Hong Kong: a queer world opens in the New York of Asia

Steve Friess

Two lithe young Chinese men in nothing but white spandex shorts and a generous coating of body glitter burst out of nowhere carrying huge rainbow flags. They race around revelers, twirling the flags in that defiant, revolutionary Les Miserables manner before mounting matching pedestals on either ends of the dance floor in a fit of pretty-boy triumph.

At the Sanctuary party, the revolutionary analogy is more than apt. It’s precisely what resident queers–not to mention more than a few I long Kong Tourism Board officials–hope will take the city’s transitioning and burgeoning gay scene to a new level. The party, held in the pit of a concrete amphitheater at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, was indicative of both what this community is about and what potential it has. About 500 revelers bought tickets on word of mouth and a little Internet advertising alone; hundreds more were turned away, and the out-of-town crowd was barely approached. Promoters feared being shut down by police for overcrowding as they had been months earlier at another location, so they kept it smallish. Still, the place exploded with excitement.

Party organizer Patrick Sun envisions greater things yet for these kinds of events, which occur intermittently for now but which he hopes to build into a predictable cycle that would turn Hong Kong into a worldwide gay mecca. First, though, he needs to show local authorities he can keep things orderly and illustrate the boundless tourism potential for queen size queer bashes. Sun explains, “Eventually we want this to be like Sydney Mardi Gras.”

That’s ambitious for a city that doesn’t even host a gay pride parade. But I long Kong is nonetheless one of a microscopic handful of Asian cities with a bona fide and textured gay scene for the foreign traveler. (Only Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand and reputed up and corner Singapore come close.) In Hong Kong, queer activists view attracting the mighty gay dollar as a primary, means of persuading straight Hong Kong to be tolerant and legally progressive.

“It is true that if we had a gay pride parade, only a few people would show up and it would be an embarrassment,” says leading Hong Kong activist Chung To, a Chinese-American who quit a lucrative career as a Wall Street investment banker to fight for queer and AIDS causes across China. “But if we throw parties, they will come. It is the best way we have to bring people together.” Thus, to visit Hong Kong’s gay world is to support a civil rights movement.

The last time I was in Hong Kung, it was dying-literally. Just a year ago that nasty little bug known as SARS was infecting scores and killing dozens every day. The panic reduced a buzzing metropolis to an isolating ghost town where paranoid masses donned surgical masks with Michael Jackson-like fervor. Even the finest Hong Kong hotels, typically full every spring, were reporting gasp-worthy occupancy rates below 10% from April to June 2003. Economic rain was nigh.

And yet, for all the destruction and havoc SARS wreaked, it is also largely why I found myself this overcast Wednesday afternoon in late April on a test run of the city’s first officially sanctioned gay themed tours. That is, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, frantic in the post SARS era to seek out new markets to jump start its devastated economy finally embraced the idea of selling the city on its queer merits. It had come close in 2002 when a board committee bestowal a creativity honor on Chung To for his entry in a contest where he sketched out a few gay city tours as potential new products. But after Chung’s victory the board let the proposal collect dust until desperation struck; then late last year it licensed a start-up firm called Tongzhi Holidays, owned by a 21-year-old Chung protege, to actualize Chung’s vision. (Tongzhi literally translates as “comrade,” but the word has become colloquially synonymous with “gay” or “lesbian.”) Folks who take the tours receive a rainbow-colored Tongzhi card that makes them eligible for discounts at more than 20 restaurants, shops, bars, and saunas. They are currently working on developing four different tours of hidden gay Hong Kong, and they wanted to give me a taste of what these tours would include.

I was a little dubious about this tour from the outset. From my years of reporting on China and Hong Kong, I expected to be shown the usual tourist sites–the tram ride to exquisite Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry passage across Victoria Harbor, a walk around the Western bar area known as Lan Kwai Fong, a visit to a Toist temple–that are all well covered by Lonely Planet. But the tour quickly proved quite interesting.

