When a foreign colleague of mine heard I was going to Xi'an, he immediately told me to go visit the lady boy bar.
What? They have such things in Xi'an?
This I had to check out. And he demanded that I come back with a full report and pictures.
He hadn't been to the bar himself, but his friend who used to work in Xi'an had been there and gave me basic directions.
It was near the Hyatt Hotel so I decided to treat myself to a good dinner there after a whole week of greasy food and not so good quality ingredients.
My meal was expensive -- 142 RMB ($20.77), but it was good quality food and of course excellent service. I also had a freshly squeezed juice of carrot and orange, along with a dessert of poached pear with almonds and dates.
After that my adventure began to find this lady boy bar.
I wandered south of the Hyatt and pretty soon I was on the right track, and then bingo! I found a bar... called... Number 21 Bar (er shi yi hao jiu ba).
It was as the description said, with orange lights, though the Heineken and Corona beer signs were gone.
I wandered down the stairs and found... and empty bar.
A young man who worked there told me, pointing to the low-level stage, there would be a show at 10:30pm, but by then it was only just before 9pm.
Since I had made it this far I might as well stick around. Only another table next to me was occupied by a non-descript guy munching on microwave popcorn and a can of Coke.
But soon I saw some young slender men go into a room at the back. The door kept opening and closing and later I saw one man applying makeup to another. Jackpot! I'd found the place.
Luckily it wasn't too hard killing time, as towards 9:30pm many men started streaming in, taking what looked like their regular seats. While not all of them immediately looked gay, there was lots of hugging and some social butterflies flitting around the room saying hello to people.
Towards 10pm the place was almost full and a group of customers wanted a table. I offered to give mine up in exchange for sitting at the bar, which the server was very grateful for.
It was then that I chatted with the bar manager or perhaps the owner of the place, a friendly gay middle-aged man.
"You know what kind of bar this is... right?" he asked with a smile.
I said I did and then he asked, "Are you....?"
And I replied no, as I knew he was referring to my sexual orientation.
I explained that I was from overseas so he immediately realized that I wasn't going to freak out about what I was going to see.
"I just came to take a look," I said and he seemed pleased.
The bar has been around for seven years and probably in different incarnations as my friend's directions said the place was called Yue Gong, or Moon Palace. But now it seems it's called Number 21 Bar or Bar Number 21 in English.
The lady boys kept coming in and out of their changing room, some half dressed, others fully clothed. One of the first ones to come out was a plump-looking woman, who seemed to play the part of a madam, batting her eyelids constantly while flirting with men and giving that p'shaw! hand gesture. Another, a novice, was in a long red dress, but kept fondling her breasts to make sure they were in the right place.
Some of the performers did look like women from a distance (and in the dark), but their bra tops were too high up on the chest which were a dead giveaway. Also, despite wearing high heels, many walked like a man in heels, than try to sway their hips a bit, probably because they had none.
Before the show began, the two TV screens showed videos from Crazy Horse and La Belle Epoque, with semi-nude women in showgirl costumes and men bare chested performing many dance numbers. It was a prelude to the show on stage, which turned out to be cabaret style.
It was finally just before 11pm when the show finally started.
Girls with giant feather headdresses with colourful frilly skirts flaunted their legs, while the main performer, a very slender woman seemed to be lip synching. While she looked quite pretty, she didn't have much pizzazz or flaunt her body much. A woman in the audience went up and tried to stuff a 100RMB note down her top.
The next act was someone who could have been mistaken for a woman in a baby blue hoop dress a la Paula Tsui Siu-fung. known for her giant Gone with the Wind-like ballgowns.
Other acts included a group of them, men and women who pretended to be modeling swimwear, strutting around the stage, some not really looking interested in what they were doing.
Another was a comedy skit that I didn't understand, involving two men and an ugly-looking "woman", who rearranged her breasts periodically until it was revealed it was a pair of blown-up condoms.
And then there was a male singer in a Michael Jackson-like sequinned jacket belting out two songs, as well as a drum dance by male dancers.
The skinny woman returned, this time in a red feather dress and was in the middle of performing Jennifer Lopez's Let's Get Loud, when the music abruptly stopped and she felt embarassed and didn't seem to know what to do. But once the music was back on, a young man came up and gave her another 100RMB note and she was back on track. While she seems popular with the audience, she didn't seem to be a natural performer, perhaps still dealing with stage fright.
It seems the performers were all amateurs, but probably paid a fee for their work as some put effort into their ensemble song and dance routines.
The bar manager told me that they have shows every night, though weekends are packed. Towards midnight the crowd was already having fun with the show and heavily into their drinking games which kept the bar busy plying them with mostly beers. It must be noted there were at least a dozen women in the bar, friends hanging out or enjoying teasing their gay friends in drag.
Watching these men in their safe place quickly revealing their true selves was interesting. Some sat on other people's laps, others pleased to be in the company of lady boys, all of them wanting to have a good time on a Friday night.
My colleague from Xi'an later told me there are many gay bars in the city, but the one I went to was the most famous one.
She'd told me she'd been to a lesbian one, but it was no fun.
I recommended she check this one out as it gave me an entertaining side of Xi'an I'd never known before.