Late September. A photograph shows uniformed police patrolling outside one of Shanghai’s most popular outdoor cruising spots. On a typical summer evening, hundreds of gay men would visit this area for sexual pleasure, to socialize, or to simply chill out after a long day at work. Two months later, Dinglin, a long-established gay bathhouse in Shanghai, closed its doors. According to the announcement, its permanent shutdown had been inevitable, but the actual cause was not given. Another gay bathhouse, which catered primarily to older gay men, closed too. China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, was witnessing the eradication of cruising spaces amid the pandemic.
The crackdowns came against the backdrop of COVID-related lockdowns and a sophisticated surveillance system designed to monitor and trace citizens’ movements. Previously, the state clamped down on cruising sites because China’s law explicitly bans “group licentiousness,” and people could be arrested for engaging in group sex. In the state’s eyes, acceptable sex is a private act between two adults. During the early years of the ongoing pandemic, gay men began to encounter new and greater risks at cruising sites—the state’s regulation of mobility in the name of curbing the spread of COVID-19. The upshot in zero-COVID China was an exploration of new cruising sites, a queering of public spaces, and a sexualizing of sites by gay men to meet their own social and intimate desires. But this does not mean such new spaces were either safe or stable.
The demise of gay cruising?
When I returned to Shanghai in the summer of 2022, the city had just endured a disastrous two-month lockdown, imposing tremendous impact on its economy. The lockdown had also triggered citizens’ desire for flight. Wandering around the center of Shanghai, I noticed that the city lacked the vibrancy I had experienced the previous year. Shopping malls were somewhat empty. The banks of Huangpu River, a must-see tourist hotspot, were not as packed as before. People in the city were still recovering from the trauma of lockdown. In this light, I kept wondering where gay men were going to cruise.
Although many queer spaces had vanished or were under scrutiny in Shanghai, I learned from my interlocutors that gay men had started visiting various saunas and spas and had queered certain sites by sexualizing the spaces. Most of these establishments are Korean- or Japanese-style saunas, some of which accommodate hundreds of people at a time. None of these businesses courted a predominantly queer clientele, but this did not stop queer men from reshaping some of the spaces.
A sauna that had been considered “the one to go to” in 2021 had been reported to the police and come under close surveillance. On Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp, customers complained that their staff would continually patrol around, checking on patrons. In this context, a sauna on the other side of the city had become the popular spot for queer men to cruise. The neighborhood is far from the city center and other affluent districts, but the distance did not stop gay men from travelling to the newly developed cruising site.
Queering a bathhouse
On a weekend night in the fall (a busy time for these businesses), I visited this big sauna, arriving at around 10:30 p.m. and scanning my health code at the gate. Per national and city policy, a green code and 72-hour negative PCR test result were required to enter any gated public space, including many parks.
The code was connected to personal information, including one’s ID and phone number. A person’s visit history was also recorded in the state’s database after scanning. If someone in the sauna tested positive for COVID, all patrons who visited on the same day, or even days later, were likely to be labeled “close contacts,” put on a list, and contacted by the local center for disease control for further regulation, such as quarantine measures. The infected person’s daily movements would be posted by mass media to alert others with a similar visiting history to the potential risk of infection. Over the past year, some positive-testing people have been slut-shamed online because their health code revealed their visits to bars, massage parlors, or KTVs (karaoke establishments).
On entry, I was given a uniform based on my gender and made my way to the changing room across a spacious lobby, still bustling with late evening activity. All the lights were on. Many patrons were wandering around, some taking late dinner in the dining area, others heading to the relaxation lounge on the second floor. On one side of the lobby, a group of kids were running in the children’s playground.
Patrons were required to wear the oversized uniforms provided in areas such as the lobby and dry sauna rooms, because these spaces are open to all patrons. At first glance, this bathhouse was no different from other bathhouses I had visited. But a closer look at the patrons showed that men significantly outnumbered women; many of them were chatting in groups, occasionally scoping out other men passing by.
After a short stay in the lobby, I went toward the changing room in the bathing area to take a shower. The bathing area is gendered space, divided into men’s and women’s areas, in which nudity is the norm. There is no door or gate between the lobby and the bathing area; instead, a cloth emblazoned with a large sign (women’s or men’s bathing area) hangs down to direct patrons. The back side of the cloth instructs patrons to get dressed after leaving the bathing area. This bathing area was more spacious than in saunas I had visited before, with several indoor and outdoor pools. There was also a scrubbing room, with about five staff standing by to provide body-scrubbing services. Two other staff walked around to change towels and clean the space, and one sat on a chair to keep an eye on patrons.
After taking a quick shower, I put on my purple uniform and returned to the lobby. To verify my gaydar, I lay down on a couch and opened Blued and Fanka, two popular gay dating apps in China. On Blued, a location-based app, more than 100 users who had been active over the past 30 minutes showed up within 0.05 km (around 164 feet) of my lobby location—bright green dots on the smartphone screen.
How did cruising transpire at this bathhouse, with many heterosexual families also enjoying the watery amenities? One member of an online group of people interested in saunas and cruising culture had informed the rest of us that cruising unofficially began after midnight. At that time, all the lights in the dry sauna area would be turned off and most of the straight families would be asleep, leaving the bathing, steaming, and sauna areas to gay cruisers.
New customers were still trickling in as midnight approached. An hour later, the online chat group gradually silenced as everyone in the bathhouse prepared for the moment to switch from the virtual group to the physical space. Many straight couples went to sleep, either in the free relaxation area or in the private guest rooms for an additional fee. But the bustle in the bathing area continued. Some men walked in and out of the bathing section, while others moved directly to the darkened sauna section.
