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Hsu Yu Shen: Sex and Cities

Exclusive interview by The New Colonist

San Francisco, 2002--Hsu Yu Shen is a Doctoral candidate for a PhD in human sexuality. He is a professional Chinese writer and has had 37 books published since 1992, including city guides, romance novels, and a variety of non-fiction works. He worked as a journalist in Taipei and is known there as a spokesman for gay and minority issues. He wed his partner Gray Harriman in Taiwan's first same-sex wedding ceremony in 1996. The New Colonist interviews him about sex and urban life.

NC: What cities have you lived in?
HYS: Taipei, New York City and San Francisco and have traveled around the world visiting at least 20 major cities outside of USA, and about 20 major cities in USA.

NC: Do the different cities you have lived in have different sexual energies?
Hsu Yu ShenHYS: Yes. NYC is like a modern jungle, full of wildness beneath the surface. In Manhattan, even the sidewalk is immersed in the human energies that pull you to become involved in something. On the other hand, San Francisco is like a village to me. It is more of a big community. Peaceful and old fashioned, the energies sort of dry out. People in San Francisco are not so experimental and crazy like those in New York. Taipei has an energy more like New York; people there are always willing to make more money and improve their lives, so some of that energy rubs off into the sexual arena.

NC: Do people move or travel from rural areas to the city looking for sex?
HYS: Yes, definitely. I used to live in Queens, New York in 1989, for a short time. There are some adult theaters in Queens, and gay people go to these theatres along with straights. It is not necessary for people who live in urban areas to go anywhere to find sex. In some smaller communities or cities, the local spots sometimes work very well. For urbanites, a "quickie" seems to be readily available near home. But if you want something wilder, you might have to go to the city. The local confrontments are like desserts; the city tastes are more like meals. In the San Francisco Bay Area, unless you find targets through Internet locally, you better go to the city itself where the sex clubs and bars always welcome you. In this respect Taipei is not too much unlike San Francisco. The larger area has no public place to offer sex encounters. Outside of what can be found on the Internet, people have to go to city.

NC: Many say it is easier to be anonymous in the city. Is that as true for each of the cities you have lived in? How does that affect the prospects for sex in each?
HYS: That's true. In the cities you are playing the sex game and other people know that too. Therefore, no name, no strings, no apologies. You have fun, and that's fine, and if you're not lucky, you wait for the next time. It's not a big deal! Because you are nameless, you feel you can be anyone and do anything.

In a big city, people just like you are "attending" a "big mask ball." The more you don't know about the person you confront, the more fun you will have. You can be kinky and still pretend that kinky person is not you.

NC: What kinds of places in each city are associated with sex?
HYS: Commercial or business areas. In Taipei, we have no adult theater, or adult entertainment, so that's the reason we feel sex can happen in any place. I could mention the hot springs on the mountain around the Taipei area. They provide a big room for the public and also provide small rooms for individuals. I saw many young males and females enter these rooms together. It is also popular now for people in Taiwan to have sex in cars. Perhaps this compares to the United States in the 1950s. From watching the news I see also that many are bolder, having intimate moments on public transportation without concern for what others think.

NC: How do sexual norms vary for urban and rural areas? How about for the different cities in which you have lived?
HYS: In urban areas, people talk about sex topics out of the confines of their homes. However, if they come to work in city, they will expect and look to find more exciting sexual lives there. In New York City, people are largely alone and often live far away from their families. So they are FREE to do anything, or at least pursue anything.

In Taipei, people always have excuses to quietly and discreetly seek fun when socializing. In New York, it's not so discreet as in Taipei.

In San Francisco, the discreetness depends on what neighborhood you live in. San Francisco is a mid-sized city with more community confinements. This also allows neighborhoods with a specific sexual flavor to exist. In the Castro, for example, straights are a minority. Because the area is small, it is easily filled in with some same type of people, and the community develops its own character as people move in to develop their own lifestyle. In a bigger city it is impossible to do that. A city even smaller than San Francisco couldn't have its own strong sexual minority community. San Francisco is just the ideal size, and historically she attracts many gays and lesbians to a small area and has become known as the gay capital.

