There's only one kind of pink money in China--the rose-colored, Mao-emblazoned 100-yuan bill, worth about $12.50. That is, until recently. Over the past year or so local entrepreneurs have made a bold move in opening travel agencies aimed at gay customers in what is still a closeted society.
Former boyfriends Justin Wei and Wang Jue relaunched their tour company, Go Pink China, earlier this year in Beijing with Texan Valvert Thompson. Go Pink offers city and cross-China tours to gays in the United States and Europe.
"We want to be the bridge between overseas and local gays," says 28-year-old Wang. "Gay elements have been melted into every part of our tours. Say we take you on a tour of the Forbidden City; our guide will also tell you about the gay life of the emperors."
In Shanghai, China's rapidly changing commercial capital, 30-year-old Simon Yang runs Shanghai Enchanted Tours. Unlike Go Pink, Enchanted concentrates on selling packages in neighboring countries like Thailand and Indonesia to local and expatriate gays in the city.
"I am gay, and I feel free to work with gays," explains Yang, who started as a tour guide more than five years ago.
And with China due to host the Olympic Games in 2008, these agencies are riding on hopes that the country's tourism industry will really take off and that gay rights will improve.
"By the time of the Olympics we expect that the government will allow more freedom for gays. Maybe there'll even be a rainbow flag at the opening ceremony," says 26-year-old Wei.
The emergence of these travel companies has only been possible because of a growing acceptance toward gays and lesbians in China, observers say. Over the past year or so state-controlled media have been taking pains to promote a more positive view of gays. Even so, the travel companies are aware that they must tread carefully. Police occasionally break up gay parties, accusing organizers of providing a venue for sexual services. Go Pink and Enchanted stress that they never offer sex or help guests find hustlers.
"In our contract we make it very clear we are not a sex agency," says Wang. But this does not mean that Go Pink is in the closet, adds Wei. "We are up-front with all our contract hotels that we are a gay agency." Wang grins from behind his boyish glasses. "Whenever we have couples, we make sure we book them the biggest double bed."
Beijing, literally the northern capital, is reinventing itself from gray government center to 21st century metropolis. Its skyline is full of construction cranes creating new towers of glass and steel 24 hours a day. It's an architect's wet dream.
Despite the rush to modernity, this city--China's capital since the 13th century--is more than a central business district with the paint still wet. History lives in the ancient parks and palaces, in the twisting alleyways of courtyard homes, in the incense wreathed temples, and in the green mosques in the Muslim quarter. Even so, the China of Mao suits and bicycles disappeared years ago. The China today is one of Gucci and Prada (albeit knockoffs) and Nissan SUVs. It's this balance of old and new that makes Beijing so exciting.
The city is taking on more of the world's flavors. Nowadays you don't even have to use chopsticks. There are restaurants from all over China and all over the globe. There are teahouses that entertain with Chinese opera and slick lounge bars and neon and steel clubs with big-name guest DJs that you recognize from home.
China will soon be the next superpower--so they say. That in itself should make a trip here irresistible.
With just two years until the Olympics, Beijing is in a frenzy to ready itself. This means there are a wide range of places to stay, from basic bed and breakfasts to five-star luxury chains. Perhaps the most enchanting option, though, is one of the romantic hutong residences, built from restored courtyard houses. One of the nicest and cheapest is Lusongyuan Hotel (22 Banchang Hutong, 011-86-10-6404-0436, $89–$158), a stone's throw from the Forbidden City. Rooms are small but you can"t beat breakfast in the cobbled courtyard. The Red Capital Residence (9 Dongsi Liutiao, 011-86-10-8403 5303, $150–$190) offers Cultural Revolution kitsch and Qing dynasty antiques in their luxury courtyard suites. If you're into communist chic and like your service Soviet style, try The Red HouseB&B (10 Chunxiu Lu, 011-86-10-6416-7810, $40–$50). Its lobby houses a North Korean art gallery--need we say more? If you want all five stars, the impeccably elegant St. Regis (2 Jiangguomen Wai Dajie, 011-86-10-6460-6688) is gently situated in the tree-lined streets of the embassy district, just a few blocks south of the main gay club, Destination.
