Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collection, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following shortlist by Chan Sai-Lok looks at queer art in Hong Kong.
There are, of course, Hong Kong artworks about lust or sexuality, but they often manifest from the imagination of the straight male—a recognised and represented perspective in the mainstream. But there’s yet to be systematic discourse when it comes to works from queer perspectives, even though there’s no shortage of artists or collectives interested in issues relating to the gay, bisexual, trans community, or other sexual minorities. In 2017, I took the opportunity to make an inventory for an article I was writing,1 and realised that whilst the data remains scattered, it wasn’t as scarce as I had initially thought. This shortlist is a selection of books and exhibitions from Asia Art Archive’s Collection, through which I hope to flesh out the historical context of queer art in Hong Kong, and to illustrate the circumstantial factors that gave rise to the creation of these works in the last thirty years.
The title of this piece includes broadly defined terms—“Hong Kong” and “queer” art—with “Hong Kong” referring to the city’s artists or exhibitions, which includes born-and-raised Hong Kongers and artists based in Hong Kong, as well as structured and prominent projects and exhibitions held here. “Queer,” or, specifically, “tongchi” in Cantonese, is a colloquial term in Hong Kong; internationally the umbrella term is “LGBTQ,”2 broadly referring to sexual minorities that fall outside the realm of straight relationships, or complex, multifold sexual identities. When “tongchi”3 first appeared in Hong Kong, it generally referred to gay or lesbian communities that have come together to revolutionise sex and gender norms; however today, “tongchi,” like LGBTQ, is a blanket description of sexual minorities. Gender and sexuality are two distinct concepts, closely intertwined and inseparable, so even though the focus of this piece is on Hong Kong queer art, certain works in the selection may lean more heavily on the gender side.
The Birth of a Queer Movement
The political and societal context are crucial for understanding the circumstances that led to the creation of modern and contemporary queer art in Hong Kong. This includes policies adopted towards homosexuality during the colonial era, historical context concerning how Euro-American queer discourse was introduced and received locally, the expansion of local queer spaces, the establishment of queer groups, and how queer consciousness found its way into popular culture. Each area developed at its own pace, fostering a diverse cultural environment, and eventually culminating in an atmosphere that was conducive to the creation of queer art in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has adopted English common law since the early years of its colonial history, and likewise decriminalised sexual acts between men. But even before gay relationships were legally recognised, there were a number of underground entertainment venues or groups at which the gay community hung out in Hong Kong. Disco Disco, for instance, opened its doors in 1978; when its founder handed the operation of the space over to another in 1986, another venue, YY (Yin Yang), emerged to take its place. Hong Kong 10% Club, an important “tongchi” organisation, was established in 1986, and became a frontrunner for the advocacy of gay rights. The influence of Hong Kong’s visual art circle and pop culture also began its gradual ascent in the 1970s. In 1974, May Fung Mei Wa founded the Phoenix Cine Club, which was an important influence on Ellen Pau; Pau would later go on to incorporate topics of gender and sexual orientation into her work. The year 1976 saw the founding of City Magazine, a publication on urban lifestyle that did not shy away from publishing articles that touched on queer issues, including a column by pioneering gay rights advocate Xiaomingxiong.4 In 1982, Danny Yung and others founded the experimental theatre company Zuni Icosahedron, and in 1986 Videotage was established; both institutions would curate works that delved into gender and sexuality. In 1989, the first iteration of the acclaimed Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was held. Queer communities, the pop culture circle, and visual art workers all contributed different modes of creative expression and gave their own interpretations of gender, sexuality, art, and local life—thus building and shaping Hong Kong queer culture, as well as diversifying the local queer discourse.
