Silent for So Long, Elderly Gays Livestream at Full Volume


HUNAN, Central China — Hu Pingsheng never knew there was a name for his feelings until a younger man explained it to him: He was gay. Despite a desire to live his true self, however, he has kept that revelation from his family. But a few months ago, he finally found a place to be who he wants to be, and he’s even found some small-time fame in the process.

On a rainy afternoon in Chenzhou, the relatively small city some 400 kilometers north of Hong Kong where Hu has a sixth-floor apartment, the 68-year-old dons his favorite navy blue suit and sits down in front of his camera. He’s about to livestream on Blued, China’s largest social networking app for gay men and the one place where the twice-divorced Hu feels like he can be himself. “When I was young, I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have the chance to get to know men I adore,” he says. “I feel like I’m now making up for my loss.”

A Blued spokesperson says the app’s livestreaming feature, available since 2016, has seen “hundreds of thousands” of users turn their cameras on themselves. Though the majority of them are young, Blued has noticed a rise in livestreamers aged over 50 since the second half of 2018. Hu attributes this to the closeted lives that gay men of his generation lead. “We have a limited circle of friends, and most of us haven’t come out to our families,” says Hu. “Without livestreaming, my life is boring and stressful.”

Hu fills his hourslong livestreams mostly by singing. He kicks off today’s show with his greatest hit, “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau,” one of the best-known tracks in China. Though Hu cannot quite master the high notes at the end of the song without his voice cracking, it still wins him a few dozen likes. He then performs “Over the Golden Hill of Beijing,” which became a household song in the early 1970s. “Chairman Mao is like the bright golden sun,” he sings, gently swaying with the rhythm.

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

Hu, who calls himself “Tasty Mango” on Blued, has learned to sing some 200 songs and has hundreds more downloaded to his phone that he wants to add to his repertoire. Red classics about Chairman Mao and Communist Party history are his favorites, he says. On a good day, he’ll have over 1,000 viewers — but he averages a couple hundred. He greets each of them as they join the stream.

As on other Chinese platforms, viewers on Blued can buy virtual gifts for livestreamers, which they can then exchange back into money. So far, Hu has earned more than 10,000 so-called beans, which amounts to 1,000 yuan ($150). But Hu’s not in it for the money. The retired accountant has a monthly pension of over 3,000 yuan, which he says can ensure him a comfortable life in Chenzhou.

Compared with more developed coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where people are more open about and tolerant toward sexual minorities, public gay life in inland cities such as Chenzhou is almost nonexistent. “I realized many people here still don’t know what ‘gay’ means,” says Liang Junjie, a swimming coach who hails from Guangzhou but has been living in Chenzhou for a few years. He is a fan of Hu and has sent him virtual gifts. “I think he’s handsome, and I’m happy that he can do things he really enjoys,” says the 26-year-old.

Liang has known he was gay since middle school. A few years ago, he came out to his parents — which he says is something people his age would consider doing, but is rare for older generations. Hu, for his part, didn’t know he was gay until 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China. A young man approached him at a park in Chenzhou and took him to a gay bar. There, someone told him he was gay. “I always knew I admired men, but it had never occurred to me that there is a word to define my sexuality,” he says.

Born and raised in the countryside, Hu always longed for an urban lifestyle. He moved to the local county seat in his late teens and in 1984 married his first wife after they’d been introduced by a matchmaker. A few years later, fed up with her short temper, he filed for divorce and moved to Chenzhou, where he married his second wife. This union also ended with a separation, on account of “personality clashes.” He’s not sure whether his sexuality played any role in the divorces.

Hu has two daughters — one with each of his ex-wives. He hasn’t come out to either of them and doesn’t plan to, uncertain of whether they will accept it. Hu’s family also doesn’t know about his antics on Blued, but he doesn’t worry about what might happen if his relatives saw him on the platform. “I’m not doing anything nasty or wrong,” he says. “I’m just doing what I love: singing.”

