As I do research in China in a dozen cities over two visits in 2008 and 2012, I find a very mixed gay life. On one hand, traditions dominate, and the Communist Party keeps an eye on that life. The imprint of Confucianism still weighs heavy: respect for one’s elders and filial piety, the primacy of family, fidelity to rituals and social conventions, humility. The “harmony” of the country requires privileging consensus over division, discretion over confrontation. So many unspoken rules inspired by Confucianism make the visibility of homosexuality particularly taboo in China because homosexuality is often in its essence dissonant and unharmonious. This “harmony” blackmail is a powerful fount of tacit and always latent homophobia in Asia.
After having long been an enemy of homosexuals—Mao Zedong’s agrarian equalitarianism was not only homophobic but also criminal—the Chinese Communist Party is displaying less brutality nowadays. Yet it adds to the social imperative of harmony its own political constraints, such as the refusal of any civil society and the rejection of human rights. Creating a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization (NGO) is almost impossible. Add to this a thwarted mobility policy. For gays, as for the entire population, internal migration is hampered administratively: moving from one locale to another requires a hukou, or internal passport. The one-child policy, meanwhile, favors the cherished descendant as the only hope of filiation and often of retirement; should this only child prove to be gay, the whole edifice of Chinese society collapses. Most gays I meet in China approve of this traditional family model, and if they could privately criticize the Communist Party, they often favor the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” model. They flirt on the internet, go to bars, but usually confine their homosexuality to the private sphere, without demonstrating or claiming rights. “It’s true that we’re faithful to Confucius,” says Lisa, a blogger I interview in Beijing. “We are discreet. But it doesn’t prevent us from being gay. As a matter of fact, Confucius himself was certainly gay. Remember, he never married, and he loved his favorite disciple, the young Adonis, Yan Hui!”
There are many signs that China is also opening up. There are gay bars everywhere. China is less and less a Communist country and increasingly an ultracapitalist one: entrepreneurship is encouraged, and gay businesses are in step with this trend. I’m told that some gay bosses may even have ties to the Communist Party and the People’s Army. In large part, it is the market more than politics and organizations that is now liberating gays in a country where their number is estimated, according to a study based on the 2011 census, at 29 million. Nearly 30 million! And this figure probably underestimates the actual number.
Beyond Beijing and Shanghai, the development of gay bars in major Chinese cities is a major phenomenon. In Nanjing, for example, I visit several popular gay spots such as the Red Bar and Shan Ye Teng, and I interview a group of gay activists at the Yos Mite restaurant. A gay website was launched in conjunction with the city’s university. And although other gay bars in Nanjing are considered less accessible because of the presence of MBs—that is, “money boys,” or male prostitutes—gay-friendly parties are nonetheless numerous. Same thing in Shenzhen and Guangzhou in southern China, where gay life seems active. Furthermore, activists tell me that a network of coffee shops, teahouses, saunas, and themed cabarets ensure a more underground gay life. I am told of gay establishments in cities that I do not visit, such as Xi’an, Dali, Chongqing, Chengdu, Shenyang, Urumqi, Wuhan, and Kunming. Not surprisingly, gay life seems more difficult in rural China, where talk is about arranged marriages, which are common outside major cities, and about the wretchedness of isolated gays who can’t move if they don’t have an internal passport.
Activism is also being organized, slowly. In addition to an increasingly dense network of organizations fighting against AIDS, there is now a gay and lesbian center in Beijing. “Legally, we are a commercial company, under the hallmark of ‘cultural promotion,’ but we are not an association or an NGO because that would be impossible in China,” explains Xu Bin, the cofounder of the Beijing LGBT center, which I visit. Twice already the center has had to move because of police pressure, but activists resist. “We keep a very low profile. We don’t provoke, but we do not give up either. We want to build a sense of community without mentioning human rights,” says Stephen Leonelli, one of the activists of the Beijing gay and lesbian center, an American citizen who speaks Chinese. In passing, I learn that North American foundations fund the gay center, as is the case with many Chinese LGBT organizations.
