Interview: December 5, try 2010 in Taipei, Taiwan; Conducted in mandarin Chinese and translated by author
I found JJ Lai’s famous gay bookstore in a quiet residential neighborhood of Taipei. A row of rainbow flags and a pink lit sign designated the store as “Gin Gin’s, the first gay bookstore for the Chinese-speaking world.” A gaggle of high school students stood congregated in the entrance way – The bookstore often hosted local students and foreign tourists interested in seeing Taipei’s gay culture, and its customers came from all across Asia. Gin Gin’s most interesting visitors? A group of Buddhist nuns who came in looking for curve-hiding tank tops.
The small space featured a bathroom with transparent walls (“Why should going to the bathroom be something you cover up?,” asks JJ), and the well-designed store was stocked floor-to-ceiling with literature, DVDs, clothing, sex-toys and fun knick-knacks like a plastic toy set of “Coming Out Dolls” that I just had to purchase.
A slender talkative 45-year-old, JJ recalls spending his nights as a young architecture student at the gay bars and 228 Memorial Park (hangout spot for gay men in Taipei). “But there was no place where we could go during the day,” JJ recalls. In 1996 while starting his career as an architect, JJ read an article about the well-known author Hsu Yu-Sheng who was marrying his long-time American boyfriend in Taiwan’s first public gay wedding. Excited by this historical event, JJ attended Hsu’s wedding which was open to the general public.
By this time, JJ had started questioning whether there was more he could be doing with his life. He began to think about opening a bookshop for gays – a gathering place that wasn’t a bar where people could be themselves and a forum to mobilize the gay community.
Shortly thereafter, JJ went on a trip to the States to visit friends and family. He spent some time in San Francisco, and it was there in a bookshop in the gay Castro neighborhood that JJ felt convicted to start Gin Gin’s. While browsing in A Different Light Bookstore, JJ recognized another person in the store. By sheer coincidence, the author, Hsu Yu-Sheng, whose gay wedding JJ had attended in Taipei happened to be in San Francisco at the same time and was in the very same bookstore. JJ took this meeting as a sign of fate, and with financial backing from his mother, he returned to Taipei and started Gin Gin’s bookstore in 1999.
Because Taiwan itself produced limited LGBT literature, JJ imported much of his inventory from Japan and Hong Kong. This however, became the cause for one of Gin Gin’s biggest legal attacks. In 2005, police confiscated 500 copies of gay magazines from the store on the ambiguous claim that Gin Gin’s had violated import laws around “indecent materials.” JJ eventually won the case but not before investing two years in court battles.
JJ reserves a section in the back of the store for special activities and exhibitions. Much more than just a bookstore, JJ has made Gin Gin’s into the community center and media voice for the Taipei gay community. The week that I visited, JJ was busy coordinating with other local LGBT groups to provide a media response to the recent suicide of two lesbian teens in the south of Taiwan. One of their parents had caught the two girls in bed together and as a result of their parents’ rejection, the two girls checked into a hotel and killed themselves. The mainstream media, to JJ’s outrage, had downplayed the story as that of two confused teens rather than a tragedy of gay youth. It was up to JJ and his coalition to provide an LGBT voice on this issue.
Still, JJ has seen a lot of positive change in the past 12 years since he first opened Gin Gin’s. “I looked in my nephew’s elementary school textbooks, and they teach about LGBT human rights and non-discrimination at school,” he explains. Also, Taiwan has since passed anti-discriminatory legislation for sexual orientation, and a recent poll concluded that 75% of Taiwanese believe homosexual relations are acceptable. Taiwan is by far one of Asia’s most progressive countries, and its gay pride is the largest LGBT event in Asia.
Ironically, one of Gin Gin’s most personal attacks came from a foreign teacher in a neighboring Taiwanese-American Christian school who led his students to paint graffiti on the outside walls of the bookstore. JJ points to the differences in Western and Taiwanese religious beliefs as one of the reasons why Taiwan has seen less of an anti-gay reaction. “Most people here are Buddhist and Taoist, where we believe that all people can be gods if you work on being a better person and being good to others. So, it’s important to treat everyone with love and respect,” tells JJ.
As for his hopes for Taiwan? “I’m generally an optimistic person,“ says JJ laughing, “and I really don’t think much into the future. That’s better, or I’d probably be afraid to do some of the things I’ve done.” One area where he does want to see change is in censorship, especially when it comes to sex. “There are two things that Taiwanese people are afraid to talk about,” he tells me, “Sex and death. We shouldn’t be so afraid of sex.”
Where: Roosevelt Road, Section 8, Alley 8, Lane 210, Zhongzheng District, Taipei, Taiwan
More info: JJ and his bookstore were featured in Larry Tung’s short film Welcome to My Queer Bookstore, part of a program entitled Global Queers that was screened at the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.