In the ‘gay capital’ of Asia, Chinese LGBTQ+ emigres look to build a new life

In 2019, business was booming for Owen Zhu. He was one year into his new career in real estate, showing Bangkok properties to Chinese investors.

Then the pandemic halted travel and spending. Even now, Chinese buyers are slow to return.

The exception has been one group that has since become Zhu’s specialty: LGBTQ+ clients looking to build a new life for themselves outside China.

“Most of them are buying to live in or to retire in — not like many straight people or friends, who are prioritizing investments,” Zhu, 40, said.

Before the pandemic, Zhu estimates, about one-fourth of his clients were LGBTQ+. Now they make up two-thirds of his customer base.

As China has clamped down on queer representation and advocacy, Bangkok, long the “gay capital” of Asia, has offered visitors a reprieve from the conservative culture back home.

Here, the thriving nightlife of gay bars and clubs draws many potential buyers to look for apartments near the city center, Zhu said.

A drag queen performs on Silom Soi 4, a street known for LGBTQ+ nightlife in Bangkok.

(Lauren DeCicca / For the Times)

Zhu, who is also gay and from China, bought an apartment in Bangkok in 2017 for his eventual retirement. As friends started asking his advice on how to make their own purchases, he quit his job in Chinese media to help them find properties full time.

As his clientele has changed, so has Zhu’s marketing on Chinese social media. In between property listings, he now shares updates on efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and surrogacy in Thailand.

With demand growing, Zhu said he hopes to start a housing complex catering to gay Chinese in the next few years.

The growing LGBTQ+ community means Zhu runs across more business opportunities in his daily life in Bangkok.

That’s how he met Danny Dong, 29, who moved from China’s Suzhou province in October 2022.

A year ago, Zhu overheard Dong speaking Chinese at a gay bar and struck up a conversation. Now as Dong makes plans for his next three to five years in Thailand, he’s toured several apartments with Zhu, looking for one he might like to buy.

Prospective buyer, Danny Dong, 29, speaks with real estate agent, Owen Zhu, on the rooftop

Danny Dong, left, tours an apartment complex in Bangkok with Owen Zhu, who helps clients find apartments to buy.

(Lauren DeCicca/For the Times)

In May, Zhu took Dong to a luxury complex in the central business district. Between several one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $163,000 to $438,000, Dong paid close attention to the balconies, where he liked to stand and look out at the bustling city below. After a few hours, he decided he would keep looking.

Dong moved to Thailand in part because he was depressed at home. He had become a dance instructor — he had started learning ballroom dance at age 8 — but didn’t like teaching much. There was little in the way of activities or entertainment to occupy him, and no LGBTQ+ community.

“I’ve always felt that my hometown is an extremely boring place,” he said.

In Bangkok, he feels that more is possible, with an abundance of choice in food, work and nightlife.

“More options in boyfriends too,” Zhu added.

Dong agreed. He had heard that Bangkok was a hub for queer tourists, but hadn’t sought out the scene during his first visit a few years ago. Nonetheless, at the hotel pool he met another gay Chinese man who eventually introduced Dong to his first boyfriend.

“Thailand has brought me a lot of positive things,” Dong said. “So I trust that it will bring me more positive things in the future.”


Prospective buyer, Danny Dong, 29, tests out gym equipment on the rooftop area of the


Chinese national, Danny Dong, 29, views a condo unit at the Supalai Oriental


Prospective buyer, Danny Dong, 29, speaks with real estate agent, Owen Zhu,

1. Dong speaks with real estate agent broker Owen Zhu. About two-thirds of Zhu’s clients are, like Dong, Chinese nationals.

Thailand’s famed acceptance of LGBTQ+ visitors stems from the prominence of gay and transgender representation in the country’s popular media and culture since the 1950s.

Those depictions weren’t always positive, and locals still face discrimination and prescriptive gender roles. However, the country’s officials began to embrace its LGBTQ-centric image more strongly in the late 20th century in order to boost tourism and the economy.

Thailand also waived visa requirements for Chinese citizens last year, in a bid to revive a cornerstone of its tourism industry that was heavily curbed by the pandemic. Thailand’s Tourism Authority said it expects 7.3 million visitors from China this year, twice last year’s figures, but far short of the 11 million peak in 2019.

While the country does not collect tourist data on gender or sexual orientation, the authority’s deputy governor of tourism products and business, Apichai Chatchalermkit, told Thai media last year that the country should court “high-potential” LGBTQ+ tourists with tours, advertising and events specific to their interests, such as pride parades.

Eleven years ago, the authority adopted the slogan “Go Thai, be free,” to emphasize Thailand’s openness towards LGBTQ+ visitors.

For some Chinese visitors, both tourists and those with work and residence visas, that appeal has been heightened by an increasingly oppressive environment for LGBTQ+ people back home.

China has long had a conservative culture that stigmatizes homosexuality, though it was decriminalized in 1997. Gay rights advocates achieved minor successes in the decades that followed, such as workplace protections for LGBTQ+ employees and the ability to register same-sex partners as legal guardians.

But in the past five years, the tide has turned. Under President Xi Jinping, government pressure on activists has ramped up, shutting down gay pride events as well as LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in major cities.

A riverboat passes by the Supalai Oriental Sukhumvit 39 on May 4, 2024 in Bangkok, Thailand.

A riverboat passes through Bangkok. The Thai capital Bangkok has become an increasingly popular destination for LGBTQ+ individuals from China.

