By Colum Murphy
“Mu Kelun. Why you not married?” asked the girl from Benin who was sitting at the front of the class. Peering out from under her beige knit cap, she continued: “Why you have no children?”
I was Mu Kelun, or at least that was my new Chinese name. It meant something to do with envy and Napoleon, and was given to me by a friend’s father, a Singaporean Chinese man who studied calligraphy. Some of my friends thought it appropriate, scholarly, and suitable for a writer. Others found it pretentious.
Still, in China I’ve found it’s useful to have a Chinese name. It’s my plea to Chinese people to take me seriously. As a white, middle-aged man who is cuddly around the middle, young people often see me as affable, benevolent – to be respected, sure, but from a safe distance, like an aging relative showing signs of dementia.
On that first day of class, especially, I felt like an elderly next-of-kin as I stood at the front of a sparsely decorated classroom filled with tiny wooden desks and chairs, crammed with about a dozen young men and women from around the world.
I was an incoming student at the Mandarin-for-foreigners program at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Named after the prominent revolutionary considered to be the founder of modern China, the university is one of China’s most prestigious.
The selection process for foreigners to enter its Mandarin program is, however, not stringent at all. Not surprising then, studying Chinese there is especially popular among young people, particularly from developing nations. It offers them a legitimate way to come to the country, where they can also work on the side to earn a quick buck by sourcing goods manufactured in China for selling in their home countries.
I, on the other hand, had not come on an import–export run. I had not come for a job at all. In fact, I had given up my post in Hong Kong – I can’t say cushy, because it wasn’t, and I can’t say reluctantly, because I hated it – to come live in mainland China. Why? The short answer was I came here for love. But I was damned if I was going to come to Guangzhou only for a relationship. So, I enrolled in a year-long Chinese course, where I would have to explain myself anew, this time to a motley cohort of language students.
When I introduced myself to them, I gave just the bare details needed to get through the ordeal.
Name. Mu Kelun.
Profession. Former journalist.
Reason for studying Mandarin in Guangzhou. To kill time and make myself feel I am not wasting a year of my life chasing the love of an Indian Singaporean named Mohan.
(I kept the last thought to myself.)
Tall with long arms, Mohan sported a beard he jokingly described as “Taliban Chic.” His big smile and self-deprecating humor tinged with an Aussie accent he acquired while he was a university student in Canberra made him immediately likeable. If he were not gay, Mohan would have been snapped up long ago by some beauty from the Sindhi community, the ethnic group of Indians to which he belonged.
Mohan had moved to Guangzhou from Singapore three years earlier. Like many Sindhis before him, he’d come to make his fortune as an export merchant based in China. But the timing wasn’t right. As the country’s economy flourished, costs were increasing, and profit margins were increasingly thin. The economic downturn sweeping the United States and other countries in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis didn’t help.
I was never one to give up anything for anyone. I had earned the reputation of being a career-driven narcissist – not least in my own head. Before Mohan, I’d only ever held down one long-term relationship. That was with a doe-eyed young Spanish woman I’d met at university in Ireland. We were together for almost a decade, but inevitably, after all that time, we broke up.
The rest of my relationships had been with men, and almost all of them short-term. They’d start out well. But it wouldn’t be too long before I became bored, either with them, or my job, or my location. I was always on the lookout for the latest shiny new thing, the more exciting city, the more challenging job. I never gave too much thought to personal relations.
So it was out of character for me to up and leave a life of seven years in Hong Kong for a man in China. It wasn’t such a sacrifice. My job at a shipping newspaper in Hong Kong had not worked out as planned. Leaving Hong Kong might help, I thought. Learning Chinese and delving into more literary forms of writing – and away from journalism – would be also a boon. It seemed moving to be with Mohan was the right thing to do.
I packed my belongings in Hong Kong, putting half in storage as a hedge for something going wrong. It was a short distance, but the move filled me with dread. From my comfortable perch in the former British colony, mainland China was a chaotic place that did not have rule of law, where dangers lurked at every corner – bus crashes, train collisions, night clubs that caught fire, and where hospitals were ill-equipped and staffed by poorly trained doctors.
