A city dominated by banks, skyscrapers and designer megamalls doesn’t at first glance scream “gay party capital,” and compared to New York or Bangkok, Hong Kong isn’t.
In the wake of the 1997 handover (when sovereignty over the city was transferred from the United Kingdom to China), “BrandHK” was launched by the government to promote and develop the city as “Asia’s World City,” because of concerns about Hong Kong’s ability to remain an international finance centre and a global city, but the transformation hasn’t happened overnight, and the city still retains something of its own soul, which extends to a unique style of LGBT nightlife.
In the shadow of towering skyscrapers and upscale boutiques sit markets, mom-and-pop shops, teahouses and eateries that have endured for decades amid the thrust toward modernity. It’s possible to spend several days here without feeling too overwhelmed by the capitalist crush, and some of those 300 skyscrapers (the most of any city in the world, beating out New York by more than 100 buildings) hold some interesting surprises for anyone taking a closer look.
Hong Kong is distinct from the mainland in many ways, including the significant role foreigners have always played in its economic and social fabric, and this has changed little post-handover. The non-Asian faces you see in Hong Kong’s gay bars are as likely to call the place home as they are to be visiting. Meanwhile, the city’s central location and business influence draws professionals and tourists from all over Asia. While there’s no way to measure for sure, the bars present a seemingly distorted glimpse of Hong Kong’s diversity. North American, Australian and European faces are ubiquitous, even though more than 92 percent of Hong Kongers are ethnic Chinese. The more you see the two groups mixing, the more likely it is that you’ve found a “local” spot. Some ex-pats have lived in Hong Kong since before the handover and consider it their only home. Others have accepted short-term assignments or arrived purely in search of fun and thus swing more toward such big-name bars as Propaganda.
Hong Kong prides itself on being more liberal than the mainland, but public attitudes can at times seem contradictory. Acceptance of homosexuality within the media is widespread, but individuals often face immense pressure to conform. That attitude skews the clientele of the better-known gay bars toward ex-pats and others living free of family expectations. A highly paid assignment in Hong Kong is an alluring prospect for a young LGBT worker with no home ties, and plenty of them can be found mixing and mingling at the bars in Central, on Hong Kong Island. English is spoken by just about all, including most native Hong Kongers.
Two of the most popular bars, Zoo and Volume Beat, can be found on Jervois Street, a short walk from Sheung Wan Station. Both are small, crammed affairs whose crowds spill out onto the street on weekends, thanks in part to Hong Kong’s relaxed attitude toward open bottles. Not so relaxed is the nightlife’s price tag, which seems geared toward professionals on expense accounts, even at seemingly downscale, local bars. You didn’t hear it from us, but cheapskates can join the outdoor party with liquor from a convenience store — usually found less than a block away.
A short walk from Zoo and Volume Beat, on Hollywood Road, Time Bar (stylized as T:ME) offers a more upscale cocktail experience, typically drawing a large number of ex-pats and local professionals. But the main attraction in Central is Propaganda, Hong Kong’s admittedly male-dominated queer dance hub. Even finding the place recaptures something of an underground gay clubbing experience: entry is via a narrow laneway at the back of the building, but there’s no need to rush your cocktail. The club doesn’t get busy until 1am or later.
While suited types and ex-pats dominate the area around Central, nearby Causeway Bay offers several karaoke bars and a surprising number of saunas, including Gateway and Action. The city’s main sauna corridor, however, runs up Nathan Road on the Kowloon side of the harbour. Most are centred on Mong Kok, the world’s most densely populated neighbourhood. Alexander, Colony and the always-playful Big Top are just a few of the strip’s staples.
Depending on how you’re counting, Hong Kong’s gay saunas may outnumber its gay bars – not surprising when you consider the number of locals looking for a safe and discreet place to cruise. Of course, there are a number of comparatively low-key bars here, too. At the tip of East Tsim Sha Tsui, you can get your evening off to a friendly start at Tony’s after watching the nightly Symphony of Lights. New Wally Matt is another stalwart, now operating on Austin Road with a strong karaoke focus, LGBT staff and a warm, relaxed crowd.
Workaholic Hong Kong may not pose much of a threat to Bangkok’s gay party crown, but it’s determined to show queer visitors a good time after the last business card has been put away.