27 OCT 2020
In this interview, queer feminist activist Susie Jolly talks about her life in Beijing in the 1990s. The interview reveals a burgeoning urban queer culture in the formative years of the queer community and activism in post-Mao China.
This interview was conducted between Hongwei Bao (HB) and Susie Jolly (SJ) on 30 August 2020. Susie Jolly is currently an Honorary Associate at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), UK, and a freelance consultant, researcher, facilitator, and trainer. She was an active participant in the early queer and feminist activism in Beijing in the 1990s. She organised queer parties in local bars and in her flat in Beijing. She was also one of the founders of the first tongzhi pager hotline and an early participant in the East Meets West Feminist Translation Group. From 2010-2017, Susie Jolly led the Ford Foundation gender and sexuality grant making program in China, as well as supporting programs on developing Chinese philanthropy, and on China’s global South relations. Before joining Ford, she founded and led the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, which made visible previously unseen connections between sexuality and international development.
Entering the Queer Scenes in 1990s Beijing
HB: Thanks very much for agreeing to do this interview. The main purpose of the interview is to understand the queer history and activism in Beijing in the 1990s. You were an important witness to and an important participant in that history. I was wondering if you could share with us some of your experiences. For example, how did you get involved in China’s queer communities and queer activism?
SJ: OK. I started studying Chinese when I was 13, inspired by my love of pandas. I first went to China at the age of 14 with my dad when he went for a trip with UNICEF which he then worked for. So before I started getting involved in China’s queer history, I had already been to China quite a bit. Also, I had been in Hubei for a year and a half, studying at Hubei University from 1984 to 1986.
I went back to China in 1994. By then, I had been working in the European Parliament for a politician. She later lost her position, and I also lost my job. I thought, since I have not been to China for seven years, it is time to go back. I wanted to be there for the Fourth World Conference on women in 1995. I thought it was an important historic moment. I went to Beijing in 1994 on a tourist visa. My friend Lucy Aitchison knew He Xiaopei and she gave me Xiaopei’s telephone number. I contacted Xiaopei when I was in Beijing. Xiaopei was living with her husband and her kid was in boarding school but came back at weekends. She said you can stay if you like, so I ended up moving in. We got together quite quickly and there was lots of friction in our relationship and her husband was also living there, but he didn’t believe in lesbianism, so he didn’t really notice what was happening or didn’t care. Anyway, I stayed with them for six months and I think during that time I heard that there was a meeting organized by Wan Yanhai.
HB: Was it the Men’s World?
SJ: I think so. I can’t remember the sequence of events, but there were a few ways that I found a kind of queer scene. One was through the meetings organised by Wan Yanhai. The other was a meeting of the women’s hotline where some queer people went and kind of challenged the homophobic discourse at the meeting, and both those meetings took place at universities. My three sources of lesbians were Liu Fang (pseudonym), Li Jing (pseudonym), and Zhang Yi.
When I was in Belgium, I met a Chinese gay couple living there. They told me that they knew a lesbian in Beijing. They asked if I wanted to get in touch with her and I said yes. It was Liu Fang. I started writing to her and she asked me to send her a photo of me. She said she liked people with very white skin and thin. So I sent her a photo of me when I’d been sick and I was very pale and very skinny. And after that, she never wrote back. I was wondering what had happened to her. In fact, she just didn’t fancy me, so she didn’t see any reason to write me any more letters. But when I got to Beijing, I contacted and met up with Liu Fang. She had famously slept with about 60 women during her undergraduate years, so she was an important channel to find women. That was one way we found people in the pre-Internet era.
We also found people through Li Jing. Li Jing wrote to Fang Gang, author of the book Homosexuality in China. She said to him, I’m a lesbian high school student in Beijing; in your book, you only wrote about men; I want to meet other women and do you know any? He said no, but about 30 women wrote to him after the book was published. So, Fang Gang put them all in touch with Li Jing. She was quite a capable organizer, so she started a letter writing network with these women, who lived throughout the country. Every now and then she would bring in a new woman visiting from somewhere outside Beijing, and even halfway across the country. She would host them for a few days and let them stay with her and bring them along to our parties and introduce them to the scene. She was very interested in playing a facilitating role in building a community.
And then, there was also Zhang Yi, a gay activist. We used to call him fulian zhuren (director of the Women’s Federation). He was lovely. I remember when we were sitting at a table outside a bar in Sanlitun, he saw two women who he thought looked quite intimate with each other. You know, back then lots of women held hands with each other but it didn’t mean they were lesbian. He would pick out people he thought were lesbians and go talk to them. He then made friends with them and invited them to our parties.
