Title: A Gay Old Time
Author: Jason Gagliardi
Press: South China Morning Post
Date: Nov 9, 1997
Suddenly, Hong Kong’s gays are not only out but out there. The underground scene of previous years has discovered a sense of community with a cluster of new bars and an undreamed-of visibility. As JASON GAGLIARDI finds out, these days, gays are having more fun.
GRACE JONES’ bottom is wiggling and jiggling and generally defying gravity as she throatily exhorts the crowd to “pull up to the bumper bay-beeee”. Her coal -fire eyes shoot sparks from their perch above cheekbones sharp enough to shave with, piercing the mist of sweat and dry ice which floats above the whorls and eddies of a human sea. This is Unity, Hong Kong’s handover mega-rave, and 8,000-odd revellers are indeed unified by a combination of heart -fusing bass, chemicals and the wild catharsis of years of pre-handover tension.
Directly in front of Ms Jones and her wiggling bumper are score upon score of half-naked men, their hairless and painstakingly chiselled pectorals shining like Roman breastplates above the kind of stomachs used to flog sit-up machines on television. In an effort to get closer to the stage, one of my female friends attempts to penetrate this close-knit phalanx. “Excuse me, honey,” declaims the proud owner of a torso Michelangelo could have hewn, shouldering her aside none too gently. “This is Boytown!” Boytown. A mobile citadel built on the twin tenets of hedonism and the body beautiful. Entry denied, unless the stamp in your passport pronounces you young, gay and gorgeous.
For gay Hong Kong, Unity proved to be something of an epiphany; a show of strength and solidarity in the midst of everyone from lager louts to curious tourists. An affirmation and an exclamation, with the bonus of a benediction from the high priest of camp, the cross-dressing crooner-turned-DJ Boy George.
Two years ago, not even the most optimistic gay men in Hong Kong envisaged such mass declarations of being out, loud and proud. Six years ago, homosexual acts were still a crime. In 1994, the last in-depth look at the gay scene by the mainstream press concluded that, despite the law having been dragged kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, the homosexual community in Hong Kong “remains largely underground, unfocused and locked in the closet”.
All of a sudden, however, a current of hope is buzzing through the gay scene. A cluster of bars and clubs have opened around Glenealy and Wyndham Street, giving a geographical focus to what had been a disparate and scattered community and raising the prospect of a genuine gay precinct developing. Gay theatre is flourishing and the local film industry is showing the first signs of treating gay issues with sensitivity rather than ignorance and derision. Business people are beginning to realise the untapped economic clout of the so -called “pink dollar”. And with the post-handover realisation that the sky hasn’t fallen in, growing numbers of young Chinese gays and lesbians are summoning the courage to declare their sexuality.
The optimism, however, is guarded. No one is expecting Wyndham Street to turn overnight into Oxford Street, Sydney’s famous gay way. Many of the people interviewed for this story have come out to their friends and family but did not want to be quoted by name for fear of prejudice in the business world. And for every person who comes out, there are doubtless a dozen others trapped in a netherworld of repression, denial and anonymous, furtive sex.
GREG DERHAM, the outre entrepreneur behind House of Siren and Hong Kong’s undisputed queen of drag, says the changes have been obvious. “In the last year or two, all these young Chinese guys have gone from being very closeted to rampantly out there. Suddenly there seems to be a lot more openness,” he says. “You’ve got mainstream filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai making films like Happy Together (which opens with a steamy gay love scene between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung), and things like Queer Story and He’s a Man, She’s a Woman. I think a lot of the young Chinese crowd are really exploring things – fashion, pop culture, theatre – and I think the way people have thrown themselves into being stylish breeds a feeling of freedom, that you don’t have to walk around in a grey suit all day. Of course, it can also border on the pretentious, if all the emphasis is on what label you’re wearing.”
Derham says he worries that the scene is also heading the way of Sydney or South Beach, Miami, where the cult of the gym reigns supreme. “Oh, you know, it’s all about how big your body is, the whole Muscle Mary thing. I think Hong Kong overplays that area.” It is a concern shared by many men I spoke to, a feeling that gay life in Hong Kong is skewed towards hedonism at the expense of activism. A case, perhaps, of scene and not heard.
