Cover Installation view of Kwok's The Maid (1996) at Return from the Powder Room, Photo: Christy Au, courtesy of the artist and Eaton HK

Artist Kary Kwok’s exhibition at Eaton Hong Kong, part of their pride month initiative, showcases never-seen self-portraits of the photographer from his archive

The term “rice queen” is a phrase used to describe gay Asian men. The queer equivalent of the term “yellow fever”, which refers non-Asian (usually Caucasian) straight men being attracted to Asian women, “rice queen” is loaded with the same implications fetishising and perpetuating the subservient Asian stereotype. 

Artist and photographer Kary Kwok heard this term as a gay Asian artist in London in the 1990s and has captured its essence in his self-portrait The Maid (1996). The work is currently on view at Eaton Hotel Hong Kong and forms part of his solo exhibition, A Return from the Powder Room, curated by Aaditya Sathish.

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Confronting visitors on their way down to Eaton’s food court, The Maid features an androgynous Kwok donning a ruffled black and white uniform, holding a tray heaped with rice. Veins pop on his arms which are strained from carrying the tray, while his irate expression seems to be asking “what do you want?”, deliberately subverting the subservient “rice queen” stereotype.

“I remember being in gay bars or events and feeling quite isolated. I was not what they were looking for,” says Kwok of the London queer scene at that time, the majority of which was white men. He notes that Asians were always considered “other” or “exotic.” This feeling of alienation inspired the photographer to create a series of self-portraits initiating a process of self-discovery.

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Two more images, located in the hotel’s lobby, challenge the idea of how we construct our perceptions of identity including Family Portrait (1994). Again, we see Kwok assuming the role of the mother, here seated and holding a Caucasian baby, with an Asian “husband” standing behind. Here, Kwok not only broaches the fluidity of gender, but that of cultural identity as well.

Kwok’s identity analysis gained more steam when he returned to Hong Kong in 1996 (the artist lived between London and Hong Kong for most of the 90s) and found the scene to be quite different. “There was a paradigm shift in social attitudes,” he said of the time of the handover when uncertainty regarding Hong Kong’s cultural identity allowed for an environment ripe for exploring and embracing ambiguity and multitudes inherent in all kinds of identities – including gender. “Queer films and theatre were increasingly accessible, so I felt a sense of belonging. Something was happening in Hong Kong, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

From 1997 to 1998, Kwok was fashion editor of Amoeba Magazine (a Hong Kong publication active from 1994 to 2002), where he instilled a sense of queerness in the magazine’s aesthetic. Now, old spreads from the magazine are blown up and interspersed throughout the food court. Works such as Kitterick Show backstage (1997) evoke the popular 90s Hong Kong fashion brand Kitterick with glitzy, almost drag-like costumery, emanating a strong sense of nostalgia.

The works resonate strongly in today’s cultural climate where there is strong resistance against having to define one’s cultural or sexual identities, both of which are becoming increasingly complex.

This is best exemplified in a never-before-seen work, Dance This Mess Around (Disco Disco) (c. 1980), which Kwok made early in his career. In this video, the artist is dancing and mouthing the lyrics to The B-52’s song of the same title in the legendary Hong Kong queer nightclub Disco Disco, dressed in an androgynous outfit designed by Tenny Cheung, a noted designer during that era. By deliberately obfuscating his gender identity, Kwok highlights how, for some men, the idea of idea of dressing up as a man every day and performing masculinity doesn’t come naturally – it becomes a literal drag. This extends to performing any kind of societally imposed identity.

Return from the Powder Room strike’s an especially potent chord during Pride month, and exposes the persisting struggles of the LGBTQ+ community both in international and Hong Kong contexts. 

Sathish, who has been working with the photographer on organising his archive, finds the timelessness of Kwok’s works most striking: “It seems that he almost knew that his works would ring true 30 years later and beyond,” Sathish says.

The exhibition is on view until July 17.

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