This Saturday ShanghaiLGBT host their Annual Drag Party at 390
. There are prizes for the best drag shows performed by men and women, and a 2500rmb star prize for the best act of the night, plus free entry for anyone in drag (or 50rmb with a drink for the normals). Then on Sunday there’s a drag king / queen workshop with instructor Ivanna Suckalongkok. To take part in the contest, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hotmail! Keeping it real.
With that coming up, we thought it was time to drop by one of the oldest gay and transvestite bars in Shanghai. The Lai Lai Dancehall
is way up in Hongkou, buried in an old school neighborhood full of dimly lit internet bars and manky KTVs. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for the past 10 years or so, middle-aged Chinese guys gather here to dance together and sometimes watch a drag act. It’s a world away from the ripped, sceney action at Studio, Eddy’s and the downtown gay bars.
We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside. The owner’s a guy called Min Min who performs there regularly in drag. He’s a good guy but he’s understandably eager to protect the anonymity of the men who go to his club. They’re all average, blue collar Chinese guys. I imagine many of them aren’t public about their sexuality, and they don’t want some laowai turning up with a camera and ruining the fun.
But anyway, this is how things go down at the Lai Lai Dancehall. You find the place here
, on the second floor of some ratty building. It’s 10rmb to get in. The space is really large, with a sort of Bavarian beer hall kind of feel. In the middle, there’s a dancefloor and around the side you’ve got tables and sofas.
When we walked in, there were about two dozen couples on the dancefloor and another couple of hundred men sat at the sides. At the back of the room there was an ancient band singing traditional Chinese songs of yesteryear. The band were not in drag that night. The lead singer was a woman, belting out these warbley tunes through a heavy delay pedal. Beat courtesy of a Yamaha PSR-3000 “polka” preset. Sounded a bit like this:
But with more delay.
Beers can be bought from a bar by the door. Bottles of pissy Qingdao for 5rmb. Other than that, it’s hot water or bottles of flavored tea. Most of the men sat around were drinking hot water from flasks set out on the tables. No one else seemed to be drinking, despite the bargain prices.
As soon as we walked in, someone asked me to dance. Why I’d love to, I said. The dance involved a lot of twirling and holding hands. My partner would twirl me every couple of steps. I tried to twirl him but got all tangled up. I was rubbish. No one seemed to mind.
We found Min Min and he told us there wouldn’t be any drag shows that night, but that he would be performing this weekend on Saturday (tomorrow). He showed me his card, which has a picture of him in drag on the back. He looked pretty good, backcombed hair, little black qipao, shoulder-length gloves.
Most of the guys at Lai Lai were in their 40s or 50s, dressed down, three-button polos tucked into slacks. To a man, they were all super friendly. It was odd, because this sort of demographic, the blue collar, middle-aged Chinese guy demographic, I tend to find them one of this city’s more brusk types, but these fellows were all smiles. I’ve never seen so many middle aged Chinese men smiling at once.
We sat down and watched the dancefloor for a bit. Some of the men were really good dancers. There were a few couples who stayed up the whole time, doing routines, proper Strictly Ballroom stuff. They had their moves nailed down.
The guys around us introduced themselves. They said they came there to dance every week. One guy had special dancing shoes he’d brought in a nice dancing-shoe bag. Another older guy lounged back watching us over the fringe of a large, ornate fan.
They were curious about us but no one asked us what the hell we were doing there, whether we were gay or why we’d come. There was nothing particularly sexual about the atmosphere. It was very polite, almost reserved. I was there with one Chinese and one laowai friend and the rest of the place was solidly local except for two bear-looking foreign guys who were standing by the bar. No women, except the girls on the door and the singer. I’m not sure whether girls would be welcome or not.
The music changed gear and something slow came on. A more flamboyant guy with a polka dot suit and a cravat came up to me and asked me in English whether I wanted to dance with his friend. His friend hovered nervously in the background, a nice little shy guy with a grey buzzcut. We went out onto the dancefloor and he held me at arms length and we shuffled around in a circle. I looked round and saw one of the other guys I came with was also slow dancing with another guy. After a while, my guy leant in and put his arms around me as we swayed from one foot to the other. The grey fuzz of his buzz cut brushed against my chin. It was a nice moment.
Soon after this the place emptied out. It ends really early, about 8:30pm. Suddenly everyone’s up and out like someone’s rung a dinner bell. We were left alone as the band packed up. I asked Min Min where they were going next. He said the men liked to go and hang out at a local park next to the Xiahai Temple
on Kunming Road. It’s the temple that sailors visit for luck before setting out on a trip. Sure there’s a joke in there somewhere. It’s about a 15 minute walk away. We went over there with what was left of our 5 kuai beers. The park is just one of those landscaped paths that cuts across a corner on a busy street. When we got there it was full of guys, like 100 guys sitting around. Turns out there’s a sauna across the street, which is why they hang out here.
If I’d have walked past all these guys hanging around the park, I wouldn’t have guessed they were gay and this was a cruising spot. They all looked like cab drivers taking a rest or something. All of them were really friendly. I asked a few whether they were married. Most said no, or that they were divorced. The guy with the polka dot suit came up and talked to us. He could speak English and asked whether we were gay. I said only one of us was. He was cool with that. No one tried to run us off. The polka dot guy said he had a gay restaurant and showed us some pictures of him hanging out with some transvestites there. Gay restaurant with drag queens? Got to check that place out next week. Anyway, we didn’t want to ruin their gathering with our humdrum breeder ways so we left them to it.
Total cost of the night: 80rmb round trip in a cab, 30rmb to get three of us in and 15rmb for three large beers. Met a bunch of friendly people. And I got asked to dance — twice. Hen hao. It was still only about 9:30pm and I’d already met more interesting people than I do on an average weekend in the bars of downtown Shanghai. So, for those who are tired of listening to some stodgy foreigner playing tech-house at an overpriced bar, I couldn’t recommend this place enough.
Find Lai Lai Dancehall here. Stuff happens there about 6-8:30pm, Friday-Sunday. This Saturday, ShanghaiLGBT hosts its annual drag competition at 390. Everyone’s welcome to watch or perform. Those who want to perform should email email@example.com. More on that here.