Lachlan, 36, is a photographer. He’s Western and has had a Chinese boyfriend for two years. He agrees that Hong Kong’s scene has changed a lot in the past year or two. “I think part of it is because there’s an entire generation of young Chinese people who have gone overseas to be educated and have come back to work, and they’ve brought back a more open attitude. It’s only really in the last year that you have seen all these young Chinese guys really working out and strutting around the streets. There are new bars opening, attitudes changing and I think it’s all very positive. I think gay people here are really discovering how to have fun. In fact, I think we have more fun.”
The Hong Kong scene is centred around Glenealy bars Zip and newcomer Flex. Both are upmarket and stylish. Zip has an outdoor waterfall and a virtual catwalk on which to parade; Flex is all purple hues, silver sculptures and funfair-mirrored toilets. The crowd usually moves on later to Propaganda, a nightclub in Wyndham Street, to dance and prowl about its dark and crowded labyrinth. Propaganda is about to open a new, bigger club in Hollywood Road – an art deco extravaganza with a bar, dance floor and restaurant sprawling over some 5,000 square feet – and turn the existing premises into an upmarket restaurant. Propaganda also has plans to open a new bar in the area within six months.
Then there are a host of gay and lesbian karaoke bars scattered around Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, which attract a predominantly Chinese crowd. And then, of course, there are the saunas, whose habitues dispense with chat-up lines and social niceties and get straight down to business. As a last resort, there are a number of parks and toilets, including Central’s infamous “golden triangle” of public toilets.
Lachlan says: “Zip and Flex are great. You go into Zip any Friday or Saturday night and it’s absolutely rocking. Both bars have put a lot of thought and money into the design, it’s all very stylish.” He says “cool” straight people are welcome in gay bars, but it is a thorny issue for proprietors. You don’t want to kick people out for not being gay, but if you get too many straight “tourists”, the gay clientele will pack up and move elsewhere.
“It’s very important for gay people to have bars where they know they can go in and cruise, where you can be pretty sure the person you’re looking at over the other side of the room is gay. Okay, gay men also want to feel safe, that they can go into the bathroom and check out somebody’s penis and not get a punch in the face. There’s a whole art to cruising, and people have to know they are completely safe to go out and do their thing, whatever that may be. If there’s any anger, it’s when the one space they have is invaded and they find they can’t cruise.”
He says Zip, Flex and Propaganda attract a predominance of Westerners who like Chinese men, and vice versa; “rice queens” and “potato queens”, in local gay parlance. Although there are some who are into “sticky rice” (Chinese who prefer Chinese). I forget to ask what the gweilo-seeking-gweilo type is called.
“I think a lot of gay people have moved towards the rave scene as well,” he says. “It’s a safety in numbers thing. It took quite a lot of courage for the gay guys to come out at these big raves, but I think they suddenly realised no one gave a s*** anyway. Maybe you get a few lager louts who go to a rave and get a bit of a shock when half the crowd are gay guys with their shirts off. But I think most people are too busy having a good time to care.
“Generally, gay people feel very safe in Hong Kong. There’s no gay bashing. I mean, you probably wouldn’t go screaming around some parts of Kowloon in a pink feather boa. But a couple of years ago, a friend had a birthday and everybody was in drag, and we walked from Petticoat Lane to Club 97 and the entire street came to a standstill. But no one was yelling out ‘faggots’ or anything like that.”
Dino Mahoney, a gay playwright and English lecturer at the City University, believes gay film and theatre has been an enormous force for change in the local community. “The phenomenon of gay films attracting huge audiences is replicated in the theatre,” he says. “The Hong Kong film festival usually has a fair stack of gay films and they are always the first to get sold out. Similarly, if you put on a play and use a gay image to publicise it or it has a gay theme, you often get a very large audience. Gay theatre is definitely a kind of community theatre. Its importance is not so much its artistic merit but that it’s acting as a forum and a catalyst for the gay community.
“Most of this new theatre is being done by local actors, in Cantonese, which is an amazing affirmation. These actors are coming out on stage, they’re young, and that’s an extremely positive image. A whole new generation of Hong Kongers are going out and seeing guys kissing on stage, hearing stories about relationships in Hong Kong settings.”
FOR gay people in Hong Kong, this is the year 19AD (After Disco Disco). Until the flamboyant Gordon Huthart opened his legendary club amid the rat-infested warehouses and tenements that comprised Lan Kwai Fong in 1978, there was basically nowhere for gay people to go. “Disco Disco? Oh my God, it was amazing,” says Anil, 28, a gay Indian businessman born and raised in Hong Kong. “Disco Disco was the first time there was a glimmer of things opening up, the first sense of community. It was Hong Kong’s Stonewall in a way. A turning point.”
