Two lithe young Chinese men in nothing but white spandex
shorts and a generous coating of body glitter burst out of nowhere carrying
huge rainbow flags. They race around revelers, twirling the flags in that defiant,
revolutionary Les Mis?rables manner before mounting matching pedestals
on either ends of the dance floor in a fit of pretty-boy triumph.
At the Sanctuary party, the revolutionary analogy is more
than apt. It's precisely what resident queers--not to mention more than a few
Hong Kong Tourism Board officials--hope will take the city's transitioning and
burgeoning gay scene to a new level. The party, held in the pit of a concrete
amphitheater at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, was indicative of
both what this community is about and what potential it has. About 500 revelers
bought tickets on word of mouth and a little Internet advertising alone; hundreds
more were turned away, and the out-of-town crowd was barely approached. Promoters
feared being shut down by police for overcrowding as they had been months earlier
at another location, so they kept it smallish. Still, the place exploded with
Party organizer Patrick Sun envisions greater things yet
for these kinds of events, which occur intermittently for now but which he hopes
to build into a predictable cycle that would turn Hong Kong into a worldwide
gay mecca. First, though, he needs to show local authorities he can keep things
orderly and illustrate the boundless tourism potential for queen-size queer
bashes. Sun explains, "Eventually we want this to be like Sydney Mardi Gras."
That's ambitious for a city that doesn't even host a gay
pride parade. But Hong Kong is nonetheless one of a microscopic handful of Asian
cities with a bona fide and textured gay scene for the foreign traveler. (Only
Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand and reputed up-and-comer Singapore come close.)
In Hong Kong, queer activists view attracting the mighty gay dollar as a primary
means of persuading straight Hong Kong to be tolerant and legally progressive.
"It is true that if we had a gay pride parade, only
a few people would show up and it would be an embarrassment," says leading Hong
Kong activist Chung To, a Chinese-American who quit a lucrative career as a
Wall Street investment banker to fight for queer and AIDS causes across China.
"But if we throw parties, they will come. It is the best way we have to bring
people together." Thus, to visit Hong Kong's gay world is to support a civil
The last time I was in Hong Kong, it was dying--literally.
Just a year ago that nasty little bug known as SARS was infecting scores and
killing dozens every day. The panic reduced a buzzing metropolis to an isolating
ghost town where paranoid masses donned surgical masks with Michael Jackson-like
fervor. Even the finest Hong Kong hotels, typically full every spring, were
reporting gasp-worthy occupancy rates below 10% from April to June 2003. Economic
ruin was nigh.
And yet, for all the destruction and havoc SARS wreaked,
it is also largely why I found myself this overcast Wednesday afternoon in late
April on a test run of the city's first officially sanctioned gay-themed tours.
That is, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, frantic in the post-SARS era to seek out
new markets to jump-start its devastated economy, finally embraced the idea
of selling the city on its queer merits. It had come close in 2002 when a board
committee bestowed a creativity honor on Chung To for his entry in a contest
where he sketched out a few gay city tours as potential new products. But after
Chung's victory the board let the proposal collect dust until desperation struck;
then late last year it licensed a start-up firm called Tongzhi Holidays, owned
by a 21-year-old Chung prot?g?, to actualize Chung's vision. (Tongzhi literally
translates as "comrade," but the word has become colloquially synonymous with
"gay" or "lesbian.") Folks who take the tours receive a rainbow-colored Tongzhi
card that makes them eligible for discounts at more than 20 restaurants, shops,
bars, and saunas. They are currently working on developing four different tours
of hidden gay Hong Kong, and they wanted to give me a taste of what these tours
I was a little dubious about this tour from the outset. From
my years of reporting on China and Hong Kong, I expected to be shown the usual
tourist sites--the tram ride to exquisite Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry passage
across Victoria Harbor, a walk around the Western bar area known as Lan Kwai
Fong, a visit to a Taoist temple--that are all well-covered by Lonely Planet.
But the tour quickly proved quite interesting.
Tongzhi owner Sammy Li and his guide (who is closeted and
asked that his name not be used) ran me through some of China's fascinating
queer history as we walked through the city. The vast Middle Kingdom's past
in general dates back millennia, the guide explained as we made our way to the
nondescript Queen's Pier, where colonial British dignitaries used to arrive.
