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Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Where Flowers Bloom but Have No Scent

They are called Tongzhi. They are the men who cruise the parks at night, with their eyes wandering and a hand planted over their hips. Listen to how they talk, to how their voices rise with flirtatious lilts. See how they slap each other’s shoulders in the milky dusk. It’s seven p.m. on a Sunday and the kids are leaving People’s Park, their books and tennis rackets cradled under swinging arms. Couples desert their benches for warm beds. Old men and women pick up their orange peels, abandoning the Go tables they’ve been gathered around since morning. You can hear the cars over on the next street, the honk of trucks and the skid of moped wheels. A man exits a cab at the edge of the park and adjusts his hair. He has crooked bangs and yellow teeth. His T-shirt clings tight to his chest and his pants are cropped to reveal ankles pocked with mosquito bites. He pays his fare and checks his phone. The man with the screen name 419 (For One Night) tells him, via QQ chat, “Meet me in the back of People’s Park.” Heart thumping, teeth chattering, with sweat on his brow and a flush in his cheeks, the man with the crooked bangs enters, for the first time, the gathering place of the men who love men.

People’s Park is not the only cruising spot for Tongzhi. Come with me, let’s walk over to the movie theater on Middle Mountain Road. It’s a small theater, with two floors and five screening rooms, three on the first floor, two in the basement. But these aren’t the rooms we’re interested in. Come, go downstairs, take a left. There, by the water fountain: the men’s bathroom. Inside, a man toys with a cigarette by the sink. He wears glasses and a collared shirt, and his fingers play around the bronze buckle of his belt. The sink—two washbasins connected by a tray—is stained yellow and covered with graffiti. There are two stalls with squat toilets and one with a sit-down. The man with the cigarette watches the men who enter the bathroom; his eyes, fluttering, move to meet theirs. But none stop to give the signal—nobody comes to light his cigarette. He waits for several hours, and near the end of the third, he sighs, for the person who comes to light his cigarette is an old man, a security guard of twenty years at the Agricultural Bank.

A few blocks away, over by the massage parlor on Renmin Road, you will find the Hundred Fun Lounge, a Tongzhi Internet café with brick walls the color of pigeon shit, a front entrance plastered with stickers, and calling cards—shiny pink rectangles of laminated cardboard with shirtless boys posing beside a Madame’s phone number—strewn across the carpet. Inside sit several Tongzhi, chatting with their online lovers. One, a construction worker from Sichuan province, twenty-eight years old and married, shares his life story with an American anthropologist, who writes to him from across the city. “They cannot find out,” he types, talking about his parents, “not even when I’m in my casket. It’s shameful.” The anthropologist asks, “What about your wife? Does she know?” He responds, “She does. She saw one of my conversations with my boyfriend. But I told her it was all in her head. That it was just a joke. We have a daughter now, my wife and I. Everything is OK between us.”

~

A woman cleans her son’s room in the apartment above the Internet café. Like most boys’ rooms, it’s messy—look at the pile of clothes on the bed: the wrinkled shirts, the pants sour with sweat. There are socks on the floor and a half-chewed apple rotting over a stack of old test papers. A calendar hangs above the bed frame; it’s last year’s, the front-page spread featuring a half-naked woman leaning over the characters for December 2006. The boy’s mother tears the calendar off the wall, only to discover a taped patchwork of men’s pictures. Tall men, short men, American men, Asian men. Her husband, watching the news coverage about tomorrow’s meeting of the National People’s Congress, hears a sudden thud—the boy’s mother has fainted. Meanwhile, halfway across town, their son stands smoking between a swing and a bench in People’s Park when a man with crooked bangs approaches and asks, a note of joy in his voice, “Are you 419?”

There are rats out tonight, and roaches as well. Tongzhi sit around on park benches, cracking jokes and laughing. The real 419 is a migrant worker from Xinjiang province. A Uighur, he has Turkic features and dark, leathery skin. He sees the man with the bangs and recognizes him from his QQ profile. His heart pounds but he cannot speak; he’s a fraud—a catfish—and he doesn’t realize that the photo he used as his profile belongs to another person, a boy of nineteen whose mother, right now, sobs incomprehensibly into a phone’s cradle.

Cell phones vibrate in shallow pockets. Men stare as the boy answers his phone. They watch as his expression sinks. “What are you talking about?” he asks. His voice is shrill; tears spring into his eyes but they do not fall. He knows he’s been found out, but the only words he can say are, “What pictures, Ma, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” An older Tongzhi, with a cut over his eyelid, moves close to hold the boy’s hand. Others join in; they pat his back, whisper advice, feed him lines. They understand that the worst possible thing has happened to a member of their group; some of them have experienced this before, while others, stone-faced, wonder if the nightmare will one day befall them. The Tongzhi with the cut eyelid whispers, “Deny it. Tell her you have a girlfriend,” remembering the day he was forced out of the closet. He was fooling around with a man in a bathhouse when the police raided. They dragged him, naked, from under a sheath of dirty towels. He was punched, stomped on, and fined 3,000 yuan. When he couldn’t pay, they sent his mama the incriminating photographs. Before she forced him to undergo psychotherapy, she told him, “I’d rather you commit suicide.”

