By Michael Lowenthal
Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2010 5:00 AM ET
“Can you guess?” asked our host. “What do you think these are?” He pointed with his chopsticks to some pallid strips of meat.
It was a formal banquet in Nanjing, China, and the delicacy-laden lazy Susan gave the lie to its name, tirelessly bringing dozens of plates before me. Earlier, at the urging of the tourism council’s chief, I’d tasted the stewed sea cucumber and the congealed duck-blood soup. Now one of his colleagues, as if to up the ante, was plying us with beef tendon, piles of stinky tofu, and… “Duck tongue! I think you’ve never tried this.”
Indeed not, so I did: mild, less meat than bone, tiny salty lollipops of flesh.
Really, though, I might’ve sampled food like this back home. In Boston’s Chinatown, I bet they have it.
The thing I truly yearned to try could never be exported: the taste of native gay life in Nanjing. Our hosts hadn’t offered up a scrap about the subject. Not as palatable, perhaps, as stinky tofu?
Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in China till less then a decade ago, and it was only in December that the first government-backed gay bar in the country opened. Beijing boasts a burgeoning gay scene, as does Shanghai (where I found one club, in a labyrinthine former bomb shelter, as fun as anything in London or New York), but what about a city like Nanjing? It’s hardly a backwater—one of China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals, with a population, including students and migrant workers, approaching 10 million—but neither is it a stop on the Western tourist circuit. Nanjing attracts 100,000 Americans a year, which works out to fewer than 300 per day in the vast metropolis.
The city has its share of winning features. The first Ming tomb; Sun Yat-sen’s majestic mausoleum; a silk museum where patient workers, paired on giant looms, make two inches’ progress in eight hours. Above all else, the deeply haunting Nanjing Massacre museum, marking the infamous Japanese reign of terror. But gay life? Hadn’t seen any. At least I didn’t think so.
I’d wondered about the men I met at Sun Yat-sen’s memorial. Halfway up the 500-meter stairway to his tomb, two guys beelined toward me with a brazen sort of shyness: furtive peeks and giggles while they all but ran me over. They were in their 20s, I guessed, trim, stylishly dressed. I met their flirty glances, and they asked in a smiling mime if they could have their photos snapped beside me. Posing with me, each man grabbed my waist and squeezed tightly. Wow, I thought. In public?With a stranger? China’s fun! But once they had their photos, both men turned and loped away, without even a single backward glance. It hit me: With my lighter skin, my big Semitic nose, I was just a scenic curiosity.
If Chinese ways seemed to set my gaydar on the blink, I would have a simpler time, I reckoned, in gay bars; I’d found a few listed on the Web. And so that night, after I’d downed the salty, quackless tongues, I set out walking to scout the local scene.
Easier said than done. Unlike in Shanghai, where Pinyin names are common, Nanjing’s signs are mostly written in Mandarin characters only—to me, they might as well have been tea leaves. And almost none of the locals speak English. I studied the first bar’s street address and tried to memorize it: 221 Popsicle Man-holding-a-sparkler What-the-hell? Road. All righty, then! I walked along, chanting my mnemonic mantra. Popsicle Man-holding-a-sparkler—wait. Was that thing there a Popsicle? No, it was a…what? A sperm? I had to start again.
Fast-forward through a tiring hour of comedy-of-errors footage: wrong turn after wrong turn, my thoughts a whirl of nonsense marks, accosting strangers, following pointed fingers…
Finally I found the first address, tucked into a courtyard. A bar-and-sauna combo, said my research. A femmy man—or a butch woman; again my gaydar failed me—emerged from a shadow toward some stairs. When I approached, the person, in a panic, waved me off. “Please,” I said. I smiled and showed my map. The nervous Nelly (even this close, I couldn’t tell the gender) made a rueful book-shutting gesture and scuttled up the stairs.
At the next spot a street cleaner seemed to confirm the address. She pointed into the lobby of a residential building, brought her palms together, raised four fingers. I suck at charades. Her palms looked like…an elevator’s doors? Fourth floor? The club must be a hide-and-seek speakeasy! I rode the lift excitedly to 4, but when the doors pulled back, a padlocked metal grate kept me captive.
Damn it. Had her hands meant “closed”? Four somethings ago? Weeks or months?
I wandered the streets, feeling a gloom I’d thought was years behind me: a chokehold of confusion, emotions inexpressible, every hopeful turn a new dead end; it felt a bit too much like in the closet.
I gave up and was headed down the way to my hotel, when unexpectedly I recognized a street sign from my list. An eensie one-room market was the only shop still open, its wizened keeper slumped, head in hands. I showed him the bar’s address, and he did a funny double take, then shrugged and pointed across the little alley. (It struck me that my alienation in China had a flip side: Because I wouldn’t be able to understand a stranger’s scorn, I didn’t suffer my usual fear of asking.)
A doorman whisked me in, to the strains of a Chinese torch song, whose singer, in a miniskirt and four-inch bright-white heels, danced a slutty pole dance as she crooned. She winked at me with tarantula-legged lashes.
Lordy, what relief I felt, at last to have found this!
And then, just as fast: disappointment.
