WHO IS LIU PEI LIN, WHO HAS SHOT TO FAME IN CHINA TODAY
Phoebe Zhang SCMP Feb 1, 2020
The story of Liu Pei Lin, who shot to fame when a video of her escape a burning building went viral, has cast a spotlight on the struggles of country’s LGBT community.
It was a gloomy January day in 2012. A local television crew in Qingdao, Shandong province, was on location to cover news of a burning building on Weixian Road, a ghetto that had been awaiting demolition for decades. The cameras rolled as flames lapped the walls, smoke billowing out. As firefighters trained their hosepipes on the blaze a figure emerged, stumbling out of the narrow entrance passage and into frame.
The individual wore a pink jacket and an ankle-length black skirt, face covered in white powder, black eyeshadow and bright-pink lipstick, and with two thick ponytails festooned with pink flowers.
A man rushed forward to help, inquiring whether the resident had been home when the fire started. As it turned out, the fire had spread from this tenant’s flat on the first floor, lit to keep warm during difficult times.
The tenant was understandably panicked, voice hoarse, but unexpectedly deep: “I wasn’t home, I put out the fire before I left.”
The footage went viral, with hundreds of thou¬sands of people asking who this man dolled up as a woman was. Netizens soon discovered the video’s subject was a trans¬gender refuse collector named Liu Peilin and nicknamed her Brother Daxi – Big Happiness.
What it’s like being transgender in China
Having been driven from her Weixian Road flat by the fire, Liu, 63, has since been forced out of another apartment by a landlord. But she has also received messages of support and donations of food, supplies and money from those who watched the video and learned of her story.
Back in 2012, in the second-tier city of Qingdao, the term “transgender” was still alien to most of the population. A month after the fire, Shandong TV invited Liu onto Please Forgive Me, a show that provides a platform for people to atone for wrongdoing. Liu’s episode was titled “Brother Daxi – the End of an Internet Freak”. Popular episodes included a father who wished to apologise to the daughter he had abandoned because he had wanted a son, and an old man who claimed he had the superpower of predicting earth¬quakes, causing distress to his family.
Liu says she was invited by a producer to recount her path to becoming a refuse collector, and how the job allowed her to pay off her considerable debts. Dressed in a red skirt and with signature ribboned pigtails, she told her story of perseverance in adversity.
Guest commentators praised her tenacity and resolve, and then the conversation shifted to her appearance.
“If you are dressed like this and you come out on the streets,” one said, “you will scare my kids.”
The host, Xinyan, turned to the audience and asked, “What if we ask him to change into menswear?”
They clapped, chanting, “Yes!”
A shocked Liu left the stage to reappear wearing a black jacket, scarf and fedora, the audience laughing.
She was paid 7,000 yuan (HK$7,840) for her “labour”.
“I was a puppet,” she says. “I just didn’t have strings attached.”
In 2015, three years after Liu’s cruel television debut, a transgender woman named
would be chased out of a women’s bathroom in Joy City, a shopping centre in Beijing, catching the attention of international newspapers and making documentary and talk-show appearances, advocating for equality. That December, the Beijing LGBT Centre established a transgender counselling hotline, the first of its kind.
In March 2016, Mr C, a transgender man, would launch China’s first transgender lawsuit, after he was fired from Ciming Health Checkup Centre, in Guiyang, Guizhou province, for “bad work performance and not dressing appropriately”.
In January 2018, a court in Guiyang would rule that he was unfairly dismissed and that his employment rights were violated.
Attitudes were changing, but slowly. And that helpless¬ness Liu had felt in the TV studio in 2012 was far from a new emotion for her and her fellow transgender people. A few months after her first appearance, Shandong TV called again. Now, they wanted Liu to come on the show to help reform another man who liked to wear dresses. She refused.
“Please come, you can communicate with him. It’s good for you,” the host told Liu over the telephone. “We will reimburse your expenses.”
Having convinced Liu to appear, the host inquired, “Are you still wearing make-up?”
When Liu answered yes, the host told her, “Wipe it off” before the show.
When Liu stepped on stage, in a dress but without make-up, she was faced with a married man in a dress. His wife and their daughters, aged 12 and six, sat in the audience watching. The host asked Liu to say a few words.
Feeling awkward, Liu decided play it safe, saying that being a man means being responsible for your family and encouraging him to drop his fantasies and face reality. The audience cheered their approval.
“This is our Brother Daxi!” said the host excitedly. “His words reflect how he truly feels. I hope after he goes back, he, too, can face society and integrate.”
Liu was adopted by a Qingdao couple when she was three years old. During the
, her adoptive father was accused of being a “rightist”, before suffering a stroke and spending most of Liu’s child¬hood bedridden, unable to speak. He died in 1976.
Liu has been writing a diary since primary school, record¬ing her life in detail. In school, she envied the girls, who would wear colourful clothes while she could sport only old T-shirts. According to her diary, she begged her adoptive mother to make her a dress. At first she refused but Liu persisted and eventually her mother relented – it was June 1, International Children’s Day.