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

While it’s just a passion project for Hu, others hope the nascent popularity of elderly livestreamers will become a source of income. Wang Liyun, originally from the northeastern province of Jilin, stepped into the senior gay livestreaming business after hearing about its profit-generating potential from friends. China’s livestreaming market is already huge and still growing: According to a 2018 National Copyright Administration report, the market was worth nearly 40 billion yuan in 2017, fueled by virtual gift-giving. Popular streamers can earn a living wage, if not significantly more.

Wang’s approach was to start a group — a common format in which several singers live together and alternate behind the microphone. A “boss,” like Wang, organizes the group and provides accommodation and food. Participants get a cut from the gifts they earn. According to Wang’s own observations, there are over 200 groups of men over 45 on Blued. Their fans are of all ages. “A successful group can attract over 8,000 fans and receive as much as 60,000 beans per day,” Wang, 55, tells Sixth Tone.

With that goal in mind, Wang started looking for candidates all over the country to join his group in his home in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong. Wang, who identifies as gay, only wants to hire gay men — he scoffs at groups on Blued that hire straight, amateur singers pretending to be queer — who are between 40 and 60 years old, decent-looking, and good at singing and interacting with fans.

Since he started in March, over a dozen men have livestreamed with Wang’s group, but turnover is high, especially when gift-giving disappoints. “When they realize they are incapable of getting beans, they just leave after a few days,” Wang sighs. He has invested over 30,000 yuan into his venture with returns, so far, of about 10,000 yuan. “When I start to make a profit, I’ll buy fancy lights and LED wallpaper to decorate the studio,” he says.

Last November, Hu joined a similar group. He took the train to Zhuzhou, a city about 300 kilometers north of Chenzhou, and sang with a group called Magic Dragons, consisting of four men — all gay and about the same age. For eight hours a day they sang from a living room-turned-studio, adorned with a color-changing crystal ceiling light and background wallpaper featuring the Great Wall. “It was more gorgeous and magnificent than any karaoke rooms that I’ve been to,” he recalls.

Before Hu would start his shifts, an announcer would hype up the audience and introduce him: “Now let’s welcome Uncle Hu from Chenzhou, Hunan. He’s 68 years old, 165 centimeters tall, and weighs 60 kilograms. Look: He’s slim, light-skinned, and handsome! Show your love with flowers, grass, or whatever (digital gifts)!” Hu says he felt embarrassed at first, but later started playing along, asking for more beans. He enjoyed singing with others and was paid 1,600 yuan for half a month’s work.

But most of all, Hu feels relieved finally knowing who he is, as do many gay men his age, he says. He’s got trips planned to the eastern cities of Nantong and Shanghai, as well as southern Shenzhen, to join livestream groups there. “If there’s a platform where I can do what I love,” he says, “I don’t want to waste another minute regretting not doing things that make me happy.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

One Retiree’s Solution for Solitude: Nude Modeling


SICHUAN, Southwest China — As a nude model, Wang Suzhong cares about his appearance. Though he now stands at 1.68 meters tall, he stresses that he used to be a better-sounding 1.70: “I’ve shrunk by 2 centimeters.” When he bothers to brush his silver hair, it flows like that of a much younger man. In the past six years, he has modeled several times a week in nearly all the art institutes and colleges in town. For an 89-year-old, he has quite the career.

This unusual line of work is Wang’s answer to what has become known in China as the empty-nester problem, or when elderly people don’t live with their children. Until fairly recently, this was a rare situation in the country, but as younger generations prefer having their own homes, a majority of seniors now live alone. Empty nesters make up more than 70 percent of the elderly population in urban areas like Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a city of 14 million where one in every five is aged 60 or above. To make sure these lonesome seniors get enough attention, the filial duty to visit or call one’s parents became a law in 2013.

Wang Suzhong, an 89-year-old nude model, reflects on his past — and on his dreams for the future. Courtesy of Ergeng

“I want to set an example for empty nesters like me, to find their own passion, be independent, and not become a burden on society,” says Wang as he takes a sip of the noodle soup he made for lunch — a lighter dish than normal, on account of a toothache. All Wang’s friends feel old and have health problems; some have passed away. But Wang’s new passion keeps him young, he says.