Then, in 1980, the MacLennan case5 caused an uproar—it concerned rumours that the police force had gotten their hands on a list of homosexuals, and that a crackdown would follow. The events ended on a tragic note, and the case would be heatedly debated for many years thereafter. In the 1990s, the WHO removed homosexuality from International Classification of Diseases, and with the Handover in 1997 around the corner, homosexuality was eventually decriminalised in 1991. There was an explosion of gay organisations, publishers, and venues, as though springing to life and blooming after a cold winter—these groups would go on to serve as the foundation for the development of the local queer discourse. In 1996, the Equal Opportunities Commission was established, with Anna Wu and other individuals actively pushing for legislation against LGBT discrimination; unfortunately, even after over two decades this law has still not been passed.6
Such was the historical background of Hong Kong’s “tongchi” circle and the emergence of gay art in the city. The following selection of materials can all be read within that context:
Gendering Hong Kong, edited by Anita Kit-wa Chan and Wong Wai-ling, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 2004. [REF.CHA16]
Although Hong Kong’s policies towards sexual minorities have not improved with the times, the community’s active and courageous efforts opened up a new chapter for local queer art. Local academics and intellectuals brought in gender theory from Europe and America as well as works tracing the development of the gay rights movement, publishing Chinese translations of these books. Gendering Hong Kong,7 which was published in 2004, is not explicitly about gay topics or queer art, but the book collected the writings and experience of different scholars and social activists, and serves as an important reference for reading on local gender issues. The almost 800-page collection is divided into four sections of essays in Chinese and English, and adopts a feminist perspective in examining Chinese society and its interaction with the patriarchal structure in the colonial era, legal regulations, analyses of family and education, and the lives of women. It also examines gender awareness in mass media, the image of the queer community, circumstances faced by domestic workers and sex workers, and female sexual liberation and autonomy.
Sexuality, edited by Amelia Jones, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2014 [REF.WHC]
Queer, edited by David J. Getsy, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2016 [REF.WHC]
Books that give overviews of queer art history or theory from a Hong Kong context are still lacking, but those that examine queer art in the West, such as Gay Art8 and Art and Queer Culture,9 can be used for reference purposes. Whitechapel Gallery in the UK has published a series of books on different art-related topics: essays, conversations, or discussions between academics, historians, commentators, artists, and so on. Sexuality and Queer have also collected many important essays that illuminated the way for the study of queer art. Queer contains articles by several notable Asian artists, including Ma Liuming, Yan Xing, Wu Tsang, and Danh Vo.
Lily Lau, Tossing and Turning: Classic Lullabies and Other Fantasies, The Association for the Advancement of Feminism, Hong Kong, 2000 [MON.LLL]
Women have long faced oppression in a world of gender inequality; however, the feminist movement has now been around for over a century, and artworks that adopt queer perspectives in their examination of feminist topics have emerged loud and proud. Comic artist Lily Lau takes a look at the concept “tossing and turning” within the boundaries of a meandering, multifaceted discourse in this work, dissecting our latent collective consciousness as well as the circumstances in which one finds themselves in life. The book is not about what happens in the bedroom, per se; nonetheless, a critical attitude towards gender theory still prevails through the whole comic.
Yau Ching, The Impossible Home, Youth Literary Book Store, Hong Kong, 2000 [MON.YAC]
The Impossible Home, a collection by the scholar, poet, video artist, and cultural commentator, is a poetic expression of queer voices and perspectives that combine elements of identity, politics, and commentary. Let’s Love Hong Kong,10 Yau’s 2002 indie video, is a queer, feminist exploration of the cramped, claustrophobic, and oppressive side of Hong Kong, while imagining possibilities for the city’s future. Four women experiment with the spectral yet corporal nature of their attraction, coping with the fluctuations and elusiveness of the city’s space. Youth Literary Book Store, which published both books, is no longer in operation and copies of the book are difficult to find, but the two works are significant and still warrant a mention in the piece.