I am told that there might be a hundred gay organizations in China today, including an alliance of at least fifty lesbian organizations. There are a few gay newspapers and above all countless gay websites, which are neither permitted nor prohibited. “It is very difficult to decipher the government’s strategy vis-à-vis homosexuals,” says Xu Bin from the Beijing LGBT center. Nevertheless, the gay community is emerging in China. A revolution is under way that is poorly documented and not much talked about in the West. Chinese gay life is taking off. No one will be able to stop it.
One of the heroes of this revolution is Wan Yanhai, a small man with a serious face who wears square glasses and who admits to being a “psychological bisexual” (he is married and the father of a little girl but is said to have had gay tendencies as a student). Wan Yanhai always carries his laptop in his Eastpak backpack: “I have too many contacts, too many codes, too many secrets to leave my pack hanging around. If it were hacked, it would be a disaster for the Chinese gay movement,” he mumbles when I meet up with him in Taiwan and then New York, after having spent several days with him a few months earlier in Paris. During these meetings, he tells me about the course of his life and describes his commitment to homosexuality, which he inscribes into the larger struggle for human rights.
With this unstable mixture of rebellion and guilt, Wan Yanhai seems to have been predestined for great causes—and for prison. As a medical student in 1986, he participated in democratic demonstrations in Shanghai, before “naturally” ending up in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Already tracked by the police, he was at the time defending AIDS patients’ rights and had launched a hotline to help homosexuals in distress. His career was blocked, his salary cut by 40 percent, and he was sidelined at the Beijing Ministry of Health so that he was ultimately forced to resign. But the little man was shrewd. He took the opportunity to launch a new NGO specializing in HIV prevention among homosexuals. That was when the Chinese Criminal Code still included the concept of “hooliganism,” often used to prohibit sodomy in particular and homosexual relations in general. Wan Yanhai as well as other doctors and sexologists exerted pressure, and the law was changed in 1997, officially decriminalizing homosexuality. “Since then, homosexuality is no longer illegal in China, but gay activism still is. It is not individual gays that concern the Chinese government but the fact that gays are organizing into communities,” continues Wan Yanhai in a soft voice. Here he is now, for good, an openly gay activist. There is no question of his stopping now or fearing prison. He engaged and mobilized hundreds of friends to request that homosexuality be removed from the list of mental illnesses, which happened in 2001; then he began to publish a regularly censored LGBT e-magazine in Chinese. “The police hardly monitor homosexual relationships nowadays, but they’ve amplified their surveillance over activists. The Communists had to cut their losses: it was no longer possible for them to control everything, especially when there are several tens of millions of gay men who flirt every day in China. So they were forced to let things happen. The authorities, however, are focusing on political activists, who are harassed and sometimes imprisoned,” Wan Yanhai explains.
After almost a month in prison in 2002 for having revealed a local scandal around contaminated blood, he was released but remained under house arrest. There is in him a kind of tough madness, a bravery rare in China, which leads him to double down on a previous loss—except that here this gamble is not a game but his own life. Wan Yanhai resumed his activism with a vengeance, perceptive as always and now in support of gay marriage. Police harassment intensified, as did their tailing of him. “For a long time, I played a complicated game with the government. Nobody really knew where the limits lay. So I continued to push them and snuck in between the contradictions of the regime,” Wan Yanhai comments today. In 2008, he was one of the signatories of Charter 08, among 300 defenders of human rights (including his friend the pacifist Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who remains imprisoned in China). Soon it was Wan Yanhai’s organization that was being threatened by red tape: officials wanted to make him pay for his freedom. Again he rebelled against the authorities. This time he burned all his bridges. Finally, one day in May 2010, he took his family on a trip to Hong Kong and without notice took off to the United States, where he still lives in exile.
“I never thought of myself as I was fighting,” Wan Yanhai tells me in an interview in Taiwan. “I did my best to help people; that’s all. The gay issue is a matter of human rights.”
Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Exogenous capitals. China’s test sites. Stock exchange locations. Cultural hubs. Gay metropolises. It is in interviewing gay activists in these three territories that I get the most reliable information on the reality of gay rights in China.
Hong Kong has been made to feel human rights issues since its transfer to China in 1997. Gay rights issues, too. The numerous LGBT organizations are fairly well tolerated, and gay places have storefronts. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991. And since 2012, there has even been an openly gay MP, Raymond Chan, who strongly advocates in favor of marriage for everyone.
Hong Kong’s gay community watches what is going on with gay rights in mainland China. Most researchers and NGOs are based there, starting with the Asian offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Fung, a Rainbow Action activist, says that the island of 7 million inhabitants—tiny compared to the 1.3 billion Chinese “continentals”—sees itself as a locus of resistance: “Here, we demonstrate every year in early June to commemorate the events of Tiananmen, which would be unthinkable in China, and since 2004 we’ve marched at the end of June for Gay Pride.”
Thanks to Hong Kong’s human rights monitoring, the NGOs there are able to provide me with accurate information about the situation for gays in China. Gay Hong Kong activists point to, among many other problems, homophobic police raids on gay parties in Guangdong and the arrest of fifty homosexuals in a park in Guangzhou in 2009. The police closed some bars, such as the Q Bar in Shanghai in April 2011, and, always citing pornography, they shut down several gay cafés and saunas during an antigay wave in 2008. The police canceled the Beijing LGBT film festival several times. Websites are regularly banned, such as twenty lesbians’ blogs in 2010. The activists I interview in Hong Kong severely criticize administrative repression, police raids, and, even more, the arbitrariness of mainland China’s laws.
Thanks to the internet and to an incredibly efficient network of online activists based in Hong Kong as well as in Taiwan and in the Chinatowns of major US cities, serious abuses against gays in China are now more often uncovered and publicized. “If there were abuses, crimes, and, as is claimed, systematic castration of homosexuals in Mao’s China, it is clear that, in general, China today isn’t interested in gays any longer. No recognition but no repression, either,” says an Amnesty International manager whom I interview at the Lavender café in the beautiful Prince Terrace neighborhood of Hong Kong. (The manager prefers to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly about human rights issues in China on behalf of Hong Kong’s Amnesty International.) And then he immediately adds: “Still, this relative freedom for individuals who engage in private practices is not for activists leading public battles. If you’re trying to create an organization or to defend or advocate for gay rights, or if you want to produce a gay film festival, you’re taking great risks in mainland China. This is not unique to homosexuals but also relates to feminists and all human rights activists, whatever their cause. And, of course, Amnesty International is banned in China.”
Other activists I interview stress the irrationality of the system and how no clear rules exist. “The Chinese Communist Party is the only one who decides what communism means, and the definition can change at any time. On any given day, communism is compatible with the most capricious capitalism, and on another it tolerates gays. And the situation can be abruptly toppled, as with Tiananmen. There are no rules,” explains Zhao, a young lesbian active in the Horizons organization whom I interview in Hong Kong. Others don’t share this interpretation: “The Communist Party follows a very basic policy, very down to earth. Homosexuality was accepted more readily the moment the government’s efforts focused on reducing the birth rate, the one-child policy, and the promotion of contraception. It’s that simple. Under Mao, homosexuality was [considered] a serious illness, but since the 1980s it’s [seen as] supporting communism! Being gay fits Malthusianism perfectly! This is one explanation for the increased tolerance of gays in China. But if the aging of the population were to worsen and require a reversal of the birthrate policy, homosexuality would pay for it,” quips a China specialist with whom I speak in Hong Kong (who also prefers not to be named). Stuart Koe, the founder of the significant gay, pan-Asian site fridae.com, whom I interview in Singapore, confirms this claim: “Gays are very tolerated in China because they don’t have children. Homosexuality suits the antibirth policy of the regime!”