In 2012, when Wang was strolling past Sichuan Normal University near his home, he glimpsed a nude model posing for students at a life-drawing class at an art studio. Having worked as a tailor in the fashion industry all his life, Wang has always been fond of art involving the human form. When the manager of a figure-model agency noticed him, he looked Wang up and down a few times, and after a short pause asked if Wang wanted to be a nude model as well. “I thought about it for a day, and I was so excited that I tossed and turned in bed that night,” Wang says.

Wang wasn’t the least bit nervous the first time he modeled. In each class, he must maintain the same posture for an hour. Sometimes, he sits on a chair or sofa; other times, he stands or leans against the wall. “The students look so serious when drawing me, which makes me feel like I’m a work of art,” Wang says, flashing an easy smile.

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Wang Suzhong sorts out his paintings in his apartment in Chengdu, Sichuan province. October 25, 2018. Fan Yiying 

When Sixth Tone meets Wang at his apartment in Chengdu, he’s on his day off. He’s wearing a dark jacket over a white shirt, and brown nylon pants. While eating his lunch, he watches international news on his new 55-inch TV; on a nearby desk is an assortment of fruit, a mirror, and a calendar themed after Chinese President Xi Jinping. His favorite portrait of himself hangs on the wall next to his bed. A student painted him sitting down on a table with his knees drawn to his chest and hands on his shins while looking into the distance. Wang says his mind is blank when he models for the students: “I don’t think about the past or the future. I just want to live in the moment.”

The public housing apartment costs 400 yuan ($58) in rent, just a tenth of his relatively generous monthly pension. He earns 110 yuan a day modeling, which he does up to three times a week. Wang doesn’t need the extra income. “Obviously, I’m not modeling for money,” he says. “When I’m working with the students, I feel like I’m not alone, and I’m still needed.” When Wang was younger, his mother needed him, then his wife needed him, and his children needed him. Now, his mother, wife, and younger son have passed away. The remaining three children have their own lives and rarely come to visit.

During summer and winter school breaks, when Wang’s modeling skills are not in high demand, he gets up at 6 a.m., reads his newspaper, and then buys food at the market. After cooking for himself, he goes to the neighborhood’s elderly service center and chats with other empty nesters. Despite being a big mahjong fan, Wang hasn’t played in a while. “I only enjoy playing with people I really like, but unfortunately they’ve all died,” he says. Sometimes, he joins the chorus at the park, singing revolutionary songs with other seniors.

Born in a small provincial city in 1929, Wang has gone through many of China’s most turbulent times, from World War II to the civil war that followed, and later the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution. His father died when he was 3, and in 1942 Wang dropped out of school because his mother could no longer afford tuition. Wanting to fight the Japanese, he signed up for the air force, but an eye condition kept him from joining the war.

Wang then traveled to Chengdu to learn how to sew clothes from a relative. By 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, Wang had become a skillful tailor specializing in Western suits. He eventually became the general manager of a state-owned garment factory. He has taught more than 100 apprentices and has traveled all over the country, from cosmopolitan Shanghai to dusty inland cities, to meet with clients.

Wang’s career brought him abundant income. He was able to purchase three apartments in central Chengdu that he gave to his children, hoping that he could live with them in old age. However, after his wife died in 1997, his relationship with his children wasn’t particularly good. And it got worse when they found out about his modeling, which they consider “disgraceful,” Wang says.

Wang’s elder son works as a security guard. When he found out that his father would habitually strip naked in front of art students, he called and yelled that he wanted to end their relationship as father and son. Both of Wang’s daughters are retired. One visits him once every few months, and he has lost contact with the other. Wang’s family members declined Sixth Tone’s interview requests. Earlier this year, one of his granddaughters, a university student, told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that she’s happy her grandfather found his own passion.

“It’s not shameful to be a nude model at all,” Wang says. It’s the kind of art he learned briefly at school — Western-style life drawing and oil painting — but back then, he didn’t have the opportunity to study it further. Wang used to envy his fellow seniors who had their children and grandchildren for company, but now he’s relieved. “How long do you think I can live?” he asks. “I just want to follow my dream and make a contribution to society by doing something most people are reluctant to do.”