Calvin Hui, Hong Kong/China Photographers Eight: Julian Lee, edited by Anthony Ko Chi Keung and Steve Fore, AOMM Creative, Hong Kong, 2014 [MON.LEJ5]
City Magazine, with its unconventional, vivacious, and alternative editorial direction, became a pioneering force for films, music, fashion, photography, and gender and sexuality consciousness in the 70s and 80s. The photographer, director, and university professor Julian Lee took on the position of art director of the magazine in 1985, directing photo shoots that produced highly aestheticised portraits. Celebrities from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan underwent an image overhaul under his lens, revealing intoxicating, gender-ambiguous airs and sharp personalities that are now classical freeze-frames. Unfortunately, Lee was diagnosed with a rare cancer and passed away at the age of fifty-six. The Visionaire of Sense: A 30 Year Photo Retrospective of Julian Lee exhibition11 was dedicated to his memory. The photobook Hong Kong/China Photographers Eight: Julian Lee by Calvin Hui—which feature sections such as “Vanity Fair,” “Law of Desire,” “Flesh and Soul,” “My Vanitas,” and “PantoneMine”—is a tribute to his passionate pursuit of “beauty,” and the kaleidoscopic lens with which the queer community views the vibrant world.
A Chorus of Independent Voices
After the Handover, there was no marked improvement in the public’s acceptance of LGBT communities, nor did things worsen. Thanks to the efforts of civil society, LGBT issues found its way into the mainstream, and the situation is gradually improving.
In 2005, Hong Kong held the first rally and march for the anti-discrimination International Day Against Homophobia, which laid the groundwork for large-scale LGBT events, and since 2008, the Hong Kong Pride Parade has been taking place annually. In 2014, Singapore’s Pink Dot came to Hong Kong for the first time, a more flexible affair than the traditional rallies. A prominent occasion in 2012 was when the singer Anthony Wong Yiu Ming came out of the closet, followed by Denise Ho Wan See disclosing she was gay and legislator Ray Chan Chi Chuen revealing his sexuality in an interview after he was elected. As a result, gay rights issues found themselves in the limelight once again. Members of the queer community also lodged a series of judicial reviews: this includes the W case concerning a transgender woman who sought the right to marry with her identified gender, the QT case where a lesbian couple sought dependent visas, and Immigration Department civil servant Angus Leung’s fight for spousal benefits for his husband. These cases contributed to the public understanding of the lives of queer individuals of all occupations and backgrounds.12
yuenjie MARU, Live Art Ten Years Performance, Hong Kong, 2010 [MON.YKL]
Transgender issues are also increasingly gaining momentum, with the trans community joining hands to fight for their rights. The local trans rights movement has been around for about a decade now, although performance artist Yuenjie has long been exploring the topic using his own male body. The introduction to the “Love and Desire” chapter in Live Art Ten Years Performance reads: “Inside I am a lesbian.”13 In 2008, his performance +Y-doB explored the concept of “nude but not naked” and the spectrum of viewpoints relating to sexuality and gender, tearing down societal boundaries with his work.
Another genderqueer artist, Monique Yim, has been drawing on her trans experience in various exhibitions through the years, exploring in a series of performances the restrictions and rules contemporary society have imposed upon the body. Unfortunately, she still does not have any solo publications which I could include in this piece.
Pang Jing and Siuding, SP Book 1: First Time Shibari, and SP Book 2: Watery, Soft D Press, Hong Kong, 2017 [MON.SID6]
Pang Jing and Siuding, SP Book 1: First Time Shibari, and SP Book 2: Watery, Soft D Press, Hong Kong, 2017 [MON.SID6]
The gay and lesbian community were initially considered the avant-garde trailblazers in the LGBT movement, and as they increasingly become “normalised” and lead more settled lives, they begin to face criticism for having forgotten their independent spirit or mobility. In the theory of sex hierarchy, different sexual orientations and gender identities occupy different positions along the spectrum, and receive different levels of acceptance and recognition from society. Artistic creations heavily depend upon one’s independence and autonomy—rather than placing too much significance on whether the work is avant-garde, artists should focus on staying true to themselves. This could sometimes mean taking no notice of the division between the so-called “mainstream” and “alternative”—what is most important is to push ahead with what you want to do and enjoy the process.
