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Hong Kong’s lesbian spaces and the stories behind them

BY BENITA CHICK

The alley is dark and a bit creepy, and it doesn’t look like it leads to anywhere. Concealed within it is a secret spot that is unknown to both locals and foreigners: a gay bar called “T:ME Bar.” Friends from overseas try to visit, but they can never locate it.

Probably my favourite spot in Hong Kong’s Central district, right off Hollywood Road and next to Club 71 in Pak Tsz Lane Park, the bar is a hidden sanctuary that makes for a particularly enlightening pit stop. In my experience, four out of five Hong Kongers don’t know this hidden gem exists, and that it relates closely to Chinese history.

Pak Tsz (百子) literally means ‘Hundred Alleys’ in Chinese, and Pak Tsz Lane Park is where Dr. Sun Yat Sen and his comrades planned the 1911 Chinese Revolution, a nationalist democratic rebellion that overthrew the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty in 1912. It can be approached by a number of narrow lanes, such as Sam Ka Lane (三家里), and Pak Tsz Lane (百子里). These routes served as quick getaways for the revolutionists, in times when they had to flee from either Qing agents or the Hong Kong police. The opening of the park in 2011, the revolution’s centenary year, commemorates this place as a breeding ground for revolution.

In addition to being a place for revolutionary talk, the network of alleys and sites that used to make up the area also served as place to meet comrades. The word comrade in Chinese (同志 or Tongzhi) can mean a companion, an associate, or a friend who shares the same passion or mission. It is also a colloquial term for homosexuality, or those who share the same “sexual” mission.

T:ME Bar is one of many hidden LGBTQ+ spots in the city. I am well aware that Hong Kong isn’t exactly renowned for championing LGBTQ+ rights, and while our legislation has become slightly more progressive on such issues than those of some of our Asian neighbours, our community’s culture has historically been swept under the rug. This inspired me to curate the first LGBTQ+ tour in Asia in 2016.

The tour is an entertaining exploration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender culture and history in Hong Kong, and consists of meandering through historical landmarks in Central and Sheung Wan. It includes visits to iconic spots where Hong Kong’s pre-eminent LGBT movies – such as Happy Together and All About Love – were shot, as well as to hidden back-alley hangout spaces. It also passes landmarks like the old Propaganda, a revolutionary bar that used to be Hong Kong’s quintessential gay hangout spot for almost 25 years. The tour ends with a gay bar experience in Sheung Wan, where participants will learn stories about the things that happened there.

My hope is for the tour to shine light on Hong Kong’s long LGBTQ+ history. The walk has been featured in both local and international media, as well as TripAdvisor, for delivering an authentic LGBTQ+ historical and cultural experience to tourists, locals, students, and social workers alike. Through the tour, I’ve also collaborated with various academic and commercial institutions such as The University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Accenture, and more for education and advocacy purposes.

Who am I?

As a middle-class and well-educated lesbian in Hong Kong, who came out with little difficulty or discrimination, my personal LGBTQ+ story may not seem as challenging as others. While I’ve spent seven years studying abroad, I still greatly consider myself a local Hong Konger with deep roots in the city and love for its culture. I attended a very liberal college in the United States and, during that time, had my first taste of actual gay life. Shortly after, I came out to my parents. When I returned to Hong Kong after college in the early 2000s, I explored my sexuality by meeting girls online and going to the few lesbian bars in town. I have always been bothered by the fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are topics not publicly discussed in Hong Kong. This needs to change.

In 2016, I became really active in the gay scene following a painful breakup with an ex who feared her parents’ reprisal if they discovered her bi-sexuality. I felt the urge to help the community by raising awareness, and I wanted to make more people receptive to the LGBTQ+ life. Hong Kong is now establishing itself as a diverse gay-friendly destination with increasing global appeal. The city now hosts several large-scale LGBTQ+ events, from the upcoming LGBTQ+ film festival, the very popular Pink Dot event and September’s Pink Season to the 2022 Gay Games. My tour of LGBTQ+ life in Hong Kong is another avenue through which to raise awareness on these issues.

This short piece on lesbian life in Hong Kong doesn’t aim to cover every aspect of Hong Kong’s lesbian culture, but rather attempts to share the experience of a lesbian in her thirties who was born and raised in Hong Kong.

LGBTQ+ in Hong Kong

Benita leading an LGBT tour. Credit: Benita Chick

Some might describe the lesbian scene in Hong Kong as pretty much non-existent except for a couple things here and there. But although there are few permanent lesbians hangout spaces or groups one can join, there are also hidden activities like secret lesbian gatherings and even a very discreet lesbian dragon boat team.

