On a wintry Saturday night in a smoke-filled bar in the back alley of Beijing’s oldest district, a beautiful dancer in a scanty chiffon outfit is performing to the music of“Butterfly Lovers.” It’s standing room only - there are at least 100 patrons, all middle-aged men. Greeted with loud applause at the end, the dancer receives 100 Yuan notes from patrons who stuff the bills inside the cleavage of his dress.
That was 2004, my first introduction to the Beijing gay scene by our field producer, Joe Zhou. We were doing research work on our AIDS awareness documentaries.
In the following months, we spoke with dozens of middle-aged gay men, though no tape recorder would be allowed. One man was so careful, he wouldn’t even let me take notes.
“Many of the members of my web site are afraid of extortion,” explained the organizer of the aptly-named web site, verytired.com. Many members are established businessmen and white-collar workers who are afraid they will lose their jobs.
In Shanghai, I saw a ballroom where hundreds of gay men - street vendors, storekeepers, tailors, laborers, mid-level office clerks - were dancing an elegant waltz. That was the one venue where they could fully be themselves. By 8:30, they were gone; the lady who ran the place explained that this was a short break for the men, most of whom then return home to their lives as married men.
“I was gay, had a great love affair with a man, I tasted the beauty of love,” an AIDS volunteer told me. “Now I’m married and I want to live a normal life with my wife and my baby girl.” But his eyes welled up with tears when he spoke.
There’s no society where it’s easy to be gay, but to be gay in China is to collide with the most central tenet of Chinese tradition: the honor-bound duty of sons to carry on the family name.
“On the Internet, I’m myself and I’m alive – the only time I can be myself,” a 26-year old TV producer told me. He was brought along by his boyfriend to the interview.
Stories like these abound as Chinese society continues to open. The predicaments are not unlike those shown in our film, only they went unrecorded because the men couldn’t risk their stories being exposed.
Tongzhi bars and clubs are flourishing in big cities throughout China. Gay men are enjoying freedoms that were unimaginable ten or fifteen years ago, and there is a movement towards greater tolerance and understanding. We are witnessing the tipping point, the moment where old pretence is falling away, even if a new tolerance is not yet solidly here to take its place. This moment of change -- profoundly uncomfortable, and unavoidable -- is the subject of the film.