Shanghai: Art Deco Decadence in the Year of the Ox

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 17, 2021

Shanghai, China
Shanghai, China  (Source:Getty Images)

Editors Note: The author's trip to China occurred pre-COVID-19.

I'm on the bullet train to Shanghai, whizzing past the unfolding landscape at speeds up to 186 miles per hour. It parallels China's economy, which has seen a real annual gross domestic product growth averaging nearly 10 percent (through 2014) since its change in foreign trade policies in the late 70s. For perspective, the U.S.'s average rate has been below 2 percent over the last decade. But as much as some things change, others stay the same.

China's LGBTQ culture, at least by the government's standards, is a non-issue. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, but there are no anti-discrimination laws, nor is same-sex marriage legal. At a quick glance, things look bleak, but there has been some united movement to advocate change. According to a post by the Human Rights Campaign, "the only way to achieve marriage equality in China would be to pass legislation in the National People's Congress, which is not on its agenda at the moment."

I'm hoping to connect with some locals to find out what gay life is like and have consulted with Benjamin Law, author of "Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East" (Cleis Press), who spent nearly a year skipping around seven Asian countries, including mainland China.

Through our correspondence, Law shared, "From what I understand, awareness is growing. It can't not, mainly because of how news is disseminated across the world, especially when it comes to LGBTI rights. It's hard to ignore that same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, for instance. But in the Chinese context, attitudes towards things really start in the home, and the cultural shift towards accepting homosexuality in the family unit is going to take a long time."

At the suggestion of a friend, I download Jack'd, an Asian-friendly app along the lines of Grindr and Scruff. As the train nears the city center (if there is such a thing in a metropolis of 23 million people) my phone buzzes and pings with potential connections, but there is so much to see and do that I temporarily abandon technology to take in a city that makes my hometown of Manhattan look like a quaint village.

Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong  

I drop off my bags at the exquisite Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, which occupies the top 18 floors of the Shanghai IFC South Tower and celebrates a modern interpretation of 1930s Shanghai Art Deco. My room overlooks the Huangpu River with views of the Bund, but fans of contemporary architecture might appreciate the building's other vantage point, which offers an up-close snapshot of the Shanghai Tower. The stylishly fluid skyscraper, nearing completion, will be China's tallest building at a staggering 2,073 feet.

The hotel has arranged an architecture tour for me with architect, author, and historian Spencer Dodington, an American ex-pat who has been living in Shanghai for more than 20 years. His impeccable language skills help navigate the bustling streets while I'm staring upwards, but what is underneath Shanghai is just as interesting. According to Dodington, Shanghai is a low-lying city built on underground plates and rafts, and like New Orleans, subject to a potentially precarious future. A recent report by Climate Central indicated rising sea levels that could see 76 percent of Shanghai region's current population underwater by 2100 due to global warming.

Putting a "Waterworld" future aside, Dodington offers a colorful and informed walk through the various concessions, pointing out many art deco examples, including vertical, horizontal, and Chinese. Favorites include a YWCA building designed by Chinese-American architect Poy Gum Lee and the entertainment district, Xin Tian Di, which fuses old and new while still preserving Shikumen-style construction elements that was popular during the late 19th century through the 1920s.

Shanghai by motorcycle.  (Source: Matthew Wexler)

There is so much to see in Shanghai that I'd feel remiss if I didn't further engage expert assistance, so I've plotted out several more excursions with the help of Audley Travel. Founded in 1991 by Craig Burnkinshaw, the company expanded to Asia in 1996 and has been a leader in customized itineraries, earning accolades from Condé Nast Traveller, the Wanderlust Travel Awards, and more. And though I'm traveling solo (and still batting zero on Jack'd), I poked the folks at Audley regarding same-sex couples traveling throughout China.

"Naturally, all same-sex couples carefully consider the welcome they can expect from the destinations they pick for their travels. China is certainly no exception, and Audley Country Specialists, with our highly skilled guides, destination experts and handpicked hotels and properties, ensure that guests will receive a warm reception and full experience," said Shane Murphy, Audley Travel China Specialist.

"We've never had an issue of a lack of acceptance from clients or in our own extensive travels," Murphy continued. "As a gay man, I also have an appreciation for the finer things in life and a tailor-made trip allows the ability to truly customize your trip and taste level. Ultimately, Audley provides the same level of expertise for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and it's our priority to ensure each traveler's experience goes beyond expectation."

An architectural detail while touring Shanghai.  (Source: Matthew Wexler)

Shane's words couldn't ring truer as I meet up with my city guide, Apple. She's as sweet as a McIntosh as we wander the city streets, enjoy a traditional Shanghai lunch (I know I'm in the right spot when there's not a word of English on the menu), and stroll through People's Park, where locals practice tai chi, and on the weekends, participate in the marriage market when parents try to match their children based on everything from income and job status to physical characteristics. To a Westerner like myself, it appears antiquated. Still, Law reminded me how integrated and complex these issues are in the fabric of Chinese culture, for both the LGBTQ as well as the straight community.