A popular euphemism for same-sex love that is still used today in China is "breaking
the sleeves," which comes from the 2,200-year-old tale of the Han Dynasty emperor
who woke to find his lover, Dong Xian, sleeping on top of his sleeve. Rather
than wake him, the emperor thoughtfully cut his own sleeve so he could get up.
Chinese literature is dotted with great homosexual love stories and poetry,
and Chinese society was so indifferent to same-sex relations that a dismayed
Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, complained about it during a 1583 visit. Still,
Confucian and Buddhist teachings do oppose gay sex, and the British brought
modern Western homophobia along with them to Hong Kong in the 19th century.
It took until the last decade for that damage to be undone,
our guide explained as we visited the Legislative Council building, formerly
the Old Supreme Court building and one of the few neoclassical buildings built
by the British to survive the neighborhood's modern skyscraper era. On that
site in 1991 the council repealed its ban on gay sex, making Hong Kong one of
the few Asian jurisdictions--and the only part of China--to offer explicit legal
affirmation. (Lesbianism was then and remains today unmentioned in Hong Kong
law.) That came 11 years after Inspector John MacLennan of the Royal Hong Kong
Police was found dead, officially by suicide, as the colonial police descended
on his home to arrest him for alleged gay sex acts. MacLennan suffered five
gunshot wounds, making the suicide theory dubious, and when news of the case
broke in the media it spawned the legalization movement.
We took a van to the gay Middle Beach, a 10-minute walk south
of the far nicer Repulse Bay. This cruisy beach, clearly marked from the main
road that parallels the shoreline up from Repulse Bay, seemed nice, if rocky
and small; although it was nearly empty on this day, a Wednesday, there was
nonetheless a gay Chinese couple frolicking about 30 feet out in the water.
This is one of only a handful of beaches in all of Asia where you'd find such
Sammy has done a remarkable job of persuading local merchants
to cater to queer tourists. The tale of the outstanding Rainbow Seafood Restaurant
on scenic Lamma Island, southwest of Hong Kong Island, is particularly instructive.
Manager Chan Wai Ming admits he knew no out gays or lesbians before Sammy informed
him that the rainbow is a queer symbol in the West. Now Chan offers a 10% discount
for those carrying the Tongzhi discount card, and the boats he offers to transport
customers for free from the Central District ferry terminal are bathed in rainbows
on the outside--and with a lavender interior.
That was Hong Kong by day. While the Tongzhi folks are willing
to show you around by night, I preferred to explore on my own--or rather with
the handsome New Zealander named Brad whom I met during the four-hour gay happy
hour at the otherwise straight Club 97 at Lan Kwai Fong's epicenter, where Hong
Kong's large Western population of expatriates and British colonial leftovers
tend to flock.
Brad and I tried a bit of everything. We crossed over to
the Kowloon side to check out some of the Chinese-dominated bars there and found
the sort of cold, confused reception of foreigners that you might find if you
stumbled into a Wild West saloon in a tux. (You may find some women at the gay
bars, but lesbian life is hidden even deeper than gay male life.) For the purposes
of research (of course), Brad and I plunged into the city's thriving sauna scene
to observe. Small, discreet saunas where locals can remain anonymous outnumber
the city's gay bars three to one.
Our most important discovery: Select very, very carefully.
At the Kowloon-side Rainbow Sauna, we realized some aren't for non-Asians. The
Chinese there were so repulsed by hairy white bodies that many actually charged
out of the room when we entered. We felt better with the more equitable balance
of Westerners and the Asians who love them at the other two saunas we entered,
C.E. in Central and Chaps in North Point. Any sex in the saunas was discreetly
kept to the back rooms, thanks to Asian modesty. The saunas served more as a
chatty, karaoke-fueled gay social setting anyway. We stayed amused watching
a handsome Chinese man strip from his business suit down to a towel and then
take the mike in a karaoke lounge to let loose with a surprisingly good rendition
of "Strangers in the Night." Sinatra might not have been proud, but it did seem
Friess writes for Newsweek, The Boston Globe,
and USA Today.
