A Taste of Nanjing, China
BY Michael Lowenthal
August 13 2010 4:00 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.