It was dark outside when we crossed into China near Shenzhen just past midnight on that September night in 2011 – only an occasional red neon sign from some border-town love hotel to be seen. The air was hazy with pollution, obscuring the scenery from inside our rental minivan even more. Mohan took my hand and looked me in the eyes. “Don’t worry Murph,” he said, using his favorite term of endearment for me. “It’ll be all right.”
Beijing has the ancient Forbidden City, the imposing Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall not too far away. Shanghai has the Bund, the skyscrapers of Pudong, and the quaint streets of the former French Concession. But Guangzhou has little by way of international acclaim. The twisting, pin-like Guangzhou Tower is hardly world renowned, although China’s largest trade show, the China Import and Export Fair, or the Canton Fair, is familiar to some foreigners. Among Chinese, Guangzhou is known as one of the country’s top culinary hubs. Even so, the city of more than fourteen million is a pale shadow of bustling, cosmopolitan – even at half the size – Hong Kong, less than 200 kilometers to the south.
Guangzhou is a kind of tale of three cities: Canton, Guangzhou, and Gwangjau. Three variations of the same name for the same place in three different languages, the connotations of each almost suggesting three separate cities.
In colonial times, the British referred to this place as Canton. It’s a name that, for some, is exotic, conjuring up an era when city served as a powerful hub for global trade that was dominated by foreigners. But Canton was far from idyllic. In The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, writer Julia Lovell states that Lord Auckland, a former governor of India, once described Canton as “perhaps the least pleasant residence for a European on the face of the earth.”
Then there’s Guangzhou, the city’s name in Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. This Guangzhou is modern China’s third largest city, with millions of its residents hailing from other parts of China. While this group includes highly-educated Chinese in pursuit of professional opportunities, it also includes other Chinese “migrant workers,” who leave their hometowns and villages to come to the city to work in lower-paying jobs such as security guard, restaurant wait staff, or masseuse. For many migrants, Guangzhou will never be their true home. They are considered just fleeting visitors by the city whose true name is Gwangjau, its local, Cantonese name.
Though connected by Cantonese, Hong Kong and Guangzhou are like estranged siblings, living completely different lives. Hong Kong is built on finance, banking and law – a city where executives in sharp suits and neat shirts and ties meet in plush air-conditioned conference rooms overlooking Victoria Harbor, plotting their next multibillion dollar takeovers or stock-exchange listings. Guangzhou has little of that glamor. It’s a sprawling metropolis through which flows the Pearl River. For long, it secured much of its income by selling low cost, low quality consumer goods in global markets including to large foreign retailers such as Wal-Mart. It’s not an ugly city, and as China develops, so, too, does Guangzhou: the city is now home to some inspiring examples of contemporary architecture, including the Opera House, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Still, despite such glimmers of the future, when I lived there, the gap between that city and its southern neighbor Hong Kong was pronounced, and Guangzhou still had that hard-core, haphazard, slightly unnerving feel of a place where anything could – and frequently did – happen.
During my time there, I used to take the bus from my high-rise apartment in the Yuexiu District and cross the Pearl River to the Haizhu District to the south and to the sprawling green Sun Yat-sen University campus. Sometimes I would close my eyes and convince myself that the Pearl River was in fact the Seine, and that I was living the writer’s life, like James Baldwin and countless others, in “Gay Paree.”
Then I’d wake up. Usually because the bus driver had just swerved violently to avoid yet another unsupervised toddler, or simply because I’d reached my stop. I realized that even if the semi-permanent polluted haze hanging over was photoshopped out, “GZ” – as some of my cool classmates liked to call it – was no Paris, and, was not outwardly gay in the least.
“Mu Kelun. Why you not married? Why you have no children? I can’t figure you out.”
Yueliang, the stylish young African girl’s Chinese name means “moon.” One of the first words of Chinese she learned was jiatofa – the word for wig. The color and style of her hair changed almost daily, morphing from Beyoncé one day to Rihanna the next, to Sade the following, before returning to Beyoncé. She was one of three girls from Benin in my class, all related. These African girls’ parents pushed them to come to China to learn its language in anticipation of closer business ties between China and Africa.
