New Hope from an Old Closet

(Updated November 2015)

Hidden Desire (May 1997)

Silhouetted against the glittering night cityscape, a young Asian man with thick black hair waits restlessly on the waterfront pier for the Star Ferry. When it arrives, and with scarcely a look at anyone else, he jostles among hundreds of other passengers to board the famous green-and-white boat. He seems deliberately to keep his head bowed as if to protect his face from being seen.

Occasionally however, he can’t help stealing a sharp glance around the ferry as we roll across the sparkling dark water of Hong Kong harbor. He catches my eye and looks away but looks back to check my gaze. It’s the kind of visual catch that informs us both of a common link.

By the time we arrive in mainland Kowloon, we have exchanged a few cursory words. His name is Ken and he works in a bank. Since my opportunity is brief, I bluntly ask him about being gay in Hong Kong. This evokes a stifled frustration: “Here is not a good place for gay–no freedom to do what you want… People too busy coming and going, I think… Also no place to be alone. Very bad for me because I am gay person. I am surprised by his undisguised honesty and touched by his lament.

Reaching the other side of the harbor he does not bolt away as I thought he might. Hong Kong Chinese do not talk openly about private matters, especially to strangers. Instead we walk for a short while along the bustling water front with its futuristic Cultural Center sweeping up behind us.

It becomes evident that his plaint emerges from his attraction to western men who, too quickly, arrive in HK, make passionate promises and leave for home and work abroad. “Boyfriend too hard to find here. Western men come to visit and only want sex, then go away. Promise to write, then nothing,” he protests with a cynical glance toward me.

To add to his frustration, Ken describes how he inhabits a small apartment with other family members, as most unmarried young people in HK must because of steep rents and Chinese customs. He has no private place to share with a date or potential mate. (Although western visitors can often provide a hotel room, it is only temporary and some hotels do not allow guests.) Such circumstances are hardly conducive to romantic harmony or extended relationships.

After numerous futile attempts at such liaisons, Ken is balefully disheartened. “Now I don’t look. I don’t know what will be my future,” he concludes. After a while, as if tired of his own story, he bids me farewell and I watch him walk alone into the night, back to his small shared home with his secret longing.

In May of 1997, Ken was not alone in wondering about the horizon of life in this Asian megopolis of six million souls. No other topic except money pressed more urgently on residents here than the fate of Hong Kong when the Territory would revert back to communist China’s control on the stroke of midnight July first. Although China signed an agreement with the British, who controlled the city-state for 150 years, assuring continuity in the existing governing structures and policies, few citizens felt secure, especially the wealthy and especially the homosexual community. Fortunately, since then China has kept a hands-off policy for the most part toward Hong Kong while exerting their will through the Executive office.

A moneyed minority of individuals as well as many foreign corporations made paranoid plans by sending family members and assets abroad to safe shores such as Canada or Australia. Most people, however, did not have access to second passports and tended to be indifferently fatalistic. The morning after I spoke to Ken, a shop merchant told me with a shrug of the shoulder: “What can we do? This is our only home. We were Chinese before and Chinese now. I think it will be okay.”

Social Life Goes On (June 1997)

Back across the harbor on Hong Kong Island, a week later, trendy young gay and gay-friendly Hong Kongers escaped from futuristic worries by playing out a very different drama than Ken’s lonely walk. Dancing to the beat of western and Canto-pop music mostly younger men and a few women filled the Moroccan-styled disco-bar Club 1997 on Lan Kwai Fong Street for the Sunday Tea Dance (sponsored by Horizons, a gay and lesbian telephone advisory service.)

Spilling out onto the narrow street and into the chic cafe la Dolce Vita next door, spirited Hong Hong natives and western patrons appeared in designer jeans and dress shirts. Not a few were sporting wire-rim glasses. If there is a ‘gay ghetto’ in HK, what little it is, this is it.

