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Chengdu, China has a reputation for being the gayest little city in the country, a comfortable spot outside of the twin mega-metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai for the same-sex inclined. I determined to visit the city to find out first-hand if it deserved the reputation that preceded it, much to the horror of a Chinese friend who exclaimed that she knew a guy who went there and “became a gay.” Was there something in the water? Would I feel it in the air? It was time for some reconnaissance. 

Unlike U.S. cities with a gay-friendly reputation, there is no “gay” neighborhood in Chengdu. Homosexuality is very much taboo in socially conservative China, so I didn’t have my breath held for a Castro Street or Chelsea equivalent (although wouldn’t that have been a pleasant surprise?). 

The scene was limited – I had four bars to choose from in total. The oldest gay club in the city is Bianzou, formerly 1+1 club, which features cabaret performances and is noted for its drag shows. Preferring instead to shake my groove thing, I proceeded to what I thought would be an alternative, Mu Di Di (Destination).The online write-up declared it a “beautifully designed gay bar and karaoke club,” so I was surprised to find the small space bathed in cheesy red light, although the blow-up dolphins dangling from the ceiling annulled any sex-district connotations. 

I arrived in the middle of a fast-paced drag show and saw no other foreigners around. I took a stand across from the performances and watched as the more traditionally clothed queens (think Beijing opera get-ups) basked in their popularity, proven by an audience that voted for its favorites with flowers – much sweeter than dollars in the waistband. The show came to a conclusion a little before one in the morning and that’s when I called it quits as well, entertained but frustrated. Was this the “scene”? How was a foreigner supposed to get in on the action? 

The next night I headed out a little later in the evening to MC bar, the city’s most recently opened gay institution and its most popular. I was discouraged to find it set up in what I’ve come to consider a uniquely Chinese style. Tables crowded the limited floor space and a small stage, surrounded by the bar, served as a performance area. Chinese sit at the tables and order fruit plates and French fries, then play dice games and shout to each other over music played at a volume only acceptable for the most aggressive of raves. 

I weaved in and out of groups of guys speaking only Chinese and found my way to a bartender. After pointing to a bottle and shouting “One of these!” about ten times, I realized that, despite being behind the bar, I was in fact harassing a random stranger.

Around the time the lip-synching mock-violinist took to the stage to mime Cotton-Eye Joe, I threw in the towel. The music was dated and more than once brought to mind my mother’s “Fired Up!” workout tapes. 

To wind up the evening I ventured hesitatingly into MC sauna next door. Having only heard tell of such places I feared the worst, – an open-air orgy? – but found only lockers, showers and a menu of treatments. The action, if any, would have to take place behind closed doors in the VIP section. I suppose it’s nice to know that kind of thing is available in Chengdu if you’re interested, but I wasn’t, so I turned around and left. 

There isn’t gay juice coming out of the taps and the sky doesn’t have a mysterious biological penchant for conjuring up rainbows, but by Chinese standards, Chengdu is the gayest little city (of 10 million) in the country. It is a place Chinese men can comfortably reach out to each other and it was nice to find that there is also an LGBT resource center in the city, although the LGBT community is itself too much of a pressurized issue to offer the kind of experience a Western traveler might expect. 

If you want an outrageous story to tell, visit Bangkok. If you want a peek into growing up gay in China, visit Chengdu.

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