Even in Asia, where the level of LGBT acceptance can vary and change with alarming regularity, Hong Kong is a contradictory beast. In 1991, the territory finally ditched British anti-buggery laws that still dog former colonies like Singapore and Malaysia. Today, Asia’s “world city” embraces its queer celebrities and supports a sizeable calendar of LGBT events.
Privately, however, many Hong Kongers face enormous pressure to conform. It’s a common dilemma in Northeast Asia, one that in Hong Kong skews the queer bar scene heavily toward ex-pats and visitors.
Despite the 1991 reform, an equal age of consent was not established until 2006, and anti-discrimination laws remain a matter of interpretation rather than being absolute. In this deeply traditional society, less than a third of the population supports the legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2012, property developer Cecil Chao offered 500 million Hong Kong dollars ($75 million Canadian) to any man who could woo his lesbian daughter into marriage, and while mere financial mortals may not be throwing around that kind of offer, the underlying attitude is a common one.
Yet three quarters of Hong Kongers also say they support equal rights for same-sex couples, and most are very accepting of LGBT media personalities. While same-sex unions are still not recognized, transgender citizens were finally granted the right to marry an opposite-sex partner in 2013. It seems that in the land of “one country, two systems,” it’s a case of “one territory, two attitudes” on equality.
Hong Kong held its first Pride parade in December 2008, following a route from Causeway Bay to Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. Still focused there today, its popularity has grown along with the expanded route. Participation swelled to more than 4,000 in 2012, about a third of whom came from the Chinese mainland. In finance-obsessed Hong Kong, some corporate involvement was always inevitable. Still, more than a few eyebrows were raised in 2013 when HSBC set its iconic headquarters alight with rainbow colours in support.
Pride turns this already colourful city into a blazing celebration of diversity, but it also serves as a powerful beacon to China’s other LGBT communities. The only comparable mainland event is Shanghai Pride, which, despite being in its sixth year, is still forbidden from holding a parade. In 2014, the symbolism took on an extra layer, at least to anyone watching the Occupy Central movement. Defying the foul weather with rainbow-coloured umbrellas, participants in both protests brought their messages together, with Occupy leader Alex Chow proclaiming that “the choice of your own destiny” included the fight for LGBT rights.
However, Hong Kong’s westernized history has created unique problems rarely encountered on the mainland. Conservative Christian voices are still prominent, and some chastise Pride for “polluting” the pro-democracy movement. Some LGBT mainlanders are similarly unimpressed, claiming that Occupy leaders do not understand their lives under Communist rule. Meanwhile, celebrities and entertainers happy to throw their support behind Pride have treaded carefully around Occupy, for fear of Chinese and commercial backlash. Others, like singers Denis Ng and former Montrealer Denise Ho, insist the push for democracy is too important for celebrities to hide behind these fears and cite their participation as particularly important in combating the apolitical outlook of many Hong Kongers.
Of course, there’s more to Hong Kong’s queer calendar than the parade, or even politics. Hong Kong also hosts Asia’s oldest LGBT film festival. From September to November, the annual Pink Season showcases the city’s best queer performers, events, businesses and community organizations. All are geared to remind straight-laced locals and outsiders that Hong Kong’s queer community is awake and active — whether traditionalists are ready or not.
Not surprising, then, that Pride’s most poignant threat may be a simple banner slogan: “Stop discriminating or we will give you a warm hug.”
Hong Kong Pride 2015 will take place in November. For more information visit hkpride.net