Independently initiated publications, therefore, could also be appreciated in this light. SP Book 1: First Time Shibari and SP Book 2: Watery are two of many such independent zines, with exquisite design and ethereal aesthetics that reveal a delicate feminine touch. Each of us possesses a body and we should learn to converse with it, rather than restrict it to the confines of the medical system, the institutions of family and marriage, or within the boundaries of legal systems and social customs. Photographer Simon C deftly captures the beauty and tension displayed by artists Pang Jing and Siu Ding in acts of bondage. BDSM is a mutually consensual adult game that fools around with the limits of desire—and not, as commonly misunderstood, a show of oppression or an act of violence. There is a sense of primal enjoyment in being nude on the beach, a coming together of man and nature and echoing the soft, gentle ripples within the water.
The Efforts of Art Spaces and Galleries
dye-a-di-a-logue with Ellen Pau, edited by Elaine W. Ng, Monographs in Contemporary Art Books, New York, 2004, [MONL.PAE]
What About Home Affairs?, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2018 [MON.PAE]
Hong Kong has always had gay-friendly art groups that believe gender and sexuality are an integral part of contemporary art, and these groups have continued to develop as new gay-friendly spaces appeared. Ellen Pau is a video and multimedia art pioneer in Hong Kong, and one of the founders of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival; she’s also represented Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale. dye-a-di-a-logue with Ellen Pau, the only published collection of her works, highlights how her video art interacts with society, politics, identity, and gender. In 2018, her retrospective at Para Site, What About Home Affairs, showcased her earlier works of video experimentation, alongside reproductions of old works and brand new creations. Song of the Goddess derives its name from Cantonese Opera stars Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin’s film Tragedy of the Poet King, a subtle commentary on the intimate relationship between women. Pledge, a work from 1993 recreated in 2018, transforms a makeup box into a spirit tablet, and features a clip of a woman who repeatedly lifts her head then hits a plank—an allusion to the future of the relationship between China and Hong Kong. Alice Ming Wai Jim describes Pau’s work as “engendering video,” displaying not only urban snapshots of femininity and the image of women, but also incorporating various aspects of gender representation.
Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2014 [EX.HGK.TMR]
Elements of gender and sexuality often seep into Para Site’s exhibitions. Taking as its hinge Hong Kong’s historical and societal background, Ten Million Rooms of Yearning. Sex in Hong Kong looks at family, class values, power imbalances, contemporary subcultures, and the definition of “public space” under capitalism. “The show explores the ways in which desire is experienced and sex is had, hidden, fantasized, altered, and replaced by various factors.” What is also interesting is that works we traditionally view using the framework of Eastern ink paintings also make an appearance in this exhibition, such as the paintings of Luis Chan, Irene Chou, Chu Hing Wah, and Hon Chi Fun.
Para Site is not the only venue for such exhibitions; Singaporean artist Michael Lee’s Cinetectonics of Desire showed in Videotage in 2008, with the artist spelling out his artistic concept with a set of sauna towels. Last year, Videotage also curated a large-scale video project Both Sides Now V: Queer, with not just an exhibition in Taiwan but screenings in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Spain, and France. In 2014, 1a space hosted a solo exhibition of the young artist Wu Siu Man’s Please Keep It in Your Mind, The Memory Before I Die, and last year, the Call for Curator / Artist in Residence 2019 selected a German curation project, Hactivate Yourself, which involves the “hacking” of the body and thus transforming gender into a verb. Although Lumenvisum normally focuses on photography, Tse Ka Man’s Narrow Distances and Nicole Pun Ho Yan’s In and Out’s photographic works depicting lesbian relationships have appeared at the space, and are worth mentioning here. Meanwhile, one of the primary missions of the soon-to-be-opened M+ Museum in West Kowloon is collecting and interpreting “Hong Kong visual culture.” In 2017, the space did a trial run with Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture, an exhibition about gender performance and experimentation from Hong Kong stars such as Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Roman Tam Pak Sin, and their creative teams.