In the bathing section, patrons carefully watched one another’s naked bodies and behavior. In this situation, one had to identify whether other individuals were gay to determine what activities were appropriate for the space. As I entered the larger of the two spacious steam rooms, five men in the last row lined up against the wall. The door to the room was transparent, but the corner was a blind spot. One guy started touching the guy sitting next to him at the corner, and the rest observed—a small, steamy audience. But the group was continually distracted by the sound of the opening and shutting door. Each time a person entered the room, they would stop and make sure it was not an “intruder.” Then, with a word or sign of assurance from the newcomer, the pair would continue to perform oral sex while others looked on.
After drying myself, I put my uniform back on and moved to the dry sauna rooms, which lay at one side of the first floor and remained unlocked after midnight. Few straight people visit sauna rooms after the lights go off, leaving possibilities for more intimacy in this supposedly public space. Several groups of men sat on the couches and the floor or leaned against the wall, others moved around to scope out each sauna room. Two were even holding hands while wandering around. Several women lay asleep on the floor, unbothered by this late-night activity. Snoring sounded from unknown directions. The men whispered and lowered their voices.
I followed the two men and entered a large, dimly lit sauna room, a beam of light emanating through a small window to the lobby. Suddenly, someone switched on the flashlight on their phone, which upset others because it disrupted the cruising vibe in the darkness and could also expose everyone to the bathhouse staff and other patrons. Despite the darkness, I could sense the libido flowing with the patrons’ movements. There were about 30 men in this room and at least 10 had congregated against the wall to watch some ongoing activity. I tried to squeeze to the front but failed. I heard people next to me saying they were watching a blow job.
On the opposite side of the room, four or five men lay on the floor, seemingly to indicate that they were ready for pleasure. Some patrons approached their faces to assess their attractiveness. The cruisers’ movements in this space were swift: once they confirmed that they had not found their type or anything of interest, they would leave the room in the direction of the other sauna rooms. A row of five such rooms lay beyond the door, some of which were open with more light. Passing by two of them, I noticed bigger crowds―bodies moving, bodies close together. Cruisers kept moving between these saunas in search of a good match or exciting activities to observe.
At around 2:30 a.m., I returned to the bathing area. By now, the lights were off in the outdoor section. Almost every patron went straight to the outdoor area and around 15 men had congregated in the outdoor pool. The light outside was dim, but patrons’ were still visible. The contact between the warm pool water and the cold air produced streams of steam above the pools. Cruisers were bolder in their actions behind this screen of steam—few straight people frequent outdoor pools this late in the night. Two men, one at either end of the pool, were giving hand jobs to other men. One man started to complain that people in this location were not too open, implying that few engaged in intercourse. A man nearby responded: “That’s true. I’m one of them, because I just wanted to watch others having fun.”
Despite the steam, cruisers kept up a high degree of vigilance. In the midst of this conversation, a man wearing a sweater pushed through the door and into the pool area, prompting an abrupt suspension of hand jobs (only staff wore clothes in this area). After pausing for about two seconds, the man close to me said that he couldn’t be an employee because he was not in a staff uniform. The newcomer approached someone in the pool, confirming that he was just another gay patron. He had got dressed, but then decided to say goodbye to his friend before leaving. And with that the cruisers resumed their activities.
By 4:00 a.m., most patrons had fallen asleep in the lobby or in the relaxation lounge. But a few gay men were still wandering between the bathing and dry sauna areas, one of them shirtless. I overheard that some patrons had moved to more private spaces, such as the toilet or private guest rooms. It was quiet in the lobby but for the occasional snore or yawn from those asleep on couches or the floor. Five men in their twenties sat in front of a dry sauna room. One sounded disappointed: “It was way crazier yesterday. People are very conservative today. Despite the large number of patrons today, it was not as fun as before.” I opened Blued, in which a few users were still active, indicated by the little green dots.
The short life of a cruising site?
Three weeks after my visit, a member of the online chat group shared a video taken by an unknown patron, clearly showing that the police had taken away a man who had been in the bathhouse massage area. The group speculated that the man was a porn influencer, but this later turned out to be an unfounded rumor. No one knew who the person was—probably a typical patron who was found to have engaged in sex in this public establishment. Several days later, the management decided to keep the lights on after midnight. The sauna rooms shone brightly throughout the night. Their staff began to patrol the premises and alert patrons to any intimate behavior.
Chats in the group continued, but people complained that fewer gay patrons visited during the ensuing weeks. Though it remained one of several cruising options, some gay men indicated that they had started patronizing other saunas rather than return to this one with its heightened surveillance and restraints. They resented the fact that the sauna benefitted from them financially while treating them as inferior or undesirable clientele. This sequence of events was reminiscent of what had happened at “the one to go to” in 2021. Queered bathhouses seemed to be trapped in this cycle of popularity followed by crackdown. Once again, gay men had to explore alternative options for cruising in the city.
That same month, a bathhouse that had closed in early 2022 due to the pandemic quietly reopened its doors. There was no official announcement online, but its reopening circulated through word of mouth. As well as the negative PCR test result required for entry, the man at the front desk asked each patron to register their name and phone number, per national requirements. But many patrons used pseudonyms and the staff did not seem to mind.
In early December 2022, China lifted most COVID-related restrictions, including dropping the requirement to scan a health code in public entertainment spaces. But the omicron variant is spreading like wildfire in China’s cosmopolitan cities, at a pace not yet seen in other countries. And with it, the number of gay men patronizing Shanghai’s saunas has dwindled significantly. Is there a future for gay cruising in post-zero-COVID China?