Queer Memories in Beijing
On a summer night in June 1996, queer men and women crammed into the Half and Half, a narrow bar nestled on a back street of Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood, for what was, ostensibly, a birthday party. Plainclothes cops were in attendance, too. They had followed Wu Chunsheng, an activist who had been warned by police to stay out of trouble—and out of Beijing—after he was arrested for organizing a queer party at the famed Nightman Disco. When Chunsheng noticed the cops, he hastily passed on the role of host to He Xiaopei, who had rushed back from a hiking trip from Lhasa for the party, having been promised by the party’s co-organizer, Susie Jolly, that there would be an unprecedented number of lesbians there. Someone brought out a cake and lit candles; candy and condoms were passed around.
But the birthday party wasn’t for any one person. In hushed tones, people relayed the true reason for the occasion: exactly twenty-seven years earlier in Greenwich Village, patrons of the Stonewall Inn had fought back in fury after plainclothes police raided the bar, resulting in the watershed riots of 1969. In a 2010 interview with Beijing-based LGBT organization Tongyu, Xiaopei recalled the tenderness she felt when a boy told her: “I know whose birthday it is—it’s all of ours’ birthday.” And that, in Xiaopei’s telling, is the story of how Half and Half became the first queer bar in Beijing.
Nightlife in Beijing is often hard to locate: you have to know what you are looking for. The street might look half-deserted, but turn into the right hutong, or alleyway, and you’ll find a cadre of stylish yabis in heavy eye makeup smoking in front of the unmarked entrance to a dimly-lit techno club pulsating with life. Sanlitun, in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, is the exception. After the government relocated foreign embassies from Dongcheng to Chaoyang in the late 1950s, Sanlitun became the diplomatic center of the capital. By the early 1990s, it also emerged as a commercial hub; bars—first for expats, then for locals—opened up, and its reputation as the epicenter of nightlife in Beijing flourished.
In 1996, Susie Jolly was living in the neighborhood. She had arrived from Belgium ahead of the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women on a tourist visa and soon found herself working as a volunteer program officer at the United Nations Development Program. During the four years she would end up spending in Beijing, Susie, who is British, became an integral part of Beijing’s queer scene. Her apartment at the Sanlitun Diplomatic compound, provided to her by the United Nations, became the location for regular parties. Although it was safer and more spacious than other private residences in the city, Chinese nationals were not technically allowed in the diplomatic area, so getting in depended on the leniency of security guards—the literal gatekeepers of Beijing’s emergent queer scene. While out scouting for bars where people could meet up with less hassle, Susie came upon an artist bar in a hutong that “looked as if it was not going to last long.” That bar was Half and Half.
The Half and Half served as a stable social space for identity exploration and community formation—as well as a site of political organizing.
Before long, it was a de facto gay bar. Although management was at best ambivalent about the crowd it began attracting, the formerly failing bar was happy for the business, and the new regulars were happy to no longer have to keep scrambling to find a new bar every time an owner expressed their discontent. The crowd was mostly gay men, but Susie and Xiaopei eventually succeeded in bringing more women into the scene. For a time, the Half and Half served as a stable social space for identity exploration and community formation—as well as a site of political organizing.
Susie, Xiaopei, Ah Ping, Shitou, along with several other frequent partygoers, used the bar as a space from which to organize reading groups and AIDS and reproductive health workshops. In the summer of 1997, the group established the first gay-and-lesbian pager hotline to answer questions and provide companionship for other queer people. After the hotline appeared in a lifestyle magazine, calls from queer people who lived in the shadows across China poured in. The hotline became so popular that they had to arrange work shifts to meet the demand.
As the century turned, activists were optimistic that, through continued organizing, more rights and visibility could be granted to queer people in China. “Those gatherings made people realize that, instead of a peculiar cultural phenomenon, homosexuality is composed of human beings who were very visible and alive,” Xiaopei recalled. “We came to realize our shared being, and we empowered ourselves through educating ourselves and telling our stories.”