Tongzhi owner Sammy Li and his guide (who is closeted and asked that his name not be used) ran me through some of China’s fascinating queer history as we walked through the city. The vast Middle Kingdom’s past in general dates back millennia, the guide explained as we made our way to the nondescript Queen’s Pier, where colonial British dignitaries used to arrive. A popular euphemism for same-sex love that is still used today’ in China is “breaking the sleeves,” which comes from the 2,200-year-old tale of the Han Dynasty emperor who woke to find his lover, Dong Xian, sleeping on top of his sleeve. Rather than wake him, the emperor thoughtfully cut his own sleeve so he could get up. Chinese literature is dotted with great homosexual love stories and poetry, and Chinese society was so indifferent to same-sex relations that a dismayed Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, complained about it during a 1583 visit. Still, Confucian and Buddhist teachings do oppose gay sex, and the British brought modern Western homophobia along with them to Hong Kong in the 19th century.

It took until the last decade far that damage to be undone, our guide explained as we visited the Legislative Council building, formerly the Old Supreme Court building and one of the few neoclassical buildings built by the British to survive the neighborhood’s modern skyscraper era. On that site in 1991, the council repealed its ban on gay sex, making Hong Kong one of the few Asian jurisdictions–and the old), part of China–to offer explicit legal affirmation. (Lesbianism was then and remains today unmentioned in Hong Kong law.) That came 11 years after Inspector John MacLennan of the Royal Hong Kong Police was found dead, officially by suicide, as the colonial police descended on his home to arrest him for alleged gay sex acts. MacLennan suffered five gunshot wounds, making the suicide theory dubious, and when news of the case broke in the media it spawned the legalization movement.

We took a van to the gay Middle Beach, a 10 minute walk south of the far nicer Repulse Bay. This cruisy beach, clearly marked from the main road that parallels the shoreline up from Repulse Bay, seemed nice, if rocky and small; although it was nearly empty on this day, a Wednesday, there was nonetheless a gay Chinese couple frolicking about 30 feet out in the water. This is one of only a handful of beaches in all of Asia where you’d find such a sight.

Sammy has done a remarkable job of persuading local merchants to cater to queer tourists. The tale of the outstanding Rainbow Seafood Restaurant on scenic Lamina Island, southwest of Hong Kong Island, is particularly instructive. Manager Chan Wai Ming admits he knew no out gays or lesbians before Sammy informed him that the rainbow is a queer symbol in the West. Now Chan offers a 10% discount for those carrying the Tongzhi discount card, and the boats he offers to transport customers for free from the Central District ferry terminal are bathed in rainbows on the outside–and with a lavender interior.

That was Hong Kong by day. While the Tongzhi folks are willing to show you around by night, I preferred to explore on my own–or rather with the handsome New Zealander named Brad whom I met during the four-hour gay happy hour at the otherwise straight Club 97 at Lan Kwai Fong’s epicenter, where Hong Kong’s large Western population of expatriates and British colonial leftovers tend to flock.

Brad and I tried a bit of everything. We crossed over to the Kowloon side to check out some of the Chinese-dominated bars there and found the sort of cold, confused reception of foreigners that you might find if you stumbled into a Wild West saloon in a nix. (You may find some women at the gay bars, but lesbian life is hidden even deeper than gay male life.) For the purposes of research (of course), Brad and I plunged into the city’s thriving sauna scene to observe. Small, discreet saunas where locals can remain anonymous outnumber the city’s gay bars three to one.

Our most important discovery: Select very, very carefully: At the Kowloon-side Rainbow Sauna, we realized some aren’t for non-Asians. The Chinese there were so repulsed by hairy white bodies that many actually charged out of the room when we entered. We felt better with the more equitable balance of Westerners and the Asians who love them at the other two saunas we entered, C.E. in Central and Chaps in North Point. Any sex in the saunas was discreetly kept to the back rooms, thanks to Asian modesty. The saunas served more as a chatty, karaoke-fueled gay social setting anyway. We stayed amused watching a hand some Chinese man strip from his business suit down to a towel and then take the mike in a karaoke lounge to let loose with a surprisingly good rendition of “Strangers in the Night.” Sinatra might not have been proud, but it did seem awfully fitting.

