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Sunday 11 October 2009

Finding your gay way in China

Posted in: True Stories
By Tony Simpson - 11th May 2008

With Beijing hosting the Olympics later this year quite a lot of New Zealanders will be travelling in China, including, presumably, a proportion of gay men. Wellington writer Tony Simpson was there with his Chinese partner a few weeks ago, and he offers some hints for finding your gay way in the People's Republic.

Tony Simpson in Xi'an
Gay venues in China tend to be a bit elusive. This is because, as our gay friend Yi Ba explained in Beijing, while gay sex isn't illegal in China it isn't strictly legal either.

The result is that gay clubs announce their presence with a discreet sign only, and tend to be tucked away in cellars or on higher floors of buildings. They also tend to come and go quite rapidly. It helps to have a look on the net before hand, and to have local knowledge, although Yi Ba didn't go to gay clubs any more (his partner didn't like it) so he didn't know of any which had recently opened. But my partner Don got on the local net and soon tracked some down. Asking taxi drivers is not always advisable. Almost none speak English anyway, and quite a lot are not all that gay friendly, although we met one who was quite helpful.

Once you are inside the doors - apart from the fact that the cuties are mostly Chinese, some of them very cute indeed - it's much like being in a gay club anywhere. Chinese music, which has a yearning tone to it, seems to lend itself particularly well to gay venues although they also do covers with Chinese words to a number of well known American gay favourites, which is slightly weird initially.

In Beijing
Be aware too that Chinese gay barman have some strange ideas about suitable drinks. The Chinese now make quite a lot of their wine locally. It's mostly red and not as dry as New Zealanders like, but it's passable. However, for some strange reason that we couldn't fathom, in several bars they wouldn't sell us a bottle of wine and two glasses, but only by emptying the bottle into a jug partly full of ice and topping it up with coca cola (in the case of red) or lemonade (in the case of white). Understandably we declined this confection, although with some argument I convinced one barman to substitute the lemonade with soda water. This was OK but I wouldn't want to repeat the experiment.

They don't carry much of a range of imported spirits and few mixers (one bar had gin but no tonic), and outside Shanghai cocktails are virtually unheard of although the team from a prominent New Zealand vodka maker is making a determined push into the main city Chinese market with some success. Spirit based drinks tend to be very expensive by Chinese standards particularly. There are several local Chinese spirits available but they're a bit of an acquired taste (which I personally have yet to acquire). The beer on the other hand is cheap and good. This is a legacy of the Germans who had a trading concession at Tsing Tao before the First World War and built breweries there. The Chinese threw the Germans out but wisely kept the beer. Some of the local brands are a bit sweet, but the mostly widely sold one (marketed funnily enough as Tsing Tao) is quite like New Zealand lager. A lot of the bars will offer you a cheap bulk sale at the beginning of the evening. They also have 'lite' beers if that's your fancy.

Except in Shanghai foreigners in gay bars are a bit of a rarity, so be prepared to be stared at. Don told me afterwards that in one bar in Hangzhou the boys at the next table spent quite a lot of time speculating about where I might be from, and whether or not they should approach me and speak to me, although they didn't in the event and it wouldn't have been much good anyway because they only spoke Mandarin. Shanghai is the exception. It's always been a cosmopolitan city with a good admixture of non-Chinese because of the multinational commercial enterprises based there. In the bar we went to there at least a third of the patrons were either Americans or Europeans, and it was also the only place we found where you could engage in fluent English conversation with the local Chinese.

Floor shows, some in drag, some not, are usually part of the deal and don't seem to attract a cover charge. They can be quite spectacularly costumed and professionally produced and can last up to an hour and a half without breaks. They usually also feature a comedian but if you can't understand the jokes that tends to get a bit tedious. I was highly amused in one bar when a solo dance performer, obviously irritated by an inattentive member of the audience, threw a hissy fit and walked off the stage. Some things are the same all over the world apparently.

Finally, a word about pick-ups. Things have loosened up considerably in China in the last decade and, in my experience at least, if a Chinese boy likes the look of you then he can be fairly forward about making that clear, including on the subway in Beijing. I was disappointed if I wasn't cruised in the street at least twice a day.

Some places to try:


Cosmo: Take the subway to Dongshi Shitiao station and the exit to Jushi Dasha (Grand Rock Plaza). The bar is on Gouti Bei Road opposite the Asia Hotel.


Jundu Club: Intersection of Baoshu Road and Bei Shan Road near the shores of the famous West Lake. It's in a basement and is the second bar along (the first one is straight).

Modern Bar: This is on the fourteenth floor of the Xi De Bao Hotel (thirteenth actually but they don't have one) 11 North Huan Cheng Road. Very cute bar staff.


Eddy's Bar: 1877 Huaihai Zhong Road at the intersection of Tianping Road. There's a convenient bath house just opposite if you want to retire there with a new found acquaintance rather than go back to your hotel.


Club 21: 21 East Lane 6 Heping Road. There are narrow lanes running off this road, each one numbered. Count them as you go, but beware – there is no lane 5.

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Tony Simpson - 11th May 2008