Guangzhou is home to China’s largest African population. It’s difficult to put a precise number on how many Africans live here since many are not permanent residents. Some estimate more than 200,000 people from Africa live in the city. Many just come for short periods – two, three months – before returning to Africa with suitcases loaded with samples of items such as clothes, belts, and jewelry. Once they strike deals with merchants back home, they arrange shipments in containers that set sail from China stuffed with merchandise, bound for the markets of Luanda and Lagos, Addis Ababa or Abidjan.
Yueliang dominated the Beninese trio. She sat right up front and was the class prefect, running for chalk when supplies ran out and telling off other students for talking in class. She was also determined to “figure me out.”
I tried to evade her probing questions with coyness. “Bu gaosu ni,” I replied. This, according to our teacher, Ms. Chen, was a polite way of saying “buzz off” in Chinese. It didn’t really work. Yueliang just played with a strand of her hair, glanced sideways at the other students, and said: “Mu Kelun hen qiguai.” “Mu Kelun, you’re weird.”
It was if I were back in a classroom when I was twelve or thirteen in Ireland, when I used to be called things much worse than “weird” – names like “sissy,” “girly,” “gay,” and “fag.” I thought I had come a long way since then, but here I was again, at the front of a classroom, looking at the faces of my new classmates, trying to decide whether I should come out to them. Will I? Won’t I?
People rarely openly say, “I hate gays” – although perhaps in places like Russia or Uganda and a host of other countries such vitriol is all too common. Instead, it’s insidious. Like someone saying, “That’s so gay,” or singing a rap song with lyrics that say, “No homo” within earshot. They may not intend to antagonize a specific person, but their words serve to exclude, reminding any gay person present that the world is still very much a straight one.
Some months later, the topic of being gay came up again during one of many class digressions on dating. Mali, the Colombian girl with the classic looks of a typical Miss Colombia who came to China to buy handbags and accessories to sell in her native Medellin, put up her hand to ask the teacher a question.
“Teacher Chen. What’s the Chinese word for ‘gay’?” she asked. Ms. Chen was rarely fazed by students’ questions. But this time she seemed flustered. She grimaced, her face tight with disgust. “Mali. Bu xing!” she said, making clear her displeasure at the question and declining to answer.
But Mali really wanted to know. The class erupted in collective, nervous laughter. I put up my hand. “Teacher Chen, I know,” I said, my voice trembling a little. “It’s tongzhi.”
The room fell silent. I imagined the youngsters connecting dots in their heads. The teacher wrote the word on the blackboard, adding it to a list of new vocabulary we had learned that morning. She resumed her normal teaching pose and began to explain how it originally had meant “comrade” but had since been corrupted by “those Hong Kong people” and how the word now was commonly used to mean homosexual.
Once Ms. Chen had finished her explanation of the two characters, she erased them swiftly from the board, leaving the other words from our vocabulary list untouched. “Bu hao! Bu hao!” she said aloud, shaking her head. “No good! No good!”
The first time I spotted Mohan was in Guangzhou around three years before finally I moved there to be with him. I was in the city on a reporting assignment with a straight colleague. After we’d filed our stories, I persuaded him to accompany me for a drink at Velvet, a gay bar and club I’d found online.
From the outside it looked innocuous – with only a small sign with an etching of a Menorah-like candleholder calling attention to the doorway. Once we passed the blue curtains – made from velvet of course – the first thing that struck me was the huge, rectangular bar, the far end of which was a glass-covered platform that doubled as a stage for erotic dancers. It was a relatively quiet midweek night. Entertainment was courtesy of two tanned muscular Brazilian men wearing only Doc Martens boots and tight cotton briefs, on the back of which was written in ALL CAPS the word “ITALIA.”
“Another beer?” my colleague asked, trying to maintain studied indifference. I didn’t answer. I had taken my eyes off the dancers just long enough to notice a lanky Indian with orange-framed glasses who had just entered. Not bad, I thought, as I turned my gaze back to the two ITALIAs and our two beer bottles, which at this point were vibrating, too, and were teetering toward the edge of the bar.
