Shanghai’s Halloween Party, a Rare Chance for Chinese to Vent in Style

There were evil wizards, TV celebrities and undead beings, yes.

But there were also walking memes, rare public expressions of queer life, wry commentary on the state of China and at least one bipedal cucumber — a colorful burst of pent-up energy and emotion in Shanghai’s first big Halloween celebration in years.

In Shanghai, revelers have embraced Halloween, turning what started as a Western tradition into something distinctly Chinese. Over four days, they celebrated many of the things that Chinese censors normally suppress: elements of L.G.B.T. life, political and social criticism, or simply appearances that mainstream Chinese society might consider too flamboyant or strange.

This year’s celebration was also the first since China lifted its sweeping pandemic restrictions, adding to the exuberant tone of the thousands present, who laughed, mingled and delighted in each others’ costumes. Attendees said it was the largest gathering they had seen in years.

“It was a sea of joy from Huaihai Road all the way to Nanjing Road,” said Eric Ding, a 23-year-old tech worker. “Voices from all corners of the world came together here.”

For some in Shanghai, Halloween is a time for safe L.G.B.T. expression — one of the few remaining in a country where discrimination based on sexual orientation is common. Lucas Fu, a nonprofit worker in his 30s, said the atmosphere of this year’s Halloween reminded him of Pride events he saw when he first moved to Shanghai in 2017, when L.G.B.T. advocacy groups were tolerated more widely and hosted annual public celebrations.

“Here in this country,” he said, “we are only allowed a carnival where you can dance like crazy for one fleeting moment.”

Still, some of the parade-goers only made subtle references with their costumes. Delos Wu, a 23-year-old working in advertising, dressed up as a character from the Taiwanese film “Marry My Dead Body,” a queer comedy about the Chinese custom of ghost marriages.

Wakkii Zheng, who came to Shanghai just for the party, dressed up as a royal concubine from a popular TV show, “Empress in the Palace.” Calling Halloween his own “Met Gala,” he said he started planning his outfit in early October and decided, last-minute, against wearing a version of Mariah Carey’s iconic Christmas outfit.

“As a part of the L.B.G.T.Q. community, I have wondered whether I can wear a dress to a party,” he said. “But except for Halloween, it’s hard to find another occasion where I can feel so relaxed about it.”

One recurring theme of this year’s Halloween was China’s slumping economy: Revelers turned the difficulty of finding jobs or making money into costumes.

One woman wore a sign that said “liberal arts majors graduate,” and carried a metal bowl and a QR code for donations. Another woman dressed up as a starving medical school student, also with a bowl for begging.

Two men in e-commerce uniforms held up signs that advise others not to get into the industry, which was once one of China’s fastest growing sectors but has experienced plummeting sales and many business closures in recent months.

Some bold people wore costumes that touched almost untouchable subjects in public discourse, like China’s recent “Zero Covid” policy or the state of U.S.-China relations.

One woman attached blank sheets of paper all over her shirt — a reference to the protests that erupted last year against China’s pandemic restrictions. White is a funeral color in China, and many of those protesters held sheets of blank white paper over their heads or faces.

Almost a year ago, at an intersection a few miles away from this year’s Halloween celebrations, hundreds of people chanted slogans calling for an end to Covid restrictions and faced police crackdown.

Mr. Ding, the tech worker, said he had gone to the protest in Shanghai last year, and that being in a huge crowd among police officers gave him a strange déjà vu, with one major difference this year.

“I wasn’t afraid because no one else was afraid,” he said.

Olivia Zhou and Lily Li, two artists in Shanghai, dressed up as Donald J. Trump and President Biden, holding a sign that modified Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. Ms. Zhou said they chose this message because it was sarcastic but open for interpretation — and that a security officer told them to get rid of it. When they refused, he took the sign and tore it up.

“There was no dialogue, he just used his absolute power to suppress us,” Ms. Li said.

Like anywhere else with TV and an internet connection, Halloween inspired many costumes from pop culture. Max Ma, a 26-year-old software engineer, wore a hazmat suit intended to replicate the meth-making criminals of her favorite show, “Breaking Bad.”

“Eight out of ten people had costumes,” said Ms. Ma. “It felt like a true carnival for everyone.”

Other costumes were inspired by Chinese internet memes, like members of a fake McDonald’s religion. Even ChatGPT made an appearance.

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Standing among the many provocative costumes, there were many police officers to direct the crowds. But they didn’t interfere with any of the festivities, Ms. Ma said.

“It was especially joyous, especially tolerant,” she said. “Everyone had a happy attitude.”

But still, at least some online posts sharing Shanghai’s costume photos were censored on Chinese social media.

“Chinese people have been oppressed by power for too long,” Mr. Ding said. “Seeking pure joy on a holiday that we chose ourselves is a hard step to take, and I sincerely hope this city can stay young forever.”

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