Wang Liang (25) is the founder and manager of China’s first gay-friendly youth hostel. Born in rural Shanxi Province in China’s Northern region, he strives to make a practical difference for LGBTQ people in China’s still largely conservative society.
Please explain how it was for you to grow up as a gay man in rural China.
I first thought about being gay when I was 17 years old in High School, before that I never even considered it. Everything around me suggested it was the natural law to get married to a woman. So when I had my first gay thoughts I just felt terrible and that I would disappoint my parents and grandparents in their expectations so much. I got scared and thought that I was the only person in the world dreaming of boys at night and that I could never tell anyone. After high school graduation I moved away to Chengdu (in Western China) for university and learned more, realising that that’s just who I am and that I could never change.
How did you learn more about this?
I started looking online to find some facts and quickly realised that I was nowhere near alone really. There were so many online groups and communities where I could exchange with others a feel less isolated. Online I also accidentally discovered that another gay guy was in my class, but even though I knew I was still scared to tell him. But later we became best friends which made life much easier. When I met up with people from gay online groups at my university I felt normal for the first time, as everyone around me was like me.
How did you feel about coming out in public?
I started to accept myself, but coming out was a completely different story. Until now, I never told my parents that I like men, but I’ve decided that I will tell them soon, so I’m preparing now. I heard them talk about homosexuality before so I think they are relatively open-minded and can accept me over time. I think they are the kind of people who just think that it’s other people’s business and a private issue and therefore wouldn’t say something bad about gay people. But I’m still very nervous about coming out and imagine that the first time won’t be easy.
Did you try to find a partner?
I found my first boyfriend when I was 20 years old and our relationship lasted for about two years. I found it very hard to find a partner so I really cherished him. But every-day life was still not easy as we had to hide in public and it was hard to find a place for intimacy or sex, as we both lived in student dormitories with shared rooms. When he moved to Liaoning Province (in North-eastern China), we decided to break up as the distance was simply much too long. I met my second boyfriend when I was 23 and it lasted for one and a half years. We tried to move into an apartment but there is a lot of discrimination against homosexual couples in China’s housing market, so we had to pretend to just be friends trying to share a flat.
How did you get the idea of starting a gay-friendly hostel?
After graduation I found a decent job in business, had many friends and found some acceptance and support for myself. But in the end I felt quite bored and wanted to do something more meaningful that would have a positive impact in China. After considering ideas for a while, I quit my job to become an entrepreneur about one year ago when I was 24. I read a lot about the growing ‘pink economy’ in China and that there are at least 80 million LGBTQ people across the country. As people travelled more and more I figured the economic potential for a gay-friendly hostel would be substantial.
How did people around you react to your plan?
Luckily my boyfriend was very supportive. Some friends were a bit sceptical at first but luckily business went well enough that people came to think more positively about it all. The first hostel opened here in Chengdu in 2016, a second one followed in Xi’an in April 2017. This year we’re planning to open another one in Chongqing in June. We’re a little team now managing the two places and setting up a new one. We’re trying to find more managers for new hostels to expand through our Wechat group.
That sounds like the job was very smooth and easy.
Overall, it seems like we’ve been lucky altogether but my job can be quite difficult at times. We hope to improve the situation for LGBTQ travellers, a subject that is still quite sensitive in China. It was not easy to set up the first hostels and prepare everything, including visits to the other hostels to check on them. Now we have a good management mechanism that seems to work so far. At the end of this year, we are hoping to open another hostel in Nanjing. We’re using online data to find out where a new hostel would be the likeliest to succeed.
Have you encountered much regulation or discrimination because of the LGBTQ link?
Government regulations indeed make things quite difficult, in addition to the financial risks I’m undertaking. It is very difficult finding the right place that is in a decent location but accepting of our cause. I have to tell the owner that it will be a gay hostel and the owners of the buildings tend to check on us now and then. I had to look for two months to find the first hostel in Chengdu and we had to make many promises to get them to accept us. We have to allow public security inspections and fire checks and we have to be very strict about promiscuity as well as drug issues. There are many prejudices when you say anything related to ‘gay’. Many people just assume we are dirty people. The public security checks come without warning, supposedly only about ‘safety’. The hostel has survived so far with the tacit approval of the building owners.
How do you feel about the Chinese government’s policies towards LGBTQ people?
Just look at CCTV (China Central Television), our national broadcaster. Some celebrities discriminate against us in the kind of language they use, but CCTV seemed to try and stop that, to the surprise of us all. In this way, there seems to be some improvement. I also heard about the new textbooks that were issued for some schools recently. They were very progressive and supportive, but you just need to look at the debate and arguments this has started – many people are clearly offended by these steps. Official news at least asked the public to respect people’s personal choices, but to parts of society that is clearly too much to ask.
That sounds like things are improving still for LGBTQ people in China?
China is a large country, there were some modest improvements over the years but still China has no law that protects our community from discrimination. You can still be fired or denied help based on your sexuality without any consequences. On TV there are less and less gay or lesbian characters and some online TV series about LGBTQ issues have been blocked. Even here, most people in this building don’t know about our gay-friendly hostel, some have found out but so far there were luckily no complaints.
Please tell a bit more about your gay-friendly hostels.
Business is going alright, but there is still much potential for growth. In the last month, the Chengdu hostel had 47 guests, the whole first year had around 500 visitors, including some foreigners. The hostels are quite small, the Chengdu hostel has 16 beds and on weekends we usually have some game nights or movie events. Apart from guests, many local people join then, which also helps our business. The beginning was quite difficult, because nobody knew about us and few guests could help to spread our news. Now, there have been about 400 locals that came, over 20 of them regularly. The newer hostel in Xi’an is a bit larger at 22 beds but since it only opened a month ago, business is still going slower.
What are your hopes for the future?
We are starting to create a real community, with our photo wall, events and online community. We are expanding faster now and are hoping that by the end of 2018, we will have a network of nine hostels across China. We want all LGBTQ people to know that they can travel feeling accepted and safe. The internet is a great help hereby, as we can upload pictures from our events and spread news. At the beginning we focussed on gay men as our target group but we are trying to focus on all members of the LGBTQ community in China. We want to created an atmosphere of being ‘among each other’ where everyone feels accepted.