Lalas and Lambdas
In China the pressure to conform in issues of sexuality and the production of a hetero-normative family remain strong, though homosexuality has not been classified as a mental illness or crime since the 1990s. Lucetta Kam Yip-lo has interviewed and written around 25 interviews with ‘lalas’ – members of the Chinese lesbian, female bisexual and transgender communities – and their experiences of ‘lala bars’, marrying gay men and living covertly. Lucetta is interviewed by Bent Street publisher Gordon Thompson about Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China and her current projects.
GT: Lucetta, your book Shanghai Lalas looks at the lala (lesbian, female bisexual and transgender) communities – can you briefly describe the world you explore?
LK: The book is about the lala community in Shanghai, China during 2005-2011. It was the formative period of grassroots LGB groups in Shanghai (transgender and queer politics were emerged later), one of China’s most culturally and commercially vibrant metropolitan cities. Lala women started to organise themselves. Community events such as social gatherings, topical seminars and commercial spaces such as lesbian parties and bars began to appear in Shanghai. It was also a time of rapid development of LGB communities in major cities in China such as Beijing and Guangzhou.
The popularity of mobile communications technologies such as pagers and later mobile phones, and the introduction of the Internet for popular use since late 1990s have played a significant role in the fast development of LGB communities and grassroots activism in China.
The book documented the development of this fast growing period of China’s LGB communities and the lives and struggles of the first generation self-identified lala women in Shanghai who were active in the newly emerged community spaces. It is an ethnographic research that includes in-depth interviews and long-term field observation. The major challenges of that generation of lala women included family pressure, marriage pressure and the culture of homophobia prevailing in society, public discussions, laws and policies.
GT: What has been some of the feedback you’ve received since publication of this book?
LK: The book is well-received by the academic community as well as the LGBTQ community in China. The Chinese edition of the book was published in 2015 by Hong Kong University Press. The Chinese edition helps the book to reach the wider Chinese language readers. Since it is one of the first monographs and ethnographic study of queer women in contemporary China, it has enhanced people’s understanding of sexual and gender minority women and the newly emergent LGBTQ culture and community in China. The English edition has been nominated as the finalist (LGBT studies) of the prestigious Lambda Literary Awards 2014.
GT: Shanghai Lalas as published in 2013 – what are your latest research interests?
LK: I have continued to be a close observant and researcher of LGBTQ community and activism in China after the publication of this book. One of my on-going research projects is actually developed from this earlier project. It is the research of queer mobility of women from China in Australia. I trace the mobility experience of queer women from China to Australia in the context of increasing outward mobility of Chinese people to other countries. This research focuses on the intersection of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and one’s transnational mobility.
GT: You’re coming to the 2018 AGMC National Conference ‘Living, Loving, Inspire’ in Melbourne in September (September 21-23) – what ideas do you hope to bring?
LK: I will present about the emerging groups of mobile queer women from China in Australia. I will offer a sketch of this emerging group of queer participants. In particular, on how sexuality and gender non-conformity have affected their decision of leaving China and later structure their life in Australia, and how the intersection of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and class works to define queer Chinese women’s mobility and immobility.
Hopefully this presentation can enhance local activists’ understanding of this emerging queer women group in Australia, about their concerns, needs and lived experiences.
GT: Lucetta – thanks for dropping by the Bent Street Cafe.
Lucetta Kam Yip-lo was born in Shanghai. She grew up in Hong Kong, where she was a long-time member of the tongzhi (‘comrade’) activist community. Kam Yip-lo now researching Chinese female tongzhi, exploring their treatment as both tolerated citizens and sexual non-subjects, and the trivialization of their relationships. She is employed as an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing.
Find Shanghai Lalas at https://www.hkupress.hku.hk/pro/58.php