Lai Lai Dance Hall by Shinichi Terada

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Shanghai city skyline at night

I sat in a chair in front of the usual table display: an ashtray, an opened red pack of Chunghwa cigarettes, a cast iron kettle of tea, and tea glasses. The dance hall was like a cave, the dim light obscuring its guests. Peering through the darkness, I watched the elderly male couples dancing the waltz, rumba, and jitterbug to “Edelweiss” and other Western songs, as well as to old Mandarin tunes. The pulsing bass and dancing feet shook the wooden, weathered, and wobbly floor.

This day, there were fewer dancers than usual, and I felt a peaceful solitude. Usually, elderly dancers quickly changed partners after each piece, generating steam in the hall. Today, they stuck with the same partners.

Among the men dancing in the center of the neon-glittering Lai Lai Dance Hall, a bespectacled, snowy-haired man and his dancing partner, probably in their seventies, stood out because of their wide smiles. The pair had combed their hair straight back and wore neatly tucked, brown-striped shirts, gray vests, khaki pants, and sneakers. They paced back and forth on the chipped wooden floor as if aligning their steps was their only concern in life. They passed me, and I felt a humid breeze as they waltzed by.

I was visiting the hall once more before leaving China, after having spent over a decade in Shanghai. I’d come there at the age of 28 after working in Tokyo as a reporter, hoping to write about China’s rising economic status. I was now, at thirty-nine, embarking on a move to India for yet another career opportunity.

The elderly couple in front of me looked like they were going back to their boyhood, hopping, skipping, and jumping as if they had gained freedom after a long time. They danced as they wanted; they hugged as they wanted; they kissed as they wanted. None of that was possible for me when I came to Lai Lai for the first time. Due to the humiliation and shame I’d felt throughout my childhood and early adult life, I was struggling to accept my sexual orientation. When I looked at the couple with their childish smiles, I remembered the time when I was in elementary school and told my mom that I liked my male classmate. She laughed out loud and coughed, while smoking. “You should like a girl, not a boy.” Her laugh stung but I contained my feelings.

I first heard about Lai Lai Dance Hall when a cab driver asked me if I was brave enough to take a peek at something unpleasant, something frightening. He said I should visit the dance hall, as this place is unique to Shanghai. I had never heard of such a dance hall—catering to elderly gay men on Fridays and Saturdays, offering a drag show on Sundays, and open to elderly men and women Mondays through Thursdays. Displays of affection between elderly people tends to be regarded as disgraceful in East Asian cultures. But I thought older people also had the right to enjoy romance. And I was curious to see how older gay men danced and enjoyed each other’s company.

When I visited the dance hall alone for the first time a decade before, I joined hundreds of people at the tables watching dozens of swirling, sweaty dancers. I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck to watch the dancers. After each piece ended, dancers would walk around the tables, swinging their hands to dry their sweat, beckoning potential dance partners with a wink. While watching their dancing, I noticed a man staring at me. Mr. Li had white hair and a mustache, as well as a beard that made his long face seem even longer. He wore a straw hat, a light cotton kimono, and half pants covered in Chinese characters. His smile was reassuring.

I leaned towards him and asked loudly over the pounding music, “Do you often come here?”

“Yes, every Friday, Saturday, sometimes Sunday,” Mr. Li replied, peering at me through his glasses. “Are you a foreigner?”

“Yes, from Japan.”

“Are you married?” He looked at me up and down.

“No,” I said, laughing. Asking marriage status and salary is not uncommon in China. By then, I had gotten used to these intrusive questions.

“You?”

“After my wife died, I started coming here.” He stared at me and moved his lips lightly, as if searching for the right words. “How should I say? I felt camaraderie with others. I realized my sexual orientation long after getting married. Most of us had married a woman without hesitation due to family and social pressure. Before, people had thought that gays were only in the West.” He waved a folding fan first in front of his face, then in front of mine. He leaned toward me. “A friend of mine who came out was taken to hospital for electrical shock treatment. Long way we came.” He sighed, looked at the dancing crowd.

“How’s the gay situation in Japan?” he asked. “How’s your sex life?” He grinned. I don’t remember what I told him, but his question brought back earlier humiliations from my ex-girlfriend. After my first experience with a man at nineteen, I couldn’t lie to my girlfriend about the encounter. When I told her I’d had sex with a man, she repeatedly called me “okama,” roughly equivalent to the word “faggot,” and bombarded me with other disparaging words. Before she slammed the front door to exit my life, her final glare seared me with guilt, and I told myself: I don’t have the right to be happy with a man. I received threatening calls from her friends, in which they shouted “okama” and “gross.” I felt I deserved the harassment.

