A potent mix of cosmopolitan openness, international culture, commercialism and the fact that the powers that be are (usually) too busy worrying about other things to pay that close attention makes for a lifestyle thrown into sharp relief compared to what the LGBTQ+ community can face elsewhere in the country. However, that reality does seep in here too, sporadically, which can make the culture feel simultaneously robust and like it’s hanging by a thread. This has led to a rich eco-system of cultural and community events shared somewhat guerrilla style, through WeChat groups, QR code scans and word of mouth.
In all, being LGBTQ+ in Shanghai is a multifaceted experience, with an imperfect but resilient culture of interlocking communities. Somewhere within its sparkly depths, there is space for whatever type of queer you happen to be.
Here are a few basic terms for those new to the city and/or new to studying the language that can help you navigate venue listings, party descriptions and resources for support.
Lesbian: 拉拉 (lala) the general term for lesbian in Chinese, but there are other more specific terms, including butch (T) and femme (P)
Gay: 同志 (tongzhi) the most commonly used of the many Chinese terms for the “G” in LGBTQ+. It also means “comrade.”
Bi: 双性恋 (shuangxinglian) a word you won’t see nearly as much as 拉拉 or 同志, because bi erasure exists in China as it does in the rest of the world.
Trans: 跨儿 (kuaer) Despite marginalization from the powers that be, 跨儿 individuals in Shanghai have access to resources and community support.
Queer: 酷儿 (kuer) The word 酷儿 is often used in a similar way as in English, as both an identity and in cultural and academic contexts to refer to the community as a whole in an inclusive way.
Opportunities for LGBTQ+ community building in Shanghai abound. In addition to ShanghaiPRIDE every June (see our entire section on them below), one of the best recurring options and a great introduction to the type of events on offer in Shanghai is Queer Talks, a monthly discussion group held at queer women’s bar Roxie. These inclusive, bilingual chats have covered an ambitious range of topics over the years, spanning mental health, xenophobia in the community, drag culture and lots more. (WeChat: RoxieShanghai to stay up to date on Queer Talks).
Another good account to follow for staying involved in community events is HUNT (WeChat: HUNTShanghai). While this bar is a full-blown nightlife situation on Friday and Saturday nights, they also offer tons of community events on weekdays, including free dance classes, game nights and Drag Bingo. They also occasionally host queer-themed art exhibitions.
There’s also options that do not take place in bars, like the Queer Run Club, which meets every Sunday at 5pm at Run Hai Lane (reach out in advance to check availability). Volunteering for ShanghaiPRIDE is also a great way to get involved outside a nightlife setting.
For LGBTQ+ individuals newly arrived in Shanghai, WeChat account Qmmunity (WeChat: Qmmunity) is a decent resource for staying on top of inclusive events, whether it be Queer Trivia night at Roxie or LGBTQ+ mixer nights. They can also connect you with support systems like queer-friendly housing group chats.
For queer-friendly networking and business opportunities, there are several recurring meet-up groups like Gentlemen’s Thursday Club and InterCompany LGBT, and ShanghaiPRIDE hosts a job fair that connects LGBTQ+ job seekers with inclusive businesses.
The options of artistically minded queers in Shanghai are also constantly evolving, but some of the most accessible and enduring are a few film events like CinemQ (WeChat: CinemQ), an excellent monthly showcase of indie queer short films from China and around the world (all subtitled in both Chinese and English), as well as the Shanghai Queer Film Festival (WeChat: SHQueerFilmFestival), which hosts events sporadically throughout the year as well as an annual Asian Short Film competition. ShanghaiPRIDE’s cultural offerings are some of the city’s best, including a film festival and annual art show.
For queer culture beamed directly into your device, Shanghai Community Radio also works with a lot of LGBTQ+ parties and groups including CinemQ and queer women-focused party series HTTP (Instagram: HTTP_Shanghai) for livestreams and video interviews.
Those with higher levels of Chinese have plenty more options for linking up with content at the intersection of community and culture, from the excellent Trans Talks (WeChat: TransTalks), to podcasts like interview series OutChina, which is produced in Shanghai (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc) as well as tons more interesting stuff disseminated in WeChat articles – searching via the vocab words above will get you started on that journey.