"If you're closeted to your family, the logistics of maintaining lies—fake marriages, insisting work is keeping you busy, all that stuff—takes its toll. And for the people I know who are openly gay with their family, for most of them, it's the central source of pain in their relationships with their parents," shared Law. "Those sorts of pressures are only compounded by the daily realities of living in China: your parents relying on you as their social security, the relative lack of privacy to pursue your own love and sex life. But I think we have to be careful about the idea of calling China's views on procreation and marriage 'antiquated.' That fundamental belief of the family unit as the pillar of society is shared by most traditions and cultures. It's heightened in China because of cultural reasons, but also economic ones too."

Apple passes me along to my driver for the afternoon, Arthur from Authentic Experiences. But this is no standard car tour. Instead, I don a helmet and goggles (looking much like Snoopy's World War I Flying Ace alter ego) and climb into the sidecar of a vintage Chang Jiang 750 motorbike. Originally produced for the Chinese army in the early 50s, the bike whisks us along to various vantage points unseen by most tourists. Arthur has a keen eye for Shanghai's underbelly as we weave through the city streets and park for a bit to explore some of Old Town by foot. Overflowing with shanties, free-running dogs, and locals hawking cheaply made clothing from their doorsteps, it's a stark snapshot of China's income inequality.

We then drive to 1933, an old slaughterhouse in the American concession district. The sturdy concrete building features a maze of ramps, staircases, and bridges surrounding a center atrium, all originally designed to herd and slaughter cattle. The building was renovated in 2008 and now hosts several creative businesses, retailers, and special event spaces.

Shanghai at night.  (Source: Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong)

The sun is beginning to set, but before Arthur drops me off, we make one more stop at Waibaidu Bridge, where dozens of couples are posing against the Pudong skyline for their wedding photos. China's wedding industry brings in a staggering $80 billion in annual revenue, and it's easy to see why with the crews on hand for these customized photoshoots. It's a sea of women in traditional red gowns while battalions of brides-to-be stand on the sidelines, waiting for their turn in the spotlight and the chance to capture an elusive Shanghai sunset.

The following morning Apple picks me up from my new digs at Les Suites Orient Bund Shanghai (be sure to request a room with views of the river and Pudong skyline) and we head to Caoyang Xin Cun, a state-supported housing district established in 1951.

I requested an "authentic" Shanghai food experience from my Audley expert, so instead of booking me at a five-star restaurant, we head to this modest residential neighborhood. We walk through Tei Lu Market, a former railway station that's been converted into a cacophony of vendors selling everything from fresh fish and vegetables to household supplies. From here, we head to the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Wang (aka "Auntie"), who host our family-style lunch.

The couple's modest apartment is in one of the endless rows of utilitarian buildings. They've created a makeshift second bedroom by hanging a curtain. Though there's running water and electricity, the living quarters (except for a shiny, full-size stainless steel refrigerator) could use a loving makeover. What the space lacks in modern amenities is eclipsed by Auntie's gracious hospitality. From her two-burner stove, she produces 12 dishes, including meatballs with Chinese yam, bamboo shoots with carrot and chile, crispy spring rolls filled with gooey banana, and of course, Shanghai dumplings floating in a savory broth speckled with green vegetables.

While we eat together, the couple proudly tells me about their daughter attending college, and I wonder if she might be subject to a match made at the marriage market—or what they would think if they knew I was gay. But in this context, we are simply people sharing a meal, chuckling at our cultural differences, some translated by Apple and others as evident as my fumbling chopsticks.

On the long plane ride home, I'm struck by Law's final thoughts on China as written in Gaysia: "This is what it was like to be a ghost in this country: a person who was entirely invisible, even to yourself." As a western tourist, I felt celebrated in China: my Jack'd profile eventually yielded a few friendly meetings with locals fascinated by my life. Even strangers stopped me along the Bund, wanting to snap a photo with the first Caucasian they'd ever seen. But my interactions barely scratched the surface of what life might be like in China.

"You can't draw clear parallels between the fight for LGBTI rights in China and the fight for LGBTI rights in the West. Homophobia — virulent hatred for gays — doesn't exist in China like it does in Christian or Muslim-majority countries. However, not even acknowledging homosexuality exists creates a whole other suite of problems. It's not all doom and gloom—as young Chinese increasingly travel and migrate, they find allies, educate themselves about LGBTI issues and find a vocabulary they can adapt for use back home. But progress can be slow, especially when it's difficult to establish or define your identity in the first place."

Taking the subway home from the airport and walking my neighborhood's familiar streets (fermented chile paste, chopsticks, and other souvenirs in tow), I am washed over by what I may have prior taken for granted. I see people of all races. Restaurants and retailers of every kind, owned and operated by those seeking their own version of the American Dream. A young couple passes me holding hands, tangled in each other's arms without a care in the world. They burst into a bustling bar. A rainbow flag billows in the wind above. They are two men, happy and at home. And maybe—this, too—is in China's future.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.

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