese culture is very “vibrant” (“活跃”), as evident by the dominance of the color red, and can readily embrace differences.

Charles

Charles is a man from Chongqing also in his early thirties who works in media. Short, stout, and bald, he wore a white t-shirt and jeans. After approximately five minutes of our acquaintances, he bluntly asked me to marry him. He explained that his seventy-year-old mother’s only wish in life is for him to get married, and he would like to do so to make her happy. He promised that he will financially provide for his bride his whole life and will willingly grant a divorce should she fall in love with another man. As with Walter, his family’s inability to understand that homosexuality extends beyond just behaviors that defy filial piety (namely, not marrying and having children) was causing Charles much stress.

Victor

Victor is a golf club executive from Taiwan who wore a buttoned-down long-sleeve shirt with rainbow-colored stripes. He did not speak with us much, preferring instead to converse with Charles or poke fun at the loquaciousness of Walter. He willingly bought drinks for his friends. Victor said that he comes to Destination about once a month.

A Double-Edged Sword

This visit to Destination offered a peek into the homosexual community in Beijing. On one hand, places like Destination offer gays who feel alienated in their everyday life a space to show their sexuality openly and to be with others like them. On the other hand, these gay-concentrated places also pose major health risk for their visitors. As Walter pointed out, the jubilation of finding other gay men may prompt some to engage in unsafe sexual behavior that result in the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In addition, the sense of total relaxation may cause these men to engage in other unhealthy behavior: the three men we spoke with smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol without stop for the entirety of our conversation, which lasted over an hour. The other men near us were also chain-smoking, and the bar tenders even gave out free cigarettes.

That places like Destination represent both a psychology alleviation of pain and a space for perpetuating public health dangers suggests that the reduction of these health risks require more than just direct education about the illness. The observations from Destination indicate that a more effective and permanent solution to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among gay men, especially HIV/AIDS, would address the social stigma that homosexuality carries in Chinese society. When gay men can be themselves and display romantic behavior in public just like heterosexuals, the lure of unsafe sex in bars and sauna will no doubt diminish. Social acceptance of homosexuality is thus an important step in preventing psychological and physical harm for this large social group.

[1]The names of these three men are altered to conceal their identity.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

...and your point is?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Do I have to have a point? I post things I find interesting.

Anonymous said...

that was the funniest thing I have read today. It was meant to be a pastiche wasn't it? I read ii in the voice of a 1950s british public service film narrator.

chriswaugh_bj said...

I've been to two gay bars in Beijing, and did not find them to be so closed or secretive as the author describes Destination. That was several years ago, and on neither occasion did I stay long (note: on both occasions I was well aware of the kind of bar I was going to), but apart from that difference in discretion, the author's description matches what I saw.

Kevin said...

One visit and its purpose is to discover all? I think this piece is miserably lack of solid support and background. Seem like somebody who's trying to finish an assignment by the professors.

Xujun Eberlein said...

No one claimed the purpose is to discover all, and this piece is exactly an assignment from a professor, but written with the keen eye of a foreign exchange student.

bien said...

I think it is a good and an interesting observation, although I feel that the description of the other side of the double-edge (i.e. the health risk part) seems a bit weak in comparison. For example, I think it's not hard to draw a conclusion of the health consequences of non-stop drinking and smoking but it's harder to link the suppression of gay relationship with the spread of AIDS/HIV. But I guess the real fact and data on this issue is hard to get also.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

The China Book Reviews blog posted a review of James West's book, "Beijing Blur" some time ago, which details a description of Beijing's gay scene, including the bar Destination. James West himself is gay, and having immersed himself in Beijing's gay scene for a year, he has some insightful comments to make.

Anonymous said...

OK, the only interesting thing was the mention that Hu Jintao may be gay.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with anonymous. If this was intended as a parody of a British government health piece circa 1950 then this we very well done.
Keen eye?! The section about chain smoking and heavy drinking was flabergastingly naive. Has the author never been to a club (gay or straight) before?

Anonymous said...

I am a thirty something gay man from Chongqing. I don't like going to bars (gay or straight). I have never been to a gay bar in Chongqing:) The only gay bar/bathhouse I have liked (well, you can imagine that I have only been to a few) is Babylon in Bangkok. My favorite gay venue is Es Cavallet, a gay nude beach in Ibiza:)

sterling silver cufflinks said...

Although he criticized the religious-moral casting of homosexuality as a sin in the West, he nevertheless applauded Westerners’ recognition of homosexuality as being a distinct separate category from heterosexuality. He, however, gets no such recognition from his family. His parents had described his behavior as “disgusting” ; his sister, who is less socially conservative, had expressed regret that he cannot marry and have children (and thus continue the bloodline).

Travel Deals said...

I hate such activities. I will suggest you to please search a girl for you and live a happy life with her. Even now a days people feel shy to speak to girls or womens about their feelings. Being of opposite sex. And they can easily discuss their matter with their friends of same gender. In my perception this results in being gay and they enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

i'm male/hetro...

been there. was great... never ever get more free drinks, than in this night :)

hope to come back. by the way: nice sound!