Exploring Shanghai’s Gay Scene

From the Non-Breaking Space travel blog (@lebigjay): Lost between infantile and senile, travelling around the world to avoid the age of reason…

After being very serious in Central Asia, it was time for me to have a good time in Shanghai!

China’s New York, as they say, is indeed like a yellow big apple. It’s as if you’d entered China Town but never could get out. As in Kyrgyzstan that I last visited, homosexuality is decriminalized, but the gay life remains an underground thing, and that’s an understatement.

The starting point

After a quick search online, I found Eddy’s Bar, THE gay bar in the heart of the hype neighbourhood of the ex French Concession. This would be my starting point to explore Shanghai’s gay scene. I went on a Wednesday night, around 9 o’clock. Dusk had fallen on Shanghai since 7pm.

Eddy’s was rather easy to find: it has a large window and a clear big red-lit sign on a busy street. It looked like a regular bar, although thick wooden shades were making it impossible to see what was happening inside. I could only tell it was open. I entered.

A dozen of people, only men, were sitting at tables around the central counter. A dim red light and top-40 music made a warm and cosy atmosphere in a Chinese décor. I sat at the bar, but as it is common in China, I wasn’t greeted by the bar tender nor the other three waiters too busy chatting and smoking.

I ordered a beer, looked around for magazines and flyers, but the only thing I could find was the Shanghai Time Out reviewing food and drinks, and more food and more drinks for rich and bored expats, The single column Gay and Lesbian section was reviewing a newly opened bar.

More people had arrived. All Chinese, except for 3 other guys. The volume was turned up a little.

I started making conversation with two Chinese sitting next to me. They told me a little about the bars and the clubs. The scene was very unstable. Places opening and closing, parties moving from venues to venues all over the city. There’s no gay neighbourhood, but places are spread out all over the city. And it so vast a taxi is necessary if you don’t want to break a heel on the way… Also, bars don’t open before 9pm.
They recommended Club Obama and Shanghai Studio for the weekend.

Then I did the bit of serious conversation… “Do your parents, family, colleagues, friends know you’re gay?” Answer: “No, that’s not possible… homosexuality is not a subject of conversation with parents and family. It not acceptable. Only my gay friends know, of course.” Well then I guess the gay friends are met online or in the bars, or else, who comes out of the closet first…? Those guys might have other gay ‘friends’ from the real life without even knowing it!

So, yeah, online, where’s online then? Grindr is blocked in China, so which site or app do you use?, I asked. “Oh, we have another Grindr: it’s called Jack’d”. Indeed I tried Jack’d a few days later. It’s like Grindr only better: a lot more fluid, profiles have several pics, and private pics you can share with who decide, you can filter profiles, and you can even browse a different location! The only BIG problem with Jack’d is that you CAN NOT turn it off. As soon as your device is connected, you are visible online to other users… and messages start pouring in… (well with a profile as successful as mine at least…). I’m not into Asian guys, but when I logged on, aaaaaargh… Only Chinese! And they seem to like the white type… Then I unveiled another of Jack’d weaknesses: you cannot clear your message history…!

Well, back to Eddy’s, I had got enough information from the locals, and I later turned to two Whites. Two expats. One English, one Irish. Again, I asked about places to hang out. I was not so surprise as to hear a totally different answer. They knew Shanghai Studio, but named another few places I’d never heard of… They quickly offered to move to one of them.

The other gay scene

We took a taxi to Lola, also in the ex French Concession. On board the taxi, David turn around and said: “Oh by the way, don’t take a taxi waiting outside a gay bar… they intentionally wait there to pick up gays… not in a bad intention, but they will attempt something…” Good to know…

When we got to Lola, I understood it all. It’s a trendy bar in a fancy expat neighbourhood with many other western bars and restaurants. Lola is not a gay bar, but a gay friendly venue organizing regular weekly parties more explicitly targeting a gay crowd. This night was one of these, almost exclusively crowded with foreigners.

Chinese and Westerners don’t mingle in Shanghai. This is why the two Chinese blokes at Eddy’s didn’t have any idea about Lola’s parties… it’s two different worlds! The information I found online, on the website of the Chinese LGBT organization Utopia was relevent to the Chinese gay scene only. The expat scene didn’t seem to have any explicit online information. It’s known only by word of mouth.
Lola’s night was fun and I met a few nice guys.

Dipping further into the night

As recommended, and as a duty to research the gay scene for the sake of this post, I went to Obama on the Saturday night. I went at 11pm, with the last metro. Yes, the metro stops very early in Shanghai. It’s located at a crossroads in the outskirts, next to the elevated urban motorway. It’s a detached building looking like a stylish concert hall or theatre, separated from the crossroads by a large fountain and a driveway. You would expect to see limousines dropping off celebrities, but instead, there were only a few guys hanging out and gathering outside.

I got in (free of charge), and the inside was as surprising as the outside. The main room is large and round shaped. A central dance floor is surrounded by VIP lounges, overlooked by more lounges on an all-around balcony. It’s nicely decorated with drapes, curtains and many sumptuous lustres… pretty classy for a gay venue…

People were slowly arriving and instead of a warm up set, the DJ was keeping everyone waiting with random inappropriate tunes. The placed filled up reasonably by midnight. 99.9% Chinese, and a handful of foreigners who looked like regular patrons… The lights were turned down, volume pushed up, and international house, RnB and dance music animated the crowd on the dance floor. Three nonchalant, non-appealing and bored go-go dancers entered the stage next to the DJ desk. Surprise! They were Whites! Just as I was had told, the Whites here are a symbol of fashion, success, and send a positive image. Whites sell! They put white models in tux at an auto show here to sell cars!!!

