Volume 31, Number 3

The Lavender Dynasty

Bromme H. Cole

It was the beginning of the end of a long hot Shanghai summer, which hadn’t seen much rain. And no rain made matters worse. Putuo District road filth billowed up behind growling traffic and combined with bus exhaust, it was thick enough to asphyxiate. When I arrived at the apartment of Jun and Shishang, the sun hung low in the sky but was still hot. I was told their story was compelling. Jinsong, a friend of mine in Shanghai, had put me in touch with Jun and scheduled a series of chats.

I arrived at their apartment building at 4:30 pm on a Tuesday afternoon in late July 2014. My destination was on the seventeenth floor of a building, the type of which there are thousands in Shanghai. It was oblong and slab-like, oriented east-west to optimize Feng Shui; long vertical black water marks from leaking air conditioners stained the blue pastel panels that stretched from the ground to the top floor.

I stepped into the building’s lobby. The walls were scarred by peeling paint, black cylindrical ash trays next to the elevator overflowed with smoldering cigarettes, and there were a dozen or so loose newspapers scattered about. Inside as well as out, the building looked and felt tired; built with post-Soviet era construction technology to last about 20 years, it was well past its prime.

I pushed the ascend button on the brass elevator plate; the clear plastic cover was cracked. What was left resembled a half-moon in the way it was cleaved, its long straight edge now worn soft with time, the other piece gone missing years ago, swept up, tossed out and now forgotten. All typical for local apartment buildings in China; small matters and outliers get overlooked in favor of big issues and the majority.

The elevator doors opened, I stepped inside the cab and pressed 17. Thirty-five quiet seconds later the doors separated, and I stepped out into a narrow hall whose were yellow with age. There was no graffiti, just dirt and dust everywhere. I walked to the end of the hallway and found apartment 04. I curled my fore finger and knocked, waited ten seconds, looked at my watch and reminded myself I was on time. After another knock, I could hear a shuffle inside and the clatter of some apparatus. Then more shuffles and more clatter. The person behind the door began the process of turning locks, the metallic clink of gears resonated from the bottom lock, then the middle lock. The security seemed excessive. The door opened and a wizened, bald man peered out from the narrow opening. He wore a tube around his head that delivered oxygen into his nostrils.

“Are you Ke…? the young man come to speak to me?” the old man quizzed. He appeared to be concerned about the veracity of my identity.

“Yes, I am Bromme… Jinsong sent me to speak with you.”

“Come in.”

The old man retreated from the door. As he moved I heard the shuffle and clatter again. I gave the door a small push, and it swung wide. As I entered the corridor his back turned to me, hunched and hobbling down the hallway on a walker. He would push it then shuffle a step to catch up. As he progressed, the walker banged up against the narrow walls, and a green oxygen canister swung from a nylon bag strapped to the handlebars. 

The old man was Yang Jun. When I met Jun, he was 76 years old and was the owner of the apartment. He had emphysema and didn’t see well due to the cataracts that fogged his vision. Jun was gay and had lived in apartment 1704 since he and his wife were divorced 20 years ago. Fifteen years ago, his friend, Shishang, moved in with him. Though they didn’t use the word partners, that was effectively what they were. Instead, they called themselves friends.

Jun maneuvered his walker to his right and limped into the living room; he then turned 180 degrees in front of a large recliner seat. With measured precision, he twisted, leaned back slowly and collapsed into his recliner. He had done this before, I was certain.

“Please sit down” Jun said, swinging his legs onto an ottoman and adjusting himself in his chair. He directed me to a wooden seat across from where he sat. 

“Good afternoon,” I tried to smile sensing some annoyance on Jun’s part with my presence. 

“What do you want to know?” He was direct. 

It was an obvious question but one that caught me slightly off-guard. I had made it clear to Jinsong why I wanted to speak and specifically asked that my purpose be conveyed to Yang Jun in advance.

I began to explain hoping that the answer would come to me, “Well, a few years ago I wrote a book on the senior care industry in China. Today, I am working on another book, and I want to explore the challenges of individuals and their stories as they age.”

