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Fall 2004 | Hong Kong

Fall 2004 | Hong Kong

A queer world opens up in the New York of Asia

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 excitement.

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 rights movement.

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 would include.

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 a sight.

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 awfully fitting.

Friess writes for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and USA Today.

China's Gay Cultural Revolution

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.

ESSENTIALS

(Dial 011-852 before all phone numbers)

Accommodations

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 the city.

Restaurants

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.

Nightlife

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.

Getting There

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 update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.

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