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Enter the red dragon.

Gay life in Hong Kong has never been so dazzling. Chinese boys belt out Cantonese pop tunes in queer karaoke bars, frequent the city's sleek saunas, and cruise at chic haunts such as Propaganda and Petticoat Lane. But what if gay Hong Kong's idea of a party runs afoul of the party in Beijing?

Local gays and lesbians have reason to be alarmed. On July 1 Hong Kongers will no longer pledge their fealty to the queen but to a shipping magnate handpicked by Beijing. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's new chief executive, has stated that "social order" and "Asian values" will prevail over "individual rights."

That worries Julian Chan. He is one of Hong Kong's few openly gay Chinese men and a founder of local activist groups, including the 10% Club, a gay political group, and the Buddhist AIDS support group Isvara. "Not much will happen to our discos and bars," says Chan. "But for gay and lesbian community service groups and gay rights activists, the situation will be totally changed."

Tung has announced that all organizations will have to register with the government and turn over the phone numbers and addresses of their members. That policy alone could put an end to gay activism in Hong Kong, where most gaylo--Cantonese for gay men--already view it as un-Chinese to stir things up by coming out.

To fathom how gay life in Hong Kong could change after July 1, one need only look at what gay life is like today in mainland China. Before he arrived in California in May, Qiao Xianghe lived in Beijing, where he and his lover would typically join gay friends on Sundays at a local sports center for Ping-Pong or badminton. If a tongzhi, or comrade--a wry term for gay, since everyone in Mao's China was a "comrade"--had recently visited Shenzhen, a mainland China city near Hong Kong, the couple might watch a pirated video of The Wedding Banquet or The Birdcage.

At night their single male friends drift to urban parks like Dongdan, where some hold hands, kiss, or drape an arm around a companion's waist--unconcerned that their cruising might be within view of old men strolling with their caged birds or commuters waiting for the bus. For what in Beijing slang is known as "shooting down airplanes," the men would retreat to public rest rooms.

To a foreigner, gay life in Red China might sound titillating, even romantic. (Chinese history and literature are filled with tales like the one of Emperor Ai, who, rather than disturb his lover stretched out across his robes, cut off his sleeve so as not to wake him.) After all, China has no laws forbidding homosexuality. The government keeps the church in check, so few Chinese suffer from religious guilt.

But repressive governments don't need to rely on the rule of law. And so it is in China, where a government-ordered crackdown gives the police a green light to round up "bad elements." To the Public Security Bureau, these include dissidents, drug addicts, prostitutes, and homosexuals.

"In China it's OK to attack `bad people,'" says You Yun, a lesbian from Beijing so accustomed to discretion that she hesitates to give her real name, even though she now lives in the United States. "We no longer hate Americans. Landlords are no longer attacked. I just hope gays don't become the next hated group."

Li Jian Quan says gays in China are already hated. In September 1990 he was in a Beijing park chatting up another gay man when he and 20 others were arrested. Li says police beat him and shocked his stomach and shoulders with an electric prod when he would not admit to having had anal sex with other men. When he was released ten days later, Li had been fired from the hotel job he had held for five years.

"Once people know you are gay, life is hell," Li said in a statement at the 16th International Lesbian and Gay Association conference, held in New York City in 1994. "If you have a job, you get dismissed immediately. After that, your family cannot face the neighbors' gossip. Gays are drowned in an ocean of condemnation." But authorities in Beijing were most rankled by Li's statement to Amnesty Intentional, Asia Watch, and the Voice of America that "gays in China have no human rights."

U.S. immigration authorities have since granted Li asylum in the United States, having accepted his claim that he would be in danger of arrest or physical harm if he returned to China. Back in China, a close friend of Li's, a gay man in his 30s, was arrested following Li's public statements. According to several Chinese now living in the United States, he was beaten, shocked with electric prods, and raped during his detention.

Qiao says he began to recognize the tragedy of gay life in China only when he met gay foreigners. "You have a look of happiness," Qiao says of gay Westerners. "This is why we want to leave China. We didn't know tongzhi could have a happy life."

