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PRIDE 2016
JUNE 2016
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Photo: astudio

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Traditional Food Market in Shanghai, China.



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by Matthew Wexler

JUNE 2016



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a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghai

he sun is setting…I think. I’ve arrived in Shanghai after a
15-hour flight, and I’m not sure what day it is, let alone
what time of day: the permanent haze that hovers over
much of China’s 3.7 million square miles masks any clues.
Shanghai Pudong International Airport offers a harsh juxtaposition of the familiar and the unknown, a theme that will reappear
throughout my journey to two of China’s major east coast cities.
I hop on a shuttle bus that takes me southwest from Shanghai’s
city center to Hangzhou. The cities blur together along the two-hour
journey (or 45 minutes by bullet train), where endless clusters of
high-rise complexes blend into one another. Imagine the Vegas Strip
held up to a mirror, an endless stream of towering residential buildings, outlined in neon and saturated floodlights. But as I peer out the
window amid the slowly chugging traffic, closer inspection reveals a
kind of post-apocalyptic urban planning to accommodate the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants. Construction cranes pierce the skyline
and it’s hard to tell whether certain projects are underway or have
been abandoned midstream. China, I am soon to find out, is a country and a people of contradiction.



Photo: Hangzhou Tourism Commission/CYTS International Travel Co.

For most Westerners (including myself prior to this trip), Hangzhou
may not be on your China bucket list, but consider adding a few days
to your itinerary to explore a city that, at least by the standards of earlier centuries, was one of the most powerful ports in the world. The Sui
Empire finished the Grand Canal in 609 CE, a 1,100-mile engineering
feat that finally connected Hangzhou to Beijing in the north and posi-

Hangzhou Grand Canal



tioned it as a vital trading post.
Hangzhou’s port eventually filled with silt in the 15th century, but
skip ahead 600 years or so, and you’ll find a thriving metropolis for the
new millennium. It’s now a major technology hub with Alibaba Group
at its epicenter, a multi-faceted e-commerce company that holds the
record for the largest IPO of all time on the New York Stock Exchange,
totaling $25 billion. Put that mind-boggling figure momentarily aside,
along with worries that China could conceivably crash the global economy. Hangzhou’s wonders lie in its natural beauty and deep traditions
of culture and cuisine. Transcend political agendas and appreciate the
region for its hidden gems that remain some of China’s greatest gifts.
After a quick refresh at the Zhejiang Grand Hotel, a local five-star
hotel in the business district, I make my way to the city’s star attraction:
West Lake. The artificially made lake is only 2.5 square miles, but it
provides an idyllic respite from the bustle of city life that nestles its
shores. Declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2011, the
lake can be viewed by walking or biking paths that surround its perimeter, or better yet, by hand-paddled boats that offer ideal vantage points
to appreciate the temples, pruned landscapes, and pagodas. Be sure to
include Impression West Lake as part of your experience. The outdoor
live performance takes place on the lake—literally. A massive stage sits
one inch under the surface of the water, creating an illusion that the
100-plus performers are floating on water. Directed by Zhang Yimou
(known for his spectacular staging of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing), the plot follows a legendary
Hangzhou love story. Most of it will be lost on foreigners, but there’s
plenty of eye candy to appreciate along with sweeping melodies by
Grammy Award–winner Kitaro.
To complete my West Lake experience and further immerse myself

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Photo: xiaolin zhang

a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghaia

Jade Belt in West Lake, Hangzhou

Declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2011, the lake can
be viewed from walking or biking paths that offer ideal vantage points
to appreciate the temples, pruned landscapes, and pagodas.
in the province’s culture, I dine at Hupanju Teahouse, an exquisite
lakeside venue that has been catering to locals and tourists alike for
more than 25 years. Request a table with a view or, weather permitting,
dine on the terrace. I’ll later discover that many of Hangzhou’s reputable
restaurants are ensconced in glaringly lit hotel banquet rooms with little ambience, but Hupanju elevates the experience with ornately decorated rooms and fine linens.
There are two signature dishes that exemplify Hangzhou’s take on
Zhejiang cuisine, one of China’s eight great cuisines. West Lake carp in
sweet and sour sauce (also known as Shusao Chuangzhen) is most
impressive when served whole, fried, and filleted in such a way that
allows the fish to get crispy and absorb the tangy sauce, typically made
with a combination of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar. During my
time in Hangzhou I’ll eat nearly a half-dozen varieties, and though delicious, most are not unlike various fried fish dishes I’ve had stateside.
The Beggar’s Chicken, on the other hand, is worth the trip half way
around the world.
Legend has it that during the Qing Dynasty, a beggar stole a chicken, but after being caught by a local farmer, ran to a riverbank and
buried it in the mud to hide it. After later retrieving the chicken, the
beggar roasted the bird over an open flame. When he cracked the
encrusted clay, the aroma attracted the Emperor’s attention (who con-

