KUNMING: The first government-backed gay bar in China has opened in a quiet way after being delayed for almost three weeks due to intense media attention.
Without ribbon cutting, a simple ceremony was nevertheless held to mark the opening of the bar Saturday night in the tourist city of Dali in southwestern Yunnan Province.
More than 60 people, mostly gay men, and 10 volunteers, also gays, attended the ceremony. Customers were given condoms free of charge.
"Their arrival gave me great support. Some of them came from outside Dali specially for the opening," Zhang Jianbo, the bar's owner, told Xinhua in a telephone interview Sunday.
The bar was originally scheduled to open on December 1, the World AIDS Day. But Zhang delayed it to protect the privacy of the volunteers and customers after intensive media coverage.
"I have worried that the media reports may discourage them from entering the bar again. But such a thing did not happen," he said.
No media journalists were present at the opening ceremony Saturday night, he said.
Zhang, 36, is also director of the Dermatological Department of the Dali Municipal No. 2 People's Hospital and founder of the Dali HIV/AIDS Prevention and Health Association, a non-governmental organization.
"Starting from December 20, the bar will open nine hours every day, from 3 pm to 12 pm," he said.
The minimum charge at the bar is a bottle of Coca Cola at 5 yuan, and tea and some snacks are free, he said.
"The charges are just for the need of bar operation, and we are not aiming for profits. Customers need not worry about that," he added.
Zhang and his colleagues hope that the bar can provide a platform to educate gay men about AIDS, as a report released last month by UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) and China's Ministry of Health alerted the nation to the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay men.
Health Minister Chen Zhu said sexual transmission has become the major cause of infection, accounting for more than 70 percent of all newly detected HIV/AIDS cases, and sexual transmission among gay men accounted for 32 percent.
The ministry and the UNAIDS estimate that China will have 560,000 to 920,000 living HIV carriers, with 97,000 to 112,000 AIDS patients by the end of 2009.
"Gay men sometimes cannot find a proper place to exchange thoughts with others. Here in the bar, they can relieve their psychological pressure and educate each other about AIDS knowledge, which can help prevent the spread of AIDS," said the bar manager using an alias, Xiao Tao.
The bar is also open to other customers besides gay men, Zhang said.
"They are welcome here, but we hope they can communicate with gay men in a peaceful way, which is the first step for them to learn about the gay group," he said.
"They will be more tolerant to the group if they get more understanding about them," he said.
A 19-year-old university student in Shanghai, a gay man with an alias Yan Zi, said he has paid close attention to the gay bar for a long time.
"I am very happy to know that the bar finally opens, which shows the government and general public give more understanding to us," he said.
A 24-year-old resident surnamed Yue in southern Guangzhou City, who claimed to have good friends that are gays, said "They make outstanding achievements in work. I do not care about whether they are gay or not. That is their privacy."
Chinese media praised the role of the local government in supporting the establishment of the gay bar, although officials denied the government had directly funded the bar.
Homosexuality is still a sensitive topic in China.
The Dali Municipal Health Bureau allocated 120,000 yuan ($17,650) to the No 2 hospital this year for the AIDS prevention, but media had mistaken the money as a special fund for the bar, Li Jun, director bureau, told reporters earlier this month.
"The bar was initiated by Zhang's association," he said.
Meanwhile, the local government had voiced explicit support for the bar.
"The government has no intention of closing the bar. On the contrary, we support its normal operation," said Zhao Hui, a spokesman for the Dali municipal government, when he was asked whether the government was behind the postponement.
According to Zhang, the fund for opening the bar mainly came from the association itself and two international NGOs.
"In addition, some of the money was indeed from the 120,000-yuan AIDS prevention fund from the No. 2 hospital, though not so much," he said.
Xiao Tao said the local health authorities have provided them much assistance in the education of AIDS prevention.
"That will encourage gays, though their own voices and actions, to give the government some suggestions in policy-making related to AIDS prevention," he added.