As I uttered these words I became aware of another individual moving about the apartment. In the corner of my left eye, I could see a shadow glide down the hallway. The person was silent; it must be Shishang.

Jun pressed. “And what can I tell you that will help in this new endeavor?” He laid there, sinking into his overstuffed recliner, safe and recumbent.

“Yang Jun…,” I began politely, “I know from friends that gay men in China have had a difficult time, and although it has improved it remains perilous. I want go a step further and understand what the issues are, here in China, for ageing gay men and their partners.”

Jun remained silent with a thoughtful, measured stare. Then, he glanced around the room as if searching for support from the relics of his life that were littered about the table and floor. Old magazines with torn covers, empty pill boxes, stuffed animals, video cassettes all piled up on a nearby desk along with a series of sun-bleached photos.

He spoke. “You came to the right place, but I don’t think being gay in Shanghai is perilous at all. Being gay, old and sick is, but certainly not just gay.”

At first his answer seemed wry, and I half expected Jun to smile. But he was deadpan and probably correct. His breathing was labored as he lay there on the recliner. Jun had a curious habit: between breaths he would purse his lips together, wet them with his tongue, squint his eyes and then inhale. When he drew a breath, his small chest heaved mightily, he wheezed and fought for every pint of oxygen in the green tank which hung from his walker.

“Interesting.” I was beginning to find my ground. “Well, Jun… we have a good deal to speak about… or at least I have a lot to understand. May I begin?”


I had a second thought at that moment. As I sat there absorbing the environment, I sensed the situation required I should not be leading this discussion. Rather, as I looked at Jun, a man who seemed to be shrunken in so many ways, I felt he needed to speak with his own voice and tell his side of life’s difficult facts instead of responding to questions that may prejudge the situation. In an instant, I changed direction. “I have an alternative thought. Would you mind if I gave you an opportunity to tell me a story about yourself? We are here alone, we don’t know one another so, I am hoping, maybe you can find space to speak as you have never spoken before?” 

He thought for a while.

“Well, not so alone. Shishang is listening to us from the next room so I have to be honest or he won’t make dinner for me.” He smiled for the first time, coughed and narrowed his eyes preparing for another breath. It was a relaxed grin that paved the way for him to open.

“Do you think Shishang would like to join us?”

“Oh no… Shishang can’t do that… he is very shy… pathologically introverted, you know”? Jun revealed casually as he struggled to push air out of his lungs.

That would explain the furtiveness, I thought.

I was now more curious than before about Shishang and wanted to understand the dynamic between them, but I packed that thought away for later. I now had a rhythm with Jun that I didn’t want to interrupt. 

Jun took another deep breath like a swimmer ready to dive into a pool and swim its terrible long length entirely under water, steeling himself for a tremendous test, not knowing how far he might be able to go before needing to surface. He was taking an account that what remained of his life, in terms of time, which was likely not long, wondering if now might be the moment to record his story. Jun found his resolve and dove in with a splash that no doubt surprised him.

He was eloquent. “My life is a story about belated self-discovery, a life postponed until it was really too late to enjoy it. During much of my time, I never understood who or what I was… much less the meaning of my feelings… I felt abandoned by life. I know that sounds like I am a victim, but consider my experience, and I think you might agree I am one of many who share a similar story. Now that I have discovered myself, it is as if I have found the grave of an identical twin brother, recognizable but unknown. It is the essence of bitter-sweet and gives rise to very conflicted feelings: on one hand I have some welcome resolution, yet on the other hand, that resolution holds a harsh answer to a life full of questions.” Jun avoided my eyes as he spoke, he looked to his left at a series of old photos, his chest heaved again as he drew a heavy breath of oxygen.

I glanced at the pictures as he inhaled, some young, some old, all likely long lost family members or other loved ones. One photo in particular stood out: a balding middle aged man and a younger friend. Jun and Shishang in younger days, I guessed.

As Jun continued, he spoke iteratively, sequencing the milestones of his life. Afterwards he began to dive deeper and reveal the nature of the important relationships in his life. It seemed at times an atonement, as if guilty, confessing and seeking some absolution or self-forgiveness.