Across the street, a high school student gets on the southbound bus to Wanda Plaza, where a politician waits, naked, inside a four-star hotel. You might recognize the student’s face from the calling cards at Hundred Fun Lounge. A sex worker, one of Madame’s best, he earns 4,000 yuan a month, most of which he sends home to his family, peasant farmers from a rural village in Wenzhou. They think he’s an entrepreneur, that he apprentices for a clothing business, and in Wenzhou the villagers call him “Xiao Ming”—the bright one who is little. He’s happy that he’s earning money, but a part of him believes it cannot last. Look at him now, see how he bites his lip in the blue cast of the bus. He’s scared, wondering when, and more importantly, if, he can stop having sex with men. Because at some point (he believes), he must enter society. It’s not normal to love men, it’s illegal, it’s a mental illness. For the past three months he’s been flipping through magazines to find the ads, the ones for the clinics that claim to cure homosexuality. It’s expensive, and it might not work, but wouldn’t you try to stop yourself from committing perverted acts?

Perverted acts. Like what the man with the cigarette does now with the old security guard in a stall of the movie theater bathroom. The man’s a third-year graduate student. He’s thinking, This is the last time. He digs through the old security guard’s boxer briefs to find a tangle of moist soap-pad hair. Tomorrow he will pay attention to Dr. Li’s lecture. His dream is to become an engineer. Have a wife, a son, a stable job with benefits. The old security guard whispers, “Keep going.” The man’s class rank is pitiable: twelve out of twenty-six, but he’s going to perform better tomorrow. There are twenty-one consonants in the English language and five vowels: a-e-i-o-u. The noun, “woman,” in English, sounds like “we” in Mandarin. The old security guard has this practiced way of moaning that makes the man want to tear his hair out. The smell of desire is sweat and urine. The man sets a deadline: he will find a girlfriend by the end of next month. “I like that,” the old security guard says, “keep going, I like that.” The voice is breathy and disgusting and the man despairs, why isn’t he normal, why doesn’t he want this to end?

~

“It’s five p.m. on a Friday afternoon,” the American anthropologist writes. She’s in the northern part of Guangzhou, twenty miles from the spot in People’s Park where the nineteen-year-old weeps into his cell phone. She’s setting the scene: “The park is furnished with eight benches, four on each side, facing each other and separated by a small path.” There are typed transcripts on her desk. Newspaper clippings, advertisements, photographs. She thinks about the man she spoke to, via QQ chat, in the Internet café; the man with the scar above his eyelid; the man who, dressed in clothes like a woman, said about his boyfriend, “He asks that I hand-wash his clothes and socks. That I defer to his decisions, and that, if he tests HIV-positive, I would stay with him.” The anthropologist types, “To the right of the benches are two tables where Tongzhi gather to play cards and gossip.” She thinks about the sex workers who become rich and the sex workers who don’t. “Those with darker skin,” a Tongzhi told her, “get harassed and beaten and made an example of.”

Other people are typing too. At Hundred Fun Lounge, a college senior chats with a Tongzhi by the screen name of Dreamer. They do the usual data exchange:

“What’s your height?”

“5’8.”

“I’m 5’7.”

“Are you a 1 or a 0?”

“1,” the college student writes, after pausing. He’s not a 1—the man who does the penetrating in a relationship—but Dreamer doesn’t have to know that. The college senior might not even meet Dreamer; it all depends on how the conversation goes. Dreamer’s profile picture is attractive, though: it shows a young man, approximately college age, with light skin and mid-length hair that sweeps to one side…Yes, he might do, the college senior thinks, and when Dreamer asks if he wants to meet up tonight at a bathhouse, the college senior types, “Yes.”

There are two bathhouses in Guangzhou. Both are downtown, but the cheaper, more popular one is two blocks from People’s Park. It’s nine p.m. and some of the Tongzhi from the park are here; you recognize the man with the bangs and also 419, the fraud. A new member of the Tongzhi community, the man with the bangs yearns for physical contact, for love. Here he is, squinting through steam to look at the naked bodies of forbidden men. They lounge around on raised mats, sweating languorously while their eyes flicker and roam. There are cushioned benches and pools of bubbling water. In the back are the dark rooms, the places reserved for the men who want to penetrate or be penetrated. You can hear them: the moans, the shudders, even the drip-drop of sweat falling from nose to floor. As the man with the bangs walks from one person to the next, 419 follows closely behind him. He feels the steam on his skin, the damp fabric of the towel around his waist. He smells the bathwater, the herbs, the stench of love-making like piss and shit and blood. His heart beats rapidly, and when the man with the bangs feels 419’s hands like laborers’ hands wrap around his arm, when he falls and is dragged, too shocked to scream, into a room of darkness, he doesn’t—can’t—resist.

A visitor approaches the door of the bathhouse and is stopped by the bouncer, a six-foot-two former go-go dancer with more muscle than a bull. The bouncer has been tasked with stopping plainclothes police from entering the bathhouse. He stares at the visitor through coffee-colored shades and asks, “What’s your business here? Do you know where you are?”

