My boyfriend Daniel and I live in one of Hong Kong’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, where French cafés and craft-beer bars are squeezed between dim-sum restaurants and herbal medicine shops. There’s no better place in the city to be an openly gay couple.
Still, holding hands makes us uncomfortable. The doorman of our building, the local fruit vendor, the old lady on the bus: so many people here have only just begun to acknowledge the idea of homosexuality, let alone got used to seeing it in front of their noses. Particularly for a pair like us – a white foreigner and a local Chinese – a whiff of cultural colonialism, however unwarranted, is ever-present; many believe homosexuality is a Western import. Being gay in Hong Kong means straddling two worlds, one similar to lower Manhattan or central London – urbane, cosmopolitan, welcoming of the whole messy gamut of humanity – and the other a mirror image of the more traditional Chinese cities across the border, where gay issues are rarely talked about and almost never fought for.
This divide came into stark relief recently, when the city learned it had been selected to host the 2022 Gay Games, a sort of Olympics for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The games’ organisers, mostly expatriates and English-speaking locals, have tried to make the prospect of thousands of foreign queers descending on Hong Kong as palatable as possible to a city that is not ready for them. They’ve selected for the games’ Chinese name a phrase that literally translates as “together happiness sports meeting” (a less awkward version might be “fraternal games”), purposefully omitting the Chinese word for “gay”. They emphasise that the games are meant to welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities: “unity in diversity”, according to their canny slogan.
Still, the city is hardly rolling out the rainbow-hued carpet. Following the announcement on October 30th that the city had been awarded the Gay Games, Hong Kong’s government reacted frostily. There is an anti-games movement led by Roger Wong, who embodies Hong Kong’s split personality on LGBT rights: his son Joshua is the bespectacled leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement and founder of a political party which supports same-sex unions. “The government should not be endorsing a controversial event like this,” the elder Wong said when I spoke to him after the victory announcement. When I asked if government support for religious activities also qualifies as controversial, he argued that a) religion in general is good for society and b) the Hong Kong government is “rather neutral about religion” (a claim which is difficult to justify given that it is willing to fund up to 90% of religious schools’ budgets, according to the US State Department). For him, the games are simply a Trojan Horse for a feather-boa-draped parade chock-a-block with dudes holding hands.
On this last point, he is probably right: the Gay Games are undeniably “gay”. But they are potentially far more than that: if they reach the right people, they will cut across identities in ways that few events in this part of the world can. Their parent organisation is an LGBT sporting club that runs explorations of fishing villages on remote islands far removed from the glittering skyscrapers of downtown, exposing an otherwise cloistered milieu to parts of the city it would never see on its own. Pink Dot, an annual LGBT-themed festival closely linked to the games, is similarly eclectic, drawing European bankers, Chinese college students and Filipino domestic workers to sun-drenched picnic grounds to hear Cantonese pop stars sing David Bowie and drag queens read picture books to children.
Yet despite these groups’ efforts to reach locals, most of the city’s LGBT people never get involved. Hong Kong is still very much steeped in a culture that values family, stability and passing on the bloodline. Relatively few people come out. It’s true that, given the rapid pace of progress in LGBT rights elsewhere, five years seems like an eternity. I’m confident that Hong Kong, and Asia as a whole, will move towards greater LGBT acceptance eventually. Still, the organisers have a difficult task ahead of them: convincing a sceptical city – gay, straight and otherwise – that the games are just as much a part of its fabric as Victoria Harbour and char siu. When Daniel, for one, heard the news about the games, he responded with an apathetic shrug. “So what?” he said. “They don’t really represent my people.”