Huthart, who died of cancer last year, was loudly and defiantly gay in an era of persecution and harassment. The youngest son of a prominent local family, he was arrested in 1979, a year after opening the club, and charged with 15 counts of buggery. His prosecution was led by that bastion of law and order, Warwick Reid, and Huthart spent 13 weeks in prison after pleading guilty. He was one of a number of high-profile gays hunted down by the notorious police Special Investigation Unit around that time. Government lawyer Howard Lindsay was acquitted on similar charges, and bisexual policeman John Maclennan shot himself in 1981, hours before he was due to stand trial on gross indecency charges.
After Disco Disco petered out in the mid-1980s, there was little choice of nightlife for the gay community for several years, until the Yin-Yang club opened up in Icehouse Street. It folded after the opening of Propaganda – veterans of the scene say there just wasn’t enough business to support both. Anil, however, says things are different now: with more and more people coming out, he says there is a much bigger pie for bar and club owners to carve up.
“I really do see things getting better,” says Anil. “I see the possibility of things really opening up, a lot more gay bars and restaurants. I really don’t think the gay community here is scared anymore. There used to be a lot of fear and I think a lot of that was due to the laws that were in existence. It was very difficult for people to come out, businesses were not interested in supporting something that was still illegal. But it has changed. There are still a lot of closeted people, but the more that there is to offer in terms of lifestyle, the more people will think about coming out.
“Culturally speaking, it will always be hard for Asian people to come out to their families. You can’t change thousands of years of thinking. Perhaps especially in Asian cultures, there is a lot of emphasis on the son and continuing the family line, and if you have one son and he’s gay, of course that is hard for a family to understand. But I also think some families are starting to snap out of it and realise that maybe their sons or daughters are gay, and to face up to that fact. My parents know I’m gay. My father struggles with it. My mother tells me she loves me for who I am.”
Anil sees the development of a gay precinct as vital to fostering a sense of community. “You need to have a location where people can congregate. I think having an Oxford Street or an Old Compton Street (in London’s Soho) is very much longed for by the gay community. But there is the danger that if the scene becomes too overt too quickly, it will put some people back into the closet because the more visible something is, the more it can bring out prejudice and discrimination.”
Paul, an Englishman and one of the owners of Flex, the newest bar on the scene, is also optimistic. “Things are definitely on the move, opening up. Within Asia, the gay scene is flourishing here more than just about anywhere else, possibly because there is a strong Western element, and the locals seem quite relaxed about it. It seems like now you will see groups of young Chinese gay guys coming out with straight friends and bringing them to gay bars, which you’d never have seen two or three years ago.
“We are the new kids on the block, it’s a bit of a risk to see if there’s enough of a market for all of us. The reason we decided to do it here rather than anywhere else, is when you look at most cities that’s how a gay community evolves, when a number of places open in the same area.”
As the newcomer, Flex is adopting a “we try harder” policy, putting on theme nights, which have included strippers and drag shows, as well as gay film screenings. Paul says it is difficult keeping a balance of clientele. “It can be a Catch-22. You don’t want to turn away business. But the classic example is what happened to the Rome Club in Bangkok. In the 1980s, it was probably the most successful and famous gay disco in Asia, a wonderful place, transvestite shows, very popular, an international circuit, and it became so trendy that all the straight people starting going as well, and eventually the balance kind of tipped and the gays got pissed off and left. And then it died.”
There might be a lesson there for the proprietors of Propaganda. Steve Khouw, one of its owners, says the new improved Propaganda will be marketed as a mixed club. “We want to convey our image as an alternative club, in the sense that we have our own style and image, people come here and can be themselves, whatever they are. But we foresee it being quite mixed in the future.”
He doesn’t think that will alienate the gay clientele, although many in the gay community think differently. Says Lachlan: “With Propaganda, there’s always a feeling that it’s just a business, they don’t care about putting anything back into the gay community.” Khouw, however, who is straight, says a club’s success hinges on the quality of the crowd, not their sexual preference. “Disco Disco was very mixed, and people still talk about that.”