While "Peking duck" is slang for local rent boys, it's also the city's signature dish--thin crispy slices of roast bird wrapped in pancakes and smeared in plum sauce. Quan Ju De (14 Qianmen Xidajie, 011-86-10-6304-8987) has been delivering the goods since 1864. Superkitschy Dongbeiren (1A Xinzhong Jie, 011-86-10-6415-2588) has the firmest, plumpest dumplings in town, while just down the road the rough-and-ready Xinjiang Red Rose (7 Xingfu Yicun Alley, 011-86-10-6415-5741) dishes up Chinese kebabs and enthralls with belly dancers and charmed snakes. For fine fusion dining, try The CourtYard (95 Donghuamen Dajie, 011-86-10-6526-8883). Set in a restored hutong house next to the Forbidden City and with a contemporary art gallery in its basement, it's the epitome of swanky romance. Finally, for late night feasting, Bellagio (6 Gongti Xu Lu, 011-86-10-6551-3533) is a gay-friendly Taiwanese upmarket café that is open 24 hours and has the cutest tomboy waitresses.
The drink maestros at the sumptuous lounge Centro (1/F Kerry Centre Hotel, 011-86-10-6561-8833) shake up legendary cocktails to the seamy strains of jazz. Destination (7 Gongti Xi Lu, 011-86-10-6551-5138), the city's only Western-style gay club, gets locals and expats banging in earnest to cheesy house on Fridays and Saturdays. Urban Love Island Bar (called Qingdao in Chinese; 6 Liulichang Dongjie, 011-86-10-8316-1284), tucked up the back end of a touristy arts and crafts alley, is a warts-and-all drag bar that attracts a largely older local crowd. If you can put up with karaoke and the bruised red decor, Secret Garden (no English sign, next to Pink Loft; 6 Sanlitun Nan Jie, 011-86-10-6507-4890) is a benign gay-friendly option, while Top Club (4/F Tongli Studios, 33 Sanlitun Bei Lu, 011-86-10-6413-1019) also has a healthy homo following; Thursdays is mixed night. The girls should make a beeline for West Wing (called Xixiangfang in Chinese; Deshengmen Tower, 011-86-10-8208-2836). Beijing's only dedicated lesbian bar lurks inside an ancient city gate and has courtyard seating in the summer. On Saturdays a boisterous younger set of lesbians heads for the hip-hop at Pipe Café (Gongti Nan Lu, 011-86-10-6593-7756). Check the gay and lesbian page in Beijing Time Out magazine for updates to gay and lesbian events.
Tiananmen Square is just too powerful a symbol of modern China to miss; try to spot the undercover police in between the kite flyers. At the south end of the square are the waxy remains of Mao Tse-tung in his mausoleum. Directly north and past the iconic Gate of Heavenly Peace is the mammoth imperial palace complex of The Forbidden City, which dates back to the 15th century. Let Roger Moore tell all you about the eunuchs' antics--audio guides recorded by the former 007 star are peddled at the entrance. It may be a fallacy that you can see it from space, but you can certainly see the Great Wall of China from Beijing. To give the tourists the slip, head for the Huanghua section rather than Badaling. Dashanzi is a funky art district scooped out of a still-functional factory complex--it's an ideal place to taste contemporary Chinese culture at one of its many galleries or a good drink at its spread of wine bars.
WHEN TO GO
Beijing is a city of extremes. In the raw and dry winter months, temperatures can sink below zero, while summer gets scorching in the high 90s. As spring is frequently marred by sandstorms, autumn ends up as the prettiest and most comfortable time to come. To escape the crushing crowds of domestic tourists, avoid national holidays. The main ones are Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) in January or February, May Labor Holiday in the first week of May, and October National Day, which stretches across the first week of October.
The newly extended airport expressway means it can take only half an hour to cover the 17 miles from Beijing's Capital International Airport to downtown. You will need an international driving license to hire a car, but since Beijing's drivers are mean and often reckless you are better off taking taxis. Cabs are relatively inexpensive and plentiful--unless it's raining or rush hour (8–9 a.m. and 5–7 p.m.). A typical fare from the airport to the city center would come to about $10, while a journey inside the city would average $2.50 to $3.75. There is a subway system, but it is not very extensive. Beijing is arranged in concentric rings. Most tourist sights, hotels, and bar districts are within the third ring. Major sights are skewed toward the center and the east of the city. The walls of the Forbidden City make up the first ring, while one subway line follows the second ring.
China is gradually growing more tolerant toward homosexuality. State-owned media have begun to express sympathy with gays and lesbians while small nonpolitical help groups have been allowed to operate. Although many young people are trapped in the closet because of family pressures to get married and have a conventional family, there is a vibrant online gay and lesbian community. There is also little or no hate crime against gays--China is a secular state and is free from right-wing religious zealots that plague the West. There is no Chinese law against homosexuality, although police sometimes break up gay parties on antiprostitution grounds. Beijing has had gay and lesbian bars and saunas for about a decade now. Same-sex couples traveling to the city should have no problem booking a room together, but it is wise to keep signs of affection out of the public eye unless in a gay venue, simply as a mark of respect.