A Canadian In Beijing: La La Bar Land

If I can suggest anything to a fellow traveller about entertainment and experience in other cultures, I would suggest taking in the gay scene in any major city in the world. Regardless of sexual orientation, I think it’s an amazing experience and I regularly seek out the “alternative” establishments to pepper my more mainstream music and dance club prowls.

Last night, I went to a women’s bar in Beijing.

Lesbians in Mandarin are called “La La” as a slang term (see character pictured – the larger of the two, repeated twice) and this is the main “La La Ba” (lesbian bar) in Beijing.

I went out with my new friend Sarah, an Australian who’s been here for six months and has offered to introduce me to people to help launch my research. I had learned in advance of coming to this city that a woman by the name of Qiao Qiao actually ran the “La La Ba” in Beijing. She is the same woman who recently released a single on YouTube called “Ai Bu Fen,” translated into “Love Doesn’t Discriminate” (literally: “love makes no difference or separation”). It is a song about love between two women. Qiao Qiao is considered the first out lesbian artist that the Chinese music scene has ever seen.And, it’s debatable as to whether the scene really even has seen her. This song was not commercially released in China, but was released outside of the country via the internet. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and I’m yet to know otherwise. I have so much to ask her about what it has been like for her. I was excited about the possibility of meeting her.

So, with this in mind, I trekked to the southeast part of the city to a venue called “Pipe” with Sarah and several other non-Chinese women living in Beijing who regularly frequent this venue. When we walked in, there was immediately a 30 kuai cover charge (50 kuai for men! Sorry guys!) and we filed into the crowded room filled with smoke and stares and gathered at the bar to order some drinks.

The dance floor was packed with gender-bending dance moves alongside of women in heels with hair piled high and arms in the air. I was hit suddenly by memories of 1994, the days when Ace of Bass and white denim jean jackets went hand-in-hand. I watched the crowd and the crowd watched us, a gaggle of “laowai” (slang for foreigners) whose presence was impossible to overlook.

This group of women told me that I wouldn’t meet Qiao Qiao there but gave me some good hope that a meeting would be possible while I’m here in Beijing. They promised to connect me through the Beijing women’s community to the right people with whom I can put the word out about my research.

Okay then. One of Sarah’s friends bought me a beer. Let the night begin.

We found some space beside a crowded booth in the back corner and some of the women I came with immediately spotted another non-Chinese couple a few feet away. Within moments, they were pulled into our conversation and drilled as to their nationality and their reasons for being in the city. Two more non-Chinese women came through the door moments later and proved to be more friends of this crowd and joined the crew. Now, we were an inimitable posse and I was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable by the blatant divide between “Laowai” and “Zhong Guo ren” (Chinese people).

A party of Chinese women were sandwiched next to us and I veered from the laowai group and smiled in their direction. One of the women smiled back and leaned towards me to ask me if I spoke Chinese. I responded that I did that then we had a brief chat about my reasons for being here and my interest in China. She consistently complimented my Mandarin and, despite the fact that these compliments are frequent from native Chinese speakers, I lapped it up and felt inspired by my comprehension, especially above the bad dance music.

Her friend also moved closer to take in the conversation and then asked me directly if I was a “T” or a “P”? I had been warned of this question by my friend Sarah who explained that there is still very much a gender division in the Beijing lesbian world along the lines of the western expressions “butch” and “femme.” Meaning, in Beijing, women identify as either “tomboys” or “pure girls” (which is loaded with implications that immediately trigger my feminist defenses!) and there is no room for a middle ground.

I responded that I don’t identify as either “T” or “P” and they nodded hesitantly and then re-phrased my poor Chinese into: “it’s not like that in foreign countries.” I nodded in agreement despite the inadequacy of my response and the conversation moved to other things like tattoos, dancing and alcohol. Generally, it was a bar chat like any other except this one was in Mandarin.

Shortly after this exchange, I went to the bathroom and glanced in the mirror at my long(ish) hair that has grown significantly this year. And in the squatter, I also noticed that I was wearing a pair of hot pink “Tomboy Girl” underwear and couldn’t help but laugh at the apparent contradictions in my gender get-up that evening.

But really, in my world, a combination of “T” and “P” just makes “TP” — toilet paper. And the notion of cleaving my gender identity into one half or the other seems such a waste to me – like flushing away one part of yourself to express the other. Of course, this isn’t my culture and I’ll keep my opinions about gender to my Canadian self… and my pacquet of TP safely in my pocket!

Please note: the absence of “people” shots in this post is a result of the nature of the bar. They even got antsy when they saw my camera in the first place. I had to delicately and obviously take a picture of that sign and then “studious” put my camera back in its case. I guess being “out” in China (and documented) is not yet high on the agenda. Then again, this is still the case in many places in North America.