The Chinese government doesn’t forbid the blackmailing of gays. As I note in Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and Egypt, the regime can start a campaign from scratch to slander and smear the image of any troublesome individual. Many dissidents, journalists, and bloggers have paid that price. Even if they are straight, the government ascribes some shady gay relationship to them, creating rumors that the state media amplifies immediately. This was the case for film director Jia Zhangke: a male prostitution scandal involving him erupted at a time when one of his underground films that upset the regime was greeted warmly at film festivals in Cannes, New York, and Toronto (Unknown Pleasures describes the disaffected sexuality, loneliness, and Americanized culture of the first generation of Chinese youth born without siblings). The prostitute who denounced the director never provided any evidence for the information he disclosed, thanks to the Shanghai press’s readiness to oblige the authorities.
In the course of my three trips to Hong Kong, I realize that gay activism is also paradoxically Hong Kong’s way of defending its identity and differentiating itself from Communist China. “The government is not interested in gay people. It isn’t discriminating or closing down bars, and it’s arresting fewer people here, unlike in China,” Billy Leung tells me, a prominent LGBT activist whom I interview at the Teakha café in Central, the business district in Hong Kong.
Twice, in 2014 and 2015, I had the opportunity to meet with Joshua Wong, the student leader of the Umbrella movement, which has made women’s rights and LGBT rights a component of its national liberation movement. “We are very different from the generations that preceded us; we are interested in issues that were neglected for too long, such as gender issues,” he told me in the midst of a long interview. I also saw that in the three Hong Kong Occupy camps peopled by thousands of students in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok during the Umbrella Revolution, several tents were explicitly LGBT tents that flew rainbow flags. “Many homosexuals were part of the Umbrella Revolution,” Betty and Abby confirm, a couple of lesbians who organize evening gatherings at the Les Pêches club.
Beyond the particularly gay-friendly Occupy Central movement, some artists and famous singers in Hong Kong (such as Anthony Wong and Denise Ho, also key figures of the Umbrella movement) have come out publicly. The homosexual movement itself is well structured on this island, with dozens of organizations grouped in the Pink Alliance (founded in 2008). Homosexuality has been legal in Hong Kong since 1991, and the fight for same-sex marriage was mobilized in 2014–2015, though it hasn’t been won yet. There is Gay Pride every year, and the famous HSBC tower dons the colors of the rainbow flag for the occasion. As for gay spots, there are many of them, especially in the famous Lan Kwai Fong area (where Chungking Express, directed by Wong Kar-Wai, was filmed): countercultural, gay, or just popular karaoke bars, clubs, bookstores. Hong Kong may be an independent country becoming a Chinese city, but it is resisting.
“She Wolf.” Ann Tong’s iPhone rings, and this Shakira song serves as her ringtone. She pauses, answers in Mandarin, and then we resume our conversation. “I am a Taiwanese lesbian, I am part of two minorities! It’s cool. Is Taiwan a country? Many think not. That is our problem. But, anyway, gay life is very active here.” I am at the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline headquarters on Roosevelt Avenue in Taipei. Its president, Ann Tong, thirty-one, receives me in jeans, sneakers, still holding her scooter helmet. “The situation is very different for gays in China and Taiwan. There, it is primarily a political problem. Organizations are necessarily underground. They are active, but they have to avoid being too visible. However, here in Taiwan, things are moving along. Since 2003, we have Gay Pride at the end of October, which brings together tens of thousands of people each year and ends in front of the presidential palace. The Democratic Party consults us, and some newspapers, like the Taipei Times, are pretty gay-friendly. But, like everywhere else in Asia, homosexuality remains a problem. In Taiwan, it’s not a political issue or a religious problem; it’s related to attitudes, family, tradition. Blame Confucius!”
At the organization’s offices, dozens of young activists are busy. On the walls are large rainbow flags and a poster of Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” A large fan is making a huge amount of noise, but everyone puts up with it because the temperature is nearing 95°F. A small typhoon swept through Taipei the day before. “We work a lot with Chinese organizations, and we often meet,” confirms Lu Hsin-chieh, another Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline director. There are five full-time employees and 200 volunteers in this organization. Sometimes the Taiwanese take pleasure in distilling the scariest information about their Chinese big brother, the continental enemy, just to show how progressive they are. But the similarities are more striking than the differences. “Discretion with regard to homosexuality is what ultimately brings us closer to China. It’s part of our common culture. Being out! Being gay! Being Taiwanese! There’s no reason to yell it from the rooftops. You can live that way without proclaiming it everywhere,” quips Ann Tong in a way that is more subtle than you might think—the international status of this small country claimed by China remains ambiguous. Taiwan is still, as a state, “in the closet.”