But the best and most personal way to stay in the know regarding new cultural events is to involve yourself in…
The Wide World of WeChat Groups
Though they can be a massive pain when trying to wade through your message history to find your actual private chats with your actual friends, when it comes to getting involved in Shanghai’s LGBTQ+ community and culture, WeChat groups are where it’s at. Lesbian Taco Tuesday? There’s a group for that. Drag Bingo? That too. Queer Mahjong Meet-up? You bet.
While many of the more established LGBTQ+ events mentioned above have official WeChat accounts and release articles that you can follow to stay on top of their schedule, many more exist much more privately (and therefore safely) in these group chats. However, it can be a little tricky for new arrivals to get involved in the groups, which require a specific invitation from the admin or a member. It’s usually something you gain access to organically over time after familiarizing yourself with the community.
If you’ve spent any time out in Shanghai at all, you’ve certainly overheard the phrase “Let me add you to the group!” exchanged between people who’ve been chatting at the bar and realized they have some kind of hobby or interest in common, whether they are looking for the best place to watch Drag Race screenings (that would be HUNT Bar on Saturday nights) or just want to enjoy some cat memes. No matter what, there’s a group for that.
Paradoxically, though queer culture in Shanghai (and everywhere) is more online than ever, it’s really only through spending time in physical queer spaces in the city that you can build a network of people and events that will get you invitations into all these groups chats, keeping you up to date on the constantly evolving roster of events throughout the city and allowing you to feel like you’re truly part of this vibrant community.
ShanghaiPRIDE is China’s longest-running Pride festival, founded in 2009 by a small group of locals and expats through a queer meet-up event propagated via email in the days before WeChat (the Dark Ages!), eventually coalescing into the festival we know today.
It’s grown with each passing year and overcome no small number of obstacles, getting creative when dealing with the realities of life as LGBTQ+ in China – for example, the annual Rainbow Bike Ride and Pride Run together serve as a clever substitute for a certain element of most Prides that is not possible here.
The first thing people often think of in connection with ShanghaiPRIDE is the parties (of which there are at least two during Pride week in June every year, and they are fabulous) but the festival offers so much more, including events that discuss and provide support for the particular complexities of being LGBTQ+ in China. These include workshops and forums, which tackle everything from Mental Health to Inclusiveness in Academia to Rainbow Marriage.
They also put on an annual Open Day, which brings together a diverse cross-section of the many groups that support LGBTQ+ communities throughout China (more on them below), a job fair, a film festival and art exhibitions.
While much of the LGBTQ+ culture in a global city like Shanghai is about embracing your identity and just living your life as a happily out human, ShanghaiPRIDE is actually in the trenches, doing the work day after day of connecting people with the resources and feelings of value and belonging they need to get to that point. The 12th annual ShanghaiPRIDE runs from June 13-21, 2020. (WeChat: 上海骄傲节).
LQBTQ+ nightlife in Shanghai is its own strange and special animal — so much so that we have a whole separate article about it — dive in here.
For context throughout the remainder of this article, just know that Lucca 390 is the city’s most popular gay nightclub, and Roxie is the city’s most popular (read: only) lesbian bar/club.
Though this is changing more and more in recent years, there’s a several block strip in Changning district around Panyu Lu and Fahuazhen Lu that has a reputation as Shanghai’s “gayborhood” thanks to its being the location of almost all the city’s major LGBTQ+ bars and clubs. Some of these have since closed, including Shanghai Studio and the beloved Eddy’s, but lots more, including Lucca 390, HUNT, Asia Blue and Rice Bar, are alive and well.
Newer spots have cropped up elsewhere in the city in recent years, and lesbian bar Roxie is in a completely different neighborhood in north Jing’an, but these few blocks remain the epicenter of Shanghai gay nightlife.
The drag scene in Shanghai remains small, but it’s everywhere if you know where to look. Lucca 390 will have a performance or two peppered throughout the night nearly every weekend, while other gay bars like Hunt, Roxie and newcomer SAOxHAUS, along with recurring queer parties like Medusa, also regularly showcase performers.