Mr. Li, smiling, unaware of the memories crowding my head, pushed a piece of paper into my pocket. On the front side, he had written his phone number and on the other side, the words, “I love you” in English. I almost laughed out loud, thinking he probably had written dozens of similar notes. But I also found myself feeling ashamed that I was in my late twenties and still in the closet. Even in repressive China, there were men openly dancing with men, hugging and kissing in this dance hall, and I was too timid to do more than watch.

I tucked the paper into my pocket and thanked him. He smiled and blended into the crowd.

After that, I occasionally visited Lai Lai as a spectator, hesitant to participate. I never called Mr. Li and, during my return visits to Lai Lai, never saw him again. But Mr. Li and the joyfulness of the other dancers fostered my hope that I might someday lead a happy life with a man. These dancers looked much happier than my own generation of gay men and mirrored my ideal relationship—just engaging in the simple act of dancing in order to enjoy life fully. Buoyed by the sense of freedom I witnessed in the dance hall, I did indeed enter into my first relationship with a man.

Ron, my first boyfriend in Shanghai, was Filipino and very physical; he wanted to be affectionate in public places. He tried to hold my hand, put his arms around my shoulders. But every time he touched me in public places, I moved away to avoid any public display of affection. Unlike the men at Lai Lai, I couldn’t physically interact with a man in public during that stage of the relationship.

One day, I steered Ron and several other gay friends, who had professed disinterest in elderly gay men, to Lai Lai as spectators. When we entered, several couples were spinning around in a circle; as they passed us, they beckoned Ron and me to join them. Courageous at last, I grabbed Ron’s hand and pulled him into the dancing space. Ron widened his eyes in surprise and followed my lead.

In the crowd, an elderly couple watched our angular gaits and demonstrated their dance steps: “Yi er san, yi er san, yi er san.” One two three, one two three, one two three. Ron and I grabbed each other’s hands and let others push or pull us as we followed their example. We blended in with the crowd and pulsed to the music. I felt a surging confidence in myself and a strong camaraderie with the dancers.

After that, I didn’t visit Lai Lai for several years. Perhaps I didn’t need the dance hall for encouragement anymore. My presence at Lai Lai now felt like a culminating event, a goodbye to all it represented during my earlier years in Shanghai.

The volume of music lowered, indicating the imminent closing time. The elderly couple passed by me, and I again felt a breeze in their wake, shifting my thoughts from memories to the present moment. The pair looked at each other, embraced, then walked towards the exit. A little later, I joined many of the other couples departing from the hall.

I thanked the receptionist, probably in his sixties, who was leaning his head against his arm, trying to stay awake, and he nodded with his eyes closed. I held the handrail, walked down the creaky stairs, and walked past the local bathhouse that was underneath the dance hall. The pulsing beat was further lowered as I walked down the street, as if the music were being absorbed into the drizzling rain. I looked up at the hall and closed my eyes to secure a final mental picture of this place and the people I’d met there. I took a close look at the dilapidated building that housed the dance hall and its neighboring establishments: a Chinese supermarket; a lottery center; massage parlors; mom-and-pop convenience stores; and hair salons. Some areas were boarded up, awaiting destruction. Between the rundown buildings in the neighborhood, the twinkling Pearl Tower, a symbol of modern and futuristic Shanghai, peeked through the fog. Lai Lai Dance Hall would be next. Where would the dancers go?

Over the past decade, the city had been repainted with shiny modern shopping malls and high-rise residential and office buildings; small, congested, and shabby houses and street food stands, where I’d spent lots of time chatting with local people, both young and old, were disappearing. When I return to Shanghai, I thought, the dance hall might no longer exist.

Ahead of me, I saw the silhouettes of the two identically dressed men, the snowy-haired fellow holding the hand of his partner, whose head rested on his shoulder. I stood and watched them until they were out of sight.

Thank you, I silently thanked the couple and other elderly men I’d met at the dance hall, for they’d helped me live as I wanted to live.

Meet the Contributor

Shinichi TeradaShinichi Terada is a New Delhi-based writer and translator of Japanese, Chinese and English. He has written economic and business articles in Tokyo, Shanghai and Chennai. He had a memoir published in Multiplicity Magazine and is currently working on a set of memoir pieces about his family’s estrangement and his relationship with his mother, set in rural Japan. He also plays the santoor, a traditional Indian instrument.

Image Source: Dying Regime / Flickr Creative Commons

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