Exploring Beijing and Shanghai

There’s never been a more exciting time to visit China

As China’s stature as a major player in the global business and political arena continues to increase, so does the visibility of the nation’s gay community. To be sure, China is still a place where homosexuality is rarely discussed out in the open, and in all but a few very large cities, you’ll find no organized gay scene. But the times are changing – China decriminalized homosexuality in the late ’90s, and prior to its communist revolution in 1949, the country had been relatively tolerant of gay people, at least from a cultural and religious perspective, for centuries.

Although the Chinese government is still a long way from passing any laws that actually protect LGBT citizens and visitors from discrimination, life for gay people in the nation’s leading tourist destinations – Beijing and Shanghai – continues to improve. And with both cities enjoying white-hot economic success and having rapidly upgraded their tourism infrastructures after the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, there’s never been a more exciting time to visit.

China’s ancient capital city of Beijing is in the northern part of the country, and the relatively modern and considerably more Westernized metropolis of Shanghai is in eastern China, near the East China Sea, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. There’s regular service between the two by plane (a two-hour flight), and it’s also quite easy to combine a visit to these cities with Hong Kong, off the coast of southern China (flying time is a little over three hours from Beijing, and two-and-a-half hours from Shanghai). If you have just 7 to 10 days, it’s prudent to focus on Beijing and Shanghai, as you need at least three days in each city to see the major attractions and get a feel for the place. If you’re planning a trip of around two weeks or more, you might consider tacking on a few days in Hong Kong, which has one of the most vibrant gay scenes in Asia.

A few practicalities to keep in mind: As long as you stay at an international hotel, you’ll always have access to cabs, and the generally multilingual hotel staff can tell drivers where to take you. Cabs are an incredibly inexpensive and practical way to get around; however, the vast majority of cab drivers in Shanghai and Beijing can neither speak nor read English, so it’s critical that you have somebody fluent in Chinese write down the names of any establishments you’re planning to visit.

Beijing and Shanghai are both fairly safe cities to walk around and explore. Exercise caution and discretion as you would in any big city, but you needn’t be overly fearful about venturing into intriguing neighborhoods and enjoying yourself in these cities. Gay culture is still very much on the down-low, but you’re unlikely to encounter hostility or unfriendliness based on your sexual orientation. Still, it’s wise to avoid obvious displays of public affection with your same-gender friends or partners. And you should also be prepared to encounter occasionally aggressive panhandlers, especially in Shanghai – if you firmly tell them to leave you alone, and walk away quickly, you’ll be fine.

Finally, although it’s absolutely possible to visit Shanghai and Beijing independently and on your own, you’re likely to have a better and more enlightened time sightseeing if you hire a local tour guide to show you around, especially if you’re planning any side trips. For instance, in Beijing, visiting a section of the Great Wall of China is a must and can be accomplished in a half-day, but it’s infinitely more enjoyable if a guide takes you and tells you what you’re seeing. You can easily hire English-speaking guides and drivers through the concierge or front desk of virtually any of the major international hotels in each city. If you are interested in taking a package tour to China, consider booking through Purple Dragon, Asia’s most respected gay-owned tour operator – it’s a reputable company that goes to great lengths to work only with legit businesses. This Thailand-based company can customize tours throughout China as well as in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and India.

Where to Play and Stay in Beijing
Beijing has a less-developed gay scene than Shanghai, but there are plenty of LGBT locals, expats, and tourists – if you look around a bit. The city has one particularly appealing, stylish gay bar, called Destination, which is near the West Gate of Worker’s Stadium, a popular and increasingly trendy area that’s within walking distance of many restaurants and mainstream but gay-friendly bars and lounges. This is a darkly lit little club with a friendly staff, lively dance floor, great music, and affordable drinks.