Like elsewhere in the world, the style of drag popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race is most prevalent, with lots of fishiness, glamour, professional-level dancing and pop-song focused lip syncs. Shanghai’s drag scene is fairly inclusive however, and there are also more fluid and genderbending styles, bearded queens, and several prominent drag kings.
Beyond the clubs and parties, there is also the option to see drag shows in a more theatrical or cabaret type atmosphere, most notably at cocktail bar Candor and independent theater The Pearl. These are significantly more expensive than a night out at the gay bars and can run you as much as 300–400rmb, but can be worth the occasional splurge for the production values and the variety show experience, where you can drink in several hours of fierce performances within different genres of drag rather than a scattered lip sync here and there at the club.
For those interested in trying out drag yourselves, Shanghai’s small and intimate scene is a fabulous place to do so. Many of the gay bars, including HUNT and Lucca, are safe, welcoming spaces for newbie queens and kings to show up in drag for parties and special events, which may eventually lead to an occasional gig lip-syncing or hosting an event. A few of the drag performers we know already had professional performance experience before arriving in Shanghai, but many more felt inspired and emboldened to start because of the relatively welcoming atmosphere in Shanghai compared to more established scenes in other cities worldwide.
One noteworthy annual event to mark down on your queer calendars is Lucca 390’s drag competition, usually held in November every year. With dozens of queens and kings of diverse aesthetics competing for the crown, it's the single best showcase of drag’s continued development in Shanghai and an absolute joy to experience.
There is also an amateur category with no barrier of entry, so it’s a great place for any baby kings, queens and in-betweens to bring your Drag Race fantasies to life before an audience as well as make an impression that might lead you to get further bookings later.
Shanghai has also dipped a glittery toe into the rich American culture of ballroom over the past couple of years. House of Kawakubo hosted several events to teach Voguing and runway before linking up with queer club night Medusa to host a series of ballroom competitions, which were so overwhelmingly popular that they are on hiatus until they can work out a bigger space to host them.
Most recently, April 2020 saw the launch of Voguing Shanghai, a dance studio from several members of the House of Kawakubo and other Shanghai-based performers with a background in ballroom, offering classes in all the fundamentals including Vogue Femme, Vogue Old Way, Vogue New Way and Hands Performance, plus a Heels class from notable Shanghai drag queen Mo Meaux. (Wechat: VoguingShanghai).
Any of the aforementioned activities, venues and groups are a great way to meet people, which is in large part their entire purpose. However, our dystopian (utopian?) reality is one of app dating, and Shanghai offers plenty of opportunities to get your swipe on. Grindr, which is back under American ownership after its brief stint with a Beijing-based company that launched 1,000 think pieces about data privacy, is available, along with all the other major Western gay apps from Jack’d and Scruff to Hornet and Growlr. Some but not all require VPN.
The most popular Chinese gay dating app by a large margin is Blued, which has 24 million users in China as of 2020. Compared to something like Grindr, it has much more of a social network feel, with a WeChat-esque newsfeed and a popular livestreaming feature. Other notable Chinese apps worth a try include Aloha and Tantan (known as the Chinese Tinder).
Lots of queer women in Shanghai are on Tinder, especially within expat circles, but if you’re looking for a less expat-centric experience and would also like some respite from hetero couples looking for thirds, there are several major Chinese apps for queer women to choose from.
Rela, a popular app created by a Shanghai-based team, also doubles as a social network for the community like Blued, while maintaining a Tinder-like swipe-based dating mechanism. Lesdo and Lespark are two other solid options, with a similar combo of community and dating functions. The majority of users on these platforms are Chinese and all three require some level of language skill to navigate.
10 LGBTQ+ friendly date spots
And once you’ve charmed your way into meeting up IRL…
It’s important to note that in Shanghai, almost everywhere is LGBTQ+ friendly – these are just recommendations of places with a proven track record of either queer ownership, a history of supporting the community or just a particular vibe that’s made us feel at home.
