To mark LGBT Pride Month, Hong Kong Tatler gath­ered six lead­ing out and proud per­son­al­i­ties for a round-table dis­cus­sion about how far the city has come in recog­nis­ing LGBT rights—and how far we still have to go. Oliver Giles re­ports

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features - Pho­tog­ra­phy NIC AND BEX GAUNT

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 Mi­dlevels home for a round-table 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.”

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 in lit­tle group.”

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.

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-but­not-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.

“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. “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.’”

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 same­sex 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.

LEAD­ING THE WAY From left: May Chow; An­gus Wong; Kayla Wong; Sa­man­tha Wong

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