veniently happened to be passing by), and upon tasting the dish
declared it so delicious that it was added to the Imperial Court menu.
Modern variations can be found throughout Hangzhou and even discovered at local food markets, but leave it to the professionals to
unearth this savory and complex poultry dish. Usually stuffed with
pork belly and shitake mushrooms then topped with fresh ginseng
root, the chicken is then typically doused in a rich marinade of soy,
rice wine, and hoisin sauce, wrapped in lotus leaves and sealed in clay
(make sure you procure non-toxic pottery clay if you attempt this at
home) before a low and slow baking process yields a succulent,
umami-driven final product.
visit to Hangzhou should also include an immersive tea experience and visit to Mei Jia Wu Tea Village, known throughout the
world for Longjing (sometimes called Dragon Well) tea. The
rolling hills look like wine vineyards, but upon closer inspection you’ll
discover rows of cultivated tea bushes and the occasional persimmon tree.
This particular green tea is some of the most coveted in the world and can
sell for upward of $150 per pound. The harvesting, drying, roasting, and
ultimate steeping of the tea leaves is filled with tradition and ritual, which
I’m fortunate to experience at Yuan Family Farm with the assistance of
CYTS Tours, one of the largest inbound travel companies in China. Fam-


JUNE 2016



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a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghai

West Lake Hangzhou

Photos: Hangzhou Tourism Commission/CYTS International Travel Co.

Xixi Wetlands Park, Hangzhou



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a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghaia

Photo: Sean Pavone

Shanghai Skyline

ily member Lina presents a formal tea ceremony on the family’s rooftop,
set against a bizarre backdrop of abandoned gym equipment, endless
clotheslines, and yapping neighborhood dogs. It’s a brilliant moment as
she ritualistically prepares the tea as if we were within one of the ornate
chambers of The Forbidden City.
Other crafts and artistry abound throughout Hangzhou and even
offer the chance for travelers to try their hand doing something they’ve
never done before, like at the Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society. Formally established in 1904, the art of seal engraving and calligraphy dates
back to the Yuan dynasty. Under the watchful eye of a master, I chip
away at a small block of stone to create my own seal, its jagged edges
and inconsistent grooves a sign of my novice skill. It’s a charming keepsake though, and a much better than a kitchen magnet.
Before leaving Hangzhou, I’m eager to find a takeaway that represents the Zhejiang province’s rich tradition of craftsmanship. A little
digging around leads me to the Wensli Silk Culture Museum and
Flagship Store. The collection features more than 1,000 pieces, ranging from embroidery cloths from the Qing and Ming dynasty as well as
exceptional examples of Wensli’s products since the company’s inception in 1975. I leave with a scarf in tow and am ready for my next fashion-forward destination.

I’m on the bullet train back to Shanghai, whizzing past the unfolding
landscape at speeds up to 186 miles per hour. It parallels China’s economy, which has seen a real annual gross domestic product growth averaging nearly ten percent (through 2014) since its change in foreign
trade policies in the late 70s. For perspective, the US’s average rate has