“I was born in 1939, in the middle of the war with the Japanese. I haven’t any memories of this time at least nothing concrete. What I remember most clearly comes later and are of Mao and the founding of the State. It was a proud time; the war was over and the future, or at least the future we were told to believe in, was bright. In school, I was a diligent student and performed all my lessons well. I sang patriotic songs and memorized Mao’s quotes. My parents were proud of me but I remember having an empty satisfaction with what I was doing. I loved the praise my mother lavished on me, but I found no real substance in much of anything. I was restless. My father, a professor, was distant and always absorbed in intellectual discussions with his colleagues over the implementation of Mao’s ideology.

Later, when I was 22, my parents suggested, or really arranged, a marriage to a beautiful young Shanghainese woman named Danxing. I recall being so fond of her beauty, her skills in home management and her cooking. I was delighted to marry her and took great pride in our union, but in hindsight, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Often I would sit in the chair of our kitchen simply admiring her as she worked. After five years of marriage to Danxing, my parents began to ask probing questions about our lack of children; they were exceedingly curious, and I of course was bewildered. They thought I… or we were not normal.”

“Why was that?”

“Simply because we hadn’t met expectations. I did not know how to make children… my generation was sexually repressed. This had never been discussed, either in my family or in schools. And I did not have many male friends who might have gossiped or told lurid stories about this or that. Kissing and holding hands on school grounds or in public was prohibited. One night, after some uncomfortable intimacy, Danxing asked me why I did not love her. I was profoundly sad and cried when she said this. But she continued and insisted that if I loved her, I would swell and put a baby inside of her.

Understand, Ke, that this was the first moment that I began to think that I was abnormal. Danxing, to whom I was completely devoted, now also thought I was not normal. Out of frustration she would frequently taunt, ‘All men want to make babies with women… except you.’ This left me at a precipice of sorts. My wife wasn’t sure of me, I wasn’t sure of me and my parents were not sure of me… I had very few alternatives and the best one seemed to simply recede and disengage.” Jun completed a breath and continued.

“Shortly afterwards, I began to see a number of doctors in an effort to resolve my problem.” Jun released another breath which sounded like sandpaper on wood. I noted that Jun consistently framed the discussion as “not normal” and “my problem.” I didn’t know if he was using these terms in a historical context or might still see the situation as his fault.

“One doctor explained to me the process men and women perform in order to have babies and—instantly—I knew this was something I would never be able to do. The idea was utterly unappealing. But, oh, how the doctors reassured me it was the natural way. They prescribed herbal remedies and special diets to enhance my libido. Of course, this was all a waste of money.” Jun waved his hands back and forth, crossing them and uncrossing them in front of him like scissors, vetoing the act in question. He was amused and irritated. 

“Then the last doctor I saw was different. He seemed to understand my problem in a way the others, with their sterile approach and fancy medical terms, did not. He was very kindhearted and compassionate in his questions. In retrospect, he may have suspected I was gay or he may have even be gay himself.”

“I see. But you have a child. How did this come about?” I was puzzled. 

Jun answered flatly, “I would like to be able to say that I overcame my reluctance to engage with Danxing and was cured, but this isn’t true.” In our discussion, these short, honest responses were becoming his imprimatur.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“I loved Danxing and I wanted to please her, repay her kindness to me and put an end to the incessant, shameful questions. I wanted children also, but this was exasperating for me as well as for her not to mention the rest of the family. I felt on trial. My only moment of peace was when I thought about the doctor with his tenderness and empathy. One night, while I was lying in bed with Danxing as she fiddled about, I imagined I was speaking with him, my beautiful, understanding doctor. And to my surprise, it happened… I transformed Danxing into the doctor in my mind and the dreadful task was completed! Danxing, luckily, became pregnant!” Jun exhaled a mighty breath discharging a secret he had harbored for half his life.

“Interesting…” I was astonished. I looked over my left shoulder to see if Shishang was at the doorway but saw no one. He no doubt knew this story.