Two nights later, with my colleague safely dispatched back to Hong Kong, I headed out on the town alone, directing myself this time to a different gay venue. For a city with such a large population, the city’s gay scene was small. It wasn’t long before I bumped into the bearded Indian again.
The venue was crowded that night, full of revelers who’d come to celebrate the arrival of summer. Despite the buzzing crowd, we managed to hold a conversation. I tried to impress him with my knowledge of the Indian diaspora. Twelve years younger than me, Mohan was intelligent, funny and handsome with his easy, broad smile. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later when he happened to be in Hong Kong for a visit that finally we got together, our intimacy expedited by more than a few happy-hour cocktails. That encounter would set the stage for what would become my first serious gay relationship – one that would see me uprooting my comfortable Hong Kong life, leading me to Guangzhou and, eventually, an extended connection with mainland China.
At the start of our relationship, Mohan would come down to Hong Kong to see me on weekends. Once, on a whim, he traveled for dinner midweek – a total investment of around six hours, travel time included. Occasionally, I would go see him in Guangzhou. As a working journalist, getting even a tourist visa to China could be problematic, and so it was often more convenient for him to visit me. Eventually, the to and fro became tedious, and we began to look for a more permanent solution. I decided that meant moving to Guangzhou – the place we first met.
My move to be with Mohan – and maybe my move away from everything comfortable and familiar about my life – would be the trigger that finally pushed me to come out to my own family. But unlike Mohan, who was lucky in some ways to have been able to come out to his mother despite the conservative Sindhi culture, I had lost my chance with mine.
The Ireland of my childhood in the 1970s was not exactly liberal. For the most part, the Roman Catholic Church was in firm control of the country’s education system and exerted strong influence over national dialogue in the country’s media. In the poverty and ignorance of my parents’ generation, conservative values flourished. Openly gay men and women were extremely rare. My parents were also devout Catholics. My father, who worked in the kitchens at a local airport, was always too busy making a living to cast judgment on others. His life was work and prayer before he succumbed to cancer when I was around sixteen. My mother kept more a watchful eye on her children, maintaining a firm grip to make sure we didn’t wander too far from the “right” track.
I waited until I was in a gay relationship, until Mohan, to start coming out to my family. By that time, I was almost forty, and my mother had already died. I still wonder whether I did the right thing by never sharing my true self with her.
The best time to arrive at Velvet was just after midnight, when the customers inside were well on their way to getting high and the dancers were gyrating in full swing. Those days it was usually Penny who performed. Chinese with long blond hair, she liked to thrust about in a black bikini made from shiny fake leather.
At its busiest, male customers would line up three rows deep parallel to the bar as if in a choir. They were mainly Chinese and nearly all in their early twenties. Most were shorter than me, and I am not particularly tall. They also were slimmer. I used to be slim – two decades earlier when I was their age. Nearly all of them smoked.
Some of the foreign clientele were traders from Egypt, Lebanon, Colombia, Russia in town for business or the Canton Fair. They stumbled into Velvet, some by mistake, or so they said. (Velvet didn’t openly bill itself as gay.)
The local clientele was a mixed bunch. Many of the young Chinese who came here preferred to use their English names that were given to them when they were younger by perhaps an English teacher, or that they invented themselves. There was Eros who said he worked “in media,” Eagle the modern dancer, and Coco the student.
One night I watched two Chinese boys make out in a corner. It was almost like an anthropological documentary on the National Geographic channel. They groped each other inexpertly; their lips rubbed together in a circular motion, their bodies at an awkward distance. It looked as if they were kissing through a glass pane. Still, I was happy to see them in blatant defiance of that silly “No Kissing” sign that hung just a couple of feet away from their bobbing heads.
Most of us came to forget our real selves. To dance, to flirt, to be with friends, maybe get lucky. We didn’t want to be reminded of who we were or the pressures on the outside, past the velvet curtains.
For some, that meant the prying parents who wanted to know when they would get married – as inevitably many did. For others, it was a chance to avoid overly curious co-workers or college classmates, with their persistent questions or homophobic jokes.
