5 Feb 2010

Les Peches: Hong Kong’s premier lesbian social organisation

Les Peches founders Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni, who met in a straight club in Singapore before moving to Hong Kong in 2001, talks to Fridae.com's Hong Kong correspondent over lunch about community building and how they came to organise the two events that they currently run.

Where can a lesbian go to party and meet other girls? That was the question that confronted Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni when they arrived in Hong Kong from Singapore in 2001. There weren’t (and still aren’t) any lesbian bars or clubs and the karaoke lounges, where a lot of girls went for want of better, didn’t appeal. They also found that in Hong Kong gay men and lesbian women didn’t mix much, so going to gay clubs wasn’t an alternative, though they gave it a go for a while. Whilst trying this, they went to Fruits in Suits, the gay men’s networking gathering held on the third Tuesday of each month. Why not do something similar for women, they thought? So, the idea for Les Peches was born; “We just wanted a comfortable and safe place for queer women to meet and have fun” and the first event took place on 6 December 2005.

 Betty Grisoni and Abby Lee (right)

I met Abby and Betty one night at Les Peches to check out one of their social evenings then had lunch with them a few days later. “How did it all come to start?” I asked.

“Twenty women turned up the first night but gradually it grew and grew,” Abby told me, “till now we have a data base of over 5,000 women.” “We regularly get over 200 coming to our monthly party and other ad hoc parties we hold,” added Betty.

The two are very much a couple, I should add, and they’re hardly ever seen out apart. The events they run (and these are still run by Abby and Betty pretty much on their own) are ‘Les Peches - The Lounge,’ each first Tuesday of the month in Avenue Bar just down from Lan Kwai Fong in Central. They also organise ‘Les Peches – The Club,’ a dance party every three months or so, ‘Les Peches - The Salon’ and occasional events like the Hong Kong Pride party.

In the early days news was spread by word of mouth and fliers which Abby and Betty had printed and took all over town to the few lesbian-friendly coffee shops and bars they knew and to the gay clubs, but now news of Les Peches events is regularly in all the Hong Kong entertainment press (especially in Dim SumHK Magazine and Time Out, etc). The Les Peches network is widespread on the net too; look on Facebook under ‘Les Peches’ or Twitter at www.twitter.com/lespeches.

“Why the name?” I queried.

“There’s a long explanation for this short story,” both replied (not all at once, of course, but they chipped in together as they always do, so who said what becomes indistinguishable after a while!). “The sister event for the Australian Fruits in Suits is called 'Lemons with a Twist', as in Australia ‘lemon’ is used for lesbian. It’s not a word used in Hong Kong, though, but we still liked the concept of ‘fruits’ so took peach instead and made a kind of pun of the words in French, as a lot of Hong Kong lesbians call themselves ‘les’ (which is also French for ‘the’) and we could use the French word for ‘peach’ which is ‘peches’. In French, ‘peche(s)’, also means ‘fishing’ as well as ‘sinning’, which seemed pretty clever and fun. We thought this might be a bit difficult but everyone was happy with it and the name stuck, though we sometimes have to tell people how to pronounce it!”

The French words are less surprising when you know that Betty herself is French, a Corsican girl who left home to travel the world at the age of eighteen and found her sexuality in San Francisco (she was an au pair in a house on the corner of Castro and 21st Street, so she could hardly avoid doing so there!). Later, she worked in Australia for seven years and she was then posted in Singapore, where, at the time, lesbian life seemed very humdrum, with no lesbian clubs and very few events. Then, on a straight night out at Velvet Club, she met Abby, and, after a few of the usual ups and downs, compounded at first by the cultural differences between a local Singaporean-Chinese girl and a Corsican, they fell in love and lived together as a couple.

In 2002, they married in Australia in the Botanical Gardens on the shores of Sydney Harbour. By then they were in Hong Kong, where Abby had got a job and Betty had followed. They’ve been here ever since.

“We’re foreigners in Hong Kong,” Betty relates, “as well as a mixed race couple, and that gives us a cosmopolitan approach which helps in running a lesbian organisation that is about 50% local and 50% expat.”

Neither of them had much experience of queer activism before (and activism is not really a word that they think is relevant to a social organisation like Les Peches, though their prominence now in lesbian society has led them into the fringes of local queer politics). All this was very new to Abby, though Betty had volunteered in women’s groups in several places since she was a teenager and had joined other things like the queer group at her university and Melbourne’s Mid Summer Festival. So I reckon creating something as lively and now central to the community as Les Peches is not bad going. And there’s no doubt how thriving it is; what started as a quiet gathering for a few hours after 6.30pm now kicks off around 9 pm and by 11 o’clock is a packed and noisy crowd jostling for space on the dance floor. It goes on till 2 am most nights. It is the place for girls to let their hair down and lose their inhibitions, and they do; trust me, I’ve been there! There is a slowly increasing trickle of gay guys attending now, too.

“In many places around the world, gay men and lesbians go to the same places and dance together, but this doesn’t happen in Hong Kong.” Maybe Les Peches will be one of the few places that will make this happen comfortably.

Aside from making a lot of women happy, Les Peches also does a lot of good in the community. Apart from being a major channel of communication, it’s also a source of activities and funds to support the local queer community. Hong Kong Pride is just one of the events and groups Abby and Betty’s work has helped and the community has discovered through what they’ve done that if you want to raise money for good causes there are few better ways than getting people to enjoy themselves.

Les Peches is over four years old now and is clearly here to stay. Abby and Betty have made it one of the pillars of Hong Kong’s queer society. Hong Kong can consider itself fortunate that they lighted on its shores. 

For more information please contact Abby or Betty at lespechesinfo@yahoo.com. You can also find them on Facebook under Les Peches or Twitter at www.twitter.com/lespeches