“At this point,” Jun refilled his lungs with canned oxygen, “Life took on a very normal and routine course. Danxing raised our daughter, whom we named Liu, and I taught art in school. She didn’t seem to mind that there was no more intimacy between us. After all I gave her what she really wanted. She was probably relieved not to fuss about with a man who wasn’t attracted to her.” Jun concluded, “Danxing had her life, and I lead mine. We intersected with Liu.”

“When did you get divorced?” This was one of the last areas I wanted to cover, other than Shishang, before I got to the health care issue. Frankly, given the chat to this point I could predict the difficulties they had.

“It was a quiet matter. The date isn’t so important but I think it was 1995, when Liu was twenty-five. Danxing was on her second affair. I really didn’t care, but for her self-respect and for Liu, it was best.” Jun pronounced this bit of information very casually, and he meant it that way. It was a relief for him to be released from such a fiction.

“So, that really brings us to now.”

“Indeed.” He nodded in agreement then inhaled with a painful-looking rasp.

“Maybe you could give me a bit of an insight into becoming self-aware of your sexual orientation?” I thought it was time to get into the thick of things.

“Sure. But there was never really one particular ‘A-ha moment.’ It was a very gradual discovery. Ever since the beginning with Danxing and those excruciating moments in bed, I knew I was different but the magnitude of exactly how different was something I did not appreciate. I often thought about the time I was able to conceive with Danxing and the infatuation I had with the handsome Doctor. I initially found that conflict puzzling. Years later, as more and more Western literature became available, I began to learn more about homosexuality. At first it was something that I could never admit to myself, I was ashamed. Sooner or later the truth demands a release; we can only keep things suppressed for so long. And I certainly kept it suppressed for quite some time. But after decades of clues, not just my relationship with Danxing and the Doctor’s kindness, the fact that I found male company enchanting and females merely filial, was too much to ignore.

“By the time I discovered Danxing’s second affair, I could only hope that she would file a divorce and allow me to live in peace.”

I wondered out loud why Jun simply didn’t divorce her. It seemed a logical question.

“Two reasons.” Jun explained, “First, I loved her and couldn’t bring myself to ask her this. I didn’t have the courage. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure I was gay. In those solitary moments when I thought I might be gay, if I reconciled and admitted this to myself, what would I do next? I didn’t know what to do about being gay even if I were single. Where would I go? I certainly wasn’t going to announce it to my family. Back in those days the local Magistrate might have determined it his duty to subject me to a ‘healing process.’ There was really no definition for gay lifestyle at that time here in China. It wasn’t as if in 1990 there was a huge community that offered support for aging gay men. So, I was stuck… a divorce was a dead end for me.”

“So… is there a community for you today?” I shrugged my shoulders prompting more from Jun.

“Hold on… so, I postponed… 1985 became 1990, and her second affair came and went, and her third arrived in 1995. By then things had changed a great deal in Shanghai, and I was more confident, although older. I had also ventured out and made friends who were similar to me, and I met Shishang. But to answer your question, at the time, there was no community for aged gay men. There still isn’t one now.”

The time had arrived when I was going to learn about his enigmatic partner.

“How did you meet him?”

“It was a though group of men who I found indirectly through the art community. There was a lot of self-awareness happening, a lot of openly gay men. It was a new, wonderful world for me but again I was on the fringe. Most of them were in their twenties, and I was nearly sixty. Shishang was an informal art student who had come to Shanghai with his sister. He had an unpleasant life in rural Henan province and was essentially escaping.”

“Unpleasant how?” I wanted specifics.

“The details are sketchy, but when he was 18, Shishang had been arrested for the theft of a small amount of food or something. His penalty was very harsh, and he was sentenced to a prison for a year. While incarcerated, he was beaten, raped and castrated by a gang.” Jun spoke of Shishang’s travails without much detail… trying to get passed this topic quickly in a way that seemed more out of respect for his friend than from a lack of knowledge.

I was speechless.

“Ghastly, I know, but true. Consequently, he is very afraid of strangers, especially strange men. But he is warming up to you, I can tell.” He tried to reassure me after the ‘strange men’ comment.

