Night Cats

9.23.2008

By Rian Dundon

I first met Huang Ping (pictured above) in the Night Cat. It was November 2006, and I was in Changsha, in the Chinese province of Hunan, photographing the underground cabaret'cum'gay disco for a project on youth culture. In the bar's windowless employee dorm room -- little more than a shoddy gesture of goodwill from its owner -- rusting bunk beds were cluttered with belongings and the motionless shapes of young bodies curled under thin blankets. Huang Ping, a transvestite and the self-professed house mom and caregiver of the bunch, was sweeping the room, intermittently stopping to apply makeup or fix his hair. The cigarette butts he pushed across the room wedged themselves between the splintering floorboards. Like sweeping sand in a desert, I thought.

A low-key oasis for gays and lesbians to meet and relax in an otherwise rough city known chiefly as the onetime home of Mao Zedong, the Night Cat was at the core of Changsha's invisible gay scene. Located above a used-electronics market in an old theater, its wide stage and wrought iron balcony betrayed a former glory, such that one could imagine the traditional operas and patriotic plays of another generation being performed there. Outside, a giant poster of Halle Berry as Catwoman directed guests past the stolen cell-phone dealers and up to the bar where teenage La-La (lesbian) girls and dance boys would be waiting with menus. There were always more employees than customers at the Night Cat, a common sight in China, where labor is cheap and competition fierce.

When the Night Cat finally closed its doors in March 2007, Huang Ping was the last to leave. A 'sister' had told him of a bar with openings near Shanghai, so he would pack up and move again, one bus ride away from a new bar and a new life.

But by February 2008, Huang Ping was back in Changsha and reborn as a man. Dressed in boyish clothes and sporting short, spiked hair, he had returned to work as a male dancer at Moon Bar, the only gay bar left in the city. It had no need for another transvestite, so Huang Ping cut his hair and started acting like a boy in order to get a job.

'Nobody recognizes me anymore!' he laughed as he showed me around his new digs. An air of pluck hung about him that I hadn't seen before, almost as if he had been playing the role of submissive woman and that now as a man he had been emboldened in some way.

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