been below two percent over the last decade, but as much as some
things change, others stay the same.
China’s LGBT culture, at least by the government’s standards, is a
non-issue. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, but there are
no anti-discrimination laws in place nor is gay marriage legal. At a
quick glance, things look bleak, but there has been some united movement to advocate change. According to a recent post by the Human
Rights Campaign, “the only way to achieve marriage equality in China
would be to pass legislation in the National People’s Congress, which
is not on its agenda at the moment.”
I’m hoping to connect with some locals to find out what gay life
is like, and have consulted with Benjamin Law, author of Gaysia:
Adventures in the Queer East (Cleiss Press), who spent nearly a year
skipping around seven Asian countries, including mainland China.
Through our correspondence, Benjamin shared, “From what I
understand, awareness is growing. It can’t not, mainly because of
how news is disseminated across the world, especially when it
comes to LGBTI rights. It’s hard to ignore that same-sex marriage
is now legal in the United States, for instance. But in the Chinese
context, attitudes toward things really start in the home, and the cultural shift towards accepting homosexuality in the family unit is
going to take a long time.”
At the suggestion of a friend, I download Jack’d, an Asian-friendly
app along the lines of Grindr and Scruff. As the train nears the city
center (if there is such a thing in a metropolis of 23 million people) my
phone buzzes and pings with potential connections, but there is so
much to see and do that I temporarily abandon technology to take in a
city that makes my hometown of Manhattan look like a quaint village.

JUNE 2016



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a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghai

drop off my bags at the exquisite Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong,
which occupies the top 18 floors of the Shanghai ifc South Tower
and celebrates a modern interpretation of 1930’s Shanghai Art
Deco. My room overlooks the Huangpu River with views of the Bund,
but fans of modern architecture might appreciate the building’s other
vantage point, which offers an up-close snapshot of the Shanghai
Tower. The stylishly fluid skyscraper, nearing completion, will be
China’s tallest building at a staggering 2,073 feet.
The hotel has arranged an architecture tour for me with architect,
author, and historian Spencer Dodington, an American expat who has
been living in Shanghai for more than 20 years. His impeccable language skills help navigate the bustling streets while I’m staring
upwards, but what is underneath Shanghai is just as interesting.
According to Dodington, Shanghai is a low-lying city built on underground plates and rafts, and like New Orleans, subject to a potentially
precarious future. A recent report by Climate Central indicated rising
sea levels that could see 76 percent of Shanghai region’s current population underwater by 2100 due to global warming. Putting a waterworld
future aside, Dodington offers a colorful and informed walk through
the various concessions, pointing out many art deco examples, including vertical, horizontal, and Chinese. Favorites include a YWCA building designed by Chinese-American Architect Poy Gum Lee as well as
the entertainment district, Xin Tian Di, which fuses old and new while
still preserving elements of Shikumen-style construction that was popular during the late 19th century through the 1920s.
There is so much to see in Shanghai that I’d feel remiss if I didn’t
further engage expert assistance, so I’ve plotted out several more
excursions with the help of Audley Travel. Founded in 1991 by Craig
Burnkinshaw, the company expanded to Asia in 1996 and has been a
leader in customized itineraries, earning accolades from Condé Nast
Traveler, the Wanderlust Travel Awards, and more. And though I’m
traveling solo (and still batting zero on Jack’d), I poked the folks at
Audley regarding same-sex couples traveling throughout China.
“Naturally, all same-sex couples carefully consider the welcome they
can expect from the destinations they pick for their travels. China is cer-

