The Hidden Lives of Gay Men in China

They are called Tongzhi. They are the men who cruise the parks at night, with their eyes wandering and a hand planted over their hips. Listen to how they talk, to how their voices rise with flirtatious lilts. See how they slap each other’s shoulders in the milky dusk. It’s 7 pm on a Sunday and the kids are leaving People’s Park, their books and tennis rackets cradled under swinging arms. Couples desert their benches for warm beds. Old men and women pick up their orange peels, abandoning the Go tables they’ve been gathered around since morning.

You can hear the cars over on the next street, the honk of trucks and the skid of moped wheels. A man exits a cab at the edge of the park and adjusts his hair. He has crooked bangs and yellow teeth. His T-shirt clings tight to his chest and his pants are cropped to reveal ankles pocked with mosquito bites. He pays his fare and checks his phone.

The man with the screen name 419 (For One Night) tells him, via QQ chat, “Meet me in the back of People’s Park.” Heart thumping, teeth chattering, with sweat on his brow and a flush in his cheeks, the man with the crooked bangs enters, for the first time, the gathering place of the men who love men. 

People’s Park is not the only cruising spot for Tongzhi. Come with me, let’s walk over to the movie theater on Middle Mountain Road. It’s a small theater, with two floors and five screening rooms, three on the first floor, two in the basement. But these aren’t the rooms we’re interested in. Come, go downstairs, take a left. There, by the water fountain: the men’s bathroom. Inside, a man toys with a cigarette by the sink. He wears glasses and a collared shirt, and his fingers play around the bronze buckle of his belt.

The sink—two washbasins connected by a tray—is stained yellow and covered with graffiti. There are two stalls with squat toilets and one with a sit-down. The man with the cigarette watches the men who enter the bathroom; his eyes, fluttering, move to meet theirs. But none stop to give the signal—nobody comes to light his cigarette. He waits for several hours, and near the end of the third, he sighs, for the person who comes to light his cigarette is an old man, a security guard of 20 years at the Agricultural Bank. 

A few blocks away, over by the massage parlor on Renmin Road, you will find the Hundred Fun Lounge, a Tongzhi Internet café with brick walls the color of pigeon shit, a front entrance plastered with stickers, and calling cards—shiny pink rectangles of laminated cardboard with shirtless boys posing beside a Madame’s phone number—strewn across the carpet.

The boy’s mother tears the calendar off the wall, only to discover a taped patchwork of men’s pictures. Tall men, short men, American men, Asian men.

Inside sit several Tongzhi, chatting with their online lovers. One, a construction worker from Sichuan province, 28 years old and married, shares his life story with an American anthropologist, who writes to him from across the city. “They cannot find out,” he types, talking about his parents, “not even when I’m in my casket. It’s shameful.”

The anthropologist asks, “What about your wife? Does she know?” He responds, “She does. She saw one of my conversations with my boyfriend. But I told her it was all in her head. That it was just a joke. We have a daughter now, my wife and I. Everything is OK between us.” 


A woman cleans her son’s room in the apartment above the Internet café. Like most boys’ rooms, it’s messy—look at the pile of clothes on the bed: the wrinkled shirts, the pants sour with sweat. There are socks on the floor and a half-chewed apple rotting over a stack of old test papers. A calendar hangs above the bed frame; it’s last year’s, the front-page spread featuring a half-naked woman leaning over the characters for December 2006.

The boy’s mother tears the calendar off the wall, only to discover a taped patchwork of men’s pictures. Tall men, short men, American men, Asian men. Her husband, watching the news coverage about tomorrow’s meeting of the National People’s Congress, hears a sudden thud—the boy’s mother has fainted. Meanwhile, halfway across town, their son stands smoking between a swing and a bench in People’s Park when a man with crooked bangs approaches and asks, a note of joy in his voice, “Are you 419?” 

There are rats out tonight, and roaches as well. Tongzhi sit around on park benches, cracking jokes and laughing. The real 419 is a migrant worker from Xinjiang province. A Uighur, he has Turkic features and dark, leathery skin. He sees the man with the bangs and recognizes him from his QQ profile. His heart pounds but he cannot speak; he’s a fraud—a catfish—and he doesn’t realize that the photo he used as his profile belongs to another person, a boy of 19 whose mother, right now, sobs incomprehensibly into a phone’s cradle. 

Cell phones vibrate in shallow pockets. Men stare as the boy answers his phone. They watch as his expression sinks. “What are you talking about?” he asks. His voice is shrill; tears spring into his eyes but they do not fall. He knows he’s been found out, but the only words he can say are, “What pictures, Ma, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

An older Tongzhi, with a cut over his eyelid, moves close to hold the boy’s hand. Others join in; they pat his back, whisper advice, feed him lines. They understand that the worst possible thing has happened to a member of their group; some of them have experienced this before, while others, stone-faced, wonder if the nightmare will one day befall them. The Tongzhi with the cut eyelid whispers, “Deny it. Tell her you have a girlfriend,” remembering the day he was forced out of the closet.

He was fooling around with a man in a bathhouse when the police raided. They dragged him, naked, from under a sheath of dirty towels. He was punched, stomped on, and fined 3,000 yuan. When he couldn’t pay, they sent his mama the incriminating photographs. Before she forced him to undergo psychotherapy, she told him, “I’d rather you commit suicide.” 

For the past three months he’s been flipping through magazines to find the ads, the ones for the clinics that claim to cure homosexuality.

Across the street, a high school student gets on the southbound bus to Wanda Plaza, where a politician waits, naked, inside a four-star hotel. You might recognize the student’s face from the calling cards at Hundred Fun Lounge. A sex worker, one of Madame’s best, he earns 4,000 yuan a month, most of which he sends home to his family, peasant farmers from a rural village in Wenzhou. They think he’s an entrepreneur, that he apprentices for a clothing business, and in Wenzhou the villagers call him “Xiao Ming”—the bright one who is little.

He’s happy that he’s earning money, but a part of him believes it cannot last. Look at him now, see how he bites his lip in the blue cast of the bus. He’s scared, wondering when, and more importantly, if, he can stop having sex with men. Because at some point (he believes), he must enter society.

It’s not normal to love men, it’s illegal, it’s a mental illness. For the past three months he’s been flipping through magazines to find the ads, the ones for the clinics that claim to cure homosexuality. It’s expensive, and it might not work, but wouldn’t you try to stop yourself from committing perverted acts? 

Perverted acts. Like what the man with the cigarette does now with the old security guard in a stall of the movie theater bathroom. The man’s a third-year graduate student. He’s thinking, This is the last time. He digs through the old security guard’s boxer briefs to find a tangle of moist soap-pad hair. Tomorrow he will pay attention to Dr. Li’s lecture. His dream is to become an engineer. Have a wife, a son, a stable job with benefits.

The old security guard whispers, “Keep going.” The man’s class rank is pitiable: 12 out of 26, but he’s going to perform better tomorrow. There are 21 consonants in the English language and five vowels: a-e-i-o-u. The noun, “woman,” in English, sounds like “we” in Mandarin. The old security guard has this practiced way of moaning that makes the man want to tear his hair out.

The smell of desire is sweat and urine. The man sets a deadline: he will find a girlfriend by the end of next month. “I like that,” the old security guard says, “keep going, I like that.” The voice is breathy and disgusting and the man despairs, why isn’t he normal, why doesn’t he want this to end? 


From AGNI 91. Used with the permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2020 by Jiaming Tang.