Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Homo undercurrents in Hong Kong culture

They don't look like Western gay images but they do exist, says author

DON?T WRITE OFF OTHER CULTURES AS INTOLERANT. ?It might be that the language you use or the categories you use are not familiar to them,? says Undercurrents author Helen Hok-Sze Leung. ?It doesn?t mean there?s no queerness in their own culture.? Credit: Courtesy of Helen Hok-Sze Leung

Helen Hok-Sze Leung set out to examine Hong Kong’s gay and lesbian cinema, only to find that what she was looking for didn’t exist.

“I discovered that I couldn’t find the kind of expected images that I was used to,” she admits. Undeterred, Leung soon came to recognize what she calls “queer undercurrents” running through Hong Kong’s film, new media, and cultural traditions. 

The resulting book, Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong, is an engaging and thoroughly queer academic project.

Leung values the self-determination of underground media projects, the potential for new understanding in what others have cast as failures to represent gay identities, and unlike some of her peers, refuses to disappear into unquestioned objectivity.

As a Canadian researcher with personal ties to Hong Kong, the young Simon Fraser University professor negotiates the intercultural terrain of her analysis well for her readers, bringing new light to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage while simultaneously dismantling the dominant “global gay” narrative.

“I enjoy films that provoke a conversation, rather than just make you feel good,” Leung explains, remarking that Western gay film festival audiences are often critical of their on-screen representations.

She undertakes a reexamining of numerous films, like the Triad gangster film Portland Street Blues, which abound with queer ways of reading relationships between people.

“What I realized is that in addition to recognizable trans identities, if we take transgender also as a term of relationality, then it actually reveals a lot more about the queer relations that we see,” says Leung.

“In a lot of the narratives that end up being recognized as same-sex desire, we actually see transgender identifications within those relations, kind of like butch/femme relations.”

Using this as a foundation, Leung also explores how some “failures” of films to represent lesbian or gay identities actually complicate the heterosexual paradigm by allowing for homoeroticism between butch women and macho men, or between feminized men and femme women.

“Transgender as a way of understanding cross-gender embodiment actually helped me look at those practices without automatically assuming they are just heteronormative, without just assuming that they’re playing male and female roles,” she says, “but to recognize that no, maybe that’s one way of enacting queer desire.”

At the core of Undercurrents is Leung’s hypothesis that Hong Kong’s tongzhi (colloquial term for queer) culture is paradigmatic of the city’s postcolonial identity.

“I saw so much of Hong Kong cinema as really about urban space,” she explains, “so I realized there was something, this whole group of films about queer relations or kind of secret sexual cultures that had a lot to do with neighbourhood and cities.”

The city itself, in its various modes of expression and uneasy autonomy, embodies this queer space.

Just as Western movements of gay Pride or gay liberation find few parallels in Hong Kong, Leung explores how historical traditions such as Chinese opera include numerous tales of crossdressing or butch/femme-style relationships that in some ways supercede North American concepts of lesbian or gay culture.

Likewise, Hong Kong belies Westernism, while refusing to be absorbed into a harmonious Chinese nationalism.

Reconceptualizing “queerness” as a modulation of, or interconnection between, seemingly unaligned discourses, Leung’s analysis opens the door to other kinds of knowledge and understanding. Looking back at her own life, she notes, “I didn’t learn about lesbian culture in university [like] I thought I did — no, my grandmother told me all these stories, in whispers and in modes of gossip.

“I realize those kinds of knowledge, I maybe call it queer knowledge, have always existed in everyday life,” says Leung. “And maybe they’re not systematized, maybe you’re not even aware that you’ve heard that, but they’ve always been there.”

Not wanting to claim an encyclopedic analysis of Hong Kong’s queer culture, instead Leung allows a chapter devoted to do it yourself-style cultural products to conclude her book.

When it comes to tongzhi activism, “there’s something very ephemeral about it,” Leung explains, “which then sometimes gave the impression that there was nothing going on because things were not recorded, or were small-scale and local, and they kind of went on unnoticed.”

Allowing these radio shows, online resources, and short-run anthologies to speak for themselves within the text, she calls for better documentation and more recognition of this “important and integral part of Hong Kong culture.”

“If we just look, or if we know how to look,” Leung says, we find “it’s always in the fabric of everyday life, that it’s not just in the subculture it’s not just in political movements.”

She thinks that taking on the implications of queer as a theory, rather than a static umbrella identity, may help Western gays and members of Asian diasporas connect.

“In my own experience, even with a lot of the elderly Asians, if you ask them, ‘Do you accept homosexuality?’ they might just say a flat ‘No,’” reflects Leung. “But then if you show them some of this stuff, and say, ‘Oh, what do you think of that crossdressing opera performer and that nebulous relationship with this other woman?’ they will often say, ‘Oh I grew up with that, they look good together.’”

Calling this stance a kind of “private openness,” Leung hopes new enactments and understandings of queerness will bridge gaps between Western gays and their neighbours.

She says the stereotyping of immigrant families as having anti-gay or strictly heteronormative family values, as furthered in part by the Conservative party, is particularly irksome.

“Just because someone’s saying in the abstract ‘I’m intolerant’ of this or that, it doesn’t mean there aren’t things in their everyday culture, or in their traditional culture, where they’re much more open,” she reminds. “I think that’s where those are the areas that work can be done, and I see using films, or things like that, is really important so that you don’t just write off whole communities and say they’re intolerant.

“It might be that the language you use or the categories you use are not familiar to them. It doesn’t mean there’s no queerness in their own culture.”