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21 Jun 2010

Book review: As normal as possible

Nigel Collett reviews the new fourth volume of Hong Kong University Press's 'Queer Asia' series which explores how sexuality and gender is negotiated in mainland China and Hong Kong 

As normal as possible: Negotiating sexuality and gender in mainland China and Hong Kong
Edited by Yau Ching
Published by the Hong Kong University Press, 2010
Paperback 232 Pages

Yau Ching, long a well known figure among activists in Hong Kong’s tongzhi community, and Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, is the editor of the recently published fourth volume of Hong Kong University Press’s ‘Queer Asia’ series. Her collection of essays, As Normal as Possible, is a landmark volume, as is pointed out on its cover by Audrey Yue of the University of Melbourne: "This is the first sustained collection of writings by established and young scholars on how sexualities are negotiated in Hong Kong and China." The geographic division should not, of course, surprise. Though Hong Kong has been part of the motherland since 1997, its political, economic, social and cultural systems still lead to huge differences in an enormous range of issues, of which sexuality and gender, as Yau Ching’s volume shows, are two.

As Normal as Possible from HKU Press.

This is a very wide-ranging volume with chapters that will interest a diverse range of readers. Whilst clearly aimed at the academic world, the writing makes most of the contributions easily accessible for the general reader. Both will find much to be surprised. Yau Ching, in her introduction, makes it clear that she wishes to break away from the concerns and methodology of much of the western-oriented queer studies world, which she sees as refusing to face the fact that things just aren’t the same world-wide. What is ‘normal’ and what is ‘queer’ can be very different, and she links this with the notions raised in the essays she has collected that the negotiation of sexuality and gender in these Chinese societies is often about creating space for what is locally queer to be ‘as normal as possible’ in order for queer people to survive and flourish.

This is particularly the case, for instance, with the married lalas (lesbians) in China investigated by Lucetta Kam Yip Lo, currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Chu Hai College, Hong Kong, and one of Hong Kong’s most prolific writers on queer subjects. Kam’s chapter, ‘Opening Up Marriage: Married Lalas in Shanghai’, is a beautifully written piece which makes it very clear that lesbians in China need to make accommodation with the social and economic pressures they face to marry, and do so by arrangements unique to their society. Whilst a few manage to maintain same sex partnerships by deception, many choose to be open about them with tolerant heterosexual husbands, and an increasing number of others finds gay men prepared to marry in ‘cooperative marriages’ by which both partners may outwardly conform.

Travis S.K. Kong, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, has for some time investigated the plight of ‘money boys’, male-to-male prostitutes, across the border in the Mainland. His findings, provisionally displayed in his essay ‘Outcast Bodies: Money, Sex and Desire of Money Boys in Mainland China’ also show marked differences in what happens in the male brothels and on the streets of China from what is found elsewhere. The young men Travis interviewed were not, as he had expected, ‘powerless young men trapped by personality defects, childhood traumas, and family dysfunction in a cycle of self-loathing, poverty and cultural deprivation.’ Whilst facing discrimination on three levels – as migrant workers, as prostitutes and as gay men – the majority of Travis’s informants have made conscious economic decisions to maximize their physical assets for as long as possible before having to return to worse paid and much less independent work.

In ‘Lesbianism among Indonesian Women Migrants in Hong Kong’, Amy Sim of HKU’s Sociology Department examines a phenomenon which has become increasingly visible to anyone walking through Hong Kong’s Central district on a Sunday, where the many thousands of foreign domestic helpers congregate in the open on their only day off. These used to be mostly Filipinas, and earlier studies have suggested that as many as 40% of those had some form of same-sex relationship during their employment in Hong Kong. Nowadays, many domestic helpers are imported from Indonesia, and this phenomenon seems to be repeating itself. In this case, Sim makes it clear, apart from the freedom that Hong Kong gives to young Muslim women to express themselves away from their families, there is a darker underlying cause of some of the same-sex relationships that flourish here, which is the holding camps in which all Indonesian domestics are incarcerated in Indonesia, places where they wait, cut off from their families, sometimes for six months or more before being sent overseas to work. Sim does not point, here, to another contributory factor which probably has a bearing, which is the absence of available and suitable men for the over 300,000 female domestic helpers in Hong Kong, a place which for them can be likened to a huge segregated prison and is only a more comfortable version of the holding camps from which they emerged.