What keeps most Chinese gay men in the closet, says Philip Gambone, a Boston writer who has taught English in China, is the overwhelming obligation young people feel to please their parents. Most gay men Gambone met told him that they thought they would have. to get married by the time they were 30. When Gambone asked a gay friend about the importance of his own desires, the friend paused, telling him, "I don't know. I think in China, if it comes to responsibility to your parents against responsibility to yourself, you choose your parents." That pressure to honor a parent's wishes is likely to become even more intense for children now coming of age--those born in the 1980s, after China began enforcing its strict one-child policy.

In the Chinese language there is no precise word to convey the notion of privacy. In a country where most people in cities are still provided housing by their employer, unmarried people are left to live with parents or in dorms. Only a lucky few have the means to buy or rent a place of their own. There are men in China who have had sex with other men throughout their life and yet have never spent an entire night in the arms of another man.

Chinese activists decry that the state not only continues to label homosexuality a mental disorder but that it suppresses any materials that might tell anyone otherwise. You and Qiao say they did not meet another homosexual or find a book on homosexuality until they were in their 20s. Part of what makes it difficult to learn about the lives of gays in China is that Beijing doesn't permit the study of subjects it finds distasteful.

In recent years AIDS has put a spotlight on homosexuality. The epidemic has provided cover to some researchers whose interests were not only academic. Wan Yan Hai, a former researcher at the National Health Education Institute, launched China's first AIDS hot line, formed the nation's first gay men's group, and made his own sexual orientation known in a Shanghai magazine. Wan is likely the first person ever to have uttered on China's state-controlled radio, the brave words that "homosexuality is not a disease." His interviews in the Chinese media resulted in scores of letters from isolated gay people across China searching for companionship and information.

But Wan has since been fired for his outspokenness, and he says his name now appears on lists of persons who are not allowed to be interviewed by the media. Wan is, at least temporarily, staying in Los Angeles.

Yet what is revealing and sad is how one of China's most out and well-informed gay men admits to not having ever experienced real intimacy himself. He says he has had few sexual experiences and has never had a boyfriend. "I have trouble sleeping," says Wan. "I'm very frightened." In Wan's story one hears the isolation of a martian raised among earthlings. For anyone growing up under Chinese Communism, Wan explains, the trait most needed is the capacity to blend in so as to avoid the possibly dangerous label that one is "different."

For lesbians, the closet door is more firmly shut than it is for gay men. Even after searching on the Internet and querying women's groups in several countries, You has been able to locate only four other lesbians from China.

"In nearly ten years of visiting, studying, working, and living in China and Hong Kong, I had never managed to meet any women who identified as lesbians," wrote Lenore Norrgard several years ago in the gay quarterly Out/Look. "It wasn't because I didn't look: Whenever I got on a conversational basis with someone who seemed relatively open or enlightened, I would ask about homosexuality."

Despite all that has happened, Li says Hong Kong's return to China makes him optimistic that one day gays there will be able to lead a more open life. "In Hong Kong gays are making a lot of progress," he says. "They can meet openly, they have gay bars, gay clubs, gay experts who research their lives. They have rights. Gays in China will learn about freedom."

But Chan notes that mainland Chinese will have limited access to Hong Kong, since China has no intention of removing its troops from the border. "It's a communist country, man," says Chan. "They [Chinese gays] won't be allowed to immigrate here unless they have a bloody good reason."

Whatever happens to gays in Hong Kong and China, the path will likely differ from the Western model of gay liberation. At a Chinese tongzhi conference in December, some 200 gay men and lesbians--mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a single delegate from China--met in Hong Kong to discuss what it means to be gay and Chinese. In a manifesto, the delegates rejected the need to protest, lobby, or come out. Instead their approach stresses "social harmony," which they perceive as most conducive to "achieving tongzhi liberation in the family-centered, community-oriented Chinese society."

A second tongzhi conference is scheduled to be held in Hong Kong in 1998--Beijing willing.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:the future of gay culture in China and Hong Kong
Author:Kronenberg, Gali
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jun 24, 1997
Previous Article:You can go home again.
Next Article:Penalty phase.

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