Observations on Gay and Lesbian Hong Kong

HK rainbow pride apple watch

Friend got a rainbow Apple Watch strap at SFO’s Pride

This post is a complimentary one to my first on things I love about being gay in East Asia. The contents are based on my own personal experiences, and not meant to be exhaustive or define any ‘East Asian’ cultural traits. I’ve started writing about LGBTQ topics is to create more accessible English information on the nuance and diversity in East Asia.

This isn’t a post about how things are, but rather challenges we can think about. Many of them are shared with other LGBTQ communities around the world. Also, as caveating my perspective as a queer, cis-female, gender ambiguous, Cantonese-speaking, Chinese Canadian.

This piece is a work in progress, so would love your thoughts! If you’re travelling to Hong Kong, here’s a brief guide to LGBTQ Hong Kong.

Names. Labels. Gender roles.

Gay and lesbian are still the easiest terms to search up, or their Chinese equivalents.

LGBT…Q? Cultural appropriation? Intersectionality?! I’ve given up on the conversations I loved most in Toronto in the queer community thinking about the complexities of identities, negotiations, power relations, marginalisation, and what doing justice means. I have, however, been introducing cis / trans into many of my dinner table conversations. 🙂 Baby-steps.

And something I lump into this is the archaic binary roles. People here are still pretty butch/femme, tomboy/princess. Good luck if you don’t fit. 😦

As long as it’s not my child.

taipei pride lgbtq

Image cc coolloud via Flickr

This has never happened to me, since I don’t have immediate family in Hong Kong, but this is a reality many expats don’t fully appreciate about their local counterparts, who often still live with family. The indifference on the street coexists cozily with the stubborn lack of acceptance if it were in your own home. I feel more safe in Hong Kong on the street than Canada (where I spent the first 20 years of my life) or London, where I studied. But within homes, there’s an implicit silence, awkwardness, and genuine smothering concern (at best) how difficult life is and (at worst) your salvation. It’s unlikely you’ll cause an argument at a family friend’s dinner because of your crew cut (as a cis-female) because…you’re not their daughter. At the same time, people can live all their lives in the closet from their parents who are still trying to set them up in their 40s.

The Churches.

I do think the churches and their generally conservative and vocal stances are a problem. The churches, as institutions, have a huge influence in Hong Kong. I repeat, as institutions, because I not only respect, but admire, those who have faiths, be it of the Judeo-Christian tradition or otherwise. Last year, the church called voters to take into account representatives‘ stance on same-sex marriage, a point of contention between the Church and activists in 2015. The Catholic church reportedly has 581,000 followers though the 2016 census seems to report 480,000 Protestants and 379,000 Catholics. The Catholic church has also been vocal about its views on same-sex relationships. This is not to say other religious institutions around the world have not used their weight to influence government or legislature — just that it’s an equal problem for any place that has it. The reason I make special mention of it is because the churches are well funded and resourced and not only own land, but run many social programs and social events (so their influence is far greater than their official worshiper numbers). In addition, Hong Kong’s schools were largely founded by missionaries and one only has to pull up school list in the city to find that over 50% have Catholic or Protestant roots. Needless to say, resources are devoted to people who try to cure themselves of same-sex preferences or gender dysphoria. The result is that early on, the strong social networks that surround and individual send implicitly unsupportive signals (exceptions exist, of course).

Race matters.

Actually, it matters everywhere. This was a common topic of conversation in Canada, too, and it sucks just as much in Hong Kong. The privileges that are afforded the expat community especifically living in Hong Kong include that they don’t have to deal with family at their front door. I am Chinese ethnically, but I don’t have to deal with anyone who tells me I will go to hell for having a same-sex partner. However, many people don’t have a choice — their family, extended family, family friends, and in some cases even schools, may be reminding them of this fact.

But let me parse out my veiw of Hong Kong’s real hierarchy:

  • White
  • Chinese with an expat accent: i.e. British / North American / Australian, New Zealand, South African (because people can’t tell the difference)
  • Anyone with the above accents
  • Local Hong Kong
  • Mainland Chinese
  • South Asian, Filipino, Indonesian
  • The rest: Black, Middle-Eastern, anyone they can’t identify

I asked some local friends for feedback. Other versions of the list include White, Cantonese, Taiwanese and everyone else (no distinction). Some people put Koreans above Chinese. Some people didn’t even think other people of colour (PoC) were a factor…

Like many other things in Hong Kong, by visibly being white, you are exempt from a string of expectations — including the need to be straight. If you are brown, Filipino, or Indonesian, and do not have an expat accent, you’re going to have a lot of trouble dating.

If you don’t speak Cantonese, I would not bet on trying to get to know the local scene. It’s unfortunate, and of course give it a try, but I think you will quickly get a sense of what I mean.