I also got to know the scene through (Gary) Wu Chunsheng. Gary and I met each other at Wan Yanhai’s meeting. Gary moved into my apartment because he needed somewhere to stay. I had a one-bedroom apartment, so Gary slept in the sitting room. He was a very lovely, interesting flatmate. We decided to start a weekly drink at the City Pub which was just around the corner. It was a pub in Sanlitun run by a straight woman who thought it was lovely having all these queer people coming every Wednesday night. We asked everyone we knew to come on a Wednesday night for a meet up at this pub.
Gary found some gay men in Beijing, and one of them was Zhuo Ren, a Taiwanese guy living in Beijing. He was once in somewhere like Dongdan Park and saw this woman with a T-shirt saying ‘queer’ on it. He started talking to her and then brought her to the scene and she was Li Hong. She grew up in Beijing and later became an Australian citizen. We became girlfriends on and off for a year or so. It was very much through these individual contacts that we created a community.
Gay Bars in the 1990s Beijing
SJ: We chose City Pub as our meeting place or have parties in my apartment. And then the woman who ran City Pub got pregnant, and she handed over the bar to someone else who didn’t like the queer people on Wednesday nights. So they suddenly raised the price of beer from about 15 yuan to about 50 yuan. Time magazine did an article on the gay scene in Beijing. The guy went to the pub just on that Wednesday night when they had raised the price. He wrote that there was a weird gay scene in Beijing where they meet in a pub where the beer costs three times as much as anywhere else.
So we had to leave City Pub and looked around for another location. Just around the corner parallel to Sanlitun in a back street, there was Half and Half, which was a bar with no one in it. It looked as if it was not going to last long. I asked them if we could have a party there on Saturday afternoon when there were no customers. They said yes. So Xiaopei, Gary and I invited everyone we knew from the gay scene (we then called it the gay scene) to the party to celebrate Stonewall. We bought a big birthday cake. I remember counting at the time that there was about 52 men, 8 women, and about the same proportion, namely 52 Chinese and 8 foreigners. Xiaopei gave a talk saying, can you guess whose birthday it is? And then everybody whispered to their neighbour and so everyone knew it was the anniversary of Stonewall. People ate the birthday cake to celebrate the day.
One of the waiters who worked there was a gay guy. He said he had only ever met two other gay men in his life and then suddenly all these queer people walked into the bar. He was serving drinks and having a good time leaning over hugging and touching people because he was so excited. He later left that bar and started his own bar called Drag On. That was several years later. We were in half and half and that lasted for quite a while and it became mostly a full-time gay bar.
Here you should note Cui Zi’en’s critique that this was me bringing in western capitalist influence by assuming that a bar would be a key location for a community. I remember once in the bar after Deng Xiaoping had just died, I was sort of being a bit flippant about Deng Xiaoping. A gay guy, whom I didn’t know, said to me: don’t knock Deng Xiaoping. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here. He was telling the kind of story that Lisa Rofel has in Desiring China: we wouldn’t be here for two reasons: first, without a private sector market, there wouldn’t be a bar running at all; secondly, this sort of bar is connected to having a particular kind of gay space, and we wouldn’t be having this gay space without Deng Xiaoping. I thought that was interesting.
The Formation of a Community
SJ: We were always trying to have some kind of community particularly for women. We often debated the question of whether you can have a community without identity or not. By the way, not just Xiaopei and I but also Da Lun (Tamara Chin) was asking this question quite a lot. A lot of women said: I just fancy women, and this isn’t some big identity for me (some, like myself, fancied men too). So how do you create a community if you don’t have an identity? Of course, you can. For example, in the Climate Justice movement, there are lots of communities that aren’t based on identity but based on something else. It seems quite a live question.
Before I got my own apartment, we had parties in Xiaopei’s apartment. When her husband was out or when he was in the other room, some lesbians and gay men would come. But it became more often that parties were held at my apartment. This was quite problematic because I was living in the Sanlitun Diplomatic Compound where technically Chinese weren’t allowed in. I remember we would have to say we were having a party, but it wasn’t very clear what the rules were, so we’d have to try to persuade the guards to let people in. Xiaopei was always very angry because it was always quite a process to get in. And I remember the guard saying, can you give us a DVD or something to watch because we are always being so nice to you. So I gave him the gay movie The Wedding Banquet (dir. Ang Lee, 1993). I don’t know what they made of that.
Although my apartment was like a foreign space, it was good to have lots of parties. I worked for the United Nations at the time and I was coordinator of the UN volunteer program. Every year, I would have a big party on UN volunteer day. I would ask all the UN to come at one time and then all the queer scene to come about half an hour later – in fact all the queer scene in Beijing. My apartment was quite small. It was just a one-bedroom apartment with a big main room and there was not much space. One year, everyone put their coats in the front hall, and it became really high with coats. Zhang Yi and his boyfriend Jay at the time, a Chinese American, lay on top of the coats embracing and snogging each other. Whenever anyone opened the door to let a UN colleague come in, they would see this. It was almost like a performance art, a tableau in the front hall, and there was a sort of culture clash, but also lots of fun having UN colleagues and the queer scene together in the same space. It was a kind of free sexual space.