The art space Tomorrow Maybe at Eaton Hotel in Kowloon, which is still relatively new, consecutively held two exhibitions for the Women Festival—Yummy Gummy, and Bad Bodies curated by Nick Yu. Another show by Yu, Holy Mosses, opened at Blindspot Gallery, the same space that held Trevor Yeung’s The Sunset of Last Summer several years ago. Genderqueer artist Jes Fan’s Mother is a Woman turned the pitch black space of Empty Gallery into a human body, allowing audiences to explore the flesh and minds of transgender people. Galleries and art spaces can hardly be placed into the same category, but here some level of overlap in the discussion of individual works is inevitable. Zheng Bo’s recent work Pteridophilia was respectively shown at Taipei Biennial 2018: Post-Nature—A Museum as an Ecosystem, and at Gropius Bau in Berlin for Garden of Earthly Delights.
How a Foundation is Advocating for Queer Art in Asia
Hou Chun Ming, The Asian Father Interview Project: “Fathers of Male Homosexuals in Hong Kong,” edited by Chen Szu Ling, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Konf, 2016 [MONS.HCM]
Local artists are not the only ones to feature LGBT rights in Hong Kong in their work—international artists have also shone a light on these issues while placing the city within the wider context of Asia. The Faculty of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong—one of the oldest and most reputable art schools in the city—invited Hou Chi Ming’s The Asian Father Interview Project for the graduation show in 2016. The Taiwanese artist attempted to examine the relationship between gay people and their fathers under the patriarchal frameworks of Asian society, inviting those in the Hong Kong queer community to discuss their everyday interactions with their father. He also asked interviewees to use objects, animals, plants, and scenery as a metaphor for the image they have of their father. One of his interviewees is Hong Kong gay collector Patrick Sun.
Pan Sheau-Shei, Spectrosynthesis: Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now, Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2017 [EX.TAI.SAL]
In recent years, Patrick Sun has been deliberately fostering a climate and expanding possibilities for the collection and exhibition of queer art in Asia, actively paying visits to artists and collectors who are interested in queer issues, and establishing the Sunpride Foundation, single-handedly attracting talent for the cause and organising two editions of the Spectrosynthesis exhibition. As a Hong Konger, Sun has intended on using public venues in Hong Kong for exhibitions on queer issues in Asia, but so far the opportunity has yet to present itself. The foundation subsequently held exhibitions in Taipei and Bangkok, a bold declaration of queer art to the art world. The first Spectrosynthesis: Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now was held at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Taiwan curator Sean C.S. Hu, and features twenty-two participarting artists. The works have been strictly selected from the foundation’s collection, and others were either commissioned or on rental. Notably, the exhibition is a rare showcase of the works of the artists Shiy De-Jinn and Ku Fu-Sheng—both of whom occupy important positions in the history of queer art in Taiwan, thus conferring another layer of significance. The exhibition also coincided with Taiwan becoming the first country in Asia to recognise gay marriage,14 reflecting and echoing societal changes.
Spectrosynthesis II - Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Thailand, 2019 [EX.THA.SET]
The second iteration of the exhibition was held at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, curated by Chatvichai Promadhattavedi—a larger-than-life figure in the Thai culture scene. The number of participating artists increased to fifty-eight, with the scale matching that of a small biannual. Spectrosynthesis II - Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia is divided into eight sections, including five theses that offer readers a glimpse of the unique history of queer art in Southeast Asia. These regions have had a long history of colonialism, which shaped the distinct atmosphere and gender systems. The landmark exhibition is a partial blueprint of queer art in Asia, and, remarkably, featured artists from conservative countries. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are Islamic countries that adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards homosexuality, and even impose heavy penalties; India,15 Sri Lanka, and Myanmar also lean towards the conservative side, with the gay community facing discrimination and oppression every day, not only in the areas of education, workplace, and family, but also in the pursuit of a partner.