In recent years, though, that optimism has soured. Under Xi Jinping, homosexuality has come under attack across China. Last year, Shanghai Pride was abruptly cancelled by organizers, and in July, WeChat, the largest social media platform in China, banned over twenty public accounts of student LGBT organizations. Many queer performances and parties have gone underground, ditching explicitly queer references in their advertising. Many Chinese nationalists laud these moves as halting “the infiltration of Western values” they find incompatible with traditional social norms—a claim also frequently weaponized against feminists, environmentalists, and other social justice movements.
To resist those accusations and make space for future organizing, queer activists in China are trying to develop a new narrative of their history. During a panel discussion on LGBT workplace discrimination this June, a professor recited a poem written by Zheng Xie, a highly regarded Qing dynasty painter who unabashedly celebrated homoeroticism. “When you look at the history, you know that it is absurd to accuse homosexuality of being inherently Western,” the professor said during the event. “Could we reorient our stories, so that we can still make homosexuals in China live better given our political reality?” For the professor, evoking homoerotic traditions from ancient China can help construct an indigenous queer identity, one less dependent on Western ways of being queer. But what role might gay bars like the Half and Half play in that transformation?
The gay bar’s emergence in China was intimately tied to the economic and political reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s. Under his administration, China began decollectivization in the countryside, then moved on to urban reform that accelerated market-based privatization. Concurrent with these reforms was a relaxing of attitudes toward sex and desire, especially in urban areas. The early 1990s saw a wave of books, articles, and journals take on homosexuality as a subject of ethnographic study, most notably by academics including Li Yinhe, Fang Gang, and Zhang Beichuan. They helped introduce the queer community to a curious but hesitant heterosexual public, where anxieties over “hooliganism,” the catch-all criminal category used to penalize offenses ranging from sexual harassment to homosexual activity, persisted.
In the years following the Cultural Revolution, many gay men socialized furtively, cruising in public parks, saunas, and bus stations. In Beijing, the Working People’s Cultural Palace and Zhongshan Park flanking Tiananmen Square were the famed East Palace, West Palace—memorialized in Yuan Zhang’s movie of the same name. But Xiaoping’s economic reforms led to the creation of commercial venues for queer socializing, creating a new culture of consumption-based leisure and entertainment. As the hip, straight youths partied their nights away in JJ’s Disco, gay people also found themselves in bars socializing with beers in hand. Several years into “reform and opening up,” according to queer studies scholar Wei Wei, the public—gay and straight alike—came to believe that “personal fulfillment was a real possibility and exhibiting desires was a step toward their fulfillment.”
The Western model of “gayness” alienated many people in China: it took serious capital to achieve that lifestyle.
In her book Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture, Lisa Rofel writes that people unshackled “their innate gendered and sexual selves by freeing themselves from the socialist state.” As China became integrated into the global capitalist economy, Chinese queers could also imagine themselves to be full members of what scholar Dennis Altman calls the “global gay” community. Through embracing a transnational LGBT identity, Chinese queer people learned to think of ourselves as a collective group and looked to international models for organizing in pursuit of civil rights.
It was at this time that political and cultural activism really took off in hopes of bringing LGBT issues into the mainstream. The activist Wan Yanhai, for example, pushed to destigmatize HIV/AIDS by organizing meetings between medical professionals and gay men in beginning in 1992. In 1997, the crime of “hooliganism” was struck from the law, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality. By the following summer, China’s first lesbian group, “Beijing Sisters,” was in full force, and by the fall, the first Chinese tongzhi (literally comrade, meaning gay or queer) conference convened in Beijing, followed by a National Lesbian Conference hosted by lesbians dissatisfied with the tongzhi conference’s male-centric focus. In 2001, years after the World Health Organization had done so, the Chinese Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.