China's Gay Cultural Revolution By Olivia Edward
Being gay is not a crime in China, but less than a
decade ago gay people were still being arrested as "hooligans," and it wasn't
until 2001 that homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness "People are
busier making money now," says the owner of Shanghai's Vogue gay bar, Tony Li,
39. "They don't have time to bother other people, and they are getting more
and more information from outside, so they are becoming increasingly tolerant,"
he adds, referring to the rise in foreign visitors to China and the appearance
of over 250 gay-related Chinese Web sites--the latter a major force in the way
closeted gays meet each other. Some estimate that there are dozens of gay bars
sprouting up around China as well. And metropolitan China's gay sauna scene
is growing too.
But Eddy Zheng, 39, who set up Eddy's, one of the country's
first gay bars, in 1995, says, "There are all these different excuses that authorities
can use to close places down." But he says harassment has eased off in the past
few years, and a scene is beginning to establish itself. It's a trend being
felt in Beijing and especially Shanghai, and to a lesser degree in Guangzhou,
Shenzhen, and Nanjing. But for foreign tourists, locating any gay establishment
without a gay local is difficult.
But Confucian ideals and an agrarian tradition mean marriage
is still perceived to be the only path to true manhood. Until marriage, most
children continue to live with their parents and grandparents. And female deviation
from familial expectations are met with even greater disapproval. Lesbian bars
are consequently very rare, and many gay Chinese women become "good Chinese
girls": married with kids.
But change is in the air: Shanghai's Fudan University started
the country's first course on homosexuality last September, and petitions have
been placed before the National People's Congress in 1999 and 2003 asking for
gay rights and same-sex marriage. With China's increased involvement in the
outside world, future social revolutions are only bound to occur.
(Dial 011-852 before all phone numbers)
Moderate: The ultrastylish hotel Jia
(3196-9000; $130-$270) opened in March. Famed French designer Philippe Starck
gutted a residential building in Causeway Bay and created apartment-style rooms
with kitchens, hardwood floors, and plasma TV screens. Expensive:The
Peninsula Hotel (2920-2888; $300-$1,200) is among the top hotels
in the world for a reason: unparalleled elegance. The pool alone is sumptuous,
and it's the only hotel in the city that can provide helicopter rides to the
airport. Don't forget to indulge in high tea in the Peninsula's ornate lobby.
Its worthy rival, the classic Mandarin
Oriental (2522-0111; $230-$360) is where presidents and prime ministers
stay. The place was designed by the guy who made the sets for The Bridge on
the River Kwai, among others. Closer to the Lan Kwai Fong bar district is the
Conrad Hong Kong (2521-3838; $200-$650), a lovely looming presence with 61 floors
that stands atop Pacific Place, one of the most upscale shopping centers in
Inexpensive: In the heart of Lan Kwai Fong
is an adorable and trendy--not to mention gay-popular--caf? and sandwich shop
called Kosmo (2-18 D'Aguilar St., Central; 2868-2002; $5-$15)
with a balcony for watching the hubbub. Up the street is Tsui Wah Restaurant
(15-D Wellington St.; 2525-6338; $5-$15), a noisy traditional Chinese diner
open until 4 a.m. that is full of gays after 11 p.m. Moderate: For a great Cantonese seafood
dinner, try Rainbow Seafood
Restaurant on Lamma Island (call 2982-8100 to arrange for the free
ferry from Queen's Pier; $20-$50). The elephant-tongue clam is particularly,
um, gay-friendly. Expensive:Hutong (28th
floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 3428-8342; $25-$60) is an exquisite
Beijing-style restaurant with a sensational view of the harbor and the skyline.
The classic gay hangout is Propaganda (Hollywood
Road, Central; 2868-1316), a spacious, upbeat dance club that rocks after 11
p.m. on weekends. Its old haunts are now occupied by Works
(30-32 Wyndham St., Central; 2868-6102), filled with less opulence and less
attitude. Rice (33 Jervois St., Sheung Wan; 2851-4800) draws
Westernized Asians and the men who love them. Ultramodern Curve
(2 Arbuthnot Rd., Central; 2523-0998) is both beautiful and trendy.
For gay tours of Hong Kong, contact Tongzhi Holidays (3184-0009).
The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com if you have any new information.