Victoria Harbour separates Hong Kong’s population of seven million into two: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Side. Those on Hong Kong Island view themselves as more sophisticated and urbane than those in Kowloon, an area condescendingly referred to as the “Dark Side.” The rivalry is akin to that of Manhattan vs. Queens in New York. This competitiveness is reflected every night in a spectacular light show and laser “war” from skyscrapers on either side, creating a beautiful and romantic sight.

Hong Kong is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan, energetic, safe and easily-to-navigate destinations both logistically and language-wise (thanks, British colonialism!). Hong Kong is also a place where queer women can enjoy a high degree of public freedom and expression. While much of the open attitude towards lesbians can be attributed to Hong Kong’s development, credit is also due to the city’s Tomboys (or TB).

TB’s behave and dress in a typically masculine way that can be described as between “boydyke” and “FTM” (female-to-male). While the “cool” TB style is popular for many of Hong Kong’s straight population, they still hesitate to perform public displays of affection, unlike TBs who un-shyly hold hands or kiss their girlfriends in public. The TB phenomenon quickly spread throughout Asia, influencing TB-themed movies and even lifestyle magazines. It especially took root in Hong Kong, which is a city fascinated with labels. Speaking to locals, I learned that this form of empowerment may ironically be a reaction to social misogyny. Men are pressured to honour their parents, who boast about their achievements, while women are meant to just serve males. Therefore, women can fly under society’s radar without as many restrictions by choosing a TB style.

Kowloon’s Causeway Bay and Hong Kong Island’s Mong Kok are both neighbourhoods that attract TBs. These areas are always bustling, with a youthful and fashionable vibe. For instance, the distinct “Mong Kok Style” is a cartoonish mismash of urban hip-hop stereotypes, and is naturally mocked and ridiculed by outsiders.

The 90s: Blur-f and the importance of labels

In the nineties, before all the Internet Apps, many local lesbians relied on a website called “Blur-f” to network and mingle. This forum was full of different chat rooms on various topics including sports, travel, arts, culture, fashion, and entertainment. Of course, the most important function was the “friends” room that let users check out the profiles of other lesbians. Back then there were only four lesbian classifications: “TB,” “TBG” (tomboy girl, i.e. femme), Pure (feminine in both appearance and mentality, and attracted to those of the same type), and Bisexual.

Labels are very important. TBs assert the most masculine traits, often preferring a dominant position and only partially undressing when being intimate in the bedroom. They protect their girlfriends the way they consider a man would, and their partners are TBG, who are overall more feminine in contrast. Women calling themselves “Pure” or “Pure Lesbian” may appear feminine, but do not take on gender roles as seriously as TB romantic couples. “Les” is short-for “Lesbian,” and those who identify as such can look and act masculine or feminine.  

When it comes to relationships, these labels take on combinations. For example, TBs can date TBGs, Pure and Les, but TBGs won’t go out with Pures. They might accept dates with a Les, but only if they’re masculine. Unlike those who identify as Les, TBs are not sexual with one other. Newcomers to Hong Kong might find these combinations humorous and surprising, especially when the first questions they’re asked are: “What are you? TB, TBG, or Pure?”

Similarly to other international websites, there were many strange profiles on Blur-f, with girls concocting all sorts of nicknames and profile pictures. Men would often create girly nicknames to pose as females, uploading deceptive profile pictures of pets or food.  It was a hunting ground for a lot of lesbians, especially those who were still “in the closet.” As some lesbians are very hard to identify by appearance, this method for finding lesbian friends and partners was quite popular. Unfortunately, heterosexual males lurked on this platform just like they do today, posing as lesbians in the forums and using fake identities to trick lesbians to go out with them. Whether then or now, it seems that some heterosexual males act on fantasies of having sex with lesbians, or attempt to convert them into heterosexuals.

While I attended a girl’s school and had many lesbian friends at the time, chatting online to other lesbians and reading virtual forums broadened my experience beyond my close community. I became more in touch with my emotions and sexuality, and gained knowledge of different kinds of relationships.

“Bullying” behaviour was also present in the lesbian forum. I happened to date one of the page administrators who identified as a TBG on Blur-f. When we broke up and some of the lesbians in the forum knew I was her ex, they were very hostile to me in chat rooms. I was then forbidden to join some group activities. There was, and still is, also a trend in which active users post a lot of threads in different chat rooms to show that they live a very versatile life. This is an effort to gain more likes on their threads and attract more attention to themselves, thus increasing their number of potential partners. The website was established in 2000 and ceased to operate in 2011.

