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Hong Kong lesbian lives shaped by money and space

New book by UBC grad looks at 'Hong Kong Lesbian Desires and Everyday Life'

Space constraints define many aspects of life in Hong Kong, where seven million people are crammed between the mountains and the ocean on the tiny island and narrow strip of land that make up the city-state. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Like many teenaged lesbians, Ku Tsai wanted to snatch a covert night with her girlfriend. For a Hong Kong girl, that meant sneaking her girlfriend into the 120-square-foot living space she shared with her family of five.

While her family slept, Ku Tsai let her girlfriend into the apartment. Together they crept through the single room, the size of three king-sized beds, clambered over Ku Tsai’s sleeping grandmother and spent the night together until dawn, when her girlfriend made her escape.

Space, writes Denise Tse-Shang Tang in her new book, Conditional Spaces: Hong Kong Lesbian Desires and Everyday Life, shapes everything in Hong Kong, especially the lives of lesbians who hide their sexuality from the public eye.

Tang, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, spoke about her book at the University of British Columbia on Nov 20. She grew up in Hong Kong, studied at UBC, and returned to her home city to study the lives of lesbians like Ku Tsai.

To learn about them, Tang says, “I felt like I had to be in those spaces.”

Ku Tsai grew up in a working-class family, in one of Hong Kong’s vast, featureless public tenement buildings. She acted so much like a boy that her family had her sleep on the floor, under the bunk beds for her grandmother and sister. Later, her family moved to the more spacious apartment into which she sneaked her girlfriend at night. When her grandmother found out, Ku Tsai had to give her family half her income for the privilege of bringing her girlfriend home.

On the tiny island and narrow strip of land that make up Hong Kong, seven million people are crammed between the mountains and the ocean. Hong Kong grows upward. In a city of people piled on top of people, there is little room for young lesbians to explore.

Tang tells the story of Edith, a trans woman and lesbian, who remembers taking a rare opportunity when her family was out of their tiny one-room house to try on her mother’s dress. When her mother and sister unexpectedly came home, she ran into the bathroom, forgetting her boy clothes behind. Her mother demanded the dress, and she had no choice but to come out naked and suffer a scolding.

Of the 30 subjects interviewed for her book, Tang says 21 still lived with their families. Few have the money or independence to do anything else.

Tang also notes, however, a trend of wealthy, powerful butch lesbians claiming a place in Hong Kong high society by getting rich, living large and taking on femme wives. Celebrity chef So Sze Wong, for example, made millions on a TV show in which she yells, Jamie Oliver style, at incompetent housewives. Tabloids fawned over her dedication to her actress girlfriend.

Just as money constricts working-class lesbians, it has allowed others to flourish. In Hong Kong, Tang says, identity matters less than real estate.

As one woman told her, “It is harder to come out as a poor person than as a lesbian.”