Photo: hxdbzxy


Morning Tai Chi in Shanghai



tainly no exception, and Audley Country Specialists, with our highly
skilled guides, destination experts, and handpicked hotels and properties,
ensure that guests will receive a warm reception and full experience,” said
Shane Murphy, Audley Travel China Specialist. “We’ve never had an issue
of a lack of acceptance from clients or in our own extensive travels. As a
gay man, I also have an appreciation for the finer things in life and a tailor-made trip allows the ability to truly customize your trip and taste level.
Ultimately, Audley provides the same level of expertise for everyone
regardless of sexual orientation and it’s our priority to ensure each traveler’s experience goes beyond expectation.”
hane’s words couldn’t ring more true as I meet up with my city
guide, Apple. She’s as sweet as a McIntosh as we wander the city
streets, enjoy a traditional Shanghai lunch (I know I’m in the
right spot when there’s not a word of English on the menu), and stroll
through People’s Park where locals practice tai chi and on the weekends, participate in the marriage market where parents try to match
their children based on everything from income and job status to physical characteristics. To a Westerner like myself, it appears antiquated,
but Benjamin reminded me how integrated and complex these issues
are in the fabric of Chinese culture, for both the gay as well as the
straight community.
“If you’re closeted to your family, the logistics of maintaining lies
(fake marriages, insisting work is keeping you busy, all that stuff) takes
its toll. And for the people I know who are openly gay with their family, for most of them, it’s the central source of pain in their relationships
with their parents,” shared Benjamin. “Those sorts of pressures are only
compounded by the daily realities of living in China: your parents relying on you as their social security, and there is the relative lack of privacy to pursue your own love and sex life. But I think we have to be
careful about the idea of calling China’s views on procreation and marriage ‘antiquated.’ That fundamental belief of the family unit as the pillar of society is shared by most traditions and cultures. It’s heightened
in China because of both cultural and economic reasons, too.”
Apple passes me along to my driver for the afternoon, Arthur from
Authentic Experiences, but this is no standard car tour. Instead, I don
a helmet and goggles (looking much like Snoopy’s World War I Flying
Ace alter ego) and climb into the sidecar of a vintage Chang Jiang 750
motorbike. Originally produced for the Chinese army in the early 50s,
the bike whisks us along to various vantage points likely unseen by
most tourists. Arthur has a keen eye for Shanghai’s underbelly as we
weave through the city streets and parks before exploring some of Old
Town on foot. Overflowing with shanties, free-running dogs, and locals
hawking cheaply made clothing from their doorsteps, it’s a stark snapshot of China’s income inequality.
We then drive to 1933, an old slaughterhouse in the American concession district. The sturdy concrete building features a maze of
ramps, staircases, and bridges that surround a center atrium, all originally designed to herd and slaughter cattle. The building was renovated in 2008 and now hosts a number of creative businesses, retailers, and special event spaces. The sun is beginning to set but before
Arthur drops me off, we make one more stop at Waibaidu Bridge,
where dozens of couples are posing against the Pudong skyline for
their wedding photos. China’s wedding industry brings in a staggering $80 billion in annual revenue, and it’s easy to see why with the
crews on hand for these customized photo shoots. It’s a sea of women
in traditional red gowns, while battalions of brides-to-be stand on the
sidelines waiting for their turn in the spotlight and the chance to capture an elusive Shanghai sunset.


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a tale of two cities: hangzhou & shanghaia

Photo: Yang Wei Chen

The Bund, Shanghai

he following morning Apple picks me up from my new digs at
Les Suites Orient Bund Shanghai (be sure to request a room
with views of the river and Pudong skyline) and we head to
Caoyang Xin Cun, a state-supported housing district established in
1951. I had requested from my Audley expert an “authentic” Shanghai food experience, so in lieu of booking me at a five-star restaurant,
we head to this modest residential neighborhood.
We walk through Tei Lu Market, a former railway station that’s
been converted into a cacophony of vendors selling everything from
fresh fish and vegetables to household supplies. From here we head to
the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Wang (aka “Auntie”), who host our family-style lunch. The couple’s modest apartment is in one of the endless
rows of utilitarian buildings. They’ve created a makeshift second bedroom by hanging a curtain; and though there’s running water and electricity, the living quarters (with the exception of a shiny, full-size stainless steel refrigerator) could use a loving makeover. What the space
lacks in modern amenities is eclipsed by Auntie’s gracious hospitality.
From her two-burner stove, she produces 12 dishes including meatballs
with Chinese yam, bamboo shoots with carrot and chile, crispy spring
rolls filled with gooey banana, and of course, Shanghai dumplings
floating in a savory broth speckled with green vegetables.
While we eat together, the couple proudly tells me about their
daughter attending college, and I wonder if she might be subject to a
match made at the marriage market, or what they would think if they
knew I was gay. But in this context we are simply people sharing a
meal, chuckling at our own cultural differences, some translated by
Apple and others as obvious as my fumbling chopsticks.
On the long plane ride home, I’m struck by Benjamin’s final