Near the organization’s headquarters in the same Taipei neighborhood, I then stop at two gay bookshops: Love Boat and GinGin’s Bookstore. The first is a small atypical lesbian shop. In and among the books, there is a meditation room, a Tarot room, a corner for massages, and even a space for Chinese astrology consultations. Olivia, the shop’s manager, offers me some Oolong tea. We chat at length. She’s concerned about the fact that homosexuality is still taboo in Taiwan, despite democracy and a more advanced gay liberation than what exists in China. She also tells me about the tongqiphenomenon, a neologism formed from the Mandarin terms tongzhi, “gay,” and qizi, “female.” According to the Taiwanese government, there may be so many women married to gay men who are leading a double life that it is affecting the demographics, causing psychological depression and the economy to suffer! There are tongqi support groups. But in Taiwan, to taunt the Chinese again, LGBT activists offer their own solution to the problem: open up marriage and adoption to homosexuals. “The Taiwanese government proposed a law, but the debate dragged on, and it was never passed. Always a fear of conflict and a preference for Confucian consensus. It’s a shame; if it had passed, Taiwan would have been the first Asian country to have had same-sex marriage,” Olivia says regretfully. (She was sad when I met her, but she may be happy now: same-sex marriage was established by the Taiwan Supreme Court in 2017, and Taiwan is, indeed, now the first Asian country in which same-sex marriage is legal.)
The GinGin Bookstore is a little farther, about a hundred yards away. It is an amazing mix: a Taiwanese gay tourism bureau, newsstand, souvenir shop, and bookstore. I see hundreds of books there, such as The Yacoubian Building in Mandarin. It also carries TV series such as The L Word, Queer as Folk, the Angels in America miniseries by Tony Kushner, and countless Asian soap operas that they call “dramas” here. Many films as well, including the inescapable Milk by Gus Van Sant, not to mention a great variety of gay mangas (comic books) taking up a whole wall. On this one right here, clearly visible, is a shot of a scene from Ang Lee’s movie Brokeback Mountain.
In Taiwan as in Shanghai, as well as in Rio, Moscow, Jakarta, and Beirut, the same global gay icons appear in gay-friendly cafés and bookstores and on the walls of LGBT organizations. On five continents, I see Harvey Milk, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Ricky Martin, and, of course, the two Brokeback Mountain cowboys everywhere. There’s even a Brokeback Mountain Café in the gay Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotá.
“Ang Lee was the symbol of free cinema in China before becoming a symbol of censorship,” explains Beijing film producer Isabelle Glachant. Originally Taiwanese, Ang Lee studied in the United States, where he began making films with his friend James Schamus, the head of the production company Focus Features, a division of NBC-Universal studio. A gay plot was at the center of The Wedding Banquet, which Lee cowrote with Schamus in 1993 and which, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, was a resounding international success. “Ang Lee is an outsider, a refugee, seeking his place in the world. He’s in constant tension between modernity and tradition, between Asia and America, between Taiwan and China,” explains James Schamus, whom I interview at the Focus Features headquarters on Bleecker Street in New York. Schamus has produced films as varied as Lost in Translation, The Motorcycle Diaries (about Che Guevara), Milk, and then Brokeback Mountain, which became famous worldwide as the first “gay western.” President George W. Bush unwittingly added to the film’s success by uttering the following ironic words in a speech in Kansas: “I haven’t seen it. I’ll be glad to talk about ranching, but I haven’t seen the movie. [Laughter.] I’ve heard about it. I hope you go—you know. [Laughter.] I hope you go back to the ranch and the farm is what I’m about to say. I haven’t seen it. [Laughter.].” The comment made it around the world. The film won three Oscars. James Schamus tells me, provided I not repeat it, that he cowrote the film but didn’t want to appear in the credits.
