6 min

The mystery of Li Shiu Tong

What did Dr Magnus Hirschfeld's lover do in his final years in Vancouver?

GREAT LOVE STORY. The founder of the modern gay movement, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (centre) pictured in Switzerland in 1933-4 with his lover Li Shiu Tong (right) and Bernhard Schapiro. Li died in Vancouver in 1993 and gay historians are seeking information about his last years, as well as documents Hirschfeld left him after his 1935 death. Credit: Magnus Hirschfeld Society

It is late autumn 1993. In an apartment block dumpster behind 1260 Barclay Street, a tenant notices several suitcases among the trash. Most are filled with the sort of junk that people leave behind on moving day. One, however, contains an enigma: papers and two diaries written in German, yellowed photographs of a young Chinese guy beside a much older European man in settings that suggest India, and an honest-to-god plaster death mask.

The tenant carefully lifts these out, carries them upstairs and stores them away. Some years later the curiosities relocate with him to Toronto. Last year, still unsure of what he has, he posts a notice on the Internet.

When it is stumbled upon by gay historians, it opens a new, largely unknown chapter in the life of the most important early gay-rights pioneer-a chapter with an ending in Vancouver.

This February, Ralf Dose, director of Berlin’s Magnus Hirschfeld Society, flies to Toronto to collect the artifacts, then on to Vancouver hoping for more traces of the objects’ owner, Li Shiu Tong. Over many beers at the Sylvia Hotel and a long, arm-in-arm walk along the seawall, he tells me a love story that spans seven decades and much of the globe.


By 1931, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld was at the height of his fame, known throughout Europe as “the Einstein of Sex.” A sexual pioneer since the 1890s, he had produced the first gay film, the first scholarly journal on homosexuality and the first scientific survey of gay sexuality. He was instrumental in forcing public debate on gay rights, and petitioned the German legislature to repeal anti-homosexual laws. His Institute for Sexual Science, founded amidst the artistic flowering and exuberant decadence of the post-First World War Weimar Republic, was the world’s premier research facility for education and counselling on human-especially gay-sexual function and psychology.

The Institute had quickly become headquarters for the national gay emancipation movement. Its museum of grotesque sexual paraphernalia was a “must-see” stop for visiting intellectuals like English novelist Christopher Isherwood and French expressionist artist Marc Chagall. It became a gathering place for Berlin’s thriving subculture of homosexuals, transsexuals (he coined the term in 1923) and transvestites. The Institute and its work also increasingly came to the notice of the Nazi party: at one point, following a lecture he gave in Munich, Hirschfeld was set upon by Brown Shirts who fractured his skull and left him for dead in the street. Though not yet in power, the National Socialists were bent on eradicating the triple evils of socialists, homosexuals and Jews. Hirschfeld was all three.

That year, Hirschfeld launched an 18-month worldwide lecture tour, beginning in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, then travelled on to Tokyo and Shanghai. There, at St John’s University, the professor was introduced to a beautiful, star-struck medical student named Li Shiu Tong, then age 24.

The 63-year-old Hirschfeld was certainly no looker; Isherwood graphically recalled him as a “solemn old professor with his doggy moustache and thick peering spectacles.” Yet the attraction must have been immediate, mutual and profound; days later Hirschfeld left for Beijing with Li now as his travelling companion and Chinese interpreter.

Presumably Li went with his family’s blessing. At parting his father, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, told Hirschfeld, “It is my wish and my hope that my son will one day become the Dr Hirschfeld of China.”

In Java they were photographed between massive phallic stones. In India they met Nehru and his teenaged daughter, Indira, then lectured through Palestine, Austria and Switzerland. At each stop they collected books and artifacts on local sexual practices for shipment back to the Institute’s enormous library, a global compendium of sexual practices. By the time they arrived in France, Li had gained the nickname “Tao Li” meaning “Beloved Disciple” (Hirschfeld had acquired his own gay moniker, “Aunt Magnesia,” during his drag days in Berlin).

This idyll ended abruptly: at a Paris cinema, the pair watched newsreels of the looting of the Institute. During Hirschfeld’s tour, the National Socialists had swept into power and moved quickly to close the Institute. In May 1933, led by Nazi Storm Troopers and a marching band, students invaded the Institute buildings, smashed furniture and carried away contents of the museum. Four days later the unique library-20,000 volumes, 35,000 glass photographic slides, thousands of personal clinical files-were publicly burned in Opera Square with other “un-German” books. The rest was sold off into the local book market, disappearing forever. The buildings were confiscated and sold to the state.

