2 Oct 2009

Ahoy there, sailors! Sail with Floatilla, Hong Kong's best kept secret

Fridae.com's Hong Kong correspondent, Nigel Collett, interviews Greg Crandall, 'Admiral' of Hong Kong's gay fleet which is scheduled to set sail the day before Hong Kong Pride, on Oct 31.

The sheer scope of diversity in Hong Kong’s tongzhi world is often hard to keep up with. There is just so much happening across the community that it’s easy to get bewildered by it all, and often it’s still very much the case that we do our own thing in our own area and not everyone else knows that we’re doing it. There are, though, thankfully some big events in the Hong Kong LGBT calendar which bring us all together.

The oldest of all, the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, hits our screens this year between 20 November and 1 December. The youngest, the Pride Parade, this year only in its second incarnation, will take to the streets on Sunday 1 November. The third, and the middle child of the three, Floatilla, will set sail perfectly timed on the day before Pride, on Saturday 31 October. This, Hong Kong’s best kept tongzhi secret, will be our fourth nautical extravaganza. I met up with its founding 'Admiral,' Greg Crandall, over coffee in Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and asked him what this year holds and how he has piloted his fleet this far.

But before I relay to you what he told me, let me tell you a little about Floatilla. For the last three years, Greg has masterminded the assembling of a fleet of junks, each hired by a different bunch of LGBT revellers. This has set sail to a destination kept carefully secret until the day from all but the Chinese coxswains and has then anchored up to party the day away together.

The first year, 2006, saw over 550 boys and girls on ten boats. The next year, 2007 about doubled this, to over 1000 people, and though 2008 was down a bit (perhaps due to the time of the year, a cool and blustery spring, chosen the year before) the number was still about 850. To get onboard you’ve got to register with a participating boat, and they’re all registered with Greg, so this is something kept quiet within the tongzhi community. And boat crews come from absolutely every part of the Hong Kong tongzhi scene: lesbian, gay and transgender; club kids and university students; young and old; local and expat; bear and twink. Almost every different demographic element has been included in what is, in effect, the community’s ‘Private Pride’, not out on the city streets this time but out at sea celebrating itself within itself, for the next day’s Pride Parade will be the community’s chance to celebrate in public.

For in a fleet of boats, as all have discovered, you can sail with your own crew and stay in ‘your own house’ if you’re more inclined or just a little shy, but you can also mingle with those on the junk next door as much or as little as you like. We actually get to see one another for a change. And what a sight it is; ‘just magnificent!’ Greg says very proudly.

He got the idea back in the States when attending a ‘Splash’ on Lake Hippy Hollow at Austin, Texas. All sorts of craft, pleasure boats and speed boats have long gathered there to party at the end of the summer.

A few years later, in 1999, by then in San Francisco and getting a bit jaded with the way his life was heading, Greg decided to take an adventure, sold up his property and moved what was left of his life to Hong Kong. He’s been here ever since and has no desire ever to leave. The ‘Splash’ idea, though, wouldn’t leave him, and he talked about it so incessantly that his friends eventually suggested he put up or shut up about it, so he decided on the former and took the plunge. Assuming the ambivalent name ‘Sharkbait’ he started to organise the event by word of mouth and the net, and Floatilla was launched.

Till now he’s managed it all himself, a mammoth task. He set up the web site floatillahk.com (where you can register your boat for this year’s event or get on the individual mailing list. Check it out, too, for a few photos of earlier events). If you want to enter a junk you’ll need HK$1,500 to register. This pays for the insurance, the lifeguards, the shuttles that take the aquatically-challenged between junks at the final anchorage, the medical assistants and the website, and comes to all of about HK$33 a head, depending, of course, on how many you can get onboard your boat. Safety is a huge concern, given the number of happy party goers afloat at one time, so legal limits on junks are strictly adhered to. But any money left over every year goes to charity. AIDS Concern, for instance, has been a beneficiary and this year it’ll be Horizons, the gay youth counselling and support NGO.

Floatilla has grown like topsy over its still short life and Greg recognised this year it had become too much for even Sharkbait to handle alone. He’s now formed a committee to manage the day, and has been joined on this by some of the community’s key movers and shakers: Edowan Bersma, the doyen of the Lan Kwai Fong scene; Betty Grisoni and Abby Lee, the organisers of Les Peches; Paul Caldera, Tony Smyth and Evan Miracle. Jamie Higgins of the 97 Group is also lending an occasional hand. The policy remains, though, firm that Floatilla is all inclusive, that any tongzhi group can sail, that no one group or organisation is allowed to ‘own’ the event and that there’ll always be a component of charitable giving. Greg also thinks it’s important to help nurture tongzhi friendly businesses, like travel agents and clubs, who are all allowed to sponsor the event in return for some good PR.

Greg Crandall, 'Admiral' of Floatilla

Through Sharkbait, Greg, a Creative Director in an agency for advertising, marketing and communications that is part of the Asia Media Group, has become one of the better known expat faces on the Hong Kong tongzhi scene. He has, though, another claim to fame here.

Six years ago he met one of Hong Kong’s leading dancers, Allen Lam (whose show with Tony Wong, Moments in the Palm of Your Hand, wowed Hong Kong this year and has just staged in Macau). Allen had been in the States for about nine years and had just returned. They fell pretty quickly in love and, in 2008, decided to marry.

First, they threw a celebration in the restored classic Bethany building in Pok Fu Lam, at which many of Allen’s fellow APA members performed for the couple. “It was a star-studded ‘It’s Your Life’ kind of celebration, one of the most magic things,” Greg says.

Then they flew to California and wed under the same-sex marriage law that all too briefly held sway in that state. They were married on the steps of City Hall just before the law was annulled. Greg says that neither of them has any regrets.

“The marriage licence has changed everything,” he avers. “Being married is a different level of commitment. A marriage certificate is serious stuff that every immigration official or government bureaucrat has to think twice about. It’s a great mental card to pull when you need it,” he adds. “But all that’s unimportant beside the level of commitment it shows for each other. I’m still honeymooning!”

Greg and Allen’s partnership is just one reason why he’s not going to be leaving Hong Kong any time in the foreseeable future and why we can count on the long term survival of Floatilla. It’ll continue to evolve and improve, too. “We’re looking at introducing a beach component,” Greg says, “for those whose stomachs rule out junk trips.” Though Hong Kong may be behind Singapore and Shanghai in establishing an annual tongzhi festival, Greg, and the Film Festival’s Joe Lam and Pride Parade’s Connie Chan and her team, have already put the three pillars of a future festival in place. With a little juggling of dates, this possibility is now well within the grasp of the community. Time, perhaps, to take up that challenge too.

Hong Kong