thoughts on China as written in Gaysia: “This is what it was like to
be a ghost in this country: a person who was entirely invisible, even
to yourself.” As a Western tourist, I felt celebrated in China: my Jack’d profile eventually yielded a few friendly meetings with locals who
were fascinated by my life. Even strangers stopped me along the
Bund, wanting to snap a photo with the first Caucasian they’d ever
seen, but my interactions barely scratched the surface of what life
might be like in China.
According to Benjamin: “You can’t draw clean parallels between
the fight for LGBTI rights in China, and the fight for LGBTI rights
in the West. Homophobia, virulent hatred for gays, doesn’t exist in
China like it does in Christian or Muslim-majority countries. However, not even acknowledging homosexuality exists creates a whole
other suite of problems. It’s not all doom and gloom. As young Chinese increasingly travel and migrate, they find allies, education themselves about LGBTI issues, and find a vocabulary they can adapt for
use back home. But progress can be slow, especially when it’s difficult to establish or define your identity in the first place.”
Taking the subway home from the airport and walking my neighborhood’s familiar streets (fermented chile paste, chopsticks, and
other souvenirs in tow), I am washed over by what I may have previously taken for granted. I see people of all races. Restaurants and
retailers of every kind, owned and operated by those seeking their
own version of the American Dream. A young couple passes me holding hands, tangled in each other’s arms without a care in the world.
They burst into a bustling bar. A rainbow flag billows in the wind
above. They are two men, happy and at home. And maybe this too is
in China’s future.



CHINA 2016 REV_Lima APR-08.R5-2 5/5/16 4:24 PM Page 58

hangzhou & shanghairesources
Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Pudong

(When making calls in China, use country code +86

UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rooms from $70.

Delta Air Lines, International Reservations: 800241-4141. Save those SkyMiles for a DeltaOne
upgrade and enjoy nonstop service from Los Angeles, Detroit or Seattle to Shanghai. Those traveling
from New York City can now also redeem miles on
China Eastern for an east coast direct flight.

Impression West Lake, 82 Beishan Rd. An outdoor theatrical extravaganza directed by Zhang
Yimou, the creator of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.


Hupanju Tea House, 1 Shengtang Scenic Area
Xihu District, Tel: 571-8702-0701. The ultimate dining destination to experience traditional regional
cuisine and enjoy picturesque views of West Lake.

www.gotohz.com, Has a comprehensive website
from the Hangzhou Tourism Commission to help
plan your trip.
Zhejiang Grand Hotel, 595 Yan'an Rd., Tel:
571-8505-6666. A well-appointed hotel directly
across the street from major retail shopping
and within a 15-minute walk of West Lake, a

CYTS Tours, Tel: 800-930-3677. One of China’s
largest inbound travel companies can help facilitate
an authentic experience in the historical Mei Jia Wu
Tea Village, including plantation tour and private tea
ceremony. www.cytstours.com

Photo: Claudio Zaccherini

Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society, No.3
East Taiping Alley, Hefang St., Tel: 5718781-0693. A picturesque setting to
witness and participate in some of
China’s most celebrated art forms,
including seal arts and calligraphy.

Yangpu area, locals dining in a typical restaurant.



Wensli Silk Culture Museum and
Flagship Store, WENSLI Technology Building, No. 68 Tiancheng Rd.,
Tel: 571-8504-7950. The first private silk culture museum certificated by West Lake Scenic Area and
Hangzhou Civil Affairs Bureau features a vast collection as well as the
opportunity to purchase exquisitely
crafted silk garments and accessories. www.global.wensli.com

Audley Travel, Tel: 855-838-8600. This award-winning travel planner will create a customized China
itinerary based on your budget and interests that
includes well-informed guides and unusual, immersive experiences that more deeply connect you with
the destination. www.audleytravel.com
Insiders Experience, Tel: 1381-7616-975. Experience Shanghai by vintage motorbike as your
driver and guide takes you to some of the city’s
most famous and unusual destinations.
Les Suites Orient Bund Shanghai, 1 East Jinling
Rd., Tel: 21-6320-0088. This luxury boutique
hotel is located on the Bund and features minimalist design, lots of in-room tech features, and
stunning views of the Pudong skyline. Rooms
from $193. www.lessuitesorient.com
Meet in Shanghai Is the official Shanghai travel website featuring travel tips, city highlights, hotels, and
special events. www.meet-in-shanghai.net
The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, Shanghai ifc, 8
Century Ave., Tel: 21-2020-1888. An international fivestar property featuring luxurious accommodations,
afternoon tea, on-site spa, and Flair—the highest
alfresco dining venue in China. Rooms from $307.
Spencer Dodington, Tel: 1368-167-9980. Customizable architecture tours led by this notable historian and writer offer an insider’s look at Shanghai’s various styles of art deco design.