The park seemed like heaven to me, brimming with so many gay men. In 2005, I had just moved to Shenyang from Inner Mongolia [in northern China], and I ended up at Bayi Park without knowing it was a cruising spot. I wandered around the area because I had no money and no place to stay — my friend who was hosting me had abruptly left the city. That’s where I met Cat Walk, a transgender woman who took me under her wing.
I lived with Cat Walk for three years, and one of her friends introduced me to sex work. It was easy money. Initially, I worried about my body shape: I’m a big guy, a “bear” as we say in gay slang, and most of the gay men cruising in the park preferred slim, youthful “twinks.”
Most of the sex workers were transgender women or cross-dressers. A lot of straight men scouting the area paid for sex with transgender women without realizing. I hesitated at first but saw no other options, so I dressed in drag. I was really shy on the first night, but I ended up with three men. I realized I could make a lot more than the 1,000-yuan monthly salary I would have made working in Inner Mongolia.
It’s not easy where I come from. Growing up in a remote village, I often questioned why I liked boys, and if I were the only one who was attracted to the same sex. I even tried opening up to one of my female friends one drunken night, but she told me I was sick and should seek treatment. I defended myself and said it wasn’t a disease, but she was not convinced. Eventually, I quit school, worked at a karaoke bar, and mostly stayed home. I felt isolated, and my parents were pressuring me to get married as well. So that’s when I decided I had to make that great leap and move to Shenyang, [the capital of northeastern China’s Liaoning province].
After three years there, it didn't feel safe anymore because more gay men began cruising in the area, which meant more scrutiny. I traveled to Shenzhen [in southern China] along with two friends who promised me a job as a male escort at a luxury club. That didn’t work out, but I ended up at a similar establishment.
Shenzhen was different — better. I didn’t have to cross-dress anymore. I was more comfortable with my sexuality and could be openly gay. Also, it was a really high-end club: Around eight of us lived in a rented apartment, and we would be on call all day and night. Money was good, too, considering we only paid 30 percent commission to the club owners.
We would end up staying overnight with some clients. Mostly, it’s business as usual, but sometimes romance is inevitable. There is love, and also heartbreak. One client fell in love with me and convinced me to stop working, and I did. We lived together for three years — it was a steady relationship. He was a nice guy, but to be honest, I wasn’t romantically inclined, so I left him.
The last 12 years has been erratic. In between soliciting sex at the park in Shenyang, and later working as an escort in Shenzhen and then [nearby] Guangzhou, I often returned to Inner Mongolia. I tried my hand at farming and at the restaurant business.
Da Xiong takes a walk through a neighborhood in Shanghai, April 27, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
In 2015, I married a woman. We’d been good friends for over 10 years — she’s the one I’d told I was into men — and we shared an apartment. We even shared the same bed, and the next thing I knew, she was pregnant. It just happened. I felt obligated to marry her — it was the right thing to do and also made my parents happy. Soon our daughter was born, and we became a family of five, including my parents.
Staying in my hometown and making 3,000 yuan a month wasn’t enough to feed my family anymore, and we were in debt. Considering that I didn’t even graduate from high school, it was impossible to get a better job. Not to mention, I’m already 40 now. Being a sex worker was the easiest way to earn good money. And so I returned to where I came from.
But in recent years, the sex industry has changed. I don’t have to venture out to parks and streets. I can just put my bio and photos on a website, and people can contact me. I still manage to earn between 7,000 and 10,000 yuan per month. For sex workers, technology seems like a double-edged sword: I feel it has empowered us in that we now have more control over our clients, but on the other hand, it’s also easier for people to hook up. These sites and mobile apps offer free sex for some, but they’re killing our business.
These days, I usually travel to another city for sex work. It’s like a business trip, and that way, I can be far from home. My wife, however, thinks I work at a factory in Suzhou [in eastern China]. During our phone conversations, she usually inquires about my work, and I fabricate stories and send her photos of a factory where my friend works so she doesn’t suspect anything. If I don’t call regularly, she often worries that I might be having an affair with another woman.
I lie to her every day. I feel like I’m a man with dual identities — I’m living a lie.
Since I have a daughter now, I often reflect on my work. I’m raising my child with the money I make from selling my body, with dirty money — it feels wrong. But I don’t see any other option for myself. I’ll work as long as I can and earn enough money to clear the debt and support my family.
Am I ashamed? Do I regret it? It’s pointless to think about that. People grow up in different circumstances, which lead them to make certain choices. I made a choice. But I don’t like this job — it’s illegal, and I’m always scared of getting arrested or getting a disease, though I always play safe. And it’s a humiliating feeling, serving people who treat you like a dog. If I had another chance, I wouldn’t do this, and if I were reborn, I wouldn’t want to be born as a gay man.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Bibek Bhandari and Zhong Changqian.
Contributions: Liang Chenyu; editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Da Xiong takes an after-dinner walk through a neighborhood in Shanghai, as he often does when he travels around the country for sex work, April 27, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)