Lala land: Shanghai's lesbian sub-culture

Lala land: Shanghai's lesbian sub-culture

With ShanghaiPRIDE 2010 in full swing we look at two women try to navigate Shanghai’s 'lala,' or lesbian, landscape
Shanghai lesbian - love
Love knows no bounds in Shanghai when a dedicated 'T' sets her sights on a once straight 'P'.

Shanghai native Celine, 28, always considered herself straight. But, when she was lounging at a French Concession café one day, she couldn’t help but check out a tall woman with short hair and striking features.

“I thought that she looked so handsome, just like a guy,” Celine says. “But, in my mind, I was only interested in men.”

I think my parents would eventually be happy for me, but I don’t want them to take pressure from the rest of society. The big hurdle in our relationship is our families— Celine

Still, in the cozy four-table coffee shop, it was easy to strike up a conversation and Celine and Meredith, 26, quickly became friends. One night, they went out to a club for a night of drinking and dancing. While their mutual friend hit the dance floor, Meredith spontaneously leaned over and kissed Celine.

“I liked her from the beginning but I was scared to tell her since she’s straight,” says Meredith, who says she’s known she was a lesbian, or lala, since she was a young girl. “Once I kissed her, I knew there was a chance.”

Navigating romance

At first, Celine was scared by the prospect of dating a woman, and what their kiss might mean. While same-sex couples are slowly gaining acceptance among China’s younger generation, there is still widespread discrimination. Both women asked not to use their Chinese names or identifying photographs with this article.

“After that night, I worried about how I could face her again,” Celine says. “But, a few days later, she called me.”

Months later, the couple’s relationship is going strong. They meet nearly every day, often at the same cafe which they refer to as “our place.”

With short hair tossed over one eye, a straight figure and a penchant for men’s clothing, Meredith says she’s proud when people confuse her for a man. By contrast, Celine has long hair, perfectly-sculpted eyebrows and wears dark maroon lipstick. She prefers sexier, feminine clothes like the leopard print frock she’s wearing today. 

Shanghai lesbian P and T culture

“Clearly, she’s the P and I’m the T,” Meredith says, referring to the Chinese lingo for the more feminine and masculine of a lesbian couple. The “T” label comes from the English word for "tomboy" while the “P” comes from the second half of the Chinese word for wife, or laopo.

Meredith has always been attracted to women, but Celine still self-identifies as straight -- something that’s common in Chinese lesbian culture. In fact, Meredith, like many Chinese Ts, seeks out women who don’t define themselves as gay.

“I like the challenge,” Meredith says. “I like to see if my charm and personality can win them over.”

Ps are in high demand in China, and local culture holds that Ts cater to their Ps’ every whim. Even though Celine’s house, where she lives with her parents, is far away from Shanghai’s downtown, Meredith always picks her up.

“She’s much more sensitive than men -- always taking care of me and the relationship,” Celine says. “She always listens to me.”

While Meredith likes to show off the relationship -- she brought a picture of the two to their favorite cafe and hung it up on the wall -- Celine chooses to be more low-key. She doesn’t tell her co-workers about their relationship, preferring to keep her personal life private.

Shanghai lesbian - coupleOlder generations still consider gay relationships taboo.Social pressures on Shanghai lesbian life

In public, it’s easy for the couple to show physical affection since straight Chinese females also link arms or hold hands as they walk down the street. But Meredith says the trained eye can easily spot if two women are a P and T match.

Neither has told her parents that she’s involved with a woman. Even though the couple says they’ve faced no obvious discrimination among their peers, homosexuality is still taboo with China’s older generations.

Several times, Meredith has visited Celine’s house but her mother just assumed she was a friend. Even though Meredith is convinced that her mother must know, she still tries to set her up with men. During those dates, Meredith intentionally scares potential suitors away with excessive drinking and smoking, she says, her mouth turning up in a mischievous grin.

“If I decide to get married one day, maybe I’d go abroad,” Meredith says.

Celine, too, worries about the impact of marrying a woman on her family.

“I think my parents would eventually be happy for me, but I don’t want them to take pressure from the rest of society,” Celine says. “The big hurdle in our relationship is our families.” 

ShanghaiPRIDE, Oct. 16-Nov.6, shanghaipride@gmail.com, see official website for event schedule: www.shanghaipride.com
Schmitt is a Shanghai-based writer.
Read more about Kellie Schmitt