This recent update comment was sent October 2015: the gay community has found a new home in the Sheung Wan district.  As most of Hong Kong’s nightlife has expanded north of Lan Kwai Fong onto Wyndham Street, Hollywood Road and in the SoHo area where all the restaurants have also moved.  The nightlife scene in Hong Kong has definitely matured in the last 10+ years.  More locals are going out and the expat community is bursting at the seems.

Part of the spillover has moved westwards into Sheung Wan, which used to be nothing but dried seafood stores.  While they are still there, new neighbors include boutique high-rise hotels and serviced apartments.  The gay community has also found a new home. On Jervois street you can find Volume/Beat, the busiest of bars which includes a small dance floor.  Upstairs is Cafe Queen which has a street level entrance on Queen’s Road. Also on the opposite side of Jervois Street is Zoo, a smaller bar which seems to be inhabited mostly by locals only during the evening rush hours. LINQ on Pottinger Street has pretty much turned out to be a gay bar most nights of the week.

There are still the old standby’s such as Propaganda bar. Also up the hill is a trendy bar called Time, but there are usually more people congregating outside the bar because indoors can probably only fit about 15 people.  Another bar called Wink gets quite a bit of coverage, and many otherwise straight bars have “gay nights”.

Add to these core venues another half dozen less smart bars (most with egregiously off-key karoake) scattered around Central, WanChai and Kowloon, as well as a dozen furtive saunas and Hong Kong’s tangible gay nightlife is pretty well summed up. It is a modest offering for a powerful world-class city, but it also a new offering, and of course it’s chic.

A New Generation

Populating these trendy (and some tawdry) places, are the first generation of Hong Kong’s ‘out’ community–gay, lesbian and bi folks who are cautiously emerging out of their century-old Sino-British closet. Since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991 (partly in anticipation of 1997), the gay community has slowly and steadily become more visible.

For generations the love that dare not speak its name lived secretly under the heavy mantles of Victorian prudery and imported Christian morality–both enforced by governmental hits squads who raided bars and made lists of ‘known homosexuals’.

“We have grown up a lot in the past five years. The laws have changed and some of the western liberation has come in. Recently we’ve actually been talking live to the government,” claims Lee Ying, a thirty-something Hong Kong architect taking a break from the Sunday Tea Dance. “This would never have happened before. Everyone was afraid to dance freely or sign a public protest. Now look!,” he exclaims with a sweeping gesture toward the modest crowd spilling out from Club 1997.

After the Handover (November 1997)

The big event of July first ‘97 came and went. The range of moods ranged from hopeless fear for some gay residents to bullish optimism among corporate executives who see China as a huge market. “Imagine if someone told you Manhattan had been given to North Korea and no one in New York could do anything about it; that’s my feeling”, decried a smartly fashioned young woman exhaling cigarette smoke at Petticoat Lane: “I think that’s how a lot of gay people feel. The future seems short, especially since we just started to find our voice.”

Then, as if to break the tension, she took another long drag on her Virginia Slims and exclaimed, “but I’ll think about that another day”. With a Dietrich-esque wave of her hand she rejoined her friends.

A more cautiously optimistic opinion was held by Nicole Garnaut, the owner of Club 1997, Petticoat Lane and Pavilions. Her involvement in the gay community is as a business investor and relationship partner. Although she is circumspect about the future, she believes there is a practical purpose that lends a margin of hope. “I don’t think the Chinese want to destroy business here. They want to make money too, and we know how to do it better than they do.”

Consequently, she has been careful to market her upscale venues to a more affluent and seemingly ambisexual crowd than some of the other gay bars. “I think the necessary government negotiations have been made, so I’m confident about the future here. Besides, this is Hong Kong–we are used to things changing a lot.”

Active Action (May 1998)

Less visible but significantly present in the fledgling gay movement was ‘Contacts’ Magazine, the only gay publication in Hong Kong. Barrie Brandon, an expat Brit, was the founder and editor who provided news, stories and opinions about gay life in the city. The five-year-old magazine also listed events and places as well as commercial and personal ads in Chinese and English.