Another company with its eye firmly fixed on the pink dollar is Nichole Garnaut’s 97 Group. Jamie Higgins, the general manager of Post 97 restaurant and part-owner of Petticoat Lane, says all of the group’s establishments have a large gay clientele. “Over the last few years, 97 has directed more events at lesbian and gay people. We wanted to help a local lesbian and gay organisation, but rather than just give them money, we said, well, we’ll let you use Club 97 for free, we’ll give you our staff and expertise, we won’t charge you and the money you make from it can go into your coffers. So we told Horizons (a gay counselling service and support group) to come down and we’d let them use the club once a month for free. So they hold a tea dance, and they get to keep whatever they charge on the door to get in.”
Club 97 also hosts a gay happy hour every Friday night, with half-price drinks and entertainment ranging from go-go dancers to drag queens to magicians. Petticoat Lane has been voted best gay bar by HK Magazine readers for the past two years, which is a source of much mirth in the gay community, given the very mixed crowd Petticoat Lane now draws. There is also resentment in some quarters and the view that there was a conscious decision by the 97 Group to cater to a more mixed crowd.
Higgins, who has had a Chinese boyfriend for five years, insists it was never meant to be purely a gay bar. “Like all of our venues, it is aimed at everyone, as long as they’re free-minded people.”
WHILE THINGS seem to be on the move for gay men in Hong Kong, the lesbian scene remains less visible. Many lesbians say they don’t feel comfortable in gay bars, preferring karaoke clubs or bars that are exclusively lesbian.
Ophelia, 25, a surveyor, moved to Hong Kong from Australia four years ago and counts herself as “not very typical” in the lesbian scene. When I meet her for a drink, she also brings Diana, 34, a Hong Kong-born, London-educated doctor who says she’s bisexual. They are not lovers but hang out together regularly and keep up an exhausting patter of puns, wisecracks and in-jokes.
“A lot of the scene here is very much the butch-femme thing, one partner is very masculine, the other very feminine,” says Diana. “Once they pair up, they don’t tend to go out much, or they just go to karaoke bars and sit and sing and look into each other’s eyes. And a lot of them get very drunk and maudlin.” She also thinks some of the younger lesbians in Hong Kong are simply experimenting with their sexuality because it’s seen as fashionable to be gay.
“I think the gay men have a lot more fun. They are the dancers and drinkers. The women just want to sit in a corner with their friends. We’re a bit different, we go to Zip, we go out with our gay male friends, but sometimes it feels a bit odd, like, you’re one of three people there who don’t have dangly bits between their legs.”
Ophelia says she still has a girlfriend in Brisbane, and says long-term relationships are far more common in lesbian circles than in the gay scene. “And you don’t get a lot of Chinese-Western couples, like you do with the guys,” she says. “There’s also a lot of Filipina lesbians, they call themselves T-Birds, but they tend to keep to themselves. With some of the butch girls on the scene, they’ll strap their tits down and stuff like that.” Diana chimes in: “I think the whole butch-femme scene is ridiculous.”
One thing that does unite lesbians the world over, apparently, is a rampant desire to sleep with Jodie Foster. The square-jawed, blue-eyed actress appears to be the lesbian icon non pareil. I mention her name and Diana goes into a kind of swooning rapture. “Oh my God, multiple orgasm time! Why? She’s strong and intelligent and beautiful.” Others near the top of the lust list include kd lang, comedian Ellen Degeneres and Alien-slayer Sigourney Weaver. “And everybody loves Faye Wong,” Ophelia adds.
AIDS HAS LONG been one of the main rallying points in the gay community, and most of the men I spoke to believe the safe sex message has been communicated well in Hong Kong. Graham Smith, of AIDS Concern, spends much of his time touring the gay saunas and bars, speaking with staff and giving out condoms. The group’s no-holds-barred determination to shock people out of complacency often puts it in the firing line.
Rent-a-rant provisional legislator David Chu Yu-lin recently went ballistic about an AIDS Concern stall at the Sex and AIDS Education Expo at the Science Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui, upset about graphic safe-sex pamphlets and a condom-covered plastic penis extending from a mural of a man. Smith, however, is unrepentant about such tactics. “If you can’t bring the issue out into the open at an expo on sex and AIDS, then when can you do it?”
One thing that concerns him is the risk of complacency creeping back into the gay scene, as some of the new combination drug treatments have helped reduce the viral load in some HIV positive men to almost undetectable levels. “There’s always the risk of people throwing caution to the wind because they think, oh well, a cure’s just around the corner.”
The other worrying factor for gay social workers is the prevalence of recreational drug use. Greg, 33, a Chinese man who works in public relations and has gone out with a Western man for three years, says there is no shortage of people on the scene ingesting generous quantities of ecstasy, cocaine, ice, amyl nitrate (poppers) and ketamine, or “Special K”, a horse tranquillizer which has become the fashionable drug in some gay circles.