And there are plenty of people who do appreciate Wang. In China, he is something of a web celebrity, or wanghong — a term he has heard of, despite not owning a computer or smartphone. Several news stories about Wang have appeared in the past few years, and eye-catching headlines about the mysterious 89-year-old nude model have made him somewhat famous on social media. He is said to be the oldest such model in Chengdu.

Many of Wang’s neighbors know about his modeling and see him as an open-minded hippie. Zhang Guoxing, another retiree who lives in Wang’s complex, is aware of his neighbor’s nude modeling, though the two have never talked to each other. “I think many seniors in the community activity center have seen him on TV or on their phones,” Zhang says while walking his dogs. “What he does is great, pursuing his dream and fulfilling his life, but I would never have the guts to [be a nude model].”

As his reputation grew, Wang was invited in 2013 to star in a 45-minute movie titled “Free-Renting.” The film is an adaptation of a news story about an empty nester in his 70s who, in search of companionship, houses young people for free. Wang says he was basically playing himself. There is a line in the movie that describes his situation: “My wife is gone, children don’t come to visit, and I have made my own burial clothes.”

People of Wang’s generation expect their children to take care of them and bury them after they die. “I was so afraid to die without my children, but now I’m over it,” he says. “I will enjoy my remaining days and keep modeling until the day I can’t move.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

When You Are Old, Chinese, and Gay


Zhang Guowei, a 76-year-old bisexual veteran, is relishing his twilight years. “I couldn’t be happier with my life post-retirement,” says Zhang, who was a doctor in the army until 1994.

As a former military officer, Zhang’s monthly pension is 10,000 yuan ($1,440) — five times the average pension in Changde, the small city in central China’s Hunan province where he lives with his boyfriend. Zhang divorced his wife in 2003 and met the love of his life — Wu, who is 40 years younger — a year later on the internet. “I expect him to accompany me through the remainder of my life,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone after finishing his daily exercise routine.

Zhang says he is bisexual but prefers men. He gained support and understanding from his ex-wife and two daughters when he came out to them in 2003. When he passes on, his assets will be divided equally among his daughters and his boyfriend. “My kids have no problem sharing with Wu because they know he is the one taking care of me in my final years,” he says.

The May-December couple have been living together since 2005 in an apartment provided by the government for retired army cadres and their families. The 10-story building houses a dozen veterans in their 60s through 90s, some living alone and others with their spouses.

When Wu first moved in, Zhang told his neighbors that Wu was his gan erzi, or adopted son, whom he met online. (The Chinese concept of gan erzi allows for a sort of informal adoption of adults, with no legal or religious implications.) “I had this vague idea that they might be gay,” says 74-year-old Lu Shize, who lives downstairs. “But it’s none of my business to ask about his private life,” Lu adds.

Last year, following in other veterans’ footsteps, Zhang wrote a 218-page autobiography — including his experiences of recognizing his sexuality — and shared it with his fellow cadres. His neighbors were very understanding. “Everyone knows about us, and no one gossips or gives us a hard time,” Zhang says.

Lu, who had never before met any out gay or bisexual men, says he admires Zhang’s courage.

“Being gay or not, it doesn’t change the way I see him,” Lu says. “We are in our 70s; what’s more important than being happy and healthy?”

China’s population is rapidly aging. The proportion of the population aged 60 or older was more than 16 percent at the end of 2015, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and that number is only set to increase. The nation’s changing demography brings with it challenges for managing welfare and health care, especially as fewer seniors are able to count on their families for support.

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Decades of family-planning restrictions mean that even seniors who have children often must become self-reliant, as children born during the one-child policy can’t afford to support two parents and four grandparents. As a result, for many elders, being childless is no longer a major concern or an unusual occurrence.

Wen Xiaojun, 56, is single and childless. Immediately after he retired in November from working as a civil servant, he rented an apartment in Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, where he is spending six months avoiding the cold of his hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang. “I still feel young and restless,” Wen tells Sixth Tone. “Being childless makes it easy for me to travel after retirement.”

