Cover Photography: Eden Batki

The city’s first Women’s Festival offers a packed schedule of talks, wellness seminars and even a bondage workshop

Feminism is going through a critical cultural moment. Whether it’s to address gender equality, the wage gap or reproductive rights, women around the world are creating alternative movements and spaces away from mainstream constraints and increasingly raising their voices.

Hong Kong is no exception. It counts a strong, outspoken community of women and men advocating for parity, though it does lag in some areas. Studies by resources consultancy Willis Towers Watson and the non-profit organisation Community Business show Hong Kong women earn an average of 22 per cent less than men, a gap wider than in Singapore, the US, Britain and Australia, and occupy only 13.8 per cent of seats on the boards of Hang Seng Index companies.

So there are plenty of issues to be addressed this month at Hong Kong’s first Women’s Festival, which runs from September 1 to 9 at the Eaton hotel in Jordan.

The festival, and the Eaton, are the latest ventures from Langham hotel scion Katherine Lo, whose new global brand, Eaton Workshops, merges hospitality and progressive social change.

“Gender issues have always been really important to me,” she says on the phone from Washington DC, her second home after Hong Kong. “Hosting the first Women’s Festival at Eaton is something I hope will make a big difference in the city.”
The venue, which serves as a hotel, social club and co-working space, caters to a liberal-leaning professional crowd through its gender-neutral facilities, thoughtful design and interdisciplinary programmes that go beyond the standard hotel experience. It’s the perfect location to host the festival’s stimulating range of talks, workshops and performances.

See also: Girl on Film: Katherine Lo  

There will be meditation classes and seminars on relationships, beer tastings conducted by women in the craft beer industry, film screenings and talks on motherhood and ageing. Sexuality, too, is very much on the agenda. At the time of writing, a bondage workshop had already sold out.

The same goes for the Vagina Monologues, the 1996 episodic play featuring performers reciting vulva-centric storieson anything from childbirth to pap smears and sexual assault, which makes its debut in Cantonese during the nine-day event.

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In a city that is relatively conservative, the programme is undoubtedly pushing boundaries.

“We wanted to combine and include the many aspects of womanhood,” says Vera Lui, founder of intimate lifestyle store Sally Coco and a co-founder of the festival. “Celebrate self-love, self-care and self-expression, and exploring them from different angles. After all, there are many layers to being a woman.”

Chantal Wong, director of culture and image at Eaton Workshop, describes the festival as “an open conversation to address the hidden facets of the woman’s experience—her sexuality, her health, ageing, gender roles and assignment, challenges such as working with a domestic worker, relationships. These are topics that we all face and are challenged by, but there aren’t enough platforms to share with each other and learn from one another. The Women’s Festival [for me] is an opportunity to be proud of all these experiences and challenges, and to support one another and grow as a society, in solidarity, through conversations and workshops.”

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“We also aimed to create a festival for everyone,” adds another festival co-founder, Sonia Wong, founder of the film festival Reel Women Hong Kong. “From women to transgender people, men and members of the LGBT community. If you share our intent to celebrate your body and mind, you can and should join.”

Although Vera, Chantal and Sonia are the main masterminds behind the festival, they all point to Katherine as the key person in bringing the idea to fruition. “We had long been thinking about putting together something like this,” Sonia says. “But we couldn’t have done it without Katherine and a venue like Eaton.”
“She nurtured it from the start six months ago,” Vera confirms. “She invited us for a drink and encouraged us to create something for the community at large, to make the festival a reality.”
For the entrepreneur, who has long been an activist in support of many causes, right back to being a student delegate for Greenpeace at the Kyoto climate talks in The Hague in 2000, the opportunity to make an important mark in her native city was an immediate draw. “I have started Eaton in Hong Kong and DC [where it will open this fall] to have a social and cultural impact, which is why the Women’s Festival was a perfect fit.”

It is also why the event is mostly in Cantonese. “We want to address a local audience, have real significance,” Katherine says.
Adds Vera, “What excites me the most is the idea of bringing together a strong, empowered network of people, from the attendees to the speakers and guests. And, of course, the hope this will become a yearly event.”
“We’ll see how people respond to it,” says Katherine, “but I’m definitely open to the idea of making this a regular occurrence.”
Judging by the number of workshops sold out weeks ahead of the opening, it looks set to become a regular event.
The Women’s Festival runs from September 1 to 9. Tickets, starting at HK$40 for a single admission, are available from Ticketflap. Ten per cent of festival proceeds will go to RainLily, the city’s only dedicated rape crisis centre.

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