Jun continued. “After Danxing and I were divorced, I adopted the emerging gay community wholeheartedly and became close to Shishang. We moved in together in 2001; ten years later was I diagnosed in 2011 with emphysema.”

“I see. OK… so this is where the story finds its connection with my book. Can you tell me how you cope with your illness?” I needed to get to the core as I had been with Jun now for three hours this day.

“I rely on Shishang for everything. He cooks, cleans and cares for me. I saw a doctor two years ago, and Shishang took me. But leaving the apartment even for small errands with him is a long, painful drama so we usually have everything delivered. I will remain here in this apartment until I die. I don’t want… I can’t leave Shishang alone.”

“Have you explored a nursing home?”

“A few years ago, yes. But for a few reasons it was not a realistic alternative. First, some nursing homes don’t want or outright prohibit gay couples. Second, even if we pretended we were just friends, we would likely be denied a private room as most homes have six or more beds in each apartment. That wouldn’t work at all for Shishang given his condition. He would be transferred to the psychiatric ward. And that, I think we can both agree, would be a terrible thing for Shishang. There are some new fancy places that offer private rooms but we can’t afford that. Moreover, I am done with pretending. Living as I do now, here in this apartment and dying in this chair is what I will do. I am happy. Sick, but happy.”

I hesitated a moment before asking an obvious question. “But Shishang will be alone when you die, no?”

“Maybe… maybe not… we cannot dwell on this. Shishang and I must live each day as it comes. How this story ends is anyone’s guess. We must enjoy what we have here and now,” he declared.

“I understand. So, from your experience Chinese nursing homes don’t allow gay couples?”

Slightly exasperated, he explained, “Oh, I really can’t tell you the official policy. What I do know is that we wouldn’t be accepted in the two that are nearby. We have lived together for 15 years. I don’t want that to change and neither does Shishang, not for anything and certainly not because a care home won’t accommodate us. And even if they did, imagine how we would be ostracized by others of our generation when they discovered us? Things have changed here in China, but mostly for the younger generation. We are comfortable here, together.”

Immediately as Jun said those final words, Shishang, a tall thin, pale man of about sixty-five years, appeared at the room’s entrance. His presence was solemn, like a monk; he looked only at Jun. His sudden emergence was a bit startling, but I noticed Jun’s nod indicating Shishang could approach. He was dressed in a long, pale purple silk gown tied with a yellow ribbon around the midriff which made me think of the elegant dresses worn by concubines in the Tang Dynasty. Around his neck he had a small piece of chartreuse jade attached to a thin silver chain. He quickly traversed the room, finding refuge behind Jun. The pleats of Shishang’s dress opened with his movement, giving the impression he was floating across the floor. 

In what was more an affectionate gesture than a necessary one, Shishang leaned over and adjusted Jun’s oxygen tube. Jun lifted his hand affectionately, and Shishang gently placed it on his cheek. Shishang bent across Jun again and whispered in his ear so silently I couldn’t make out a single word. He then straightened, skewing his sight to the yellowed pictures on the table, avoiding eye contact with me. It wasn’t an uncomfortable glance at all, the feeling conveyed was absolute obeisance. 

Jun took a breath, “Shishang would like to know if you want tea?”

“Hmmm… no thanks… but that is very kind of him to ask” At once I wondered that maybe it would be better if I should just accept. I was struck by Shishang’s courage to enter the room with a stranger present; clearly he was a bit frightened.

“Shishang also wants to thank you.”

“For what…?”

Jun breathed deeply again; he was tired. “Shishang says you have helped by allowing us… me… the space to speak about our story. He is very appreciative of your efforts.”

“Well, you’re welcome… I don’t know quite what to say.” I was surprised by Shishang’s indirect yet very frank communication.

Jun raised his hand interrupting me. “Please, allow Shishang his gratitude… this is who he is.”