Liu’s mother was a heavy smoker and after the death of her husband she developed lung cancer. Liu borrowed money from friends and neighbours to cover her medical expenses. When her mother passed away, in 1996, Liu’s debts amounted to 180,000 yuan (US$26,000). The money she received from selling the house her mother had left her wasn’t enough to cover the debts and Liu worked any jobs she could find. On a construction site, she fell from scaffolding and was hospitalised with a concussion; while delivering gas cylinders her motorcycle was hit by a bus; she applied to be a lake cleaner, but health checks revealed she had hepatitis. She tried to get a stand selling newspapers, but couldn’t obtain a licence.
Her confidence crushed, Liu repeatedly wrote in her diary that she had failed, but “as long as you borrow money, you had to pay it back. Without honour, how can one stand before others?”
Liu was unsuccessful in love, too. While living as a man, she had been married once, to a woman a colleague had introduced. On the day of their marriage registration, the woman dropped to the ground and started talking gibber¬ish. Liu discovered that the woman was schizophrenic and they divorced a couple of years later.
She dated other women, as a man, but nobody would marry a person without money or job prospects. Media accounts that followed the fire video going viral included the story of a mute man who bought Liu a wedding dress and wrote that he loved her. Each day during the six months they lived together he would work on Qingdao construction sites, giving her the money he earned. Then one day he just disappeared.
Liu admits to having lived with the construction worker, but “the media exaggerated”, she says. “It was just for survival.”
As she experienced new lows, wearing dresses became Liu’s only comfort – first in private, and then in public. On one occasion, she wore pigtails to work sweeping the streets, under a sun hat. Nobody having confronted her, she decided to walk from the tourist-filled Zhanqiao Pier to the central business district of Zhongshan Road in a red dress. Again, this brought no reaction. When she started picking rubbish in 2002, Liu began wearing dresses and make-up regularly – there being no employer to forbid it. But there were those who called her a prostitute behind her back and rocks were thrown at her door.
In 2016, Liu was offered a place to live by a man named Zhao Xiaochun, on the condition that she stop wearing women’s clothing, “because it’s a bad influence”. At that time, Liu could not pay her rent and so had little choice. She wrote in her diary that she had issued herself a “gradu¬ation diploma”, ending her life as a woman. “I’m not happy with my male attire, but I still need to act in this play called life.”
But she quarrelled with Zhao because he would not allow her to bring all her diaries into the flat, and several boxes had been stolen while sitting in the hallway. They parted ways after a few months.
In 2018, Liu called conceptual artist
, who had been supportive of her since they’d met a decade earlier: “Life has beaten me senseless once again,” she told him.
On they day their paths had first crossed, in 2008, Tang had been taking photos in his hometown of Qingdao when he came across Liu walking along the road in a dress, face painted a ghostly white.
“Her appearance had an unusual visual attractiveness to it,” says Tang, over tea before we set out to meet Liu, a few streets away, in Fuzhou, Fujian province – where she now lives – “like a Japanese Butoh dancer, where death is commemor¬ated, and she didn’t even know it.”
Tang has always felt drawn to those who exhibit unique appearances or actions. As early as primary school, he knew the feeling of being an outsider. As the children played in the yard, Tang would be in the hallway poking an ant with a stick, or narrating made-up stories to other kids. In third grade he came across a man near his school with car tyres hanging across his body, like the Michelin Man emerging from a coal mine. During lunch breaks, Tang would listen as man gave him lectures on electrodynamics and showed him batteries wrapped in wires.
I found a spark in her. I keep think¬ing about how to present it. I think her light can shine on a great many peopleTang Guanhua, artist
Tang also recalls a man he met on a Qingdao city bus who would talk and sing loudly, as if no other people were around.
When he met Liu, she was living under a bridge, in what had once been a prison dungeon. It was pitch dark. Tang turned on his phone’s flashlight to reveal an unlit candle in a room with notes scattered across the ground, words scribbled tightly across scraps of cardboard, recycled paper or notebooks that Liu had found while picking rubbish. Her diaries detailed nearly half a century, faithfully recording contemporary China’s political turmoil as well as the rise and fall of the Liu family.
“I found a spark in her,” says Tang of Liu. “I keep think¬ing about how to present it. I think her light can shine on a great many people.”
In 2016, Tang invited Liu to take part in an art project in Qingdao’s MixC shopping centre. He set up a stage resemb¬ling a clinic, presenting artist friends with “problems” – a skin condition or injuries – as doctors. Liu, dressed as a nurse, sat at the entrance, charging visitors five yuan to enter, then assigning them to “doctors”, who prescribed “medicines” such as a book or a film.
After an hour, the “clinic” was suddenly surround¬ed by security guards, two of whom hoisted Liu up into the air and carried her outside. They had received a complaint from a member of the public. One security guard had a knife. When questioned, they said it was “for self-defence”.
Tang helped Liu to move to Guanzhong village, near Fuzhou, in March last year, where he has launched a project called “Another Land”, welcoming social misfits to join and explore possibilities of a new life.
Fujian province, on the southeast coast of China, is known for its tea, mountainous landscape and strong, traditional family connections. In the village, rows of cement houses built by farmers stand next to 100-year-old, wooden ancestral homes, where entire families gather twice a month to burn incense and make food offerings.