Brokeback Mountain was censored in China. Ang Lee’s following film, Lust, Caution was also severely censored. At issue this time: allusions to the Japanese that are deemed “sensitive” and sexual scenes that are too explicit. Li Chow, Sony-Columbia’s director in China, is originally Taiwanese; fatalistically, she confirms for me that “in China there are no rules where censorship is concerned; it’s very arbitrary. Violence and sexuality are problematic, and homosexuality is a subject absolutely to be avoided. But that’s Ang Lee’s genius: to have been able to provoke both the Chinese and the Americans with gay cowboys.” Brokeback Mountain was a turning point, and although it was not officially released in China, it is easy to find anywhere on the black market, not to mention being broadcast on satellite channels that are accessible illegally in China. And in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where anything that displeases Chinese censorship is loved, in a sort of reversal, the film was successful.
That leaves Singapore, the third little China. While Hong Kong and Taiwan highlight human rights, the authoritarian regime of Singapore is going to teach China everything about that. Homosexuality is a criminal offense here. But gays in this city-state have chosen a third way: trade.
Wearing a small cap, large glasses, and a tight T-shirt, Ekachai Uekrongtham is a well-known filmmaker. I meet him in a hotel café in Singapore’s Chinatown. “I am originally Chinese. I live as a permanent resident in Singapore, but I am a Thai citizen, and my films feed on this diversity,” Ekachai tells me. He directed Pleasure Factory, a feature film about prostitution in Singapore. “In Thailand, sex is organized as an industry, but it’s also true of Singapore despite a certain neo-Victorian seriousness. In Street Walkers, a play I’m currently directing for the stage, the three characters are young Malaysian male prostitutes in Singapore. And of course a remorseful gay man enters the scene, who wants to save them and get them back on the right track. We are in Singapore after all!”
In Singapore, which is wealthy and without unemployment and which is also in many respects a dictatorship, the government defends the uniqueness of Asian values and refuses to fold to international pressure in favor of human rights. At a UN conference in Vienna in 1993, Singapore’s deputy prime minister repeated that “human rights” is a contested concept and that “some states wrongly like to present their views as universal norms.” He added: “Singaporeans and many other peoples of the world do not accept, for example, that homosexual relations are considered a simple choice of lifestyle. Many of us also believe that the right to marriage should be reserved for two people of opposite sex.”
Despite these incantatory words, repeated at international forums and on state television, homosexuals seem rather well tolerated in Singapore. Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, acknowledged in 2007 that he did not intend to enforce the antigay law (nor would he repeal it) and that gay bars would not be shut down. And then the prime minister added these significant words to explain the status quo: “It is better to accept some legal confusion and ambiguity. It works like that. Do not change anything.… What people do in private does not concern us; what they do in public requires certain rules.” Basically once again it was “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The small gay district of Singapore is located in the Chinese neighborhood of the city, around Neil Road and South Bridge Road. It is a real Chinatown with its Buddhist temples and pirated-DVD shops, where you can find all of China’s independent films, confirming that Singapore is very close to China culturally and economically.
Being somewhere in between tradition and modernity, Singapore is surprising. Temples are next door to gay bars, rainbow flags fly next to red lanterns, pink condoms hang from bamboo trellises, and none of this seems to be a problem. “It even creates competition! In Singapore, society is very permissive regarding sexual practices, but not so much regarding social roles or recognizing homosexuality. Contrary to what Westerners believe, Singapore is not at all the West in Asia: it’s the heart of Asian values. And the laws reflect these contradictions. It’s the opposite of China here: you can be out, but homosexuality is punishable by two years in prison. In China, homosexuality is no longer criminalized, but LGBT people live more hidden lives. In Asia, everything is very paradoxical,” Alex Au, a gay activist, tells me in perfect English. He runs the popular blog Yawning Bread. We meet up in a gay café on Kreta Ayer Road in Chinatown. The name of the café itself is very meaningful: DYMK (in Latin script, not in Chinese characters). I ask Alex what it stands for. His answer: “Does your mother know?”
