In the fast changing scene of queer/tongzhi in China, five years can be a generation. The queer or lala project I’m going to write about in this article, les+, is a pioneer lala magazine that first started in 2005 and ended five years ago in 2012. The creative energy of queer/tongzhi activism in China has never ceased to explode from the beginning right through to the recent period of tightened political control. les+ was one of the most established and influential queer creative projects in China. Looking back, it was launched during the more liberal years of queer/tongzhi activism or activism in general in China. At that time, it was not difficult to see enthusiastic and hopeful young lala women at all kinds of community events or parties. They were eager to share ideas, launch new projects and connect with each other. les+ appeared in this formative period of queer/tongzhi activism and community building in China, a period that was typified by an atmosphere of optimism and youthful energy (I hope it’s not my nostalgia as a researcher who was emotionally involved in the community during that period).
The queer aesthetics and politics of les+ was a distinctive feature of the magazine, but haven’t been given the attention it deserves. I would see les+ as playing an important role in the localization of queer politics in the lala community in China. It also created a kind of queer aesthetics that later became a signature visual style and sensibility of queer women in China.
les+ first started as a queer women community publication in Beijing. It was the longest running lala magazine in China. It was intended to be a magazine for but not limited to lesbian women. As the plus sign “+” in the title suggests, it was for les (lesbian) and more. The plus sign also refers to “home” in Mandarin, which is pronounced as “jia 家”, same as the pronunciation of the plus sign “jia 加”. It offered one of the first representations of the new generation of young urban lalas in China. Also it represented one of the first attempts of lalas to call for a proud existence and to make themselves visible to each other. Started as a bi-monthly newsletter that was no more than four pages of A4 paper, it later developed into a full-size magazine with more than 100 pages and a wide (but informal) distribution network in China. les+ was founded by two passionate lalas in their early 20s after they met each other in Beijing in the early 2000s. They remained two leading figures in the les+ team, which at its peak attracted dozens of volunteers. les+ became a well-known brand-name in the lala communities all over China and in later years, it extended its creativity to performing arts and produced two queer theatre plays, The Pagoda of Joy and Sorrow (2010) and The Rabbit Hole (2012). Both were performed publicly in Beijing. The magazine became a quarterly in 2009, but after 2010, due to an incident of state intervention, it was published on an irregular basis. In 2012, les+ published its last issue.
In the first issue of les+, there’s a statement that tells the aspiration of lalas in China at that time. It writes, “After the dark night, holding your hand, walking proudly under the sun, we live our life happily and honestly!” (在黑夜之后，握着你的手，在阳光下骄傲地走，坦然happy地过我们的生活！) The statement was a response to the state-imposed stigmatization of homosexuality in the pre-2000 decades when the behaviour was criminalized and defined as a mental disorder. Young urban lalas shared in this first issue their views on self-identity. In the issues that followed, the aspiration of representing a bright and healthy side of lalas gradually transformed into a more politically conscious effort of introducing diversity into the community. Topics on trans issues have been covered many times. Feminism and queer theory were introduced from time to time. Bisexuality was introduced and discussed. Lesbian mothers in China were interviewed and technical tips were shared. Lala activists were interviewed and their non-normative sexual adventures were disclosed. Migrant lalas working in Beijing (beipiao) made their presence in the magazine. Diversified images of lalas were presented and different fashion styles of queer women were introduced.
les+ indeed demonstrated to the lala community, in textually and visually challenging ways, the possibilities of gender and sexuality, and the many ways one can live a non-normative life. This politics of “plus” was also reflected in the visual presentation of the magazine. The visual style of les+, always sharp, non-compromising and provocative, demonstrated its intention of breaking away from all sorts of convention and questioning the stability of binary logics so often assumed in the understanding of gender and sexuality.
The art director and co-founder of les+, Gogo, described the style of les+ as “simple, sharp, and unconventional”. The realization of the fact that it could never become a formal publication open for sale in recognized outlets, actually offered more freedom for the les+ team to experiment unconventional ways of doing a magazine. As an independent and underground queer magazine, Gogo described her vision for the style or aesthetics of les+ as follows:
I do hope it can be a magazine with a strong visual character, which includes its graphic layout, photography, and its theatre production outside the magazine. It ought to be original, without any over-complicated decoration, be straightforward, and provocative. […] We’re not trying to use the visual style of les+ to set up a model for other people and ask them to follow. This is not what we aimed at. Our aim was to tell people there’re different ways of doing a magazine. There’re different ways of doing the layout. What is fashionable has many different possibilities.
The queer politics and aesthetics, as indicated by the double meaning of the plus sign in the title, point to both solidarity and differences. The meaning of “jia” (home) offers a sense of together-ness, anchorage and perhaps sameness in the sense of how we usually refer to “people like us”. Yet the other meaning of “plus” directs us to a queer imagination of differences, diversities and divergence. The provocative visual style of les+ unambiguously manifests this queer aesthetics of plus. The legacy of les+, which was passed along through its many creative projects, is a refusal to follow the convention, whether it is normative way of being or living, or normative way to do a magazine. In a recently published article by Ana Huang, a long-term participant and researcher in the lala community in China, she made a very insightful comment on the present state of lala community and why we need queer politics of imagination at this moment more than ever:
A sense of precariousness pervades throughout lala culture, as people face temporal caps on their relationships. Without a future or a past, lalas float in a precarious temporal limbo, longing for anchorage.
Yet, the reformist politics espoused by the most influential LGBT organisations in China cannot fully address the problem as it clings onto normative ideals of a good life. A politics of imagination, on the other hand, responds to the affective experience of precariousness and strives for something beyond the limited present. Utopian politics breaks out of the here and now and enables us to imagine other possible worlds. It functions like a mirage in the desert that never quite materialises, but inspires radical actions.
Queer politics of imagination does not stop at the here and now, nor is it restricted by the precarious present (that usually forecloses the possibility of a thinkable future). In this age of precarity and conformity, when being different is both too risky and unpromising, let’s remember the queer politics and aesthetics of PLUS.
Lucetta Y. L. Kam is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing, Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests are queer migration, Chinese gender and sexuality studies, queer popular culture in East Asia and Hong Kong studies. She is author of Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China (Hong Kong Press, 2013). Image credit: Gogo.