When it became clear that they could never return to Berlin, Hirschfeld’s devoted secretary, Institute archivist and lover of 12 years joined them in France. Karl Giese was 22 when he first heard Hirschfeld lecture in 1920 and he quickly moved into Hirschfeld’s rooms at the Institute, where he gained the affectionate title of “woman of the house.” (Isherwood later recalled him as an “earnest, intelligent campaigner for sexual freedom” and a “sturdy peasant youth with a girl’s heart.”) In Paris, after a bumpy period of adjustment punctuated by fits of jealousy, the three settled into an uneasy but lasting ménage à trois, until Giese was forced by a certain “bathhouse affair” to hurriedly relocate to Vienna, then Brno.

Over the next several years, they tried to reconstruct the Institute in France. Hirschfeld lectured and, through third parties, gradually bought back a small number of the looted books. But he was a broken man, old, in ill health and in debt; there are indications that he may have had to borrow money from Tao Li. They relocated south to the warmth of Nice, where Giese rejoined them. Li attended medical school in Vienna for one semester, made a brief family visit back to Hong Kong, then resumed his studies in Zurich. Almost immediately he was recalled to France in 1935 upon word that Hirschfeld had died of a stroke, aged 67. The great romance was over; his years of wandering began.

Hirschfeld had willed the Institute’s remaining assets to his protégé Giese, but left all his personal effects to Tao Li. These included Hirschfeld’s last diaries, kept between 1929 and 1935, photographs and celebrity autograph books from their Asian tour, the portrait mask cast after his death, and cases of books rescued from the Nazis.

All these Li carefully carried with him when he resumed studies in Zurich, first in medicine and then economics. In 1941, he relocated the trove to the US, enrolling at Harvard’s graduate school of arts and sciences; then returned to study in Zurich from 1945 to 1960.

Hirschfeld’s bequests to his two closest disciples were made on the “express condition that they are to be used not for personal use, but solely for the purposes of sexology in accordance with my endeavours.” His wishes were never honoured. Within three years Giese was dead, a suicide. Tao Li continued his education, but his studies seem unfocussed, restless: in none of his courses did he sit for exams or take a degree.

The books Li left at his death contain detailed marginal notes in his hand, as though he never stopped pouring over the Hirschfeld collection, but no scholarly articles ever resulted from this work. Among his surviving papers were sketchy, unclear notes for a book he planned but never wrote. Significantly, in these papers he never directly referred to homosexuality, always leaving a blank for the word, or coding it ‘H’, as though he had learned to fear committing himself in print.

In 1958, after many attempts, the restitution division of the Berlin regional court managed to contact Li Shiu Tong. The court was charged with vetting reimbursement claims for property confiscated or destroyed by the Nazis; they wanted to talk to Li as Hirschfeld’s heir about several claims against his estate. Tao Li refused to have anything to do with the country that had destroyed his lover and demanded that his address be kept secret. Abruptly, he quit school, again lovingly crated up the Hirschfeld materials, and made a final return trip to visit his family in Hong Kong.

Then Tao Li pretty much dropped off the face of the earth.

In August 1999, the 14th World Congress on Sexology, meeting in Hong Kong, paid tribute to the enormous contributions made to their field by Magnus Hirschfeld, and put out a worldwide call to anyone with information about Li Shiu Tong. Nothing was ever heard back.


The morning following our late-night walk along English Bay, Dose begins calling cemeteries in Vancouver and finally locates Tao Li’s gravesite in Burnaby’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He discovers that Li has a brother, many years younger, living with his family in the Lower Mainland. Visiting them, Dose learns a little: at some point after leaving Hong Kong, Tao Li moved the Hirschfeld archive to Canada. By 1975, he was living in an apartment on Waverly Ave in Vancouver, and sometime thereafter bought the condo on Barclay St where he died, age 86, on Oct 5, 1993. What he did in Vancouver, how he lived, who his friends and neighbours were, remains a mystery.

It was Tao Li’s younger brother who had cleared out his West End apartment. The brother takes Dose down to the basement of his own house. And there, in boxes, are the remains of Magnus Hirschfeld’s great library, rescued from the Nazis and carried from country to country across the world by the devoted man who had loved him.

Dose examines the books, but the family refuses to look inside them-the photographs of naked persons and strange sexual practices leave them disturbed and embarrassed.

As he leaves, Dose asks the brother what Tao Li was like. He seems genuinely puzzled, at a loss to describe an elder unmarried brother who preferred to live apart from his family, but finally manages: “He was an odd man-he lived alone, and didn’t like women.”

* Anyone with further information about Li Shiu Tong is urged to contact the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives, 604.669.5978.


BC Gay and Lesbian Archives.