The queen on stage, peddling her cartoonish sexuality…her stringy wig…the cheesy disco lighting: The club resembled ones I’ve seen from Kansas to Cape Cod, from Copenhagen to Lisbon to Havana. It called to mind the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Gayness can be a great connector but also a cultural eraser, a lowest common denominator of customs. Not that I’m opposed to queens (I watch Ru’s show devotedly), or disco dives, or strutting sluts (God knows!). But I had crossed 12 time zones to a vast, exotic land, had braved its maze of mystifications…for this?
A craving for belonging, a horror of conforming: That has always been my gay conundrum.
Twenty or so Chinese guys were clustered around five tables, smoking, drinking, shaking cups of dice. They turned to stare—all of them did, at once—with no compunction, but sent me smiles and friendly little waves.
OK, well, you don’t get that in Boston.
I made the universal thumb-and-pinkie gesture to get a beer. When it came, a man got up and took the chair beside me. He clinked his beer-filled shot glass to my bottle, and we drank. He was maybe 40, wearing chunky black-framed glasses that I doubted he knew would make him hip where I live. We smiled and clinked and drank again, smiled and clinked and drank. That was all the language that we shared.
He moved away, only to be replaced a minute later by another guy, another toast—a pickup? No. Politeness. These men seemed less flirty than the ones who’d snapped my photo.
Meanwhile, on the stage, a new queen was performing: “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in Chinese.
Beside me sat the first singer, sweaty from the spotlights, who kissed my cheek and took my hand in hers. She had the classic chevron-shaped Chinese face, cheekbones sharp enough to hang your hat on. Her lipstick shade, if there’s any justice, should be called Mao’s Little Red Book.
“Hi!” she said. “What your name? My name Ming [something] [something].”
I tried but couldn’t pronounce it.
Fine, then. Just “Miss Ming.”
Fawningly, she told me, “You so handsome.”
Broken English sometimes does the opposite of breaking! To hear my native tongue was like a balm. (But wait, wasn’t I seeking the unfamiliar? See: conundrum.)
She asked me where I came from, my age; she stroked my arm. And then, in a tone that seemed a mix of pride and wonderment, she leaned in close and whispered, “I am boy.”
I’d known, of course, but somehow this still rang with revelation: that someone could be other and the same, all at once; that I too, so far from home, could be so much myself, wrestling with the same old set of questions.
I had a chance, later, to confirm what she’d confessed. The show had ended, and “Play That Funky Music” now was blaring. I had to piss, so I walked past all the tables, to the bathroom. No sooner had I started, at one of two flanking urinals, than Miss Ming materialized beside me. Tilting on her too-high heels, she lifted up her miniskirt, wrenched her stockings, and out flopped the proof.
Next I knew, Miss Ming smashed her lipsticked mouth on mine. I started to resist: Sorry—not into drag queens. But how would I know? When had I ever tried one?
I had journeyed all this way, and finally, here I was.
Westerners in China tend to panic at the toilets: little more than open holes in the floor. But now, when Miss Ming pulled me into the single stall, I learned a key advantage of squat toilets: nothing to obstruct a snogging couple.
We were in there for only five minutes. (OK, 10.) Miss Ming was an ardent kisser, her face and falsies smooth. The whole time, I was thinking, I am boy!
When we emerged, the club was dark, the tables cleared, no patrons—as if I had dreamed the whole thing up. There might as well have been mice and pumpkins.
Miss Ming said, “I want make love in bed with you tonight.”
My hotel, though it was one of the slickest in Nanjing, did not allow visitors after 11:30 at night, nor sharing of rooms by “a male and a female who are not bound my marriage.”
But that was just the excuse I gave. I didn’t want her. Why? Maybe because it wasn’t fair to use her as “exotic”? Or my taste buds, after all, are just too timid.
“Sorry,” I said, and pulled her close—the next day, I’d find glitter on my collar— and kissed her in the darkness, one last time. Her tongue was like a tiny, salty lollipop of flesh.
Sofitel Galaxy Nanjing
(Sofitel.com), is a 48-story high-rise, very modern, luxury hotel; Jon Jiang Hotel (JinJianghotels.com) has 24-hour check-in and budget-conscious rates.
$1 = 6.78 yuan (also called RMB)
The city is nicknamed “Duck Capital” for all the waterfowl eaten here, whether it’s prepared as baked duck, duck’s blood soup, or Nanjing salty duck, which has been made here for more than 1,000 years.
Gay bar Ye Shan Teng (48 JianKang Lu) draws a more sophisticated 30-and-up crowd, while the patrons of Red Bar (2 Beijing Dong Lu, at Beijige Square), which features nightly performances, is typically younger.
Don’t Miss This
Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. Often regarded as the father of modern China, he was instrumental in overthrowing the Qing dynasty—yet they still built him an imperial-scale tomb.
Ultimate People-Watching Spot
Gongyuan Street along the Qinhuai River was historically a spot for nobles and businessmen to visit the restaurants, dance halls, and brothels. Now it’s a popular destination lined with shopping, temples, and restaurants.
Cloud-pattern brocade satin, named for the woven pattern as beautiful as clouds, is an ancient Nanjing specialty and was traditionally given as a reward or a gift to honored guests.
You Might Not Know
Nanjing has been China’s capital at various times. The first emperor of the Ming dynasty rebuilt the city as the capital in 1368 and ordered the building of the world’s longest city wall, which took 200,000 laborers 21 years to finish.