Destination is definitely your best bet for socializing with gay locals. But in Beijing, you’re at least as likely to meet “family” in mainstream places, such as the bars and restaurants of major hotels. Just about any of the see-and-be-seen restaurants along the entertainment strips near Worker’s Stadium, such as Sanlitun Bar Street, have at least a nominal gay scene – the neighborhood is known as the Chaoyang District. Two excellent dining-social options here are the Brazilian-inspired Alameda, and the romantic Spanish tapas restaurant, Mare. Of course, Western culture – and franchises – continue to make inroads throughout Beijing, and it’s no shock that the Starbucks near Sanlitun Bar Street is also a popular social spot for upwardly mobile types, including plenty of gays and lesbians.

Beijing has no gay-specific accommodations; however, the major international chains are all quite gay-friendly, especially the Ritz-Carlton, a sleek and contemporary property in west Beijing’s newly developed Financial Street District. This isn’t the most charming of neighborhoods, as it’s mostly a haven of banks and office towers, but the staff at the Ritz is top-notch and can help you get anywhere you’re going. The facilities – including a spa and two restaurants, Qi (Chinese) and Cepe (mod-Italian) – are simply not to be missed. The Ritz is also developing a second property, in the bustling Chaoyang District, to open in late 2007.

Closer to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Chaoyang District, the outstanding Grand Hyatt Beijing has sumptuous and contemporary rooms as well as arguably the best restaurant (called Made in China) in the city to sample authentic Peking duck and “beggar’s chicken.” The gay-friendly Hyatt chain also has another Beijing property, the ultra-luxe Park Hyatt, which opened in the Chaoyang District in 2007. If you’re looking to save a little money but still enjoy a comfortable room and a super-central Chaoyang District location, try the Comfort Inn & Suites Beijing, a reliable and well-run option with extremely low rates.

Where to Play and Stay in Shanghai
Shanghai’s gay nightlife scene has begun to take shape dramatically just in the past couple of years, and it’s easy to foresee a time when LGBT jet-setters will be flying here to attend circuit parties. For the time being, however, there are about a half-dozen gay clubs of note, the most popular being PinkHome, a swanky gay compound comprising a fabulous disco, sleek lounge, restaurant, and small hotel with pleasant, reasonably priced, and modern rooms. This is Shanghai’s first all-purpose gay getaway, where you can stay, eat, and play all under one room, and the owners have done a terrific job with it. PinkHome is centrally located, a bit west of Fuxing Park.

Relatively near the swank Bund District as well as PinkHome, Frangipani is a cool gay video bar and lounge that pulls in a mix of local and visiting women and men. Two other popular Shanghai gay bars are in a section of the elegant French Concession neighborhood along Hauihai Zhong Road: the long-time neighborhood bar Eddy’s, and the offbeat and artsy basement lounge Shanghai Studio, which comprises a long hallway filled with local art, a fun underwear boutique called Manifesto, and a cozy and convivial cocktail area. Near the fancy shops and international hotels along Nanjing Xi Lu, you’ll find another of Shanghai’s top gay dancing options, Club Deep, a late-night spot that jumps into the wee hours on weekends. It’s inside Jingan Park. A few blocks away, Bo Bo is Shanghai’s quite successful “bear bar,” a mellow little place with an avid following.

Shanghai has plenty of first-rate hotels, with the Nanjing Xi Lu/Jingan area being an excellent base. As with Beijing, two chains that really stand out in Shanghai when it comes to service as well as gay-friendliness are Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt. Along Nanjing Xi Lu, the Portman Ritz-Carlton occupies a small office and retail plaza with several fine eateries, and it’s just steps from some of the most glamorous shopping centers in Asia. For location and swanky furnishings, you can’t beat this property, which also has a top-notch spa. Hyatt has two Shanghai hotels, with the Hyatt on the Bund offering the best location – it’s close to the many fine shops and fashionable restaurants of the Bund neighborhood, and it overlooks the Huang Pu River as well as the futuristic business district, Pudong, which is home to the 88-story Grand Hyatt Shanghai. In 2008, the 101-story Park Hyatt Shanghai opened in Pudong, becoming at the time the highest hotel in the world, with rooms on the 79th through 93rd floors. It’s the perfect address if you’re looking to gain a truly awe-inspiring perspective on one of the world’s fastest-growing and most dynamic cities.

Related: Exploring Hong Kong