By Qiu Lin
BEIJING, July 18 (Xinhua) -- Most weekend nights, long lines of hip young men wait for entry at a bar opposite the west gate of Beijing Workers Stadium, where a row of fancy dance clubs light up the night with flashing neon.
But here, another world awaits these men. It's the place to see and be seen. The dim backlit letters spell out its name, Destination, reputedly Beijing's hottest gay club.
When owners Wang Qiang, "Edmund" Yang and their friends dreamed up Destination three years ago, they wanted to create a place for gays and lesbians to hang out "with dance music in tune with clubs in other major cities such as New York and London".
At weekends, the floor is always crowded with young men dancing close to each other to hit songs from Rihanna, Justin Timberlake or Kanye West. The strobe lights flash over their ecstatic faces and sweating bodies. Some stand in the corner drinking, flirting or just watching.
A DJ himself and a producer of a dance music radio programme in Beijing, Edmund regards music as the soul of the club. "We want our friends from other big cities around the world to feel at home when they come here." This year, readers of "That's Beijing" listings magazine voted Destination the "best place to dance" in the capital.
"Darren" Li, 24, who frequents the club, looking for romance. "I met my boyfriend on the dance floor," he says with a grin.
China has become more tolerant of homosexuality with its economic and social development. Gay communities have mushroomed in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The Ministry of Health estimated in 2004 that China had 5 million to 10 million gay men.
But Professor Zhang Beichuan, of the medical school of Qingdao University, an expert on Aids prevention among homosexuals, estimates that there are about 20 million gays and 10 million lesbians in China.
In 1997, "hooliganism", which was considered the de facto decriminalization of homosexual acts, was removed from China's criminal code. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from China's official list of mental diseases.
Today, China's young gay men enjoy a freer environment. With the thriving online gay communities, such as aibai.com, idanlan.com, gays can easily find each other and arrange activities through on-line forums or chat rooms.
"This is a place for gays and lesbians, but we don't do any special promotion. People come here and feel they belong," says Edmund.
Destination has enjoyed unfettered business in Beijing. Its clientele is overwhelmingly male and about a fifth of them are foreign. "The government doesn't bother you as long as you don't do anything illegal. It's the same for every club," Wang says.
He points out that Destination is a place for those with alternative lifestyles as well as those who love dance music and just want to "chill".
"Walter" Liu, 28, a fashion magazine editor, comes to Destination every weekend with his boyfriend to get together with friends from an online gay group.
"This club is just like its name. Gays come here as their destination. It's a platform to meet people and relax with friends," says Walter.
He sometimes goes to Bear Den, another gay bar, which is especially popular with "bears", slang for gays who are heavy-set and place importance on presenting a hyper-masculine image.
"Men who go there are more mature," says Walter. Bear Den plays quiet music and offers a second floor for its customers to talk.
Walter, always curious and quick to check out gay bars such as Dushi Qingdao (Love Island in the City) and Bear Den when they first open, says he has seen gay bars come and go. "It's not easy to run a gay bar successfully."
Destination is an exception. Already, it is expanding to two floors, with the dance floor temporarily closed because of the renovation, Edmund says.
"Hopefully the work will be done before the Olympics," he says. "I think our club will showcase Beijing as an open city and when tourists come, they will know there is such a place in Beijing."
Gays still tend to be careful about "coming out" to their parents and colleagues. "If my company knows I'm gay, it's possible that I'll get fired," says Walter, who sees no point telling his parents because "it will make them sad and affect your life".
But some optimistic gays say China is no worse than anywhere else in the world. "Coming out to your parents is never easy anywhere," says Darren. "They still hold traditional views and they think a family is only whole with a wife, a husband and offspring. There is no point hurting their feelings if I don't have to."
Edmund says: "If you don't do anything illegal, you live just like anybody else. People are more open-minded nowadays."