In this neighborhood, there are two fairly airtight types of gay bars. “There are bars that are clearly Western and open to foreigners; they are modeled on gay life in Sydney, Australia, which has a lot of influence here, or on US cities that are very Asian, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. That’s where you’ll find gay bodybuilders; a cult of the body and sport is taking on greater importance in Singapore’s gay milieu. And then there are authentically Asian bars, and they’re a whole different world,” Alex Au decodes the scene for me.
At the Tantric Bar and the Taboo on Neil Road, the waiters are gorgeous, their torsos naked; and they make sure, displaying their pecs, that the atmosphere doesn’t flag. English is the official language, and the music is almost exclusively American. Kelly, a lesbian who serves whiskey Cokes to the Tantric’s customers, explains the paradoxes of this quirky Singaporean gay liberation: “Here, as in the US, we have very active evangelical Christian associations, and the government doesn’t want to offend them by officially decriminalizing homosexuality. It muzzles the press and regularly closes down LGBT organizations. But gays are also a powerful lobby, as you can see in this bar, so the government doesn’t want to discriminate against us too much. So it lets us be. That’s the status quo. This is how things happen in Singapore.”
Sometimes there is some small local nuance. At the Locker Room Sports Café & Bar, also on Neil Road, the décor consists of footlockers, shower stalls, and other features of local sports (such as Bola Tin, Sepak Takraw, and Five Stones Bags). But you can do anything but sports here! At the entrance to the Locker Room Café, it says the place is only for “PLU and All Open-Minded People.” I ask what that means and am told that PLU refers to the name of the main gay lobby in Singapore, People Like Us, and that the acronym is now so familiar here that it is local Singaporean slang for “gay.”
Later in the evening, I end up at the Same, a club next door to a mosque near New Bridge Road, still in Chinatown. There is a whole different atmosphere here, more local. Singaporeans are among themselves, and they have no intention of interacting with Westerners. They prefer playing a local kind of pool, whose rules I don’t understand. Besides, here they speak mostly Mandarin, and if they test their English, it is rudimentary, unlike the English spoken in Westernized gay bars. The music is mostly Asian, some canto-pop from Hong Kong, some Mandarin pop, and some South Korean K-pop. Karaoke seems to be the place’s main thing: it allows Singaporeans to sing in front of everyone. On the night I’m there, an entire dragon boating team is also there; it is a national sport with several openly gay teams. Around midnight, the main scene empties out, and grandiose transvestites appear. All radiant and full of color, they string along dirty jokes and play songs in a loop, exclusively in Mandarin. (Ng Yi-Cheng, a lesbian journalist who is with me to translate, says that transvestites use many old Singaporean slang expressions that she does not understand.)
This barely Westernized, local gay life has many spots. Such as Play, a Chinatown nightclub where nobody but Asian customers hang out and where they don’t play any music in English. I speak to a customer, and Ng Yi-Cheng translates for me: the young man tells me that he loves his city, Singapore, and he is afraid of having to become more Western to be better accepted as gay. “I’m Asian, I want to stay Asian,” he insists. “I don’t want people here to become mere ‘young hot Western customers.’”
At the end of the evening, I ask to interview Play’s manager, a rather unsympathetic Chinese guy who clearly has no time for me. According to him, “Singaporeans are doing very well for themselves,” and he has not been aware of any problems between gays and police over the past ten years. “The few cases identified island-wide relate to theft or to minors. Gays don’t need to Westernize to be accepted. I myself look to Beijing, not to Washington.” The clientele then leave the club in an orderly fashion. While saying good-bye, the young boss adds, “The truth is that Singapore’s gay rights are moving faster than homophobia. It’s that simple. Homophobes are completely overwhelmed!”
The word island-wide strikes me. That is the first time I’ve heard it. This gay boss isn’t referring to anything local or global, but to his island.