But not only the three White lads weren’t good dancers nor had the fit body you would expect, but next to the stunning topless Asians in the crowd, the scene looked almost like a before-after ad for a gym! Even I could have taken my shirt off and got on stage without any complex…

Anyway, the place was now packed and the temperature rising. Around 1am, the stage was cleared to make room for an Asian look-alike of Beth Ditto. Same size, same style, but Asian. She sang three covers, got an ovation, and went… It was quick but really good! And the party went on.
I thought it was time for me to try the other recommended club: the Shanghai Studio.

Dip deep down under

I took a taxi (but not one of those waiting outside the club, I walked a little bit…!) to close to Eddy’s bar, back in the ex French Concession. The entrance to the ‘Studio’ is at the back of an apartment block. It’s a narrow garage-like ramp making with a few turns down to a grim and damp basement. The Studio is actually a series of dodgy and smelly rooms: two bars, one dance floor, and toilets. The toilets are a room just as big as the others. I visited them for a wee, and the at the next urinal guy started stroking when I was only gently taking a slash. No need to say I didn’t feel very comfortable… I was told it would be packed, but it was not. It resembled more a cheap sex bar than anything of a decent club. A few sleazy middle-aged Westerners hanging out either in the company of their fag hags or young Asians who seemed to be in business here… I took a look around, for the sole purpose of research again, and found flyers and advert for coming parties that seemed to confirmed my first impression: the place was a filthy dump. The only missing thing was a backroom. Or maybe there was one, but I had missed it, hopefully!

Well, that’s all I’ve seen of the gay Shanghai. Oh, I almost forgot, I hooked up with a local guy found on PlanetRomeo. Again, I’m not into Asians but they are really gifted…
In the Utopia listings there is also a gay sauna that seemed decent from the description, but considering my low interest both in Asians and saunas, I wasn’t devoted enough to try it out.

Shanghai was fun: it’s a vibrant international city with lots of traffic, culture, shopping and delicious food! But if you want to socialize and make the most of local life you’d have to speak some Chinese… else you’d rather appreciate the company of business executives, freshmen or interns, or language teachers to hang out with the expats…

Internet Resources

The Asian side of the scene: Utopia

The Western/expat side of the scene:
Time out Shanghai and its the G&L section

Gay European tourists spend €50 billion annually, new report says

A report out today shows that gay Europeans spend up to €50 billion ($65 billion or £41 billion) each year on tourism. The study comes as the Gay European Tourism Association (GETA) launches Gay Welcome, its new website to help people find gay and gay-friendly hotels, events and destinations throughout Europe.

GETA’s report, Gay Tourism Matters, estimates for the first time the number of people who live open gay lifestyles in western, central and eastern Europe at nearly 26 million, or 2.6% of the total population. This figure ranges from 5% in Western European countries down to just 0.25% in Turkey and the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe.

Drawing on existing research into the tourism spending of gay people from outside Europe, including the USA, Canada, Brazil, Japan and Australia, the report estimates that there is an additional market of €86 billion ($112 billion or £70 billion), much of which is spent in Europe. Community Marketing, the San Francisco based market research agency, reported in its 2011-2012 Annual Gay and Lesbian Tourism Report that London and Paris are the third and fourth favourite destinations for gay Americans, after New York and San Francisco.

Gay Tourism Matters

Although ‘out’ gay people only represent 2.6% of the European population, the €50 billion spend represents 8% of the €632 billion that the European Union estimates is spent on tourism in Europe each year.

“Gay people are a great market for the tourism industry” said Carlos Kytka, Executive Director of GETA. “Because we tend not to have children we have more disposable income and free time. We have a higher propensity to travel, particularly in quieter periods outside school holidays.”

Many destinations and hotels are actively promoting themselves to the gay market. European cities including London, Berlin, Stockholm and Cannes already market themselves as gay destinations understanding the value of gay spending power.

Christina Guggenberger of the Stockholm Visitors Board says that “Stockholm clearly understands the importance of targeting the gay market. Diversity, openness and respect are core values for any welcoming destination. Stockholm profits from being a popular destination for the LGBT travelers and it also supports our position as a world class destination.”

Increasing numbers of hotels are appealing to gay tourists. GETA’s GayWelcome.com website lists over 3,500 hotels and guesthouses throughout Europe that welcome gay guests. Travellers can rate their experience and recommend local attractions. The site also provides guides to gay destinations and major event listings throughout Europe.

“You don’t have to paint your hotel pink to appeal to gay guests” said Carlos Kytka. “You just need to make us feel welcome. Gay people who are questioned about sharing a double bed or excluded from honeymoon and valentine offers are not going to come back.”

GETA is rolling out programmes to help its members understand how to welcome and promote themselves to gay guests. “As societies become more open to gay men and women, businesses cannot afford to ignore this important market segment” said Kytka. “We want to improve the travel experience in Europe for gay people and help gay-friendly companies to prosper and grow.”

The Gay Tourism Matters is available for free on www.geta-europe.org.