Travel
4 min

Lala girls don’t wait in line

Cruising in Beijing's lesbian bar

Not a woman under 30 in sight: Chinese-Canadian correspondent Jo Wong navigates the P/T divide (wives and tomboys) in Beijing's dyke bar. Credit: Jo Wong Photo

It starts when she pushes me off my stool at the bar. “I’d like to sit here,” she says. Her soft, Beijing-accented Chinese is lovely. The “r” sounds rolling, with no harsh edges.

She’s got permed, pop-star hair, size large. Spaghetti strap black tank top, slightly baggy jeans held up by a white, fake diamond studded belt. A Chinese femme hipster.

In Canada, I’d be a little surprised if a stranger pushed me off my barstool. But in China pushing’s a way of life. In a country of 1.3 billion, only suckers line up. In the train station, at the grocery store, on the subway, and yes, at the local lesbian bar, you push, or get pushed over.

She’s cute. I tell myself I’m just letting her win. She hands me a lukewarm glass of China’s unofficial national drink-green tea and chivas regal-as a consolation prize.

Around us, groups of girls are flirting over pitchers of it. Pretty-boi stud types lean against babes in leather jackets, sporty dykes dance with wispy-haired funksters. Not a woman over 30 in sight.

She holds my gaze. And then: “So, handsome. Want to be my girlfriend?”

This girl moves fast. I quickly glance outside the bar window. Is that a Chinese U-Haul truck I see in the parking lot?

“Errr,” I stammer, desperately searching for the suavest way to say no. “I think we should get to know each other first. Where I come from, that’s usually how we do things.”

She frowns a little, fiddles with her glittery necklace. Shania Twain’s nasal crooning comes on over the sound system-“I’m gonna getcha baaaybe!” I quickly change the topic and ask my would-be suitor: “So, um, what’s your name?”

I’ve been in China almost a year, and this is the first time I’ve caught a Chinese lesbian’s eye. Friends blame it on my short hair and skater-boy clothes. In China’s lesbian economy of desire, I’m in low demand.

It is the femmes known as “P”-short for po, the Chinese word for “wife”-that quickly fly off the shelves into coupledom.

As a 25-year-old, slightly boyish Chinese-Canadian dyke, here I’m pegged as a “T” for tomboy. It’s a sometimes rigid, sometimes flexible label that shapes everything from who I’m supposed to date to what I should do in bed.

China’s indigenous lesbian culture has mysterious origins. Local girls tell me they think the terms P and T were imported from Taiwan and Hong Kong, where vibrant public gay movements have been active since the 1990s; others cite influences from the internet and global gay culture.

Some queer activists and scholars blame the idea of T and P on China’s Confucian-influenced history of strict gender roles, and the social discrimination facing lesbians today.

Same-sex relationships and acts aren’t illegal in China, but it was only in 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the official state list of mental disorders. In the countryside, some people still believe homosexuality is a disease that can be cured.

Pressure on young gays and lesbians to marry can be so overwhelming that some choose to wed each other to stave off family criticism. Chinese queers shopping for platonic opposite-sex partners “arrange” marriages through ads on gay and lesbian websites; some attend special parties for introductions.

However it happened, the T and P divide now dominates China’s gay scene-although there is a growing number of younger women who call themselves bufen, a word that literally means “no divide” and can be loosely translated as “flexible.”

Back at the Beijing lesbian bar, I find out my suitor’s name is Suki. She’s 23 and works at a record label, managing pop-star hopefuls. “My last boyfriend was Canadian, like you,” she tells me. “But I couldn’t stop having these feelings of passion for women.”

Unlike many younger women, Suki lives away from her parents with a roommate, giving her the freedom to pursue handsome Beijing Ts. She’s called herself a lala-China’s term for lesbian-for three years, and has already had six girlfriends.

“I’m not wearing a bra,” she says, suddenly pulling my hand up into softness beneath her shirt and pressing her lips tight against mine.

What is a Canadian T to do? I kiss her back, closing my eyes to block out the frenetic strobe lights of the bar.

“So,” Suki breathes into my ear. “When you have sex, do you take your clothes off?”

“Er, yes,” I reply. “That is generally the way we do it in Canada.”

“And when you have sex, do you let girls touch you?” she says, running her fingers lightly under the waistband of my jeans.

“Er, yes,” I reply. “That is also generally the way we do it in Canada.”

“My T girlfriends never let me touch them,” she says. “I want to touch you. Come home and make love to me.”

I believe it’s at this point I was meant to say the Chinese equivalent of “I’m all yours, gorgeous.”

Instead, I hear myself say: “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s not my culture. We need to date first… I’m Canadian.”

Did I actually say that?

I could blame the utter lameness of my answer on the green tea and chivas, or on the fact that Chinese is my third language. But in truth, I’m still a little lost in the complexities of lesbian international relations. Who would have imagined an urban Vancouverite dyke, outplayed by a woman born into what’s allegedly the Communist capital of the world?

Suki takes it all in stride. She turns her back to me, grabs a nearby spiky-haired girl and starts grinding. No more browsing the foreign goods this evening.

When I tell a Beijing-born friend about Suki the next day, she laughs and says: “Everything in China is changing-the economy, the culture, the lesbians. Some of the younger lala girls, they are very aggressive about getting what they want.”

Like I said. In a country of 1.3 billion, only suckers line up.

Oh, ambitious China, homeland of my grandparents, I’ve learned my lesson. Next time I go to Beijing’s dyke bar-or the grocery store for that matter-I’m heading straight for the front of the line.