Boys Town: Shenzhen style

Peter Davis

I had just crushed a cockroach on my table with a shotglass in Discover, a Shenzhen, China gay bar, Saturday night and was in the restroom unzipping at the urinal when I felt two small hands tenatively rubbing my shoulders. It was the helpful men's room attendant. He wasn't, as a Brit pal opined later, "trying to pull me." He was just doing his job.

Still, it's hard to answer nature's call with a 5-foot-3 inch stranger's elfin digits groping your shoulders. "Uh, no. No thanks! No thanks! Really!" I sputtered, shrugging him off, grimacing and finally completed the task at hand.

At the sink, he deftly tore off several inches of premium toilet paper for me to dry my hands and once more attempted a quickie massage, which again I literally shrugged off before throwing 2 yuan into his tip tray and fleeing back to my girlfriend.

We'd gone out to Discover out of curiousity. Gay bars aren't exactly plentiful in Shenzhen (four, according to "Mario" a young Chinese friend of my girlfriend who would know, if you know what I mean) or the rest of China and this one stood out for its cavernous (1,600 square meters) size and upfront access and location.

It's about two blocks from a Shenzhen landmark - a mammoth ground-level billboard lauding the late, great Deng Xiaoping, who could be roughly construed to be pointing in the direction of Discover, if one wanted to interpret it that way. Discover's owner, who also runs a straight, established bar in Shenzhen's primary foreign barbarian district, Shekou, told me via my girlfriend's translating that he'd been open for about 3 months and that the city moral and legal guardians were basically looking, but not telling.

We had arrived early and what with the cockroch infestation, a Backstreet Boys disc continually booming and the sight of two other early patrons - a male couple avidly watching a "Tom and Jerry" (or "Cat and Mouse" as it's cleverly known here) video and giggling hysterically at their zany cross-species antics, it wasn't exactly a promising start.

But things picked up after a few more drinks, another dead cockroach and a sudden influx of mostly sharp dressed young male professionals.

"I'll have to tell my coworkers that this is where all the cute guys are in Shenzhen," my galpal exclaimed. "Too bad they're all gay!"

By then, we were watching the second bill of a floor/variety show that began with a three guitars and drum machine playing what sounded like Chinese-inspired knockoffs of Bad Company and Foghat. Not exactly the musical mix you'd find in a US gay bar, I suspect, nor was the decor -- under rennovation from a previous incarnation, it still sported faux American frontier log cabin walls and dark knotty pine tables, booths and chairs. Log Cabin Republican, Sino-style? Or perhaps a gay barn, not gay bar? Though there were nods to the clientel with enormous Chinese beefcake posters of nude, oiled hunks deftly cupping their genitals and some other gay-related pictures/icons, including Marilyn and one drawing of a lean, mean Elvis slouching with a guitar case on a street corner apparently looking for something other than wrestling females flashing white cotton panties.

"Yeah," I said. "American women also often complain that all the good, cute guys are either married or gay." Chinese Foghat was followed by 11 very young, thin guys clad in nothing but thongs or sparkly briefs with numbers pinned to them who strode somewhat shyly one by one atop the bar, faced the audience with stone faces and then turned to model their mostly-pancake butts.

"Oh, that one is cute," C. said.

"They look terrified," I replied.

It turned out they were male hookers up for bid. Patrons picked a number they liked and then negotiated in the back of Discover over fees and terms. The audience - it was packed by now, easily 300-plus and 99.7% male - responded neutrally. No hoots, cheers, applause or cat calls. It was mostly young business types who smoked, drank and threw dice from cups non-stop, though a few queens dressed in slim chest baring shirts with rabbit or cat fur collars minced around the edges.

Under a blue and white banner that proclaimed in Chinese: "Surrender to passion. Become the man-storm!" the entertainment took a cross-dressing cultural turn for Act 3; a traditional Tibetan folk dance featuring two guys in Tibetan drag and three in traditional Tibetan male clothes, one of whom sported none-traditional ethnic spiky hair and black retangular emo glasses. No one camped it up, though. It was like watching the equivalent of an American square dance with gingham-clad transvestites. Or maybe a cross-dressing Amish barn raising.

Act 4 was a male fashion show. Again, no camping or vamping. Just cute guys modeling slightly bargain basement-looking sport coats, sweaters, slacks and shirts amid silently farting fog machines.

The emcee - no Joel Grey in Cabaret, he - then favored us with an overly long rendition of lip-synched popular songs, including one for which C translated the chorus as: "I love you like a mouse loves rice. I miss you like a hooligan misses girls."

Tender words and just the thing to set the stage for the high - or low - point. It was a very loosely Bollywood-influenced temple dance with a "priestess" in a sparkly red baggy halter top and three attendants/devotees clad in black and brown vinyl wraps and old shag carpet remnants or pieces of Sonny Bono's moth-eaten fur caveman vest tied to their sunken chests. Between doing her/his best Kali-cruises-Sunset Strip moves, "Her" Worship submitted gracefully to the simulated hump and grinds of the devoted trio.

A hard act to follow, as the less-than-enthusastic bidding that proceeded for bottles of Chivas, Jack Daniels and Great Wall red wine hawked by the still-cheerful emcee proved. But the man-storm was still going strong, the dice rattling and Tsing Tao beer flowing when my girlfriend and I left, with another rendition of "I miss you like a hooligan misses girls" echoing in our ears.

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