Like other older people, LGBT seniors want to have rich, fulfilling, and independent lives. They hope that retirement will give them the opportunity to focus on what they truly love.

Wen enjoys his slow-paced life in Sanya. He goes to exhibitions, takes walks along the beach, plays volleyball with locals, and sometimes meets up with men he contacts through Blued — a popular gay social app, on which he hopes to find a long-term boyfriend.

But dating isn’t easy for older gay men. “Younger generations can build a relationship quickly by kissing or having sex soon after they meet offline,” Wen explains. “But we want something more spiritual and stable.” 

Similarly, 62-year-old Ah Shan, as he’s called within the gay community, says that finding a partner is his biggest problem these days. His finances are secure, as he owns his apartment in Guangzhou — capital of southern China’s Guangdong province — and receives a monthly pension of about 5,000 yuan, but he has been single for four years and is ready for that to change. In the meantime, he is renting out one of his bedrooms to gay friends so he has some company at home.

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Most gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of Ah Shan’s generation knew little about their sexual orientation until internet access became available at the turn of the millennium. Even when Ah Shan was working in the U.S. in the late 1980s, he refused to consider himself gay because the only information he’d heard about gay topics in China was AIDS-related or implied that homosexuality was shameful or immoral. “I think I was brainwashed,” Ah Shan laughs.

Over the last two years, Ah Shan has been working on a gay oral history project, recording the stories of older gay men in Guangzhou. He has talked to more than 60 gay men aged from 60 to 90, who have experienced some of China’s most critical historic moments, from the Cultural Revolution to the nation’s opening-up era. “If we don’t record them now, part of the important history of LGBT in China will be gone,” he says.

Many of the men are married and choose not to come out to their families. “They go to this particular park to chat with other gay men in the daytime to release their emotions, but when the sun goes down, they have to return home to bear their family responsibilities,” Ah Shan says with a sigh.

Ah Shan’s own parents passed away before he was brave enough to tell them the truth. His mother died in 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China.

Compared with gay and bisexual men, older women find it even more difficult to disclose or discuss their sexual orientation. Since 2010, 45-year-old Yu Shi from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has been working on an oral history project for older same-sex-attracted women across China, but she says the process of locating participants and persuading them to share their stories is tough.

“Chinese women are in a weak position in the family, which doesn’t allow them to speak out for themselves,” Yu says, adding that of the 30 or so lesbians who have taken part in the project over the last six years, only one has come out to her family. Many won’t divorce their husbands even if they have female partners. “Chinese people are very concerned with saving face, and they think it’s a loss of face to get a divorce if you’re already a grandparent,” she says.

Yu and her 40-year-old girlfriend have lived together for over a decade, but despite their enduring, loving relationship, they can’t enjoy the security of a formal union, as same-sex marriage is not yet legal in China. Some issues can be resolved by making a will, but others — like legal or medical power of attorney — remain a problem.

According to Yu, some LGBT seniors who are single and childless have considered building their own retirement estate where they can live together and take care of one another. Although they aren’t opposed to regular nursing homes, Yu says “they prefer to live in a place where they can open their hearts and share their experiences with others in the same circumstances.”

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

As more and more seniors live separately from their children, retirement facilities in China have struggled to meet growing demand. The government encourages investment in privately owned nursing homes, but so far none have been established exclusively for members of sexual minority groups.

Little public attention is given to the needs of older LGBT people, but to Wang Anke, a 50-year-old bisexual woman from Beijing, these individuals don’t do enough to stand up for themselves, either. “We are almost invisible,” she says.

Wang married her husband in 1990 and plans to spend the rest of her life with him. Though Wang considers herself happy and fortunate, she says that most older lesbian and bisexual women she knows are pessimistic about their senior years. “They’re lonely and lack emotional care,” Wang says, adding that many would rather live alone than move into a nursing home where they fear they can’t be themselves. “Loneliness will go to the grave with them.”

But while some LGBT seniors advocate dedicated nursing homes, Ah Shan opposes the idea of separate services. “In the long run, LGBT people shouldn’t lock ourselves in a so-called safe place,” he says. “What we really need is for the overall environment to allow us to live comfortably in the community.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.