As a leading activist, Brandon used the monthly periodical to advocate for legal leverage before the handover . Since the late eighties, the British controlled government, in an unusually benevolent race before the clock, sought to firm up Hong Kong’s future with updated laws including human rights protections. Homosexuality was decriminalized and Brandon and other rights advocates eagerly pushed for the next step, an anti-discrimination law that would have given protection to gays in housing, employment and public service.

Yet even in the presence of the Communist shadow, the defiant yet wilting Legco (Legislative Council–Hong Kong’s congress) balked and failed (by three votes) in late June 1997 to accord gay and lesbian citizens their much deserved statutory protections. Despite the loss, however, the effort and the public notice about the struggle created new levels of activism never seen before in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, “it was very significant watershed period for us,” proclaimed a spokesperson from Satsanga, an activist organization. “It was the first time in the history of Chinese society that social measures to tackle discrimination against lesbians, gays and bisexuals had been publicly addressed at the government level.”

Despite the defeat in the Legislative Council, determination in the gay community’s determination remained high. In a statement to Reuters, the Gay Coalition’s Robin Adams said, “This legislation, when we get it sooner or later, will give people permission to be gay.” Adding further comment, Lai Mang, founder of Queer Sisters, declared “…we have more visibility to demand government recognition that there are such people and that they have rights.”

Prior to the vote more than 200 people marched from the Legislative Council building to (then) Governor Patten’s house to present a petition and press the demands for legal safeguards. “I have never seen so many gay people assembled as I saw at the rally,” Brandon proudly declared at the time.

Conservative History

But these proud efforts were inevitably tempered by the backdrop of history and culture here. Homosexuality, although no longer illegal, has been nevertheless stigmatized and highly zipped-up in a closet of shame. Family honor, martial obligations, career opportunities and personal repute have exerted nearly insurmountable obstacles to authentic individual expression of homophile emotions.

“I doubt my family would really disown me, but it would be a great shock. After time, I think they would be supportive. My biggest problem is that they won’t regard me as highly as they did before–as the hardworking and genius son of a respected family,” reflected Phil (most English-speaking native Chinese Hong Kong citizens have western nicknames, such as Phil). He is a young native corporate consultant who plans a political future and plans to get married despite his interest in men. Most straights see homosexuality as a sickness or a phase that will pass. One man had to come out to his parents twice before they believed it was not a temporary lapse of good judgment.

Step Forward—Step Back (1999-2000)

Barry Brandon passed away in 1999, but he lived to see his beloved community continue its brave march toward visibility and respect. In June of 1999, organizers celebrated the second Tongzhi (Gay) Day as part of a two-week series of parties, seminars and film screenings on gay and alternative culture in Hong Kong. ”We don’t want to take a confrontational approach, but more low-key Chinese cultural activities and seminars to raise awareness of gay culture,” said Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah, one of the leaders. “To me, it’s important to strengthen the [gay] Chinese identity and promote a worldwide Chinese tongzhi network.”

“But,” Roddy continued, “I see the necessity of the Chinese tongzhi movement to reclaim its cultural tradition—that is, by deconstructing the colonialist (England) representation of Chinese tongzhi history and culture. I also see that it is just as problematic to preserve and glorify the Chinese traditions of the past without a critical examination of the particular cultural practices and institutions especially as they effect minorities such as ours.”

As part of the annual tongzhi festival is the popular Hong Kong Queer Film Festival. After its first three years of success, the film series now raises few eyebrows and attracts small crowds of interested viewers from both Hong Kong and other countries. A recent showing daringly screened a documentary about the highly sensitive Tianenman Square massacre in 1989.

In 2000, the lesbigay community also made their presence known by actively approaching candidates for election to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council . The 10 Percent Club, Horizons, Queer Sisters and a dozen other groups, in addition to their social functions, organized a joint task force to continue the push for the same (1997) legislative changes regarding gays rights: equal opportunity guarantees, anti-discrimination statutes and positive societal education programs.