The transgender community is one that often, wrongly, passes under the radar, but Eleanor Cheung’s chapter ‘GID in Hong Kong: A Critical Overview of Medical Treatments for Transexual Patients’ makes plain that this has a cost. Cheung researches transgender subjects at the Faculty of Education in the University of Hong Kong, and her findings of the effects of the reduction in Government attention and funding that led to the closure of Hong Kong’s only Gender Identity Team (at Queen Mary Hospital) are disturbing. From 1986 to 2005, when it was closed by the Hospital Authority, the GIT offered a service for the transgendered scarcely bettered in Asia. Now, anyone seeking Gender Reassignment Surgery is at the mercy of the staff of regional hospitals across Hong Kong, none of whom are trained and many of whom retain the prejudices against transgendered people held by much of the general population. Cheung’s essay is a call to action against a shameful failure of the state to provide for its own citizens.

The cultural worlds of both Hong Kong and China are also put under the spotlight. Yau Ching’s own contribution to the volume is an unusual look at the prolific film maker Li Han-hsiang’s mostly ignored work in erotic or soft porn Fengyue films, of which he made a series whilst working at the Shaw studios from the seventies to the nineties. These were highly popular in their day, but were, according to Yau, not just pornography but subtle commentaries upon the suppression of women, who, in his films, are often portrayed as not exactly the victims of their situations. Natalie Sui-hung Chan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and author of the recent best selling Butterfly of Hidden Colors; The Artistic Image of Leslie Cheung, revisits her mega-star subject to examine Leslie’s public image in ‘Queering Body and Sexuality: Leslie Cheung’s Gender Representation in Hong Kong Popular Culture.’ She focusses on Leslie’s play with dress, words and performance to create an androgynous image attractive to both men and women. Interestingly, she takes issue with the academic author of the first of the ‘Queer Asia’ series, Helen Hok-Sze Leung, whose book Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong included a chapter entitled ‘In Queer Memory: Leslie Cheung (1956-2003)’ and who, according to Chan, plays down the effects of media criticism of Leslie’s sexual image. I think that Chan has the better of this argument; Leslie and those around him pointed to the media criticism of his 2000-2001 Passion Tour concerts as the start of the depression which eventually caused him to take his own life. Shi-Yan Chao of New York University, takes the reader back into Mainland China with his examination of the making of queer films in the Post-socialist era, in this case focussing on two documentaries about female impersonator performers, Tang Tang and Mei Mei (or in the case of the former, not quite a documentary, rather a strange hybrid between documentary and docudrama).

This collection of essays is 218 pages long with a full academic apparatus, is clearly laid out and attractively bound. Two small criticisms of the book: the absence or scarcity of photographs in some of the essays (former Director of the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Denise Tang’s useful essay on lesbian spaces in Tung Lo Wan cries out for illustration); and the layout of the notes pages, where chapter names are not given and where there is no indication above the notes of the pages to which they refer, small points which slow down reading.

As Normal as Possible has a wide reach and makes contributions to the field of Asian queer studies in many ways. It is particularly good that here are brought together many of the figures who have helped form the academic contribution to the LGBT struggle in Hong Kong over recent years. The work of these authors, whilst not mentioned here, needs commemoration. The ongoing academic research they show here is another major contribution and will benefit the community in years to come. Future similar collections or larger studies in this series will be eagerly awaited.

Reader's Comments

1. 2010-06-22 10:53  
i love this report, and love the fact chinese are doing their own thing and finding their own way

but lesbian mothers are such strong force to contend with these days, how to keep up with these perfect women who are raising over achieving kids?


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