When the parties started, Xiaopei and I had the idea that it would become a kind of rights movement later. I remember at one meeting, we managed to get about 10 to 15 women together in my apartment – which was already amazingly a lot. We were trying to discuss: what do you want from this community? Do you want to be a community? Do you want to organize something besides going to a bar? But no one would really listen. We were sort of shouting, what do you want? There was actually some funding to go and take part in the Lesbian and Gay Olympics in the Netherlands. We had been told by a donor that if there was a Chinese lesbian wanting to go, they would fund her because they hadn’t got any Chinese lesbians. Everyone in the room was like: what? Why? We don’t want to go. Even when you say it’s a free trip to the Netherlands, no one was actually interested in taking up the offer. And so I said: what do you want? Should we have discussions about lesbian identity or who we are? Do you want to do support groups? No, people said, they wanted to play football, have parties and pickup. I was like, OK, let’s do it if that’s what you want. So, we had a football match. I think the photo you had was it. Shi Tou, me and Xiaopei, at Yuyuantan Park, after a football match in maybe 1995 or 1996.
A lesbian picnic in the 1990s Beijing (courtesy of Susie Jolly, Shi Tou and He Xiaopei)
By about 1997 or 1998, we did have a meeting in someone else’s apartment when everyone decided, let’s start the “Beijing Sisters” group that does something more than the social. They elected people. Xiaopei decided everyone had to be elected. Like in student groups, we had director of arts and culture, director of sports, and even director of sanitation. It also had a formal structure. Just after I left, they organized a Beijing lesbian meeting in 1998 where 30 women were there from all over China. That was also relying on Li Jing’s network.
HB: So that’s the first national lesbian meeting?
SJ: Yes. That was the first one at the national level and it was more than just an evening or an afternoon. I wasn’t there, I had just left in June or at the beginning of the summer in 1998 and the lesbian meeting was in August. Xiaopei was one of the main organizers.
Note and acknowledgement:
Some names used in this interview has been anonymised to protect people’s identity and privacy. We would like to thank He Xiaopei for facilitating the interview and Phil Cowley for transcribing the interview.
In 1992, Wan Yanhai launched the first HIV/AIDS hotline in Beijing. On 22 November, Wan organised the first ‘Men’s World’, a support group for gay men, with 35 participants.
On 14 February 1993, a special Valentine’s Day celebration organised by ‘Men’s World’ took place at the Seahorse Dance Club (Haima Gewuting) in Beijing.
In 1994, Susie Jolly started to organise queer parties in her Beijing flat. She and other feminists also ran the East-Meets-West Feminist Translation Group in Beijing.
In 1995, Journalist Fang Gang published Tongxinglian Zai Zhongguo (Homosexuality in China).
On 4-15 September 1995, the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women (UNWCW) took place in Beijing. During the conference, Wu Chunsheng (Gary) organised a ‘Night-Woman’ party at the Nightman Disco, bringing together Chinese and international lesbians.
In 1996, Li Jing started a national letter-writing network for lesbians.
In June 1996, He Xiaopei led a ‘birthday party’ celebration to mark the anniversary of Stonewall at the Half and Half bar in Beijing.
In 1997, Ah Ping, He Xiaopei, Susie Jolly and Billy Stewart started a tongzhi pager hotline in Beijing.
In 1998, Li Jing, Shi Tou and others co-founded the Beijing Sisters, a lesbian NGO. The group organised regular meetings and discussions; it also ran a lesbian hotline.
In August 1998, the first PRC-based Chinese Tongzhi Conference took place in Beijing.
In October 1998, the first PRC-based Chinese Lala/Lesbian Conference took place in Beijing.
Bao, Hongwei (2020) Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism. London: Routledge.
Engebretsen, Elisabeth L. (2014) Queer Women in Urban China: An Ethnography. London: Routledge.
Ge, Youli and Susie Jolly (2001) ‘East Meets West Feminist Translation Group: A Conversation Between Two Participants’. In Hsiung, Ping-chun et al (eds) Chinese Women Organising: Cadres, Feminists, Muslims, Queers. Oxford: Berg, pp. 61-75. Available online https://motspluriels.arts.uwa.edu.au/MP2303gysj.html
He, Xiaopei (2001) ‘Chinese Queer (Tongzhi) Women Organising in the 1990s.’ In Hsiung, Ping-chun et al (eds) Chinese Women Organising: Cadres, Feminists, Muslims, Queers. Oxford: Berg, pp. 41-60.
Kam, Lucetta Yip Lo (2013) Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Rofel, Lisa (2007) Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Tongyu (2011) Beijing lala shequ fazhan koushu shi yi: Shequ lishi [Oral History of Beijing’s Lala Communities 1: Community History]. Beijing: Tongyu.