But activists had few illusions about their efforts. Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong’s Human Rights Monitor, said the situation was sad. “These candidates are supposed to be the elite of society, but they consider the basic rights of individuals as a ‘sensitive issue’. Under the existing political system, those standing for the election don’t really care too much about these minority groups. They do not see them as vote-winners. They only care about the interests of their own profession.”

But the candidates had apparently underestimated the determination of the gay groups. The task force published a booklet before the election to make public the results of their lobbying drive and to advise the gay community on how to cast their votes. The publication caused a stir in the media and alerted candiates. “It was another reminder that we are still waiting and pushing for equal rights,” said activist Law. According to government figures (1996), about 6 to 10 per cent of the population in Hong Kong were homosexuals. “We do have a lot of votes and we are everywhere in society.”

However, such efforts to change conservative minds remained an uphill struggle as reflected in the South China Morning Post newspaper a month later. A story titled ‘Majority against gay rights law’ (December 13, 2000) quoted Leo Kwan Wing-wah, Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs: “It is not the right time to introduce a law banning discrimination against homosexuals, due to a lack of majority support, a senior government official said yesterday.

“Concerned groups had called for the legislation to be brought in”, Mr Kwan said. “But the community did not support an anti-discrimination law on sexual orientation during a consultation exercise carried out back in 1996”. He said that although the public had become more open to homosexuality, “it takes time for such changes in the laws.” To add insult to injury he went on to say, “the Government cannot impose any social values on the public,” blithely ignoring the everyday impact of governmental policies on the values and attitudes of people.

Despite previous failed attempts to ‘educate’ the public about homosexuality, Kwan insisted that discrimination against people of differing sexual orientation could be erased through education. But homosexual concern groups and several supportive religious organizations claimed, accurately, that legislation is a more effective way to ease bias.

Noel Chan, of Rainbow Action, complained that homosexuals had suffered more than enough discrimination. “My partner and I cannot apply for public housing like other spouses,” he said. Echoing this cry, Rose Wu, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute, said: “Unless the Government is determined to pass legislation, the pattern of discrimination against sexual minorities will not change and will become even more ingrained.”

Moving On

So what’s the gay future here?

Part of the answer depends on who is asked–and on how much they have to gain or lose. Ask the handsome flight attendant based in Hong Kong and he thinks little about the ‘scene’ here. “I like it the way it is. It’s a fun place to come on the weekends.”

Ask a lesbian pub owner and the future is given a robust vote of confidence: “This is Hong Kong. Things change here all the time…Hong Kong thrives on small business. Entrepreneurs make this city what it is.”

Ask Robin Adams, activist, businessman and gay dad. He’s staying put. He and partner run a consulting business and have adopted three children. “This is our home. It’s very exciting here. We’re going to watch the legislature to make sure they don’t back track on any of the civil rights gains of the past several years. This is definitely the time to stay. Like Martin Lee says, if we don’t continue to speak up for our liberties they could well erode away in silence.”

Ask Julian Chan and he will tell you he is proud to be Chinese even though he felt sad to see the flag of Britain coming down: “when hearing the “God Save the Queen”, all a sudden I wanted to cry. After all, we are the generation that was born and grew up in British colonist ruling. The British colony legacy is part of our childhood, part of our growth, part of our life. This is something that main land Chinese and those old communist in Beijing wouldn’t understand.”

Nevertheless, he was clear and confident in his future as a gay man and a professional. “China cannot afford to lose the support of Hong King people. We will speak up to demand rights and oppose repression; we were raised with democratic ideas. I think this will assure a good future. Who knows, maybe China will become more like Hong Kong!”

So there are as many answers as there are personal and professional investments. The future is imagined in the in the shape of one’s hope or fear.
That future may be a matter of power politics and big money, but since the handover, Beijing’s appointed leaders in HK have taken pains to assure worried citizens that civil liberties will be respected–as long as they don’t “disrupt the needs of a civil society”. For the most part, they have held steady although not tightly.
Some of the strategy for the HK gay community must be shaped toward survival–doing good business and keeping politically attuned–and toward active lobbying. The future is in both of these gestures.

