Chen Yujun knew her father owned a bar — she just didn’t know what kind of bar.
The photo of a statue with a muscular torso she’d once spotted in her father’s business plan had piqued her interest. So one night in April, the 21-year-old from the coastal city of Xiamen in the eastern Fujian province set off with a friend to investigate.
While the male friend posed as a patron and entered 1001 Bar, she lurked in a corner, hidden from view. Minutes later, the investigator returned with a revelation.
“Your dad is gay,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Chen’s journey of staking out her father’s business and stumbling upon his sexuality is the topic of her upcoming documentary “1001 Nights.” What started as an amateur project born of curiosity and some speculation about her father’s private life has turned into a film that’s now scheduled to premiere on June 25, with an eventual online release.
“The revelation of my dad’s sexual orientation didn’t destroy me,” Chen told Sixth Tone. “It was rather satisfying in a way, because it confirmed my initial skepticism.”
For many LGBT individuals, coming out to friends and family can be a life-altering decision.
In China, less than 15% of LGBT people choose to disclose their sexual orientation to their close family members, according to a 2016 United Nations Development Programme report. Fearing reprisals from society, many live dual identities and even end up in “cooperative marriages” — unions between a gay man and a lesbian, arranged to maintain the veneer of a heterosexual life.
According to Chen, her parents’ relationship was a story of love and longing. Her father, upon realizing his desire for men after marriage, lived a double life for over a decade. Meanwhile, her mother frequently visited Taiwan for business, maintaining a relationship with her husband in name only.
“I grew up believing my dad was my hero, but I came to realize that he also struggles and makes mistakes like ordinary people do,” Chen said.
Yang Yi, a program officer at LGBT Rights Advocacy China, told Sixth Tone that Chinese society isn’t entirely ready to accept anyone who doesn’t check a heteronormative box. For this reason, members of China’s LGBT community have always dreaded family reunions and the uncomfortable questions about their private lives that these events inevitably entail.
Representation of LGBT characters in mainstream media, however, can help raise awareness of the lives and rights of sexual minorities, he said. It also allows otherwise-invisible figures to be seen and heard.
“Literature and film play vital roles in shifting people’s attitudes toward sexual minorities,” Yang said. “Considering the lack of social activism in China, LGBT stories in the media contribute to the transformation of queer culture, from being a taboo to an embraced identity.”
Lately, despite some setbacks, LGBT representation in the Chinese entertainment industry has become more visible, as the country’s filmmakers are less reluctant to tell queer stories. The 2016 Taiwanese film “Small Talk,” about a daughter trying to understand her mother’s sexual identity, won the prestigious Teddy Award for best documentary at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
Chen hopes her documentary will also join the ranks of films that help others explore LGBT identities and family dynamics.
“My film is about more than just sexuality,” Chen said. “It also explores topics like love, aging, and kinship. I hope viewers will find it encouraging, and remain hopeful for a future where homophobia is less prevalent.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Filmmaker Chen Yujun on the set of “1001 Nights.” From @1001bar on Weibo)