In the weeks following Liu’s moved to the village, she received mail from across the country. Tang had posted online about the move, giving an address and requesting donations for a hernia operation required by Liu.
Contributions arrived and Liu was able to have the surgery she needed. With the money left over she estab¬lished the Daxi Charity, which promotes transgender visibility through events and publications. Well-wishers sent dresses, make-up and even a pack of sanitary towels. Liu wrote back to anyone who had provided a return address. She compares it to paying back her debts but now, she says, she pays back kindness.
The media flocked to Liu’s house and before long the police arrived. “She can’t live here,” the officers told Tang. The local villagers had complained to Tang, wanting Liu to leave, saying she “doesn’t look good”.
As I arrive to visit Liu six months after her move to Fuzhou, she sits by a window in her rented rooms, in a 19th century, two-storey wooden courtyard house, doodling an image of Guan Yu, the god of war. The latest volume of her diary is close by.
She sports Captain Jack Sparrow-style braids tied with red ribbons and rainbow-coloured hair clips. Her wrinkled face is padded with white powder, her eyeliner smeared, and she wears heavy eye shadow. The edge of the glass cup in front of her is stained pink with lipstick. Liu picks it up, inspects it, turns it halfway and takes a sip. Her room is messy, boxes of diaries stacked high, and smells of pickled fish. A half-eaten bowl of noodles sits on the table. Cat food is scattered across the doorstep.
More than 15 newspapers have interviewed Liu since she settled in Fuzhou, she says, as well as numerous social-media influencers, and yet when asked how she feels about being “famous”, she chuckles. “I can’t even keep this rented house,” she replies.
The landlord, who has threatened to cut off her power and water if she refuses to leave, stands in the courtyard, listing off his dissatisfaction with Liu: she’s lazy, dirty, the place smells of vomit, someone else had signed the lease and tricked him into renting to her and she dresses funny.
“So many people come, my house has become an exhibition hall,” he says.
The villagers are suspicious of outsiders. Their heads poke out of houses and eyes robotically follow me as I walk along the road. It is even more apparent while walking with Liu. At a shopping centre in the nearby town of Ganzhe, as Liu limps down the street, salespeople hurry outside or press their faces against the glass doors, stare at her, giggle and cover their mouths. To change people’s opinion of Liu, Tang has put up posters on telephone poles around the village: a picture of Liu in her braids, with an explanation of transgender and a QR code linking to Liu’s story.
“Drop your bias, embrace differences,” it entreats in bold letters. It has not had the desired effect. I ask a shop owner whether he recognises the person on the poster, he glances at it and asks, “Who? Is that an elderly gone missing?”
I know that person, an internet celebrity,” says a local restaurant employee of Liu. “He rides a bike down the road every day, buying stuff. At first I thought there was something wrong with his head, but after talking I found that he’s quite normal.”
Tang says that even after all these years of being pointed out and laughed at, Liu is still sensitive toothers’ opinions.
“She often analyses the different ways people look at her, whether it’s with discrimination, nonchalance or curiosity,” he says. “She still isn’t comfortable with it deep down and she won’t get used to it.”
When city folk see people like this, they don’t think it’s strange. We rural villagers think differently
Before I leave the village, Tang speaks to the landlord, hoping to change his mind. The landlord’s brother and sister-in-law are present and are adamant that Liu must move out. Tang tries to convince them that Liu is harmless but the landlord refers to the Qingdao fire, saying that they are afraid this house, too, will burn down. Besides, he says, people are gossiping about their family.
“When city folk see people like this, they don’t think it’s strange,” says the sister-in-law. “We rural villagers think differently.”
I meet Liu again, in September 2019, at an event in Beijing organised by Daxi Charity; the presale of her diary collection, titled Story of My Life. Volunteers have spent more than a year typing up what Liu has scribbled down over the decades.
“Every word in the diary contains Liu’s hopes for life, and that hope is a human’s hope for the world,” Tang writes in the foreword.
Liu says with a sigh that she has moved out of the court¬yard house and into another Fuzhou apartment Tang found for her. Her reception in Beijing has been vastly different than that in Fuzhou. She is a celebrity at the gatherings she attends, and chatting with Liu at her diary launch, four cameras are trained on us. Many in the crowd – most from the LGBT community – have read her story online and see her as a fighter, an inspiration and a role model.
“I’ve never received this kind of treatment before,” Liu says in her opening remarks, sitting on a panel along with Chao, Mr C and Sachi, the director of the Beijing LGBT Centre’s transgender department. The panellists discuss lawsuits, sex reassignment surgery, gender identity and expression, and campus bullying.
A member of the audience asks Liu how she thought the rural transgender community was doing and what volunteers might do to help. Another wonders whether transgender people should go through physical changes to be “complete”.
During the years she lived alone, Liu says she never reached out to the transgender community. When in Qingdao, she once read in the newspaper that a man received sex reassignment surgery, but she has never wanted it because it is too expensive.
Towards the end, a young woman asks whether the situation is improving for the community. “I hope this can help the trans … gen … der community,” she says carefully, the unfamiliar word not yet rolling naturally off her tongue.