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Culture Crave: Shanghai's LGBT Art and Culture Revolution

A guest columnist on queer Shanghai's new appetite for culture


On a dusky evening in September, a hundred odd residents packed into The Pearl for the final night of the Shanghai Queer Film Festival, the second of two unaffiliated annual film festivals catering to the city’s LGBT community. It’s a sign of the times that there’s now not one, but two such film festivals. Beijing has always had the reputation for arts-and-activism-focused queer culture, whereas Shanghai was first and foremost an LGBT nightlife hub. But gone are the days where a weekend out solely consisted of bar crawls and go-go dancers. As someone whose job it has been to keep tabs on these spheres, I’ve seen a broader trend at play in the last few years: a significant spike in arts and community focused events by and for the LGBT community.


The creative arts are more than nourishment for the mind and soul–in a lot of ways they’re tied to representation, and there’s a greater demand today to see kindred spirits on screen, online and in print. SHQFF founder Ting Ting Shi sensed this increased demand as well, because of what she believes is Chinese people’s newfound agency as consumers. “Spirit food is what Chinese people are seeking nowadays,” she says. Adding,“Shanghai is never lacking events, but I think this city needs more events that bring good content related to our own culture.”


It also comes down to a greater diversity of voices that are beginning to be represented. Professor Hongwei Bao has been keeping tabs on Chinese queer communities from his post at The University of Nottingham, and he sees a dramatic change in the city’s cultural makeup.“In the past few years,” he notes, “we have seen a proliferation of films and online videos from community members, increasing attention paid to marginalized identities, social issues, and the co-existence of self-conscious gay identity politics and queer politics.” Beyond film, online community building and proliferation of information have had a sweeping effect on how we as people relate to one another. 


So does this signify a total shift in gears? Are we going to see the gay-borhood trading the weekend meat market in for photography and tapas? Not likely. This is China’s notorious nightlife capital after all. Rather, nightlife and arts and culture-focused programming are closer now to achieving a balance. “The two often co-exist in many cities,” says Bao. “A ‘healthy’ urban ecology should be a good combination of both.” Roxie is a quite literal example of this; on evenings that it’s not serving up shots and bumping music we heard at high school prom, it visibly packs in board game nights, movie nights, art shows, pub quizzes and queer panel talks.


Co-owner Ting Ting Liang says that this came about very naturally for them. On being a bar that positions itself as an arts and community hub, she has this to say: “It makes more sense to have the two closer than further apart. We have been encouraging and supporting the arts more, and there has been major interest since we did. It’s really exciting to see how much impact can be made even from a small venue like us.”


The point is, while many remain grassroots by necessity, Shanghai’s queer cultural offerings are extending beyond SHPRIDE week, increasing in number and variety–and that’s good news for everyone. It goes hand in hand with a demand for representation, while a greater variety of events that represent differing voices, or even dissenting factions, is really just a healthy sign of growth. And seeing as nightlife is so ingrained in our urbanite culture, these watering holes actually have huge potential to raise the bar for arts and community building.  


Photo credit: Alejandro Scott 

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