Footloose in Hongkou

Tonight I went to Lai Lai Dance Hall in Hongkou district with some friends.  While there are several gay bars in Shanghai, Lai Lai is a gay social venue unlike any other. The hall opened in 2001 and offers a uniquely discreet and traditionally Chinese way for older Chinese gay men to mingle.

The hall is located on a rather narrow street filled with out-door food vendors and clothing stores. You walk through the lobby of a low-grade hotel, up a grimy staircase, and pay the one dollar entrance fee at a small table.  The hall is rather large, with a wooden paneled dance floor at its center.  Clusters of men sit in slightly torn reclining chairs around the center.  Some have beers but most drink tea from large thermoses.  Save for some colorful Christmas lights surrounding the dance floor, the room is devoid of decoration.  A live band consisting of a drummer, a saxophonist, and a keyboardist plays on a small stage at the end of the hall.  Different men, usually in their forties to sixties, take turns singing into a portable microphone.  The songs are all in Chinese – mostly pop classics from decades before with some surprises like Auld Lang Syne.  The sound is unnecessarily loud and the quality is poor, which makes it feel like you are listening to karaoke even though all the elements of the performance are live.

But men don’t come to Lai Lai for the music or for the décor.  They come for a safe place to be able to show affection towards one another.  It is hard to describe what it feels like to see the men moving together on the dance floor.  Many of them are quite skilled, dabbling in a range of steps from polka to waltz to “eclectic freestyle.”  For the slower tunes the men just hold each other in an embrace and shuffle on their feet from side to side.  There is a rather long pause between each song, which allows the dancers time to return to the side clusters and pick new partners.  It means that your chances of being invited to take a spin are high, especially if you are a rather conspicuous young Caucasian foreigner.

I used my multiple jaunts on the dance floor as excuses to chat – part intercultural exchange, part ethnographic research.  One man I danced with works in a bathhouse in the city, but most of the others were retired.  I asked one white-haired gentleman how old he was.  I guessed five-five (intentionally underestimating), and he proudly spread five fingers on one hand and three on another.  Two men asked if I had been to San Francisco and remarked that they had heard that there were a lot of gay men there. One said he was gay and asked me if I was too.  When I replied in the affirmative he said “thank you” in English and gave me a thumbs up.  Another man asked me if I was married.  I replied that I was not yet and would wait until two men were allowed to marry in my part of America.

There is no question for me that this is a transitory space.  It would not have been able to exist more a decade ago because of public scrutiny.  But it will probably not survive more than another decade.  Despite the efforts of the police (see ), Shanghai has several gay bars downtown that are thriving with a mix of young Chinese and foreign patrons.  The men in these bars are aggressive and trendily dressed, and the drink lists and playlists are similar to a club in any major global city.

But the clientele at Lai Lai is predominantly older men (with one cheery woman who seemed there mostly to practice her footwork).  The hall affords them a space to flirt with a type of intimacy, to act on their desires in a way they have been forbidden to do for most of their lives.  The scene is endearingly innocent but also painfully desperate.  You can’t stop thinking of their wives waiting for them back at home.


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