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China property

How flats for lesbians fill a pink economy niche in Chinese city

Apartment blocks in Chengdu a safe-haven for LGBT people often shunned by landlords

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 9:13pm

Walking down the streets of Chengdu in southwestern China, a passer-by might not notice the FUNX buildings. They’re low profile and don’t advertise, but in certain circles are known as far away as Beijing.

To their tenants, they represent a safe-haven, social space and a home often hard to come by elsewhere.

The apartment buildings, both operated by FUNX Free Youth Community, are part of China’s only rental project pitched at the mainland’s lesbian community.

Members of China’s LGBT community say they are often rejected by landlords who object to their sexual orientation. Many also struggle to find a community to socialise with and draw support from.

Homosexuality is not illegal in China, but activists say discrimination is widespread.

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Sun Wenlin, a gay rights campaigner in Changsha, Hunan, said projects like FUNX could provide a welcome solution to a host of challenges faced by LGBT Chinese.

“I know four gay couples who rent and live together in a big apartment in Changsha,” he said. “The macro social environment towards LGBT [people] is not friendly enough, forcing them to live together and isolate themselves from society.”

As well as offering safety and a sense of community, such buildings expose residents to a wider range of people than they otherwise might meet.

The two FUNX apartment buildings, with a total of 206 rooms, are located in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. The first was opened in August last year, followed by a second in May this year due to strong demand, the founder and chief executive of the company, Zhao Fei, said, adding that the occupancy rate was about 98 per cent.

Zhao said that three years ago he and his friends hit upon the idea of establishing a long-term flat leasing business for a niche market. They decided to target the LGBT community since it was a vacant niche on the mainland at that time.

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“I did my research and investigations and felt excited about the result: there are about 70 million LGBT people in China and they are not only active on the internet, but also desire an offline utopia to meet friends,” he said. “In many cases, LGBT people can’t rent homes since landlords don’t recognise their sexual orientation.”

Aside from issues of discrimination, Zhao said many property developers and hotel managers were unfamiliar with the growing pink economy in China, leading to a large gap in the market and high demand.

When FUNX launched its first batch of 30 rooms last year, it received more than 100 applications.

Zhao, a 28-year-old computer science graduate with a master’s degree from Shanghai’s Tongji University, said he had little knowledge of the lesbian community before launching the project.

The first flats were marketed to lesbians as “a pilot project”, and FUNX would in future open more flats for other members of the LGBT community.

He said he set up his company in Chengdu – known as China’s gay capital – because it was known for its tolerant attitude towards the LGBT community and comparatively liberal views.

The project’s name, FUNX, was a combination of Fun and X and pronounced fang si in Mandarin, which Zhao said meant doing anything without restriction.

He said the flats were marketed by word of mouth among LGBT communities and shunned the public spotlight. FUNX did not take interviews from the mainland media and only agreed to talk to the South China Morning Post because its website was blocked on the mainland.

“We won’t publicise [the project] and we don’t want to arouse unnecessary trouble,” Zhao said, adding that most people in the neighbourhood regarded it as an ordinary building with a lot of female tenants.

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Despite its low-key publicity strategy, Jean Ouyang, a lesbian living in Beijing, said the project attracted a lot of attention among her lesbian friends when it made its debut.

“I think there will be a more friendly environment [in this kind of building] towards us and residents will enjoy harmonious neighbourhood relations,” she said.

Ouyang said that if a similar building opened in Beijing, she would consider renting a flat there – provided its location was good and the price reasonable.

However, she was concerned such flats could be targeted by those opposed to the LGBT community.

Potential FUNX tenants are not directly asked about their sexual orientation. Instead, apartment staff tell them most residents are lesbians and ask if they feel comfortable with that.

People with other sexual orientations are also accepted. One is Wang Sisi, a 23-year-old university student who has lived in a FUNX flat for four months.

She is single and said she had not finally identified her sexual orientation.

“I often encounter lesbian couples in the building,” she said. “I feel okay with that. I won’t be annoyed, surprised or curious about that. I think it’s quite a normal phenomenon.”

Wang rents a 44 square metre flat with another woman and they share the monthly rental of 1,710 yuan (US$258).

She said she liked the flat because it was clean, affordably priced and decorated in a modern and fashionable style that was attractive to the younger generation.

A Beijing-based lesbian who preferred to be known as Moshi said sharing flats was a fact of life in much of China, and finding the right person was critical.

“In big cities like Beijing, many people share flats. Sexual preference is an important factor [when choosing] a partner to rent and share flats,” said the woman, who is a volunteer at an LGBT welfare organisation in Beijing.

She said living in a lesbian household meant having a home environment that was relaxed, safe and fostered a sense of belonging.

However, Moshi said she was concerned that LGBT-specific flats could lead residents to segregate themselves from the wider society.

“There are other kinds of people in the world,” she said. “Segregation would only reduce LGBT people’s sense of recognition of society. I am worried about this trend.”

Li Yinhe, a sociologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said LGBT flats were part of the growing pink economy which was starting to take off in China.

“China has tens of millions of LGBT people,” she said. “It’s natural to have flats targeting them, just as the pink economy is penetrating other sectors.”

Zhao said FUNX was preparing to launch more projects in Chengdu and would, in the future, expand to first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. The company is gearing up for a new round of fundraising, aiming to receive 10 million yuan.