Life in the new city with Mohan was exciting, but less ideal than we’d hoped. A string of deals that had gone bad began to put Mohan on edge. I tried to pretend everything was fine, offering advice on how he might reverse his fortunes. But it was of little use. My counsel wasn’t enough to stem the reality that his business was in trouble. Around the time I had relocated to Guangzhou, Mohan’s mother had also decided to move to the city from her native Singapore so she could keep an eye on her son, his business and his increasingly troubling health issues caused mainly from overwork or stress. Though she never outright said it, it was clear she would never accept the two of us living together. I rented an apartment across town from Mohan and his mother. We’d meet up for meals or outings almost daily. But it was like a series of dates, akin to when we were living in different cities. I looked for ways to fill my time, with study and writing. One night when I went to Velvet with a friend, egged on by too much beer, I flirted with a visiting Ukrainian. As time drew on, there would be other occasions when I would stray even further.
Often, when class finished, some of my classmates would cast their textbooks aside and head to Xiao Bei Lu – or Small North Road – Guangzhou’s main African neighborhood, in search of fun and a bit of pampering and a taste of home. The street brimmed with people. Chinese Muslim women in beaded hijabs cooked chicken on makeshift grills, the smell of charcoal wafting through the air. African women strolled to salons to get their nails painted or hair braided. African men, hunched in small groups, drank beer and bantered. Children – African, Chinese and mixed – darted around, calling out in Chinese. Now and then a Middle Eastern or Indian face would appear. There were only a few Caucasians.
Down the street, the Elephant Trade Mall was popular with Africans. Each floor was jammed with small units, where African entrepreneurs set up boutiques, barber shops, hair salons, and restaurants. Chez Roba, on the fourth floor, was a haven for Congolese craving bites from their motherland. A peek into stainless steel chafing dishes revealed the day’s menu: goat, beans, and fufu, a starchy staple made from vegetables.
At night, animated diners swilled beers, speaking loudly in a mixture of French and Lingala – the language found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the background, music videos showed men and women dancing in formation, shaking their hips seductively to the strains of a soukous dance number, the kind that’s popular in parts of Africa.
Many of my classmates went back to Africa for spring break, and given Mohan’s busy schedule, his mother’s presence, and simply because I had the time and money to do so, I found myself also booking a ticket to the continent. I also had a goal, since I, too, had family in Africa. My older brother had lived in Malawi for close to two decades, and I was finally ready to come out to him.
Eugene had gone to Africa decades earlier, first to Tanzania, then Mozambique, before finally settling in Malawi. A trained car mechanic, he had built a life with his British wife and four sons and was running his own successful auto-repair business. Physically we were worlds apart. I had a shock of curly red hair, slightly bucked teeth and freckles – lots of freckles. His complexion was darker, even Mediterranean. As a child, he was a gifted sportsman. I spent hours at the public library, browsing travel books on China and Russia.
One early memory I have is of Eugene and his prized possession – a red and white Honda 50 motorbike. Once, when I was around eight, he lifted me up and gently placed me on the front of the saddle. I sat there, wedged between his arms, his body acting as a kind of armor. Buildings whisked by as we sped around our housing estate. I watched the speedometer edge its way up. The engine hummed quietly as the wind flicked my hair to one side then back again. I laughed. The bike glided smoothly even as my brother skillfully maneuvered to avoid potholes. When we pulled up outside our house, Eugene set me down, then his bike roared off into the horizon.
The distance between us increased over the decades as we lived at opposite ends of the world. I hoped my visit to Africa would bring us closer.
Approaching the end of my three-week spring break in Malawi, I finally got a chance to be alone with him for the first time since I arrived. “Will you have a whiskey?” Eugene offered. “Sure,” I replied.
I rarely drank whiskey, but the expensive bottle I picked up in Johannesburg airport duty-free store was going down remarkably well. I watched him as he scooped two large cubes of ice into a crystal tumbler. He opened the bottle and didn’t stop pouring until the golden liquid covered the ice. We chatted about the day gone by and the plans for the next.
The whiskey, my gift to him, could open doors, open things, open people – as if magically. It seemed to be working on Eugene that night. He began to recount some of the difficulties he’d faced raising teenage boys in a country that was not, ultimately, their own.