Closed Bars.

Unfortunately, the lists for lesbian bars isn’t very updated. Many of the popular places open, close, and re-open again somewhere else. The best thing to do is to get connected with a local friend who likes nightlife and ask where the newest haunts are. Your best bet is to use the local lesbian app Butterfly or Grinder, Jack’d and Hornet for the guys.

Trans…what?

The trans struggle is just picking up speed around the world recently, and I would say Hong Kong is keeping up proportional pace. Hong Kong has a wonderful advocate named Joanne Leung and Hong Kong’s trans support group. This year during Pride, there was a trans art exhibition, which is progress.

But is it anywhere near liveable levels for our trans friends? No.

I don’t know to what level gender violence in washrooms hits, as it’s not as discussed nor as contentious as an issue here. I do have gender ambiguous and trans friends here and I find it difficult to summarise or compare their experiences. For example, for the people who live abroad or choose to stay abroad, they have found supportive communities. However, Hong Kong is also a city of 7 million people, compared to entire countries where people can move to more LGBTQ-friendly areas like the Bay Area or New York. Does Hong Kong have as visible, active, and large a community as either area? No, or not yet.

Corporates lead the way, while legislature lags behind

True to typical Hong Kong fashion, the private sector is much more up to speed. International firms have generally seen the benefits of inclusive programs and retaining talent, so of course it’s somewhat easier for colleagues in Hong Kong to bring such initiatives over.

Since Community Business did its first LGBTQ Diversity and Inclusion survey, Hong Kong’s come leaps and bounds. There’s GALA for the legal profession, CBRE + LGBTQ has just launched, etc.

The snag is in legalities for things such as spousal visas and taxes (especially for non-married partners). For those coming from international firms, some things are covered by the firm, like spousal benefits, but you need to be clear on exactly what you’re entitled to or protected by.

There’s no village.

In Toronto, it’s Church Street. In New York, it’s Greenwhich Village. In Vancouver it’s Commercial Drive and Davie Street. In London it’s…sort of (not really) Soho.

In a city that struggles to keep even its lesbian bars alive, it’s impossible to think of a community. The gay bars in Lan Kwai Fong (the Financial District) are entirely unaffordable for majority of the population.

I especially miss the Toronto queer community because Church Street is a space and a place for LGBTQA+-folk to gather and support each other. A community is more than a meat market and dating pool. The community means literally a community centre like the 519 on Church Street, and its own theatre (Buddy’s in Bad Times), ACAS (Asian Community AIDS Services) and QAY (Queer Asian Youth), and many more to cater to to the diverse needs and interests of the people who also happen to be LGBTTIQQ2SAA+ (did I get them all?). The Toronto community isn’t perfect, and it has just as many problems with marginalization (hence, the need for Black Lives Matter), but it exists. Of course, this list is the only way I can show what Hong Kong doesn’t have.

I recently met the organizer who started the first LGBTQ tour of Hong Kong, so you should check that out to get a sense of what’s around in understated corners.

So why am I still here?

Despite all my critiques, Hong Kong has been a welcoming place for a bilingual expat like me. (I don’t want to be an expat, but I cannot shed the privilege loaded into my English accent, nor my degree, nor my luxury to just buy a ticket out of the city whenever I like.)

I’ve lived with locals for most of my 7 or so years here, so I can relate to the need to tone down at home. I’m not out to the family friends I live with, though I have always had a pretty tomboyish/masculine presentation. I don’t know how they would react if I just dropped this identity on them, but at the same time, they’ve already basically accepted everything that I present as — and, thinking along a similar vein to my local friends — isn’t that enough?

I’ve also flatshared and lived on my own in Hong Kong before. I can afford to, am willing to, and am allowed to move out (something that parents really may not allow their 30-year old kids to do). Most of my local friends are missing one, if not all three, of those factors. This choice makes life much more livable — I’m not trapped at home, or even in Hong Kong for that matter.

Which means I can be picky about who I choose to work and hang out with here. My friends from both the English and Cantonese-speaking circles are open and supportive.

I make no secret of my social leanings nor preferences on social media, so I assume that anyone in Hong Kong who has added me either knows or is clueless enough to be a friend.

After my first workplace, I have always been out. This doesn’t mean I announce it to my boss at the interview before accepting an offer. It just means I dress as I like to the interview and assume that if they’ve hired me with shirt, tie and all, they got the message. My sexual preferences aren’t really an issue for me here, but it’s a testament to progress in general; I feel more comfortable in Hong Kong in 2017 than I did in Toronto in 2008 because the world has changed in the past decade.

So that is Hong Kong for me in a nutshell. Some other posts I’ve written on this topic are:

If you liked this, would love a share! Thank you!

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