Having been in Shanghai a couple of weeks, almost halfway through my Chinese immersion course, I decided with scholarly zest that it was time to explore. But, when I expressed interest in going to the Lai-Lai (“Come-Come”), a gay dance hall, my Chinese teacher looked rather bewildered: “Why go to this strange place when there are so many things to see in Shanghai?” I wanted to do more than smile in response, but knew that my vocabulary to date just wouldn’t be able to withstand an explanation about anthropological exploration
The minute I got out of the closest metro stop to Lai-Lai, I was in a very ‘local’ neighbourhood. Shanghai caters to more than 200,000 expatriates, and parts of the city look like Paris or Dubai.
Here, intimate life was being lived on the streets: family laundry stretched from windows, people sat at little corner eating dumplings, or roasting sweet potatoes. One woman selling bras was excitedly calling out various things to passers-by. Sadly, the exact details were lost on me as it was in the local dialect.
I finally found my way to the right building. My first impression of Lai-Lai: endearing. Men were sitting around drinking tea from tall flasks, even though the beer was cheap. The atmosphere was relaxed. The men were in their mid-forties and older; this was not a hip and happening young men’s gay club and it certainly lacked that sort of sexual tension.
They were clearly not moneyed, but had taken care to dress to the nines, many with smart suits, and some even with a handkerchief or flower tucked into the front pocket. Lai-Lai had an old-world charm, particularly when the band started up.
I had expected music like the best of Sinatra, Greensleeves, or Viennese waltzes. But the huge wooden dance floor was soon swarming with couples dancing exclusively to Chinese ‘ballroom’ music. Just like that, the tea-drinkers were fox-trotters. I watched, and then started taking some photographs. Suddenly, I was no longer an object of curiosity, but a potential threat:
“Don’t take photos,”
“Our families might see, so don’t show our faces.”
“Who are you, and why are you here?”
A little later, I noticed a guy probably in his early forties, who really knew his dance moves. I also liked something about his demeanour: confident, yet dignified. So, I took my chance and asked him to dance. He refused and I felt rejected. As if to make up for it, some of the men gave me gallant nods and quick smiles.
After a little while, however, ‘angry-young-man’ approached me and gave me a reason for his rejection. “I think you must be a nice person,” he said somewhat shyly. “But, I am…(and here he used a word that sounded like “lian”). Now, given that I have to strain to understand what people say around me in China, I felt I may have heard wrong. Gay in Mandarin is a longer word (“tongxinglian”) so it was possible the man was saying something else.
No, it turned out he was indeed telling me about his being gay. I thought it very sweet of him to make that clear, and responded slowly: “That’s fine with me, I just want to dance because you are such a good dancer!” Immediately, he took me for a twirl. I wanted another, but understood soon enough that one round on the dance floor had been meant as a peace offering, no more. He bowed, led me off the floor, then got right back to his preferred choice of dance partner (a grandfatherly type sporting a cravat and beret).
At a loose end, I wandered over to the only other woman in the room. She introduced herself as the sister of one of the regulars. “Most men who come here are married, many have kids. Several wives are fine with it, as long as the husbands come home at a decent hour. Family obligations and community reputation, you know…? That’s why it’s open only from 6:30-9pm Friday-Sunday.” I asked her why she comes. “The dancing is great, the drinks are cheap, I feel safe and have a lot of fun,” she said .
I kept thinking I should be more of an anthropologist and blend in, but for obvious reasons this was very hard to do. And quite soon, my ‘otherness’ caught up with me. The manager of the dance hall, who had received me when I first arrived, came up to me. His breath was thick with beer, and he asked if I was staying to watch the drag show. He then leaned towards me and insisted I sit next to him. My instincts told me he was far from “tongxinglian” and that I needed to get out of there.
So I did the whole “I don’t understand what you’re saying” act, and went to the cloakroom to get my things. Whereupon he raised his voice a bit, and said something to the tune of “India and China don’t get along.” I could have been wrong, but didn’t want to find out more.
I waved in the general direction of my angry young man, and left the Lai-Lai dance hall, probably never to return.
The author is an anthropologist who returned from studying advanced Mandarin at a Shanghai University