Conditional Spaces: Hong Kong lesbian desires and everyday life
By Denise Tse-Shang Tang
Paperback 208 Pages
Published by the Hong Kong University Press, 2011
I last set eyes on Denise Tang as she introduced a film showing during the 2005 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival (HKLGFF), of which she was festival director. After that, she seemed to drop somewhat out of public view. This was perhaps deceptive, but the arrival of the eighth in Hong Kong University Press’s Queer Asia series, her Conditional Spaces, explains in part why I had this impression. Tang is now Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong University as well as remaining immersed in LGBT activism, principally as a core committee member of Nutongxueshe, which she describes as ‘a local cultural and advocacy organisation with the first Chinese online television station GdotTV.’
She has also been researching and writing a book that, I am delighted to be able to relate, is one of the best examples of applied queer theory that has issued from the Hong Kong University Press in its Queer Asia series. Concise, carefully and clearly written, it applies some interesting theoretical concepts to real people and places and comes up with some firm conclusions. It is a book that contains a wealth of factual information about Hong Kong’s LGBT history and the situation queer activism had found itself in by 2010, when she laid down her pen. It is also a book that focuses on real lives related in part in the words of those living them, and so is something of an eye-opener into the way queer Hong Kong is conditioned by its environment.
Tang is interested in the effect Hong Kong’s spaces have on the lesbians (and she adds transgender lesbians) who inhabit them, the physical spaces provided by homes and meeting places – bars, cafes, places to hang out – as well as the psychological and institutional spaces provided by education, religion, culture and queer organisations.
She makes it abundantly clear that Hong Kong’s spaces have their own unique characteristics that impinge heavily on the lives of its inhabitants. The vast majority of people live in tiny (300-700 square foot) apartments in which three generations often find themselves crammed; one of her informants describes a bedroom in which a sister sleeps on a top bunk, another sister shares with a grandmother on the bottom bunk and she sleeps on the floor.
There is no way that most lesbians can bring partners back to such family accommodation, and, in a city where property prices are among the highest in the world, there is no way most can move out on their own. It is the lucky, and the relatively affluent, who can break out of this trap. So other spaces are vital to life. This adds greatly to the difficulty of coming out, or in worst cases of being maliciously outed, as there is literally often nowhere to which to escape.
The second factor that makes life very difficult for Hong Kong lesbians is that many of the institutional spaces here are in the hands of society’s conservative elements. Hong Kong schools are very largely run independently by religious bodies. Hong Kong Churches generally adopt homo- and transphobic positions and in the last decade have financed and conducted campaigns aimed at denigrating sexual minorities and preventing the legislation to enact their human rights. Hong Kong’s government is at best unenthusiastic about sexual minorities, at times openly hostile. The spaces which most lesbians are forced to inhabit are, therefore, largely ill-suited for any satisfying form of lesbian life.
So lesbians fall back on the net, on fleeting encounters in public spaces and on the private spaces provided by lesbian-run cafes and bars. There are always some of these, but Hong Kong’s rents quickly put paid to poorly financed and irregularly patronised businesses. They don’t last long, even when tucked away on the upper floors of run down buildings.
Tang does a very good job of making plain just how difficult life can be for most of Hong Kong’s lesbians, and her discussion leads inexorably into a consideration of the effects of Hong Kong’s class structure on lesbian life. Class has long been the unacknowledged canker at the heart of capitalist Hong Kong, where life for the wealthy and middle classes has been good.
In earlier days this good life was attainable by hard work and talent, and the poor who failed to make it were ignored. Increasingly, though, the disparity in incomes between the top and bottom of society and the steady atrophy of social mobility mean that making good becomes more and more unlikely for those at the bottom of the heap. The resentments that derive from this increasingly colour and embitter life here.
Class spills over into LGBT activism. Cantonese speaking and Chinese-literate working class activists, often anti-capitalist in their view of life, fill the ranks of the organizations like Women Coalition and Rainbow that get out to protest in the street and confront the establishment directly.
English-fluent middle class activists working in the business sector prefer to operate within the system and behind the scenes. This is not something unique to Hong Kong and, as in many parts of the world, it would seem common sense that both should have usefully complementary parts to play in the struggle for rights. Class antagonisms, though, mean that the two sides of the class divide scarcely meet, let alone coordinate their activities. Tang, with this reviewer, thinks this a pity.
Other suspicions and hostilities vitiate the LGBT ‘movement’. There remains much unresolved lesbian feminist suspicion of gay men, and much disdain by the latter for the former. This sort of problem erupts in controversies such as that surrounding the word ‘tongzhi’ (comrade), which Hong Kong’s early gay activists stole from Mao’s China as a word they hoped would satisfy all camps to denote ‘queer’.
Some lesbian groups were among those, though, who rejected this label as being too gay-related. Transgender groups have had little time for it either, as they see it as having orientation, not gender, connotations. Tang picks her way through this minefield with coolness tinged with a little sadness to construct a narrative of Hong Kong’s LGBT movement from where Chou Wah-Shan left off at the turn of the century in his Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies. Indeed, she goes back to re-interpret some of the ground he covers, for he was himself part of the controversies of his age. She expands some of his account, informing us, for instance, that it was playwright Edward Lam who coined the word ‘tongzhi’ in 1989 – Chou mentions him only as ‘an activist’.
Some parts of this book have appeared before. For instance, followers of the Queer Asia series will notice that Tang’s Chapter 2, ‘Consumption Spaces’, focusing on lesbian commercial meeting places, appeared in Yau Ching’s As Normal as Possible: Negotiating Sexualities in Hong Kong and China, the fourth volume of the series.
This does not detract from its place in the present volume, for the chapter fits naturally here in the developing argument about how Hong Kong’s geography conditions lesbian life.
In addition to the many touching personal accounts Tang translates and quotes, she has added a further personal touch in the coda she appends in her ‘Epilogue’. As befits a writer who is still a programming consultant for the HKLGFF, she has chosen to conclude her book with her own reflections on one of her favourite Hong Kong lesbian films, Yau Ching’s Ho Yuk: Let’s Love Hong Kong. The film is a highly appropriate way to end a book about lesbian spaces in Hong Kong and the lesbian lives lived among them. Tang concludes with two thoughts:
The silence that engulfs me in terms of lesbian invisibility. The environment that is so painfully reticent.
She has written Conditional Spaces to elucidate that environmental reticence and its effect on the real women she has encountered here.