"BRING in the boys!” an announcer howled on a recent Saturday afternoon at Cotton’s, a bar in Shanghai.
The occasion was a daylong celebration with drag shows, Chinese opera performances, mock same-sex weddings — and, yes, a “hot body” contest — to help conclude Shanghai’s first Gay Pride Week. And as seven beefcakes, including two from New York and one from Indonesia, strutted onto an outdoor stage, a crowd of hundreds erupted in whoops and hollers before awarding the hottest body title to a strapping, six-foot-tall Shanghainese who went by the name Grant. He was wearing a pink “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women” T-shirt, until he wasn’t.
“We realized that now is the right time,” Tiffany Lemay, one of the organizers, said of the week’s events. Well almost. Although China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, visits by the local authorities prompted the cancellation of several gay pride activities. Still, the revelry bore witness (in some cases bared witnesses) to a growing gay scene that, despite the occasional setback, has contributed to Shanghai’s already vibrant night life in ways once hard to imagine.
There’s even an epicenter: a trio of bars in the French Concession neighborhood known as the Gay Triangle. Many visitors start there at the long-running Eddy’s (1877 Huaihai Zhong Road; 86-21-6282-0521; www.eddys-bar.com), a tony concrete-walled bar offering the kind of Chinese exotica (Mao-inspired art, antique door panels) that Westerners and the Shanghainese who congregate with them can’t seem to resist.
A stone’s throw away is Shanghai Studio (1950 Huaihai Zhong Road, Unit 4; 86-21-6283-1043; www.shanghai-studio.com), a onetime bomb shelter where a more eclectic, hipper crowd wends its way through a warren of rooms that includes a dance floor and a men’s underwear shop called MANifesto. Completing the triad is the intimate Transit Lounge (141 Tai An Road; 86-21-6283-3051), a favorite among Japanese men who come for the swanky red banquettes, loungey vibe and mojitos.
With their international mix of patrons, these and other spots point to Shanghai’s cosmopolitan makeup. But more locally oriented establishments offer something for everyone, too. Consider Bobos (Bugaoyuan Clubhouse, 307 Shanxi Nan Road; 86-21-6471-2887; www.bobosbar.com). Exceedingly well hidden within a compound of residential high rises (go through the main gate, turn right, look for the glass dome and head downstairs), it’s where you’ll find the somewhat hairier, fuller-bodied set, known as panda bears, loading up on carbs and singing karaoke on a stage flanked by an illuminated rainbow.
Or on Fridays through Sundays, there is Lai Lai (235 An Guo Road, second floor; 86-21-6546-1218), an endearingly shabby dance hall where mostly middle-aged men sneak away for a little ballroom action. Arrive early; by 9 p.m., the band goes silent and the floor clears out.
As elsewhere, lesbians have fewer options in Shanghai. But Shanghai Studio hosts a women’s night on the last Saturday of each month, while Tuesdays and Saturdays are marked off for lesbians at, respectively, the bar Frangipani (399 Dagu Road; 86-21-5375-0084; www.frangipanibar.com) and the club Red Station (200 Taikang Road, fourth floor).
A number of Web sites, including www.utopia-asia.com and www.shanghaiist.com, offer broad-ranging, up-to-date information on Shanghai’s gay scene.
But on the Saturday night of gay pride, it was the beefcakes who resurfaced at D2 (505 Zhong Shan Nan Road, south alley; 86-21-6152-6543; www.clubd2.cn), a three-level club in the new Cool Docks retail and entertainment complex on the Huangpu River. Amid smoke, laser beams and the thumping of techo-dance music, a flesh-to-flesh mass of mostly Chinese muscle men suggested that now might be a good time to invest in fitness centers in Shanghai; it seemed the whole city had become one giant hot-body contest. Fully clothed, however, was a 30-year-old local named Pete. “Yeah, that’s the trend right now,” he said of the sea of brawn around him.