All I could think of was getting the reason why I’d come to Africa for off my chest. But first I would give my brother the stage, allow him time to talk through what was on his mind. After our third drink, we retired for the night. I thought it best not to push too much.
By the following morning I had resolved to make sure there was no ambiguity in my brother’s mind about how I was living my life. I suppose I wanted him to ask: Do you have a partner? Is he a good person? What is he like? Are you happy? That didn’t happen. A couple of times, just when I thought the conversation was heading in the right direction, someone or something would interrupt. Now time was running out.
A few evenings later, I found Eugene again in the living room, sitting in his favorite arm chair. “Do you want to watch this?” I said, holding a DVD in my hand. “It’s from my last trip to Ireland.”
I had visited Ireland a few months earlier and Mohan had joined me. The DVD contained video shots and photos of us together. The images loaded and were displayed on the television screen, accompanied by a ragtime soundtrack. They continued to appear one after the other. Yet, still, neither of us had said a word about the bearded Indian character. No acknowledgment. No tacit nod. Nothing. It was as if this Indian man on the screen were a stranger, a passerby, who had accidentally wandered into camera range. But I knew he wasn’t just anybody. He was Mohan.
I knew if I said nothing, I would be complicit in denying Mohan’s existence, and my own. It would have meant that I had come to Africa for nothing.
“Oh! That’s Mohan!” I said casually. “Have you heard about him?” Eugene shook his head. “He’s my partner,” I said, my voice slightly trembling mid-sentence. An awkward silence followed, but I didn’t care. I had said what I’d come to say.
A few days later, when I was leaving for Guangzhou, Eugene left me with some parting words. He advised me not to let a relationship get in the way of my career. He didn’t mention Mohan by name, but I knew who he meant.
Around one month after I got back from Africa, I received a job offer to return to journalism as a reporter in the Shanghai bureau of a prominent American business newspaper. I hesitated at first, thinking what the move might mean for my relationship, and contemplated what giving up my life in Guangzhou might entail. By that time I’d made more friends, and my time in the city had begun to yield results. My Chinese had improved, I’d got to do some writing, I’d even found the time and courage to come out to my brother – all of this would not have been possible were it not for my Guangzhou sojourn. Still, I wasn’t in love with the city, and I was increasingly not sure about where I stood with Mohan. At the back of my mind, my brother’s parting words rang clear. I took the job and moved to Shanghai.
When I look back on that period in Guangzhou, I’m grateful for it – the year gave me the space and distance to come to terms with who I was a person.
Those irritating questions from my classmates got under my skin because I wasn’t comfortable in it. By disconnecting with what was familiar and secure in Hong Kong – a well-paid career at a global media brand, an extensive network of friends – and trading that for rather isolated existence in a high-rise overlooking the sprawl of Guangzhou and its transitory dwellers from Africa and from around China, I’d departed from everything that I knew. Even my frustrations with Mohan helped shape me into the person I am today. My time with him there showed me possibilities of what a gay relationship, or even a marriage, might or could look like. In my case, that picture of relationship bliss doesn’t include him, although we remain in touch. I didn’t end up writing a China novel or a work of nonfiction that captured the essence of Guangzhou but I did have experiences and developed deep relationships that have helped nurture the writer in me.
I’ve lost touch with most of my classmates, apart from occasional sightings on Facebook. The girls have gone back to Benin. Photos of Mali affecting various poses from sites around Colombia suggest she’s also returned home. Mohan and his mother eventually relocated to Singapore. In Shanghai, I would later meet Jiawei, now my boyfriend. We’re planning to get married. I’m writing more, but perhaps not as regularly as I would like.
I only occasionally return to Guangzhou. On one such occasion, I went back to where Velvet used to be. Penny, the Brazilians, the “No Kissing” sign were all gone. Velvet was gone, and in its place was a straight bar.
Colum Murphy was a Nonfiction Editor for TSLR Issues 2-4 and helped create Sixth Tone, an award-winning English-language media organization in Shanghai. He is currently the Managing Editor of TechNode and runs the story subscription Chinarrative. Originally from Ireland, Colum has spent most of his career in Asia
Note: Some names have been changed.