But this idea of an emancipatory transformation often obscures the exclusionary undertones of an emergent gay culture, while also casting queer politics in 1990s China as an organic convergence with the Western model: of China finally catching up. “Back then, people talked about homosexuality as if it was something very modern. Being gay was almost a fashion trend,” Bao Hongwei, an associate professor at University of Nottingham who was involved in early activism scenes, told us. The narrative that gay bars and discos uniformly replaced “seedy” cruising in urban gay culture, or that a natural embrace of queer rights dovetailed with China’s supposed achievement of capitalist modernity, is a superficial reading of the material transformations that took place. Most obvious is the fact that the Western model of “gayness” alienated many people in China: it took serious capital to achieve that lifestyle.
Ah Ping recalled that many of his gay friends, who had “never even dined outside their entire life,” did not acclimate to gay bars and their consumerist model of sociality. When Susie organized the regular weekly hangout at the Half and Half in Sanlitun, she thought the space could offer a friendly environment for queer people in China to socialize. However, for many, a single draft beer that cost as much as fifteen yuan was barely affordable.
Many queer people from the Global South blame the cultural imperialism of the West for disrupting their traditional sex cultures. These tensions lingered with Susie, who was jokingly accused by Xiaopei of being a “very evil, imperialist Western lesbian, coming to instill lesbian thoughts into poor Chinese women.” Now an associate at the think tank Institute of Development Studies, Susie has written critically about power imbalances between the Global North and South in developmental human rights projects, and she frequently expresses in interviews her ambivalence about being a central figure in the queer movement of a country she is not from. “Back then, some people proposed that Chinese people should celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival, or the death of Qu Yuan, as the Chinese Pride, because people think he was a homosexual based on his passionate verses to the King of Chu,” she recounted in an interview with Tongyu. “Someone asked, why should we celebrate a Western festival? What does the Stonewall from New York have to do with us?”
Neither Ah Ping nor Xiaopei could recall when Half and Half closed; it expired slowly, quietly. Though the bar had largely evaded governmental pressure—owner Tan Han remarked in a 2004 interview with scholar Loretta Ho that the “[authorities’] general attitude seems to be to leave us alone”—the fabled bar eventually closed. In a 2006 article, Eric Abrahamsen mourned the loss: “Drag-on, Half and Half, where are you now?” With time, Half and Half faded into the background of queer history in China, where it remains largely forgotten.
A linear historiography does not accurately map the varieties of queer lived experience.
Today, though, numerous queer bars persist—under various levels of scrutiny from local authorities. There’s Lucca 390 and HUNTbar in Shanghai; the MC Bar in Chengdu; the Red Dog in Beijing, which hosts annual vogue balls; and of course, Destination, now one of the oldest gay bars still around today. Located in Sanlitun, the sprawling four-story dance club is less than two kilometers away from where Half and Half used to stand. After opening in 2004, it quickly became the most popular gay bar in Beijing. A few years ago, it began offering free HIV/AIDS testing, and then it opened a library, an art gallery, and a dance studio. The co-owner, Edmund Yang, told The Economist in 2019 that he hopes “someday we can look back, when gay marriage is legalized and society more accepting, and realize that Destination made its own small contribution.”
In 2017, Destination hosted an exhibition entitled In Search of Lost Time: Queer Memories in Beijing that posed the question: “How do you recall the past?” In showcasing archival photographs, rainbow flags, and short oral histories alongside traditional Chinese silk and paper-cuts, the exhibition offered two possible answers: you can either arrange events into a linear trajectory, or you can linger over the memories evoked by objects and places—like Half and Half—allowing for multiple narratives and contradictory interpretations. As it becomes clear that a linear historiography does not accurately map the varieties of queer lived experience, this method of juxtaposition seems fitting as more than an artistic approach. While the threat of a widespread crackdown on queer life in China grows, the right to physical proximity without the risks of declaration—for historical artifacts and interpretations, for the bodies on Destination’s dance floor—becomes a way to preserve a field of possibility. For now, perhaps it is the only way.