Pushing the Envelope

In their most daring strike against discrimination, more than forty gay activists clashed with police in May 2001 when they tried to storm a World Red Cross Day ceremony in Kowloon Bay. While Secretary for Health and Welfare Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong and Red Cross officials were delivering speeches on the ground floor of a shopping center, gay activists waved a large banner from the first floor and threw anti-discrimination leaflets down to the public gallery.

They condemned the Red Cross for rejecting male homosexuals and sex-trade workers as blood donors and for requiring males to answer questions concerning sexual orientation and sex life before giving blood. Group spokesman Tommy Chen Noel blasted the Red Cross for its “policy of discriminating against a minority”.

The gay group has been pushing for the guidelines to be changed. The Equal Opportunities Commission says anti-discrimination laws prohibit only discrimination on the basis of gender, disability and family status, not sexual orientation. In addition to making their protest very public, it was significant that in the wake of the demonstration, no one was arrested and no charges were pressed. Freedom of expression (within limits) continued to hold in this bold protest against the ‘system’.

Hong Kong’s gay community is well educated, adaptable and has recently become ever mindful and courageous in seizing opportunities for vocalizing their agenda. It knows the discrimination it faces and it knows the determination needed to forge ahead. “We can play both games well. We know how to work a deal and plan a protest—and we know how to look fabulous”, claimed the impish Robin Adams as he hurried off to another business appointment followed by a workout at the California gym in chic Lan Kwai Fang.

On To The Future

So, Hong Kong queers range from brassy, outspoken and active to shadowy, lonely and closeted. Buoyed by almost five years of general prosperity and the re-election of pro-democracy legislators, gay leaders are developing more frequent and bolder ways to push their plan for rights and respect. For the most part, Beijing has kept their hands off the controls of Hong Kong. This giant city pulses with commerce and finance. It also is home to a large and diverse gay community emerging more into their own light and with a voice that is less fearful than ever before.

Unchained from democratic but prudish British rule and cautiously free of Beiing’s paranoia, lesbigay citizens continue their lives much as before, be it stylish or blue collar, secular sexy or quietly closeted, internationally hip or natively restrained by traditional Chinese.

Plans are still alive to push for legislative reforms, more tongzhi conferences, pride events, film festivals and demonstrations. The raves go on, the clubs, pubs and the saunas thrive as younger generations of lesbigays mature into spending adults and outspoken citizens. The world is changing in southeast Asia for lesbigays and Hong Kong is helping to lead the way.

(Perhaps tangential but still relevant is that since 1997, as if echoing Julian Chan’s words, there have been noticeable changes emerging in mainland China’s gay scene. Less police harassment and more tolerance of gay venues—despite increasingly more government paranoia about the Internet.)

As for Ken, he met a Canadian who lives and works in Hong Kong. They spend every weekend together. As the oldest son, Ken is held by powerful traditions of family honor and cohesion, so he lives at home during the week. His mother understands that he has a special friend and she has met Craig several times with friendly results. “She knows”, he says, “but as long as she doesn’t have to speak what she cannot understand, she is happy for me.”

Still Hidden and Still Alive

Colorful, active and noisy as the gay scene is in Hong Kong, the adventures and activities described above represent perhaps only half of the gay scene in this city of about 500,000 LGBT citizens. In response to a question from about the less visible ‘indigenous’ Asian gay scene, an American expat who lives and works in Hong Kong sent the following comment:

“The indigenous scene is very local and while the number of venues is large they cater for local HK Chinese and are often in locations that are not easy to find. Once inside, they will be very friendly but language barriers and their being mostly ‘rice queens’ restricts interactions with ‘outsiders’. As a Cantonese speaker, I get by but foreigners here make up only two per cent of the population and most do not know the language necessary to interact with these people.

Also see:
Gay Hong Kong News & Reports 1997 to present
Gay Hong Kong Photo Gallery