LGBTQ+ resources and events “were like a counter-force to the examples of homophobia and transphobia that would pop up,” said Darius Longarino, senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. “Even though the [current] crackdown hasn’t reached down to all kinds of expression, it’s changed the balance of forces.”

Adisak Wongwaikankha, who opened the gay bar Silver Sand Silom in October 2021, said that 70% of his patrons are foreigners, and about half of those come from China.

People walk past #Bipolar and Silver Sand, popular bars on Silom Soi 4, a street known f

People walk past #Bipolar and Silver Sand, popular bars on Silom Soi 4, a street known for LGBTQ+ nightlife in Bangkok.

He estimates that percentage jumps as high as 90% during major holidays, such as Thai New Year, also known as Songkran Festival, in April, or the Pride Festival in June. Some recent visitors have been Chinese businessmen asking how to open or invest in gay entertainment venues like his.

On a Friday evening, Heath Yu, 38, strolled past Wongwaikankha’s establishment in the heart of Bangkok’s gay bar district, the windows adorned with neon lights and rainbow flags. Yu, who fell in love with Thailand on a vacation, quit his job at a Chinese TV station last year and moved here to pursue a doctorate in education and psychology.

“China is getting tighter on these LGBT, so more of them want to leave and come to Thailand,” Yu said. Feeling liberated in Thailand, Chinese tourists go a bit wild in Bangkok. he said. “As it gets more repressive there, it just gets more crazy here.”

Hawkers called out to Yu and his friend Summer Gao, 38, to come in from the heat for a drink.

Maybe later. Still, Gao quietly nudged Yu, alerting him to another pedestrian who seemed to be checking him out as they walked by.

Yu whipped his head around, and the two joked about chasing the man down. But Yu said he’s less preoccupied with finding a boyfriend than he is with finding work after his studies.

Yu was enticed by the idea of living in Bangkok ever since his first visit 10 years ago, when he encountered the Buddhist culture, the friendliness of locals and the affordability of food and rent.

And even though he rarely visits LGBTQ+-specific spaces, he feels more at ease in Bangkok than in his small hometown, where he has yet to come out to his parents.

A drag queen performs on Silom Soi 4, a street known for LGBTQ nightlife, on May 5, 2024

A drag queen performs on Silom Soi 4, a street known for LGBTQ+ nightlife, in Bangkok.

He also grew tired of low pay and censorship at the TV station, and worries that the suppression of information could increase hostility towards queer people.

“I really don’t want to go back,” Yu said wistfully. “I’m doing everything I can to stay here.”

With family still in China expecting him back, Gao doesn’t have the option to stay after his six-month language program ends. But once he retires, he said, he’ll apply for a retirement visa to come back to Thailand.

The first time Yamato Sasuki visited Bangkok a decade ago, he discovered a life that was unimaginable growing up gay in Beijing. Acceptance. Freedom. He returned to the city in 2017, then bought an apartment three years later.

But Chinese citizens cannot naturalize, so the 35-year-old teacher has been considering a move to Japan, where he might eventually marry his Chinese partner.

“I would want to continue to live in Thailand, but it’s just not an immigrant country,” said Sasuki, who has gone by his Japanese name since he left China in 2015 to study in New Zealand.

In Japan this year, two courts ruled same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, and Sasuki is hopeful that it may be legalized in his lifetime.

Jeffery Hu and his boyfriend, Wilfred Wu, attend Catholic mass at Our Lady Fatima Church on

Jeffery Hu and his boyfriend, Wilfred Wu, attend Catholic Mass at Our Lady Fatima Church in Bangkok.

(Lauren DeCicca)

Thailand is also on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage. The lower house of Parliament passed the bill in April, which still needs Senate approval and royal endorsement from the king. Currently, the only places in Asia that recognize same-sex marriage are Taiwan and Nepal.

Jeffery Hu shows a photo of him and his boyfriend, Wilfred Wu when they were in

Jeffery Hu shows a photo of him and his boyfriend, Wilfred Wu, when they still lived China. They moved to Bangkok last August, drawn by its more accepting attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people.

Drawn by his first boyfriend, a Thai man he met online, Jeffrey Hu first visited Thailand in 2011. He lived and worked there for eight years after.

But in 2020, the 34-year-old freelance translator was ensnared by China’s strict pandemic controls on a visit to see his mother, and unable to leave the country. During that time, he met his current boyfriend Wilfred Wu, 28, in a Chinese LGBTQ+ group chat.

Last August, they moved to Bangkok — Wu’s first time setting foot in Thailand. Through friends they found an apartment near the Victory Monument memorial, close to a small park where they like to walk, exercise and feed stray cats and squirrels.

Hu said that a few years ago, he had hoped China would become more open-minded, not just to LGBTQ+ people but in all aspects. As Christians, he and Wu also worried about religious repression in China.

But the government’s draconian response to COVID-19 made clear it’s not ready to give up its authoritarian ways.

Even if same-sex marriage does become legal in Thailand, Hu and Wu would be ineligible as Chinese citizens. Though the lack of marriage and naturalization prospects means their time in Bangkok will be limited — they dream of someday moving to California — for now they can reflect on the freedom they have found here.

“It made me think, this is the society that I want,” Hu said. “Compared to China, I feel like Thailand gives me a better sense of identity and belonging.”

Wilfred Wu and Jeffery Hu walk through Santiphap Park after an outdoor workout on May 5,

Wilfred Wu and Jeffery Hu stroll through Santiphap Park in Bangkok.

Special correspondent Yu-chen Lai in Taipei contributed to this report.

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