Zapi Aurelien, 23, arrived in Shanghai expecting to spend a year in the closet, he was surprised to be embraced by an outgoing and friendly gay community
I first arrived in Shanghai with heaps of luggage and as much apprehension. I had actually had to stop telling my friends that I was coming to China because of all the scaremongering and stereotypes about the country that I got in return.
I assumed China would be homophobic country and I was prepared to hide my sexuality while I was here. The reality is far different, I actually feel like a more confident gay man here than I did at home in France.
The first day I arrived I visited Shanghai Studio, a gay club. My friend and I were among just a few foreigners there that night. It felt like a shelter from the outside world, as it’s underground and there is a maze of corridors and alcoves. People looked like they were really shedding their inhibitions and having fun.
When I got back to my hostel I met a girl who had just come back from a lesbian bar which organised a giant ‘truth or dare’ with the patrons. She was frustrated because she spent the night flirting with a girl, who pretended to be straight at the end.
The longer I stayed in the city, practicing my university-studied Chinese, I realised it is a huge gay playground. I meet my fellow ‘tongzhi’ (literally, comrade, now slang for gay men) on the internet, with the Gay Radar app (a Chinese Grindr), or even in public places – restaurants, libraries, museums, trains, swimming pools! One look at my rainbow bracelet and a discreet smile is enough to start a conversation.
Being a white guy in an Asian country helps: people are really curious and particularly welcoming. And because I’m far from home I am open to trying new experiences and feel more confident. I don’t miss France at all.
Most of the Chinese gay people I’ve met are in the closet though. There’s no religion to keep people afraid of living openly here, but family does. The one-child policy means there’s a lot of pressure for gay sons to get married. Parents expect a lot from their one child: a good career, a nice house, a nice husband or wife and descendants. But I’ve never heard of any violence or ‘gay-bashing’ in China.
Shanghai is a modern city, people tend to be open-minded, but visits to smaller towns nearby have shown me a different side to gay life in China. In places like Suzhou or Nanjing gay bars are so hidden that I had to call the employees of the place to come to pick me up. But these places are also more fun.
In the secret small-town bars and bathhouses there’s an atmosphere of brotherhood. Most of the patrons are married. In Nanjing I met a gay sex shop owner who was waiting for his wife and daughter and when I was talking to a guy in the bathhouse I noticed he was wearing a wedding ring. I find it both exciting and scary to be in these hidden gay corners. It’s exciting because people are so happy to escape their straight lives and it’s scary because they still believed homosexuality is a bad disease.
As a foreigner in an Asian country you already stand out from the crowd. People are curious and interested in you. A lot of people will try to ‘chi wo de dofu’ – eat your tofu – slang for flirt with you.