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Reviewed by:
  • Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China
  • Lucetta Y. L. Kam (bio)
Loretta Wing Wah Ho. Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China. New York: Routledge, 2009. xii, 180 pp. Tables, figures. Hardcover $125.00, ISBN 978-0-415-55022-2.

The rapid development of tongzhi communities in China has caught much academic attention in the recent decade. A growing body of research published in English and Chinese looks into different groups of sexual minorities in post-reform China. The book by Loretta Wing Wah Ho is one of the latest publications that offer an anthropological glimpse into the same-sex communities in Beijing during the opening up of China. It centers the discussion on the articulation of emerging gay identities in China through individual players’ sexual storytelling [End Page 187] and how these new sexual identities interact with a changing notion of Chineseness during China’s opening up. Ho foregrounds the influences of local gay activism, globalized gay culture, same-sex movements in the diasporic Chinese communities, and the recently emerged Chinese cyberspace to the articulation and negotiation of same-sex identity. She argues that the seemingly modern and liberated gay and lesbian identities in urban China are, in fact, paradoxical, fragmented, and self-censored. They are susceptible to state ideologies, built upon a fragmented (if not rosy) understanding of Western LGBTQ movements, and closely associated with a newly emerging national Chinese identity. They carefully differentiate themselves from the Western notions of gay identities and the ancient Chinese tradition of homosexuality. The articulation of gay identities, as argued by Ho, is also highly sensitive to class narratives, in particular the hegemonic discourse of suzhi (quality) in Chinese society.

The book is based on the author’s fieldwork in Beijing during her term as a visiting scholar of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2004 and post-fieldwork email and telephone contacts. Ho discusses in great details her multiple identities and positionings in the field. She was a researcher from Australia, a citizen of Hong Kong, an overseas Chinese, and a non-gay female. As an outsider at many levels — cultural, linguistic, sexual, and geographical — Ho provides a rich and honest description of the tension and challenges she encountered in local lesbian and gay communities. It is interesting to put Ho’s frustrated interactions in the field alongside her discussion of how local lesbians and gay men struggle to produce culturally authentic identities that can be distinguished from the globalized Western ones. The resistance Ho received in the field might be the very effect of this local resistance against any (imagined) cultural hegemony from the outside. The extensive discussion of the researcher’s positionings in the field, as well as the many field notes, is one of the most original documentation of how local lesbian and gay communities in an opening-up China react to the (imagined) opportunities and oppression of foreign influences. It also reveals vividly of the uneasy dialogue between contemporary China and other forms of Chineseness in the world.

The book offers some insightful observations of the internal stratification of the lesbian and gay communities in Beijing. The Chinese concept of suzhi has been widely discussed in academic works of modernity, gay communities, and forms of governmentality in post-reform China. Ho offers original observations of the urban/rural divide within the local lesbian and gay communities. The divide is more pronounced in the gay communities in China. Given the weighty representation of gay men in Ho’s research, it is not surprising that she has foregrounded it as a dominant feature in the local same-sex communities. According to Ho’s observations, the Chinese same-sex communities (in Beijing) are highly stratified by the class and locationality of their members. Suzhi is an organizing principle of the [End Page 188] internal hierarchy. It refers to an ideal notion of tongzhi image and representation that always reinforces class hegemony (and urban dominance as well). Suzhi is most pronounced as a discourse of exclusion when it is imposed on money boys in the gay community. Ho offers a brief but truthful representation of this most discriminated against group in the already marginalized gay communities.1...