The Emerging Lesbian

Tzedan D. Sang, an assistant professor of Chinese literature at the University of Oregon, charts the making of Chinese lesbian identity in her book The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same Sex Desire to Modern China (University of Chicago Press, $17). What a difference a century makes!

Pre-20th century: Female-female eroticism was dismissed to a gray zone of amorality rather than demonized as vice Confucian tenets of female chastity were concerned exclusively with female-male congress.

Early 20th century: Because of the massive Westernization of China, including widespread agitation for women’s liberation, Female female desire acquired the status of sexuality and depravity.

1920s and 1930s: It became common knowledge among the educated urban Chinese class that women’s “same sex love” (tongxing lian’ai, tongzing ai, or tongxing lian) was a psychological or sexual perversion according to modern science.

1949 through 1970s; After the Communist revolution of ’49, discourse on homosexuality was largely erased from the public arena Literature and the arts avoided homosexuality For several decades.

1980s and 1990s: Outdated medical theories of homosexuality as gender inversion and psychic pathology did not resurface in the urban popular consciousness until the 1980s and 1990s Meanwhile in Taiwan, the social energy released by the lifting of martial law in 1987 has erupted into a number of new identity based social movements, including a lesbian movement that increasingly distinguishes itself from the already established women’s movement.


ACCOMMODATIONS (Dial 011-852 before all phone numbers) Moderate: The ultrastylish hotel Jia (3196-9000; $130-$270) opened in March. Famed French designer Philippe Starck gutted a residential building in Causeway Bay and created apartment-style rooms with kitchens, hardwood floors, and plasma TV screens. Expensive: The Peninsula Hotel (2920-2888; $300-$1,200) is among the top novels in the world for a reason: unparalleled elegance. The pool alone is sumptuous, and it’s the only hotel in the city that can provide helicopter rides to the airport. Don’t forget to indulge in high tea in the Peninsula’s ornate lobby. Its worthy rival, the Classic Mandarin Oriental (2522-0111; $230-$360) is where presidents and prime ministers stay. The place was designed by the guy who made the sets for The Bridge on the River Kwai, among others. Closer to the Dan Kwai Fong bar district is the Conrad Hong Kong (2521-3838; $200-$650), a lovely looming presence with 61 floors that stands atop Pacific Place one of the most upscale shopping centers in the city. RESTAURANTS Inexpensive: In the heart of Lan Kwai Fong is an adorable and trendy–not to mention gay-popular–cafe and sandwich shop called Kosmo (2-18 D’Aguilar St., Central; 2868-2002; $5-$1.5) with a balcony for watching the hubbub. Up the street is Tsui Wah Restaurant (15-D Wellington St.: 2525-6338: $5-$15), a noisy traditional Chinese diner open until 4 A.M. that is full of gays after 11 PM. Moderate; For a great Cantonese seafood dinner, try Rainbow Seafood Restaurant on Lamma Island (call 2982-8100 to arrange for the free ferry from Queen’s Pier: $20-$50). The elephant-tongue clam is particularly, um, gay-friendly. Expensive: Hutong (28th floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon: 3428-8342: $25-$60) is an exquisite Beijing-style restaurant with a sensational view of the harbor and the skyline. NIGHTLIFE The classic gay hangout is Propaganda (Hollywood Road, Central; 2868-1316), a spacious, upbeat dance club that rocks after 11 P.M. on weekends, its old haunts are now occupied by Works (30-32 Wyndham St., Central; 2868-6102), filled with less opulence and less attitude. Rice (33 Jervois St., Sheung Wan: 2851-4800) draws Western zed Asians and the men who love them. Ultramodern Curve (2 Arbuthnot Rd., Central: 2523-0998) is both beautiful and trendy ATTRACTIONS For gay tours of Hong Kong, contact Tongzhi Holidays (3184-0009). For Web sites to the above, go to www.outtraveler.com.

The Out Traveller

Ratings: Hong Kong

Gay Friendly A

Legal Domestic Partnerships C

Adoption Laws C

Antidisdrimination Lawas B

HIV Information A

Gay Scene A

A Excellent B Fair C Poor

Friess writes for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and USA Today.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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