The 2000s: cafe culture

Les Peches. Credit: Benita Chick

This era was one of the more exciting times to be a lesbian in Hong Kong. In the late 2000s there were up to three lesbian cafes, including LINE on Percival Street, near the popular tourist destination Times Square. While gay bars existed in Hong Kong since the early nineties, lesbian gathering places were always very limited. Lesbian cafes offered a good alternative for lesbians who just wanted to meet up with their friends in a cosy environment.

These cafes would often organize different events through lesbian websites to gather a crowd. They ranged from book reading and oyster tasting (no pun intended) to board games, offering networking opportunities for lesbians. These were interesting alternatives to meeting people online in Blur-F and also provided safe sanctuaries for many lesbian activities. Sadly, these cafes eventually closed down because they were unable to sustain their businesses.

In Causeway Bay, there were two lesbian bars at the time operating in what could be considered their heydays, including the very popular bar Virus that offered all-you-can-drink karaoke nights for HK$200. It drew a very local and young crowd, and was not that friendly towards English-speakers. Unlike gay bars, where regular crowds formed throughout the week, these lesbian hangouts were usually dead quiet during weekdays. Business was very hard for lesbian bar owners.

Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni were a lesbian couple that started the group Les Peches in 2005 to revive the virtually non-existent lesbian scene for lesbian English speakers who wanted to socialize with other members of the community. Without any lesbian bars or clubs, girls could only hangout in unattractive Karaoke lounges, and such gatherings also appeared uninviting to English speakers. Furthermore, Abby and Betty also noticed that gay men and lesbians rarely mixed, and so gay clubs were unpopular among lesbians. However, after observing a gay men’s networking group called “Fruits in Suits,” they were inspired to create a similar group.

Once a month, Abby and Betty would rent out a straight bar for a lesbian group gathering to create, in their words, “a comfortable and safe place for queer women to meet and have fun.” Since the bars were often upscale, a more affluent and older English-speaking crowd attended. While some lesbians I know prefer a quieter environment like a book or film club, if one is not too intimidated by the loud music and dancing, Les Peches is still rocking the lesbian scene every month. To join this closed group, you will need a friend to add you to their site.

There’s also an excellent English-language website Fridae, which is the go-to website for all things LGBT in Asia from personal ads to news articles. However, the crowd there is usually English-speaking only and might be intimidating for those who are younger or less educated.

The 2010s: apps, parties and growing visibility

The age of smartphones and apps brought new excitement to the lesbian scene. The local app “Butterfly” became popular. It functions somewhat similarly to Blur-f, and its latest upgrade has improved searches with a hashtag feature to find posts of interest.

Butterfly launched in 2013 as a self-financed smartphone app by two head developers who were also part of the lesbian community. According to an interview by So in 2016, Butterfly was initially created as a smartphone-app-format continuation of Blur-F. Design-wise, Butterfly is a Chinese-language app that is completely free of charge. After installing the app, users can create a free online account by stating their nickname and gender labels: TB, TBG, Pure, or No-label. One can also register with their Facebook account. Technically, only self-identified female accounts are allowed to use the application. Butterfly is especially popular among young women, with the average user age being 20.

The term “No-label” describes a lesbian who does not want to label herself, refuses to stick to any one gender role and does not identify with stereotypical categories like “femme” or “butch.” Most “No-labels” are “gender fluid” in that they are lesbian but may have a huge range of masculine or feminine behaviour, appearance and sexual preferences. For example, they may look very feminine but behave or think in quite a masculine way, and prefer anything from “uber-femme” to “soft-butch.” They are not being deceptive, but choose not to let their preference be a major factor in their day-to-day activities. The term has become popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong in recent years, as it comprises all those who feel their appearances, personalities, and target audiences do not fit neatly into one category.

Butterfly focused on creating appropriate matches based on age, gender, identity and the type of relationship the user is seeking. Some are not using the app just to find partners, but also to find friends or have fun. Butterfly goes beyond the simple purposes of hooking-up or dating, and embraces many forum themes essential to daily gay life such as travel, pets, food, and beauty.

The mobility of Butterfly protects a user’s privacy in addition to letting them present a lesbian identity visible to those online or in public. A user curious about their sexuality may safely explore chat forums or features whilst enjoying privacy, like in a cocoon. After a time, they may embrace the freedom to emerge as a butterfly and display their many colours to others. By remaining suited to user needs and desires, the app resolves some of the complexities of navigating people’s daily public or private choices in the mobile media platform. By assuming an anonymous persona, users are able to intimately engage and view the app’s community as LGBTQ+ friendly and safe. The tensions between hetero/homo and public/private are reduced by the app’s mobility and freedom, as well as ts ability to create an inclusive and comfortable lesbian space for users.