Only a handful of Hong Kong artists participated in the exhibition—Tseng Kwong Chi, Christopher Cheung, Ho Tam, Jes Fan, and Samson Young—but the show places Hong Kong queer art within the greater context of Asia. On the one hand, this turned the gaze outwards and allowed for cultural comparison with the rest of Asia, an opportunity for us to see our city more clearly; on the other, the two iterations of exhibitions were also hugely successful, with significant global art outlets reporting on the events. This effectively cast a spotlight onto the situation of gay rights in Hong Kong and Asia, inadvertently sending a message to the Hong Kong government and society that it is time to act to protect the local queer community from discrimination.
Queer art essentially synthesises social issues with art, meaning that curators and artists inevitably assume the role of social activists; whatever one ends up conjuring would depend on their creativity and courage. Queer art is ultimately an aesthetic and charismatic display of gender and sexual consciousness, as well as a platform for fighting for rights and changing perceptions. The field of Hong Kong queer art studies is still in need of more in-depth research and systematic reorganisation, but it is my humble wish this shortlist would be a starting point—one that would take you one step closer to the queer community and Hong Kong art.
Chan Sai-Lok is a Hong Kong artist and writer. He juggles between artistic and literary creation, education, criticism, and gender research. His recent solo exhibitions include Everyday Practice, Land of Longing and Exile, and Somewhere. He has published an exhibition catalogue titled The Countenance of Text. He is currently a freelance art worker, a part-time university lecturer, and a founding member of the Art Appraisal Club.
Translated from the original Chinese text by AAA Associate Editor Karen Cheung.
2. L stands for Lesbian, G for Gay, and B for Bisexual. T was Transsexual in the early days, referring to the sex-change operation, but in recent years this has changed to refer to Transgender, which includes transsexual, cross-dress, drag, intersexed, non-binary. Q stands for Queer, a term that emerged in response to the notion that gay and lesbian has the connotation of a fixed sexual orientation, thus stressing the fluidity and malleability of sexuality and gender.
3. “Tongchi” is the colloquial translation for “gay” in Hong Kong; for more please see Mai Ke, Single-minded, Double Entendre, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2003. The term gained popular usage in the 80s, and now generally refers to gay, homosexual, or LGBTQ.
4. Xiaomingxiong is also author of History of Homosexuality in China. Hong Kong: Rosa Winkel Press, 1984.
5. Nigel Collett, A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 2018.
6. The historical background in this section summarises resources found in different sources, including the website of Pink Alliance: https://pinkalliance.hk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/HONG-KONG-LGBT-HISTORY.pdf.
7. Xiaomingxiong is the earliest pioneer in this area; others such as Chou Wah Shan, Andy Chiu Man Chung, and Anson Mak Hoi Shan also subsequently began actively publishing.
8. James Smalls, Gay Art. New York: Parkstone International, 2008.
9. Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer, Art & Queer Culture. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.
10. Yau Ching, Let's Love Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Youth Literary Book Store, 2002.
11. Visionaire of Sense: A 30 Year Photo Retrospective of Julian Lee, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, 2014.
12. Further research would be required to look at how there is now less interaction between the political and societal side of LGBT activism and the art scene, compared to the 80s and 90s.
13. yuenjie MARU, Live Art Ten Years Performance. Jamie Wu, Hong Kong, 2010, 117.
14. Taiwan passed a bill to legalise gay marriage in 2019.
15. Even though India abolished Section 377 in 2018, a law from the colonial era that criminalised “sexual activities ‘against the order of nature,’” the prevalent attitude towards the gay community is still one of prejudice, and there remains a serious problem of discrimination.