Pride Month Roundtable: How LGBT-friendly Is Hong Kong?
Kayla Wong was just 22 when her life was turned upside down. “I was with my girlfriend, we were in Kennedy Town by the harbour, we were just hugging and kissing,” remembers Kayla, the founder of ethical clothing brand Basics for Basics. “But the paparazzi had followed us and they suddenly appeared in front of us in the dark with their cameras flashing. It was super traumatic.”
The tabloids had a field day. Newspapers and magazines plastered the photos on their front pages, prompting Kayla to come out to the press and reveal that she had the full support of her parents, actor Michael Wong and model Janet Ma. “I had already told my parents two years before,” says Kayla. “I was fine with being out as a gay person, but I just didn’t feel like this should be a thing.”
Kayla’s disappointment is understandable. This isn’t a story from the 1960s, when homosexuality was still illegal in most countries; this happened in Hong Kong in 2014, the same year that Britain legalised same-sex marriage, Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay and Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a transgender activist in Dallas Buyers Club.
Even the conservative Catholic Church softened its stance on homosexuality in 2014, with Pope Francis declaring “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.”
So for all Hong Kong’s claims to be “Asia’s world city,” just how LGBT-friendly is it? It’s a tough question to answer, say some of the city’s leading LGBT personalities who recently gathered at Douglas Young’s Mid-Levels home for a roundtable discussion on the state of LGBT rights in Hong Kong.
As this discussion took place on the eve of Pride Month, which is celebrated in June, it was an especially appropriate time to reflect on the lives of the city’s LGBT residents.
Homosexuality was only legalised in Hong Kong in 1991—24 years after it was legalised in the UK, and 11 years after the state of New York—but Douglas doesn’t remember living in fear before legalisation. Instead, sexuality simply wasn’t discussed.
“When I was young, nobody knew the word in Cantonese for gay,” recalls Douglas, the founder of the brand GOD. “I think my biggest breakthrough was watching this TVB soap opera called A House is Not a Home, which came out in 1977. It featured a gay character. They used the phrase tung sing luen, which translates roughly as same-sex love. It was such a mysterious word for me. We had a nanny and when I asked her, she said, ‘That’s no business for kids.’ But I knew instinctively that it was something to do with me.”
See also: Douglas Young of G.O.D.
Undeterred by his nanny’s response, Douglas confided in people at school and found an open-minded, supportive friendship group. “I went to Diocesan Boys’ School and there were lots of LGBT students,” says Douglas. “I’m still very close with my schoolmates and I’m very open with them and we still meet regularly. I don’t think I’ve ever been judged by them. If it wasn’t for that school, I might still be hiding or not be as open as I am.”
Gigi Chao, executive director of Cheuk Nang Holdings and an unofficial spokesperson of the LGBT community, found a similar group of friends when she was in her teens in the 1990s. “I went to an international school and I had a few friends that were lesbians, so we hung out in a little group and would go out and meet girls. We hung out in Causeway Bay and we were allowed to be ourselves.”
One person not happy that teenage Gigi was hanging out with LGBT friends was her father, property tycoon Cecil Chao. “Of course [our sexuality] was to the great dismay of our respective parents. They were all very concerned—probably up to this day they’re all very concerned,” says Gigi.
In 2012, Cecil famously offered HK$500 million to any man who could persuade Gigi to marry him, despite the fact that Gigi had just tied the knot in Paris with Sean Eav, her long-term girlfriend. Cecil’s offer sparked a global media storm and Gigi was inundated with proposals from more than 20,000 men.
See also: Gigi Chao: A Voice For Change
It would have been easy for Gigi to retaliate and paint a picture of her father as unsupportive and out of touch, but she lay low and in 2014 published a calm, considered open letter in the South China Morning Post.
“You are one of the most mentally astute, energetic yet well-mannered and hard-working people this humble earth has ever known,” Gigi wrote. “As your daughter, I want nothing more than to make you happy. But in terms of relationships, your expectations of me and the reality of who I am are not coherent.”
Four years on from that letter, Gigi remains close to her father, but he still rarely sees her wife. “He doesn’t see Sean much, but we bump into each other sometimes at social events, at the Tatler Ball, for example,” Gigi says.
“Since coming out, the good thing is that there are now moments when he actually treats me as an adult. For parents, I think it’s sometimes quite difficult. But there are moments where he does show that respect for me and we talk to each other as friends. Dad and I have a very close father-daughter relationship and we love each other very much.”
