Our first stop was the Castle Bar area to check out Red Bar. According to Freddy Fingers, Red Bar mainly draws college students, particularly on Saturday nights, when they have drag queen shows and late-night dancing.
We went in on a Monday, and the place was predictably quiet, save for one table of dudes hanging out and playing dice at the back of the club. We ordered 6 Budweisers (120 RMB) and met up with Mei Po (媒婆), the club's resident queen. Freddy Fingers was in awe as Mei Po regaled us with stories about his act, a kind of drag queen/comedy routine/ karaoke thing.
Later, Freddy Fingers told us that Mei Po was one of the most famous drag queens in China. "He goes all over – Bejing, Shanghai, Shenzhen... he's really famous, but Nanjing is his home." Unfortunately, our gracious host was not in costume, so we promised to come back on a Saturday, to photograph him in the proper environment.
Gay bars for sex?We hopped in a taxi and headed for Fuzimiao. On the way over, Freddy Fingers gave us the lowdown on intent inside Nanjing gay bars. "These days, the sex trade is done online. So if men are looking for sex, that is a safer way to do it. The reason gays come to the clubs is not for sex, but because they can be in a place where they can express themselves as they feel."
With that in mind, we next checked out Ye Shan Teng, which Freddy Fingers previewed as a club catering to "an older, more sophisticated crowd".
Inside, we were surprised to find the place about half full – a pretty good crowd, for a Monday night. To Coco the volleyball player's relief, there were a few other women inside, which Freddy Fingers explained was a common occurrence, in this bar. "They have really beautiful live shows every night, usually performing classical Chinese opera or dance, a lot of women come here as well."
We bought a 6-pack of beers (most places we visited served only cheap bottles of beer) and checked out the show. Basically, men in drag would get up on stage and karaoke classical Chinese opera songs. Every now and then, a person would get up from the crowd and stuff a 100 RMB note down the singer's top. Commented Freddy Fingers: "The best performers make 1,000 RMB a night this way, easily."
By the time our beers were done, we had watched three different karaoke performances and a dance number. The owner of the place stopped by as we were finishing up and thanked us for coming.
A tired scene...We then walked past the Fuzimiao Burger King to our final destination Zhong Tian, which was once the dominant gay bar in Nanjing. On the way over, Patric gave his impression of the two bars we had visited: "I get a sense that so much more could be done. They don't serve anything other than cheap beers, not a lot of effort seems to have been put into concept, decorations are fading... it feels kind of tired to me, in need of new and fresh energy."
Freddy Fingers agreed. "These days, most of the young guys coming in, they come from small towns, no education, they only care about trying to make money, to survive in the big city." Further, he added that the stars of yesteryear are getting older. "Yeah, it has kind of a tired feel. That's why I don't really go out to the bars much, any more."
We finally arrived at Zhong Tian for a quick round of beers (5 Snow Beers for 50 RMB). The cavernous space was piled with junk in the corners. Decorations were peeling off the of mildewed walls. Two tables of people sat staring at a karaoke screen while a woman with a chihuahua sang love songs.
Coco the volleyball player amused herself by throwing sunflower seeds at Freddy Fingers. The owner came over, an old guy, around 60 or so. He talked for a few minutes about the glory days of his club, and then went off, to stare at the karoke screen with the others.
I went up to the bar to see what else they had to drink. The barman shrugged, and pointed lethargically to the beer fridge. Snow beers. Help yourself, leave your money on the bar.
In conclusion, from this writer's perspective, the Ye Shan Teng show was momentarily entertaining, but on the whole, Nanjing's gay bar scene feels... kind of... tired.