Andrew Ryce visits one of the best queer parties in Asia.
Up on the fourth floor, in a dark, industrial-looking passageway, was a drag queen and a spinning wheel laid out with phrases and tasks. The wheel determines who gets in—and who doesn't—at Medusa, Elevator's monthly gay party. You spin the wheel and you do what it says: fellate a banana, subject yourself to a glitter bomb, get on your knees and bark like a dog. If you refuse, you have to turn around and leave. The wheel is a cheeky nod to the door policy of many infamous nightclubs, as well as a safeguard and an icebreaker. If you want to go to Medusa, you have to know what to expect.
I was in Shanghai for the tail end of China's 2018 meeting of the National People's Congress—where president Xi Jinping was essentially made leader for life, among other changes—the kind of national event that sees the government clamp down on almost everything. Several clubs in Beijing and elsewhere had been closed (a less extreme version of the mass venue closures during the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017), and despite some nervous whispers in Shanghai, nightlife there seemed untouched by it all.
"There are times when curfews go up and no one knows how long they'll last," Mau Mau said. "It's not the most relaxing place to run a venue. But you just hope that if there are changes, they'll be gradual and you can deal with them. You'd have to hope that or you'd go completely crazy. But you usually don't know what the changes will be before they happen."
For now, Medusa is on the up. Cignarale and Mau Mau are able to keep the party alive without booking many out-of-town guests, which says a lot about their established identity and popularity—having Cignarale hamming it up over their DJ set is an attraction in itself. It's a tight-knit party with a crew that represents the motley mix of people that is Shanghai's creative scene in 2018: straights, gays, white expats, transplants from around China chasing big city dreams, and locals who have been navigating the city's underbelly for decades. The result is something special that couldn't exist anywhere else, though its ethos is beginning to spread across China and the rest of Asia. With a record label and live-streaming platform on the way, the party's reach will only become more global.
Like-minded events around Asia that are picking up steam in conjunction with Medusa—Mau Mau mentioned Snug at Sauvage in Hanoi, Elephant in Mania, Shade in Seoul, Adult Game Club in Taipei and Yum Yum Disco Dong in Singapore—could eventually foster its own "anti-circuit circuit," like the one that has popped up in the US around events like Wrecked, Honcho and Gays Hate Techno.
Cignarale admits they were partly inspired by those American parties—in general, he's very aware of what came before. He calls himself a "gay history buff," and takes that approach with the crowd at Medusa. He prefers to play older tracks—stuff like '90s New Jersey house, and at one point disco, with lots of diva vocals. ("We had this policy, 'Eight hallelujahs,'" he told me. "We couldn't finish a night unless the word 'hallelujah' came up eight times in at least one set.") But Cignarale and Mau Mau aren't trying to reenact gay history. Like their peers in the US, they're trying to add a new chapter.
"Everyone talks about trying to emulate Paradise Garage," Cignarale said. "And then people like Daniel Wang say, 'Why do you want to emulate a party you had nothing to do with? Do your own party.' That always kind of stuck with me. At first, we copied a lot of other DJs we respected. Or we were like, 'Oh, this is gay, we'll play it.' We would get so high on the fact that we could play these tracks, like Ultra Nate or Murk, and have a positive reception. But our sound has gotten a little more Sound Factory, a little more blended, deeper, darker, more sexual. It's easier for people to like disco. You hear disco, you love it. That was a good start for this room. But when we started to dig deeper into how people wanted to party and where we could take the party, we got a lot harder and sexier. But I still don't play a lot of tracks from, like, after 2002."
Cignarale grinned. "It's special. It's a history lesson for the children. They don't realize that we're teaching gay history."