Transgender Dancer's Hard Road to Love
Portraits of Young People in a Changing China
New America Media, Personal voice/Photo essay, Huang Ping - as told to Rian Dundon Posted: Sep 09, 2008
Editor's Note: As the glamour of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fades, NAM takes a post-Olympic look at the country and the real lives of people there. Photographer Rian Dundon captured images and crafted intimate portraits of the lives of young Chinese men and women in a changing society. In the third in a series, Dundon profiles 20-year-old Huang Ping, a transgender dancer who worked at Changsha’s first gay bar, the Night Cat, for three years until it was recently shut down.
Her coworkers there were mostly gay and transgender migrants—transient performers floating between different bars and clubs throughout the country. Like many gay bars in China, it featured a nightly variety show with acts that ranged from traditional Chinese opera to more explicit striptease. Since homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, it has seen greater acceptance in large cities like Changsha.
CHANGSHA, China—My mother had always wanted a girl, so even as I grew inside her stomach she hoped that I would come out female. When she finally gave birth to me and realized I was a boy she decided to raise me as a girl anyway by dressing me in female clothes. Then, when I turned 2, my parents divorced and the judge gave my mother custody of my brother and sent me to live with my father. My father later married again, and I’ve only met my mom five times since the divorce. I didn’t know my mother’s phone number for a long time, but in the last year I have gotten back in touch with her, and now we talk by phone.
My father lives in Changsha, but I only go home during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). We don’t have a lot to say to each other. My father doesn’t know about my work at the gay bar, only that I am a dancer. I think one day I will have to tell him, but not now. My father is not well-educated, and I don’t think he can accept the truth that I am a transgender person.
Last year, when I went home during the Spring Festival, my family told me they want to build a new house and save a room for me and my future wife. I didn’t respond. Then, they asked if I have a girlfriend and I replied, “No, I have no interest.” My father said nothing. I know my father suspects that I am gay.
When I was still in school, a boy I knew came to my home to play one day. That night, the boy stayed over and slept with me in my bed. My father was working the night shift and I didn’t think he would return. But he did, and when he opened the door he saw us sleeping, and the boy was holding me. The following day, my father asked me very directly if I was gay and I told him, “No.”
I’ve been working here at the Night Cat for almost three years. My main job is to dance, but I am also in charge of the employee dormitory. I arrange and organize all the roommates and the cleaning schedule. Our salary is related to the business at the bar, so if the business is not good we don’t get paid. I usually make about 600 RMB (85 USD) per month. Liu Chang, the waitress, gets about 300 RMB, and if she does good business she can get a little more. If business is really good we are told we can get a salary of 1000 RMB, but in the past three years I’ve never earned that much in one month.
Because this is a gay bar, most of the employees are handsome boys who come here to work and accompany customers as they drink. Someone told me that in the past this bar had money boys (male prostitutes), but I haven’t seen any lately. I believe there are still some money boys here, but if so, it’s a private affair. Of course, the bar will get paid from this type of business as well.
I recently got a new boyfriend. We met each other online and it’s really a story of fate as to how we came together. I was surfing on QQ space (a popular online social networking forum in China) and I saw his profile. He happened to also see mine at the same time. We talked for a few weeks and I thought, wow, he’s a great person, a really moral person. I wasn’t the first to say “I like you”—he was.
He told me that his father had found him a woman to marry, but that he was very opposed to this arranged marriage and that after meeting me, he didn’t want to marry her. At that point, after talking to him for two weeks, I told him my situation about being a transgender woman. I told him a lot of things about myself, gave him a lot of explanations about why I was a transgender woman.
Then, after a long time, he asked me, “If you get the operation, how long will it take? I have a good feeling about you.” He started searching the Internet for information to better understand my situation and learn more about transgender issues and transexuality. Now he has left his job, and he will move to Changsha to work here, and be with me.
I think he plans to marry me if I can get the operation to become a woman. Of course, he doesn’t have the money for this now, but maybe later I can go to Thailand where the operation is cheaper—only 15,000 RMB (2125 USD). In China, the cost is 30,000 RMB (4250 USD) and there are a lot of regulations; for example, I would need to get my family’s permission. I’ve asked my mother if she would sign the permission form one day, once I have the money for the operation. After a long pause she replied, “I have no choice—I would have to agree.”
Lisa Sangoi contributed reporting for this article
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