The app is full of chat rooms with different themes, which makes it different from gay apps such as Grindr. For example, the app’s discussion forum on married women opened up a social space for stigmatized subject matters in the community. Married women with same-sex desires or in secret same-sex relationships are often shunned by the community for not leaving their marriages. The forum gives them a space to give voice to their struggles and discontent.

Another distinction between Butterfly and Grindr is that there is no accurate GPS function on Butterfly that allows one to search for nearby users. The most accurate location information we can get is whether a user is in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or overseas, which is basically useless if you are desperately trying to check whether that cute girl nearby is a lesbian. For that, we have the app HER, which is a lesbian version of Grindr. Also, for those who want to expand geographically, the apps Lesdo, LesPark and Rela see more Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese members, who host live broadcasts that allow them to gather virtual presents as well as followers. These also include an Instagram-like tab where members post photos for others to comment on.  

Unlike mobile apps for gay men, lesbian dating apps have been slow to catch on as a habitual space for finding friends and lovers. Apps offer more options for lesbians, with many starting their own chat rooms and then a LINE group, and others more explicitly hunting for SP (Sex Partners) or dating opportunities.

While the media and apps like Butterfly appear open-minded towards love and dating, I argue that Hong Kong’s prevailing conservative values shape the population’s attitudes and behaviour toward romance. Many still choose the traditional path of going on a few dates rather than going straight to the bedroom, as this either feels more natural or is deemed more socially acceptable. These perceptions on love and lovemaking reinforce the values of the broader Hong Kong society.

Benita posing in front of a “rainbow staircase” in Sheung Wan. Credit: Benita Chick

For myself, I actually go beyond lesbian apps and use dating apps like Coffee Meets Bagel, through which I can choose to meet women only. The experience is actually not that bad,as I often meet others who share common interests, though we do not end up actually dating.

Other than Virus in Causeway Bay, upstairs lesbian bars like Temptation in Tsim Sha Tsui have also sprung up. They are very local and attract a younger crowd that often sings Karaoke and plays darts. Of course, these bars also provide spaces for older crowds to mingle and network, but the atmosphere is definitely geared towards younger people. They can also be cliquish towards Westerners and outsiders, so go with a local and witness authentic Hong Kong culture — and the identifiable TBs — in action. For older and more discreet lesbians, these bars are definitely not for them. They would prefer to meet through apps, where most lesbians chat for quite a long while before agreeing to meet for a date.

Local lesbian communities were also becoming more active in organizing lesbian parties. One example is the LEZO group. The LEZO group managed to organize a party with local lesbian singers like Takki Wong and Judas Law, and incorporated special themes like “Fifty Shades of Lez” that incorporated BDSM elements. Over two hundred people attended that party, and future parties often sold out. It seems Hong Kong lesbians are desperate for places where they can meet new lesbians, so these parties are very popular, with people dressing up specifically for them. This just goes to show that Hong Kong lesbians actually long for a place where they can meet new lesbians face-to-face, and not just through apps.  These parties bring new excitement to the Hong Kong Lesbian scene. I am probably a bit too old to go to these parties, but it definitely amuses me to hear stories about over 50 young lesbians lining up to try to gain entry into the popular Orange Peel bar for one such event.

Raising lesbian visibility, the incredibly popular and politically active singer David Ho came out in 2013. This announcement encouraged a big boost in pride in the community. Gigi Chao, the daughter of a billionaire, also made headlines in 2012, when she planned to marry her female partner Sean and her father offered HK$500 million to any man who could successfully marry his daughter. Gigi has been one of the most outspoken lesbians in Hong Kong ever since and has been recognized by the Financial Times in its list of highest-ranked LGBT executives in 2017.

Local businesses have also become more open to supporting lesbians. In 2017, for the first time in Hong Kong advertising, the jewellery brand Chow Sang Sang featured recently married lesbian musician Ellen Loo wearing a wedding ring. Times have certainly changed for LGBTQ+ exposure and marketing.

While I agree that the general public’s greater tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community has made being a lesbian in Hong Kong easier, there still is a lack of comfortable lesbian meeting places in the city. Other than lesbian apps, I assume many single lesbians depend on apps like Tinder or Coffee Meets Bagels to meet new partners. More lesbian activities, like the sports empowerment group SWEATITUDE, and greater lesbian hangout spots can hopefully appear for lesbians to be able to meet in safe and healthy settings.

About the author

Benita is a “slash worker” and a firm believer of diversity and inclusion. She works on youth policy-to-stakeholder engagement during the day and in her spare time, runs a first-of-its-kind LGBT in the City Tour – which she initiated – as well LGBT campaigns on homophobia as the Director of Pink Alliance’s IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) campaign.

Learn more:

https://coachbenforyouth.com/diversity/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/benitachick/