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The financial powerhouse of Hong Kong is home to a newly emergent, newly confident gay community who have become even more politically and socially active since Britain handed over control to China almost 20 years ago, back in July 1997.
Silhouetted against the glittering night cityscape, a young Asian man with thick black hair waits restlessly on the waterfront pier for the Star Ferry. When it arrives, and with scarcely a look at anyone else, he jostles among hundreds of other passengers to board the famous green-and-white boat. He seems deliberately to keep his head bowed as if to protect his face from being seen. Occasionally however, he canít help stealing a sharp glance around the ferry as we roll across the sparkling dark water of Hong Kong harbour. He catches my eye and looks away but looks back to check my gaze. Itís the kind of visual catch that informs us both of a common link.
Still going strong after celebrating 100 years of service in 1998, the Star Ferry crosses the harbour at regular intervals. Day or night, the short trip can be an adventure in itself, offering a unique perspective of Hong Kongís spectacular cityscape. Photograph by Mairi Semple. Courtesy Hong Kong Tourism Board.
By the time we arrive in mainland Kowloon, we have exchanged a few cursory words. His name is Ken and he works in a bank. Since my opportunity is brief, I bluntly ask him about being gay in Hong Kong. This evokes a stifled frustration: "Here is not a good place for gay - no freedom to do what you want. People too busy coming and going, I think. Also no place to be alone. Very bad for me because I am gay person." I am surprised by his undisguised honesty and touched by his lament.

Reaching the other side of the harbour he does not bolt away as I thought he might. Hong Kong Chinese do not talk openly about private matters, especially to strangers. Instead we walk for a short while along the bustling water front with its futuristic Cultural Center sweeping up behind us.

It becomes evident that his plaint emerges from his attraction to western men who, too quickly, arrive in HK, make passionate promises and leave for home and work abroad. "Boyfriend too hard to find here. Western men come to visit and only want sex, then go away. Promise to write, then nothing," he protests with a cynical glance toward me.

To add to his frustration, Ken describes how he inhabits a small apartment with other family members, as most unmarried young people in HK must because of steep rents and Chinese customs. He has no private place to share with a date or potential mate. (Although western visitors can often provide a hotel room, it is only temporary and some hotels do not allow guests.) Such circumstances are hardly conducive to romantic harmony or extended relationships.

After numerous futile attempts at such liaisons, Ken is balefully disheartened. "Now I donít look. I donít know what will be my future," he concludes. After a while, as if tired of his own story, he bids me farewell and I watch him walk alone into the night, back to his small shared home with his secret longing.

Ken is not alone in wondering about the horizon of life in this Asian megopolis of six million souls even now, almost 20 years after the handover. No other topic except money presses more urgently on residents here than the fate of Hong Kong now the Territory is back under the control of communist China. Although they have an agreement with the British, who controlled the city-state for 150 years, assuring continuity in the existing governing structures and policies, few citizens even now feel secure, especially the wealthy and especially the homosexual community.

A fortunate (moneyed) minority of individuals as well as many foreign corporations made paranoid plans by sending family members and assets abroad to safe shores such as Canada or Australia. Most people, however, did not have access to second passports and tended to be indifferently fatalistic. The morning after I spoke to Ken, a shop merchant told me with a shrug of the shoulder: "What can we do? This is our only home. We were Chinese before and Chinese now. I think it will be okay."

GAY LIFE

Homosexuality is legal in Hong Kong and public opinion shows increased awareness about and acceptance for LGBT people. The Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (Cap. 383) protects individuals against sexual orientation discrimination from the Government and public authorities of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. However, there is no legal recognition of same-sex couples.
We spent some days enjoying the delights of mainland Kowloon before our trip back across the harbour on Hong Kong Island. We were met there by trendy young gay Hong Kongers who'd escaped from futuristic worries by playing out a very different drama than Kenís lonely walk. Dancing to the beat of western and Canto-pop music mostly younger men and a few women filled a Moroccan-styled disco-bar on Lan Kwai Fong Street for a bit of a regular ritual for them the Sunday Tea Dance.
Hong Kong probably has the highest concentration of neon in the world. The electric display on the bustling streets of Kowloon by night epitomizes this bustling, non-stop image. Courtesy Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Spilling out onto the narrow street and into the chic cafe la Dolce Vita next door, spirited Hong Hong natives and western patrons appeared in designer jeans and dress shirts. Not a few were sporting wire-rim glasses. If there is a 'gay ghetto' in HK, what little it is, this is it.

Add to these core venues another half dozen less smart bars (most with egregiously off-key karoake) scattered around Central, WanChai and Kowloon, as well as a dozen furtive saunas and Hong Kongís tangible gay nightlife is pretty well summed up. It is a modest offering for a powerful world-class city, but it also a new offering, and of course itís chic.

Populating these trendy (and some tawdry) places, are the first generation of Hong Kong's LBGT community - gay, lesbian and bi folks who are cautiously emerging out of their century-old Sino-British closet. Since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991 (partly in anticipation of 1997), the gay community has slowly and steadily become more visible.

The Future

 

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