No doubt many of you were flooded by images of your sweaty, shirtless friends/thirst follows on social media this Easter weekend as gaysians all over the world celebrated their own hedonistic, religious holiday in Thailand. I’ve expressed some reservations about Songkran in the past, centering on cultural hijacking, but no doubt that Songkran has evolved into a pillar of queer Asian culture. However, for many Western gaysians, their LGBT experience at Songkran and the rest of Asia is limited to drunken and/or drug-induced revelry and one-night-stands. So this week, I’d like to cast a spotlight beyond the party culture and reflect on queer communities in other parts of Asia, including China, Vietnam, India, and Singapore.
In the past, Chengdu was known for its drag queen shows; these days, many of the old performance venues have given way to nightclubs that blend pulsing beats and strobe lights with the Chinese penchant for dice games, chain-smoking, and table service. Neon letters that spell out “fingering” and “semen” in English light up the bouncing dance floor at Max, a gay bar in Chengdu’s Dongmen Daqiao area, the city’s de facto gayborhood. Next door is a lesbian bar, Queen Bee, where dapper young tomboys mostly stare at their phones until lingerie-clad hired dancers take to the stage. On a Friday night in mid-October, both bars are humming with patrons who spill out into the street in front of the barbecue joint downstairs to continue smoking and flirting.
Chengdu is home to a hardworking community of advocates, who work to increase LGBT visibility and acceptance in families, universities, and society at large. Many converge on the city because of its liberal and laid-back atmosphere, which Huang believes is a result of its substantial migrant population and ethnic diversity.
For Yu Shi, a 45-year-old lesbian originally from Yibin, a smaller city in Sichuan, it was the internet that really changed things. “It wasn’t until I was 30 that I really found a lesbian community, because someone showed me how to use [messaging app] QQ,” she says. “I was already in Chengdu by then, and I was really unhappy because all the girls I’d ever liked had ended up marrying men.” In 2002, she opened a lesbian bar, Moonflower, which is still running today.
To Yu Shi, the city’s reputation as a gay capital is a misnomer that belies the progress that the LGBT community still needs to achieve. “We should think about how to develop the movement, publicize LGBT culture, and fight for legislative changes,” she says. “We need to turn toward broader society; we can’t just entertain ourselves.”