At that moment, Shishang summoned up every molecule of fortitude in his slim frame, lifted his gaze and looked at me with eyes darker than a moonless night; eyes that dammed a universe of fear and pain. Then in an instant his face brightened with a forlorn smile; I felt like I was being pardoned. My understanding of Shishang expanded exponentially in that moment. Here was a man, who suffered unspeakable horrors and in return for understanding, a safe haven and I imagine, love, devoted his life to caring for Jun. His unbound kindness was unlike anything I have ever witnessed. There was a profound tenderness on Shishang’s part that I did not expect; in fact, I thought he might be hostile. Instead, Shishang provided an environment which accommodated as normal a life for Jun as he could have any legitimate right to expect. Nevertheless, Shishang remained a paradox and truly understood only by Jun. The walls that guarded Shishang’s heart were high and well-fortified.

Shishang diverted his eyes once again. He had communicated all he was prepared to with his glance. His presence, however unusual in the robe, had a gravity unto itself and made an unambiguous statement: “There. I am who I am, no apologies, nothing less and nothing more, with all flaws. I manage as best I can with what I have. Please inquire no further.” It was a fragile ultimatum.

A moment of quiet passed as I attempted to resolve the mystery that was Shishang. I felt it was time to go.

“Gentlemen. All good things must come to an end and this is where I must leave.” I wanted to make a very polite exit. “I am afraid I have overstayed my welcome.” I stood up and Jun immediately struggled in his chair. Shishang, with all his attentiveness, supported Jun as he adjusted himself in the walker.

I approached Jun to shake his hand. Shishang, startled by my movement, immediately darted away to the side and disappeared around the corner, his gown gracefully fluttering from side to side. Clearly, my proximity to him had suddenly become prohibitively close. There was no further contact, no more smile; Shishang was gone as quickly and as silently as he appeared.

“I want to thank you for this opportunity. I wish you good luck and please thank Shishang as well. He was brave and…,” I searched for an appropriate compliment, “… and, very elegant in his purple gown.” 

Jun looked up at me with frosty eyes and responded, “Yes, at times he can be courageous and,” he stopped for a moment then shuffled pass me, “… well, lavender is indeed his favorite color. I hope you have found what you came here for.”

At the door, Jun pivoted with the walker, stopped and turned to me one final time. “In my dreams, I am a kind and forgiving Emperor who is tolerant of everyone and every life, a ruler who lives for a century and is loved by his people, full of benevolence and reigning in a land where no one is made to feel abnormal or unwelcome.” Jun raised his hands in front of him, palms turned upwards indicating a true and sincere intent with this statement.

I smiled, not at all surprised at his musing, “That’s a nice dream. Perhaps you will be that Emperor in the next life?”

“Yes, and it can’t come soon enough,” He murmured in a wistful conclusion.

“Goodbye Jun.”

“So long, Ke.”

Jun closed the door as I walked down the hallway. I could hear the familiar twist of metal locks while I waited in front of the lift. The elevator arrived and delivered me to the lobby. I thought of Jun and his devoted Shishang as I walked down the street to the subway: A couple whose lives, full of heartache and pain, I sincerely hoped might end with a modicum of calm and satisfaction, but I had doubts.

On a chilly winter’s day six months to the day of my interview, the Emperor Yang Jun passed from this life into the next. As he shut his eyes for the last time, safe and protected in the concubine Shishang’s embrace as they lay together on the chair, Jun drew his final, labored breath and receded forever into his familiar dream. Shishang, dressed in his flowing robe, lowered his head so his cheek rested on his partner’s brow and whispered into Jun’s ear, “My beloved Master… welcome to the Lavender Dynasty.”

Three weeks after the death of Jun, I received a message from Jinsong. Sadly, tragedies sometimes beget tragedies and in Shishang case this was certainly true. Bereft and with no further commitment, Shishang saw little meaning in life without his partner. A few days after Jun’s death, Shishang woke up and could find no possible way to continue; his only alternative was exit. Slowly and deliberately, he dressed in his purple silk gown and tied the yellow ribbon firmly around his breast. To his collar he pinned an old photo of Jun, applied a delicate cerise lipstick and donned his favorite jade necklace. He passed through the apartment, gently touching Jun’s chair, bidding farewell to all the memories of the only purposeful life he knew. Resolved and at peace, he threw himself out the window of apartment 1704, ending everything.