Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 33, December 2013

Lucetta Yip Lo Kam

Shanghai Lalas:
Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China

Hong Kong University Press, 2013
978-988-8139-46-0 (pbk), x + 142 pp

reviewed by Maud Lavin

  1. Shanghai Lalas by Lucetta Yip Lo Kam is a much-needed book of excellent scholarship and complexly guarded optimism on lesbian life in the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.). An ethnographic study of twenty-something, professional-class lesbians living in Shanghai, Lalas raises large questions about under-discussed issues of gender and sexuality in contemporary, urban mainland China.
  2. Kam begins the book by focusing on the increased (although still partial) visibility of lesbian communities in China since the 1990s. In addition to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the P.R.C. in 1997, she cites the use since the 1990s of the Internet for lesbian communication and socialising and, in general, the contextual turn with regard to individual sexual expression in post-economic reform China. Accordingly her interviews focus on the generation that seems to be the most impacted by these factors encouraging lesbian self-identity and community visibility, and so most of her interviewees are young. More studies, thus, are needed that focus on additional cohorts.
  3. In the second chapter, Kam gives a useful history of changes in recent decades in Chinese public discourses, including medical and legal ones, on homosexuality. Lesbianism has been much less discussed than male homosexuality and its organisations less funded (although funding for male gay activism has been overweighted toward AIDS and other health concerns).
  4. Shanghai Lalas' greatest contributions, though, are Kam's discussions of the struggles for lesbian identity in individual private lives. Thus, chapter 3, 'Private Dilemma,' and chapter 4, 'Negotiating the Public and the Private,' are compelling reads, particularly about the relationships between lesbians and their families of birth. Because they explore, in nuanced ways, the pressures on P.R.C. women concerning the compulsion to marry, these chapters are (implicitly) thought provoking concerning the lives of heterosexual women as well.
  5. Kam locates one of the book's main arguments in chapters 3 and 4: as government does not now (officially) police homosexuality, the family has become the chief enforcer of sexual and marital norms. In this Kam is persuasive, but I would like to see some additions to complicate and further contextualise the argument. First, the seemingly arbitrary government closings of some homosexual events and the local variations in police and neighbourhood organisations in terms of actions toward homosexuals could be stressed more. Second, the 'policing' of homosexuality in the workplace begs analysis. And third, these chapters could also benefit from some contextualising of the family structure with consideration of the post-reform roll-back of access to health care and other social services in the contemporary P.R.C. Thus, the common familial hugging of norms, particularly the desire for grandchildren—while not to be excused when this results in discrimination toward, repression of, or punitive actions against homosexual offspring—needs to be understood not only in terms of normative traditions but also in terms of the current roll-back-exacerbated fears of individual family members about survival in ill health and/or old age. These expansions would support Kam's argument but also be useful in complicating its context and suggesting reforms beyond familial ones.
  6. Kam's last chapter, 'A Smile on the Surface: The Politics of Public Correctness,' is brilliantly argued and especially well written. In fact, the book as a whole, while intricate and scholarly, is adeptly written so as to be accessible beyond academia as well as within it. I hope Shanghai Lalas, published in English, will be translated into Mandarin to further enable this study to reach beyond the academy to many involved in P.R.C. gender and sexual politics.
  7. In the public-correctness chapter, Kam provocatively analyses one current strategy for lesbian survival outside the natal family (a strategy in addition to the all-important one of financial independence): cooperative marriages between gay men and lesbians. Kam points out that cooperative marriage is merely a stopgap measure, that is, useful at this specific historical moment when many P.R.C. homosexuals feel it prudent not to come out to their natal families to the point of establishing a charade marriage. (For some, even if they do identify themselves to their families, the families are complicit in the charade marriage in order to save the family's face.) But even while emphasising the historical contingency of this cooperative-marriage strategy, Kam also asserts the potential for these marriages and their extended-family homosexual members, who often include the same-sex partners of the spouses, to contribute to a reconceptualising and restructuring of the family—and to add to homosexual communities.
  8. At the same time in her consideration of current public contexts for homosexuality, Kam is appropriately harsh about public 'tolerance' for a particular kind of homosexual: the good, sunny, well-behaved one, male or female. This pressure to behave publicly in a certain squeaky clean way can be internalised to exhibit traits of 'quality,' especially financial success, in order to ward off negative prejudices within and from outside the community and to 'earn' tolerance. Such straight-jacketing stereotypes, she argues, as well as natal-family silences and demands for silence, are oppressive, and the walls such tolerances and silences build need to be destroyed. Kam's is not necessarily a call for outing oneself but instead for deeply honouring and recognising (not 'just tolerating' or celebrating a one-dimensional version of) diversity—in oneself and in society.
  9. Shanghai Lalas is an informative and moving read, one I hope will be used well by genders and sexualities scholars, and one that should be included in syllabi as a gift to students.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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