Most people might have an image in their head of what a nightclub owner looks and sounds like. A stringy, gimlet-eyed smooth talker in an expensive suit. Or perhaps a barrel-bellied, tattooed good-time gangster, spray-tanned with nicotine and cologne.
Edmund Yang is about as far from either of these stereotypes as it is possible to be. When we arrive on a balmy June afternoon, he darts from a huddle with his staff, hand outstretched, to introduce himself in exquisitely clipped public schoolboy English. He looks alarmingly young, and has a warm, gentle energy that endears himself to his employees and, by the end of our meeting, Time Out.
Minutes into our interview, Yang admits he is not really a club person. He’d rather be at home with his computer than on the dancefloor, and yet, more than a decade after founding Destination, he is still working to develop it into a bigger, better and more inclusive enterprise. His interest in nightlife only really extends to music – which he loves (he has written the lyrics to two tracks that made it into the Billboard Dance Top 40) – and supporting the gay community.
'When I returned to Beijing in 1992, there were gay bars, but nothing like what we have today. I met my boyfriend in a corner of the Kunlun Club, which was the corner where everyone knew the gays hung out.'
Disappointed in the capital's slim pickings, Yang teamed up with some friends to start a bar modelled on those they had experienced in Singapore and Hong Kong. The aim, in his words, was to create a space where 'if we just dropped you at the bar, you wouldn’t know you were in Beijing'.
They did just that, and Destination has been the one enduring fixture of the capital’s gay scene to have lasted for more than a decade. Rumours have consistently swirled about the secret to Destination's longevity – ties to the central government and police, ruthless takedowns of rival businesses – but Yang puts Destination’s success down to luck and passion. He and his business partners all work day-jobs, and thus haven't depended on Des for their livelihoods, allowing them to put their community ahead of their bottom line.
'For quite a few years we used to invite guest DJs from America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia,' he says. ‘We did that because I love music and wanted to meet these people – but if we were purely running Destination as a business, it wouldn't make financial sense.'
Yang is also extremely protective of his staff, particularly the veterans. 'Many of our staff have been with us for years, but most of them aren't gay. They're not business people, most are from the countryside and haven't had much education.'
Des' first team away day was spent in the coastal resort of Yantai, Shandong. Only when they the entire team arrived there did Yang learn that most of his staff had not only never been on a plane, they had never seen the sea. He decided to up the ante. The next away day was in Hainan, and the following one in Thailand.
He very much sees his business as a family affair, and while today’s youngsters aren't necessarily impressed by travel or team building, a supportive, dynamic work environment is still hard to come by. Yang himself admits it's easy to get bored, which is why he keeps driving the business to go bigger and better, admitting that even if he quit his full-time job, he probably wouldn’t be able to fulfil his ambitions.
As for cultivating top-end guanxi, Yang is as surprised as anyone at the level of tolerance – even support – the authorities have extended to his enterprise.
'During the Olympics, Xinhua ran an article on Destination – in the Shanghai Daily they said, "the most popular club in Beijing is a gay club". That article was carried in the foreign press, and so the government actually gave us an international breakthrough.' Subsequently, while other venues have experienced perennial crackdowns, Destination is as packed now on Friday and Saturday nights as it was a decade ago.
But Yang's not done yet. 'I always want to do more, to achieve more,' he enthuses. Des has visibly evolved with the city and the community it serves. Its confidential HIV testing clinic is a lifeline to those reluctant to go to a government hospital. It has opened a permanent art space on its third floor, hosting works by young and emerging artists struggling to find a platform elsewhere. It has its own LGBT Centre, a resource to help non-profits and other organisations find a free space for events or activities. And now there’s Des Link, a pretty damn good bar-diner (try their chicken wings), crammed with local office workers at lunchtime, and offering a midway point between Beijing’s straight and gay universes. We all have to eat, after all.
Yang has invested heavily in Des' events spaces and art exhibitions because he wants to change public perceptions – not just of LGBT people, but of Destination as a venue. While it may no longer just be a gay club, that’s not how it is seen from the outside. They’re pushing for more integrated, more diverse events, from book clubs to seminars. The point is to bring people, gay and straight, together through the things they love.
'Minorities are always stereotyped. A lot of gay people are very talented. If there's a place and an opportunity for straight people to be more in touch with us – to see that talent – they’ll see just how little we actually differ. My view is always that the only real difference between being gay or straight is the sex of our partners. Why did America open up to gay culture? People learned through exposure.'
'That’s why we chose the name Destination. No matter where you come from, who you are, this is your destination.'
Yang is adamant that Beijing, in many ways, is a great place to be gay. 'Honestly I feel more comfortable here than in the US, than in Hong Kong,' he remarks. 'When my colleagues found out I ran a gay club, they didn't treat me any differently. I can talk about my boyfriend with them. Beijingers are pretty easygoing.'
‘Most people are surprised when they find out I run Destination. I’m not the type of person people would imagine running a nightclub,’ he smiles. Appearances, he keeps reiterating, are deceptive, and prejudices affect us all.
We've overrun and Yang is reluctant to end the interview. But there's work to be done. As we part ways, Yang calls us back.
He leans forward, eyes sparkling. 'Remember what I said about appearances,’ he says. ‘When I was in the UK I felt awkward and struggled to assert myself. So I played rugby. Do I look like a rugby player to you?' He smiles, waving us off.
Yang's compact frame, impeccable manners and hushed voice certainly wouldn’t look at home in a scrum. But that’s the point he’s making, and one Destination would seem to have taken to heart. Somewhere in that nondescript grey block at the south end of the Gongti strip, there really is a place for everyone.DesLink
10am-7pm (Monday); 10am-10pm (Tuesday-Thursday); 10am-midnight (Friday and Saturday)
DesHealth (free HIV testing clinic)
Contact 135 2225 6730 to book an appointment or via WeChat (Des-Health)
By Jack Smith