Yes, the same China that has yet to pass a single law protecting LGBT rights. There is no official number, but scholars estimate the gay population in China to be somewhere between 17 million and 30 million. But if your reality is based on mainstream TV and movies, you would think there is no such thing as gay in China.
Seventeen years after Will & Grace first aired on NBC in 1998, a Chinese show inspired by the classic American sitcom has attracted a serious following in China, thanks to the Internet.
The first season of Rainbow Family, an Internet-exclusive sitcom, has had more than 24 million views since its release last year. The first five episodes of the second season, updated weekly across major video websites, have accumulated more than 3 million views to date, producer Ling Jueding told Fusion in an interview.
Rainbow Family tells the story of a group of friends who share an apartment in downtown Beijing.
The main character, Xie Kezan (right), is a 24-year old graduate student, who is out to friends but closeted to his parents. Xie’s best friend, Song Yi (left), is a straight lifestyle magazine editor whose past five boyfriends all turned out to be gay. Her most-repeated line in the show is “Hey gorgeous, do you like women? I’m available to get married anytime.” The two pretend to be a couple in front of Xie’s parents.
Other characters include Austin Erbao Huang, a flamboyant gay public relations director obsessed with everything Alber Elbaz, and his ex-boyfriend Lin Xiaozun, a writer who has moved out of the apartment but always hangs around for free food and the off-chance of getting back together with Austin.
The show’s theme strikes a chord with China’s growing urban LGBT population, who get nearly no acknowledgement from mainstream TV or movies despite their huge purchasing power. According to LGBT Capital, a venture capital firm in Hong Kong, the market has an annual spending power of $460 billion.
Rainbow Family has also attracted a straight audience. A viewer who claims to be straight wrote a comment that he finds the show “disgusting" but somehow "can’t help but keep watching all of it” and that he would recommend it to his gay friends.
“Most Chinese people aren’t hardcore homophobic, they just would rather remain ignorant about homosexuality unless it starts to affect them in some real way,” producer Ling Jueding told Fusion. “I hope this show can provide a real and positive portrayal of the lives of gay and lesbians, just like Will& Grace did for Americans.”
Ling is also the CEO and founder of Zank, a gay social app with 10 million users. His company funded the show and uses it as a way to promote their brand. Ling said it’s good for the cause and good for business.
His understanding of the Internet culture helped the show’s success.
“The Internet is relatively tolerant about LGBT topics, although we had to make some compromises,” he said. Video websites such as Youku and Tencent Video refuse to put Rainbow Family on their homepages, so the show is only visible under the “comedy” tab. “There are certain restrictions when it comes to promotional events, because the mainstream is still very sensitive about the topic.”
For example, Xinhua Online, the website of China’s state news agency, covers news of the show but makes sure to exclude terms like “gay” and “homosexual” in the articles.
“China needs a sitcom like this,” Ling said. “I really hope it won’t be long before I can watch Rainbow Family on TV, someday.”
But he can't, not yet. TV shows explicitly portraying homosexually won’t get past government censorship. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television lists homosexuality as one of the “unhealthy topics regarding sex” and prevents it from being shown to minors. China doesn’t have a rating system for motion pictures. The government decides which movies can or cannot be shown in mainland theatres.
Over the years, some movies have made it onto the screens with minor gay characters and Ling believes it will get better from now on.
“Even though the path to equality is unclear, changes are happening every year,” he said.
You can watch the English-subtitled version here.
Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.