NC: Does the city make a good romantic setting for a book? Are good settings confined to cities?
HYS: New York City provides the best setting I can think of. Even famous magazines like TIME OUT have done stories on where are the hottest spots for sex are in the city. In other places, cities do offer the setting, for instance, the cafe shops, the movies, etc, but more is possible and believable in New York. In Asia, there are fantasy hotels that provide a venue for adultery and sex-for-money. This is widely known and tolerated. That can certainly be used to an advantage in a book.

NC: Where are the best places in a city (any city) if you are looking for sex?
HYS: Now it is in the cyber-world, on the Internet. Whether male and female, male and male, the process is to chat on line, then make an appointment--maybe on the same day. Most likely around 8-10 p.m. they chat, and they meet in either of their places or hotel for sex about 11-12 p.m. This is pretty usual and common. For gays, they can go to some infamous parks in the city or saunas. For straights, there are some alternatives, but mostly they go to bars.

NC: What kinds of sexual situations may be encountered in a city that wouldn't occur in a suburban or rural location?
HYS: Saunas and bars encounters, because most of these kinds of places are located in cities.

NC: What different kinds of forces come together to create these situations?
HYS: The night-life is very popular in Taiwan. In Taipei some areas are lit up all night and some stores are open for 24 hours. People need to spend their energy and they go out to do it. Taiwanese also place a high value on social relationships. They go out with friends and co-workers quite often.

NC: What are the more liberal places or cities that you have encountered?
HYS: New York City used to be, before the era of Giuliani. Bangkok was, but I understand the laws have changed recently. San Francisco has an advantage in terms of being liberal now, but somehow I feel she is not as varied and creative in terms of sex as I heard before I moved here. Taipei is fine in terms of finding what you want as long as you don't do it "loudly." Everything there is possible if not out in the open.

NC: Any thoughts on how you have been "out in the open" in Taiwan?
HYS: OK, if you want to make some points, then you need to speak out and do it loudly. I am known for that. But for that, you also need to be strong and do it with the help of your profession ( I am a well-known writer there), your reputation, your look, education, and social position for the public to be receptive to what you say. Without this society will exert tremendous pressure that a single man can't take.

Some of HYS's Books:
New York Style
Kinky New York
Farewell Darkness
The Penis Is King
They are presently available only in Chinese.
NC: What could you tell people in a Midwestern city that might surprise them? I mean, what kind of things happen that they might not imagine ever occur?
HYS: Several male masseurs have told me that quite a few "normal" couples hire them to have sex with the wife while the husband watches. With those couples you can never tell, because they look so "people next door." Some are middle-aged couples. Not always young ones. In Taiwan on the Internet, the perception is that a few fat girls that socially are not considered attractive post their personal ads for sex. Believe it or not, they are popular. In a city, everyone seems popular with someone.

NC: What kinds of sexual symbols are found in a city? Ex: subway, skyscraper. What does each represent? Have you used these in books?
HYS: Long and tall tower buildings…the tallest one in Taipei looks like a huge penis. And it is close to the park where gay people like to gather. When they lift their heads, the high tower seems to be a cock says "hi" to them. The center part of the presidential hall in Taipei also looks like a penis. We like to make a joke out of it. Many gays go to cruise at some hot springs in the urban area near Taipei, and are successful. I do use the scene in my books, both gay and straight novels.

NC: It is widely assumed that the convention industry needs sexual attractions like bars and saunas to be successful. Planners consider this when building convention centers. How important is the availability of sexual outlets to a city in terms of its economy?
HYS: That's very true. I know a very close friend who works for a big academy of American doctors. One year they had annual convention in Dallas where the streets are dead after 6:00 p.m. Almost every doctor complained. They decided never go back to that boring city. Another year they had a convention in New Orleans (I was there with him at that time). New Orleans is full of bars, clubs, and active night life. Since everybody had fun, they decide to go back there two years later. Believe me, they are about 25,000 people who can and who did spend a lot money in the city every time. So poor Dallas lost a huge profit.

The New Colonist
Photo by Eric Miller