“Gay people do like to go out more, dance more, take drugs more,” he says. “Especially lately as the scene develops, and a lot more gay people are into the rave scene and going clubbing. And if you’ve taken something, you have to be more careful about dropping your guard.”
Gay or straight, drug use can dramatically increase the risk of having unsafe sex. As Aldous Huxley wrote of the soma-gobbling society in Brave New World, “roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present rosily blossomed”. So it is in today’s rave new world; neck a pill or snort a line and you might just decide you are indestructible.
Says Lachlan: “I think since the Summer of Love in 1988, in gay scenes around the world more people have been going out and taking drugs and forgetting to be safe. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve just had two (HIV) tests and – thank God – both were negative. One thing people aren’t doing is stopping f***ing. They’re all still out there f***ing away. I hope they’re using condoms. But you can’t live your life like a bloody monk.”
Anil says there is a definite tendency for drugs to make people feel invincible. “You just have to look at things like poppers, people use them to prolong their sexual performance, to arouse their senses even more. Certain drugs have certain effects on different individuals, they can make you do crazy things, make someone more attractive to you. But the important thing is that no matter how irresponsible you may be in the pick-up and whatever you do in the time before you get back to that person’s bedroom, it’s what you do within those four walls that counts. Sure, drugs are a big factor. That fine line between safe and unsafe can become blurry and you can go over that barrier because you want somebody so much you don’t care. I mean, it’s happened to me. It’s happened to everybody. But you just have to try and keep your wits about you and do the right thing.”
IF GAY PEOPLE in Hong Kong have learned to party like there’s no tomorrow, they certainly haven’t shown quite the same enthusiasm for political action or fighting for their cause. There are a number of support groups for gay men and lesbians, but their clout is minimal, their funding meagre and at times they are rent by petty squabbles and bitchiness.
The most established groups are Horizons and the 10 Per Cent Club. One veteran activist is Barry Brandon, who helped found Horizons, and several years ago launched Contacts magazine in a bid to give the community at least one local publication to keep them informed on gay issues. He says he worries that apathy is preventing the gay community from coalescing into a viable political force.
Graham Smith says one significant development was a regional gay conference held last year in an effort to come up with a manifesto defining the gay Asian identity. “But even that was controversial,” he says. “Some (people) felt parts of the manifesto were a bit dubious.”
According to the manifesto: “The les-bi-gay movement in many Western societies is largely built upon the notion of individualism, confrontational politics and the discourse of individual rights. Certain characteristics of confrontational politics, such as through coming out and mass protests and parades, may not be the best way of achieving tongzhi (comrade) liberation in the family-centred, community-oriented Chinese societies.”
To the more militant, this sounds like the gay version of the “Asian values” debate and is a recipe for a community to remain meek, mild and firmly in the closet. Says Smith: “There is a definite tension in the gay community here between those who want to adopt a more militant approach, with political lobbying and action, and those who want to adopt a more passive, conservative view. Also they have appropriated the Chinese word tongzhi, which some say is a euphemism for being gay and others see as part of the attempt to forge a gay Chinese identity.”
Another group launched last year is the Freemen, whose founder, Russell, 40, says he wanted to form a group just for gay men. “All the other groups are gay and lesbian, or just lesbian,” he says. “I joined the 10 Per Cent Club and Horizons but I noticed at functions the men and women didn’t always mix very well. We have 140 members, mostly Chinese, and we have film festivals, hiking, parties, things like that.
“I attended the tongzhi conference but the problem was there were so many different groups involved, everybody spent most of the time squabbling about how things should be worded, whether it should be ‘gay and lesbian’, or ‘lesbian and gay’, so I don’t know if it achieved very much.”
Kary Kwok, the fashion editor of Amoeba magazine, says he worries that, in terms of activism, the gay community may be going backwards. “That side of things is still pretty underground,” he says. “There is more choice of bars and things, but I think we should be much more liberated and celebratory. None of the support groups really seem to be able to catalyse the community. There’s still a lot of homophobia in the Chinese media. I think some of the gay stars in Hong Kong should have the guts to set an example and come out. But they are all too worried about making money and their careers. We need some local Elton Johns and Boy Georges, who will set the example. Young people aren’t going to find the courage to come out if the people they look up to won’t.”
Some names have been changed.
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