The visitor, speaking in a pretend falsetto, responds, “I heard this is a good place to have fun.”

“Who told you?” A valid question, since the bathhouse is not outsider-friendly: the building has no signs, just a pair of iron-caged windows and a front door lit by a porch light.

The visitor has no answer prepared; he simply says, “I heard—I saw online.” The bouncer asks him to leave.

It doesn’t matter if one policeman is unsuccessful. Others have already infiltrated the city’s cruising spots. The People’s Congress will meet tomorrow, and the police are on a mission to shut down every Tongzhi gathering place in the city. “There cannot,” the minister of public security said, “be perverts parading around when our country’s leaders meet. That would bring shame to China.” An undercover cop dozes off on a divan inside Guangzhou’s more expensive bathhouse. His shirt is off and a towel covers his waist. He’s here under the minister’s orders, in this land where flowers bloom but have no scent. He listens as a man beside him, big-bellied and wearing a Rolex, complains that Tongzhi get a bad rep because of migrant sex workers. “They’re the real problem…They come to our city and prance around, soliciting sex from everyone, even children…And look at their skin, it’s so dirty, it looks like they’ve been rolling in shit.” The cop listens without saying anything. He stares, fish-eyed, at the big-bellied man, thinking—with some degree of satisfaction—that this man will be the first one he arrests.

~

You’re here too, standing in front of a mirror with a comb in your hand. Not in the bathhouse, but upstairs, in a loft rented out to Americans. You’re a graduate student, too, and you want to learn more about queer people in China—people whom your host mom claims, with thoughtless certainty, don’t exist. But you’ve found them, these Tongzhi. You’ve found their bars, their clubs. You’re heading to one now. Look, your phone’s vibrating. It’s your friend, he’s telling you to “Meet us at the bar on Middle Mountain Road.” You go. It’s ten p.m. and yours is the only group present. The friend who texted you passes you a beer; he’s handsome but drunk, and you can smell the beer on his breath when he asks, with child-like belligerence, “Are Americans really okay with gay people?” You say yes. Your parents accepted you without question. In fact, they told you they knew all along—Pops even said, with tears rolling down his face, “We were waiting for you to be ready, bud.” You’ve never had problems as a gay man in America, and you’re confused when your friend says that he would never tell his parents. You start to argue when he adds, “I need to marry a woman.” The problem, you explain, is cowardice: “You’re not brave enough to live your own life,” you tell him, and it never occurs to you that there’s a cultural difference, that gay and Tongzhi do not mean the same thing. You only know what you know, and you measure everything else against your standard, which is white.

And while you argue with your friend, the college senior from Hundred Fun Lounge enters the cheap bathhouse, where he searches for the man from QQ chat known as Dreamer. He finds him sitting by the lockers on a divan. Dreamer looks less attractive in person; his teeth are crooked and there’s a mole above his lip, but the college senior will take it—he’s no looker himself. They sit down and talk. It’s hot and steamy and the room smells terrible. Beside them, in one of the dark rooms, 419 and the man with the bangs lay together in a shuddering heap. The college senior, being young and earnest, tells Dreamer he’s never been to a place like this. He says that he’s shy and can’t approach women. Men are attractive to him, he kind of likes them, so why not give it a try, his parents don’t have to know. Dreamer listens. He feels bad for the college student, whose voice trembles when he speaks. Obviously, he’s scared, and he’s self-conscious about his body, too—here he is, in the middle of a bathhouse, wearing a white T-shirt and swim trunks.

Finally, Dreamer tells the college senior, “Go home. I’m not interested.”

The college senior says, “Huh?”

“It’s for your own good,” Dreamer says. “Just go home. We’re calling today off.”

And he’s not lying about it being for the college senior’s good: Dreamer is an undercover cop. He doesn’t want to jail this boy who hides his tears as he leaves. Because in fifteen minutes, the others will start to mobilize. The operation begins.

It is a night of knocking, of fists pounding against doors. At People’s Park they come out of the bushes like rats. They beat the men, arrest them on trumped-up charges of hooliganism. Slurs are yelled and pictures are taken. The man with the cut eyelid, refusing to be blackmailed again, attempts to resist and escape. But the police catch him: they stomp on his chest and spit on his face. They raid the bars, the bathhouses, and the men they catch are naked and afraid, bleating like lambs. In the apartment above Hundred Fun Lounge, a boy lies in his mother’s lap, both of them crying. He promises her that he will change, that he will do this no longer, that it was all just a joke. She doesn’t believe him but what else can she do? She’s not ready to give up on her boy yet; she’s not ready to give up on love. They cry through the night and into the morning. They are still awake when the TV starts to play coverage of the People’s Congress meeting. The boy watches as the minister of public security approaches the podium to make his opening remarks. He listens as the minister declares China to be the most progressive and forward-thinking country in the world.

See what's inside AGNI 91

Jiaming Tang is the son of immigrants. His work has appeared in EpiphanyAGNI, and Cosmonauts Avenue, where his story was runner-up in the 2019 Fiction Contest. He is nonfiction editor of Black Warrior Review. (updated 4/2020)

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