Whether you are the daughter of a tycoon or come from more humble beginnings, coming out to family remains one of the biggest challenges for LGBT people. “There’s not a lot of in-your-face discrimination in Hong Kong, so that leads to a seen-but-not-heard situation in some families, where everyone knows a family member is LGBT but no one discusses it,” Gigi says.
Angus Wong, founder of gay club night Behind, admits that is what happened to him. “I think it’s a very Chinese mentality, where you know but don’t talk about it,” Angus says. “That’s how it worked with me and my mum. She was very open-minded, we watched Sex and the City together and we discussed gay plotlines, but I never had a definitive conversation about coming out.”
Coming out to family can be particularly hard in Hong Kong, where there’s a lot of pressure to have children and continue the family name. “I know a lot of gay people that are not out and are married because they’ve been forced into this marriage in order to have descendants,” Douglas says.
All of this leaves many in the LGBT community caught in a bind. They don’t face open discrimination at home or in public, so they don’t feel they can complain, especially when LGBT people in other Asian countries are the victims of witch-hunts. Yet many gays and lesbians here are deeply hurt by the pressure they feel to keep their relationships secret.
May Chow & Samantha Wong
“Tolerance is not celebration,” says May Chow, chef-owner of Little Bao and Happy Paradise. As May and her partner, Samantha Wong, are in a relatively privileged position with successful careers, a happy relationship and a strong network of friends, they see it as their job to be extra visible. “We can push it just a little bit more—I tell people I’m gay all the time,” says May.
The fact that May and Samantha are so visibly out and proud seems to have helped earn their families’ support. “My mum went to [LGBT festival] Pink Dot with May’s mum,” says Samantha, founder of the marketing agency On Air Collective.
See also: May Chow on Elevating a Dim Sum Classic
“And now my mum is spreading the word about LGBT rights to all my aunties. In our last conversation, she asked when we’re going to get married and said, ‘When are you going to have a baby? You two should have a baby soon.'"
Legalising gay marriage
Everyone at the table agrees that legalising gay marriage is crucial to furthering LBGT rights in Hong Kong.
“If you don’t recognise gay marriage, for every one of us around the table, when you’re filling in a tax form, you’re always lying,” Gigi says. “Even though I’m married in a same-sex relationship, I always have to tick I’m single on my tax form. And that’s a lie, really. [Resisting gay marriage] is also another way of society putting off recognising the LGBT community in general.”
Marriage also has a huge impact on people’s legal rights, including on subjects such as hospital visitation rights.
“I used to think ‘Okay, we can’t get married and have legal rights, but I can get into a private hospital.’ But as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that true happiness for society is a collective good,” May says, her voice cracking with emotion. “So I might be able to take care of Samantha if she gets sick, but for a person who’s making just enough money and who can’t afford private healthcare for themselves and their partner, that’s really hard.”
Everyone nods when Gigi says there’s a tough road ahead to the legalisation of gay marriage. “In terms of politics and getting it through the legal system, it’ll take a lot of work, but we can take steps towards it,” Gigi says.
Douglas adds that it will only come about if people pressure the government. “I think the Hong Kong government is very reactive, they’re not proactive,” he says. “They respond to what other people do.”
One thing LGBT Hongkongers and their supporters can do is put pressure on businesses. “I’m a member of a number of clubs in Hong Kong and the Football Club is one of the few that recognises same-sex partners,” Douglas says. “If more clubs recognised same-sex couples, say the Hong Kong Club, then it starts putting pressure on the government.”
Gigi adds: “the Golf Club and Hong Kong Club do not recognise same-sex partnerships, so every time Sean and I go, she’s my guest.” Everyone also voices their support for Pink Dot Hong Kong, an annual LGBT festival, and the Gay Games, an international sporting event promoting sexual diversity that will be hosted by Hong Kong in 2022.
But the most important thing, everyone agrees, is being open about sexuality. “I think it’s important that we break free from the shackles of tradition and speak out,” Gigi says.
“The only tool we really have is to communicate with people. When someone who thinks they know no gay people discovers there’s a gay person in their circle of friends, it helps to bring these political and sometimes hurtful issues on to more personal ground. It makes it a matter of friendship rather than something abstract.”
A few minutes later, May and Samantha are recalling how they met. “We went to the same secondary school, but we weren’t together back then,” May reveals. “Then we met again seven years ago.”
“Eight years ago,” Sam retorts. “We’ve been together eight years.”
“See, look! Gay couples, we’re just like everyone else,” May deadpans. Everybody bursts out laughing.
Show your support for LGBT rights by creating your own sign (like the ones seen above) and posting it on Instagram with the hashtag #HKTatlerPride. A selection of photos will be reposted on Hong Kong Tatler throughout the month of June so keep an eye out!