Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China
by Lucetta Kam Yip-lo
This review was published on February 17, 2013 in the South China Morning Post
The lives of lalas and transgender people in China have changed in some dramatic ways in the past two decades, with communities rapidly expanding with the help of the internet and support from established networks in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Lalabars and events have become popular in major cities, and more lala couples are living together. But although homosexuality has not been classified as a crime or a mental illness since the 1990s, the pressure to conform remains strong – leading some lalasto resist by migrating away from their hometowns or by marrying gay men.
Lala (lesbian, female bisexual and transgender) communities are familiar to author Lucetta Kam Yip-lo, who was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong, where she has long been a member of the tongzhi (“comrade”) activist community. She now works as an assistant professor at Baptist University researching Chinese female tongzhi, who she says are treated like “sexual non-subjects [where] their same-sex desires and relationships are frequently trivialised, ” even as they are “tolerated”.
In this book Kam is upfront about her sexuality and how she needed to work to maintain her distance from her subjects: 25 lalas whom she interviewed in Shanghai between 2005 and 2011.
Kam succeeds in creating a balanced, richly insightful and succinctly argued study of the evolving oppressions that young, urban lalas are facing today in accessible language that weaves in her own queer biography.
The mainland government is no longer the main body controlling sexual behaviour; it is the family structure that now plays the major policing role and exerts most pressure on lalas to conform to society’s norms, Kam argues.
Because parents put so much pressure on their adult children to enter heterosexual marriages, the cooperative marriage phenomenon, wheretongzhi men and women pretend to be husbands and wives, has emerged as a way for tongzhi to evade their traditional duties.
According to Kam’s sources, cooperative marriage is not an ideal, but accomplishes “a parody of heterosexual marriage” where partners “create for each other a new everyday space that accommodates their non-normative desires and relationships … open[ing] up further possibilities of family forms”.
Shanghai Lalas is a study of urban women mostly in their 20s. While some of Kam’s sources migrated to Shanghai from rural areas, they are all financially independent and well educated – factors that have helped them resist family pressures.
With most previous research focusing on gay men or on tongzhi in Beijing,Shanghai Lalas is an important contribution. It reveals as many truths about the lives of urban lalas as about the shifting forms of social control – and strategies of social transformation – in Chinese society today.