Rice Bar – Rice Bar has been around for over 10 years and is one of the few gay bars in Shanghai that’s appropriate for a cozy one-on-one drink rather than a long sweaty night on the dance floor.
Il Vino – Directly across the street from Kartel, Il Vino is a friendlier, cozier and much gayer version of that famously sloppy wine bar.
Therapy Lounge – A relatively new cocktail bar that regularly draws an LGBTQ+ crowd, with solid drinks and fabulously loud patterns all over the walls.
Trio – Helmed by charismatic bartender Kimi, Trio peddles unique craft cocktails in a neon-lit atmosphere. After several years on Taian Lu, they’ve recently relocated to a spot on Yuyuan Lu.
Bar No. 3 – Bar No. 3 may seem like a pretty standard cocktail bar, but years of research have convinced us that this cozy spot is an unofficial nexus of lesbian activity. Take a date there for the classy drinks and a warm, dimly lit romantic ambience.
Glam – Longtime allies who host ShanghaiPRIDE’s Pride Talk every year, this bar on the Bund and its delightfully campy décor has a devoted fanbase of queers with a bit more coin to throw around.
Riink – For the sporty gays, the second venue from the people behind Roxie is a perfectly campy neon-lit roller rink bar. Though Riink just moved out of its digs on South Bund, the nostalgic spot is slated to open in a bigger second location in July.
Odd Couple – Though not at all marketed as such, the 80s fever dream décor and top-notch cocktails at this bar from Shingo Gokan make it a popular spot for both LGBTQ+ date nights and friend group nights out.
Lollipop – A low-key LGBTQ+ friendly bar on Taian Lu near other popular spots like Lucca 390 and Hunt, Lollipop works for a casual date or pregame to clubbing.
Spread the Bagel – for when that “date” is more of a morning-after situation. Spread the Bagel is under queer ownership, are longtime supporters of ShanghaiPRIDE, and mostly importantly, their bagels are delicious.
Other Notable Queer- Friendly Venues
The most consistently queer-friendly of Shanghai’s underground nightclubs, with multiple LGBTQ+ parties each month, including Medusa and HTTP.
Their bookings have gotten more and more inclusive over the years, hosting some amazing queer and trans underground artists from abroad like Rui Ho and Juliana Huxtable.
This restaurant hosted the first ShanghaiPRIDE in 2009 and is the absolute OG of ally-ship, with support continuing to this day. Both their locations have a fabulous outdoor terrace and good brunch.
Mr Willis and Henkes
The Shanghai-based Aussie chef is a major supporter of ShanghaiPRIDE and other LGBTQ+ community events and fundraisers like the Red Ribbon Gala.
Support for Physical and Mental Health
For English speakers, the most accessible mental health resource is longstanding hotline Lifeline Shanghai, which has been around for years and is more queer-friendly than ever thanks to a recent major LGBTQ+ training for over 80 of its volunteers. There’s also Open (WeChat: Open噏), a bilingual 24-hour WeChat service for mental health that’s queer-friendly.
Other notable groups doing essential work in the community include Guangzhou’s Trans Center (WeChat: 跨儿心里, kuerxinli), Trans Culture (WeChat: 跨儿文化, kuerwenhua) and Beijing LGBT Center (WeChat: 北同心里, beitongxinli) all of which are based outside of Shanghai but offer hotlines as well as active WeChats with lots of accessible information.
Shanghai Qing’ai Health Center (WeChat: shqingai) is also an amazing group working to support the community with a focus on accessible and secure HIV tests, as well as providing mental and physical health resources to positive individuals.
There are many more resources based in Shanghai for gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer individuals, but because these establishments often exist in a grey area, listing them all out could do more harm than good. Many operate within the aforementioned fluid network of WeChat groups, which allows both the communities and the individuals seeking support a greater degree of safety.
Reaching out to one of the names mentioned above as well as to ShanghaiPRIDE (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a great resource for people who need help finding the right group chats and support networks for them.
This ability to work within the parameters of LGBTQ+ life in the country without sacrificing a constant push to educate, spread awareness and offer support is one of the many things that make the community in Shanghai so essential and unique.