“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她：李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour.
As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her.
As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs.
Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave.
Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation.
Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.
The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.