A Tour of Lesbian Hong Kong10 min read

Names, places, and the stories behind them – Benita Chick

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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 largely unknown to both locals and foreigners: T:ME Bar.

Probably my favorite 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 gay sanctuary that makes for a particularly enlightening pit stop. In my experience, four out of five Hong Kongers don’t know it exists, or that it relates closely to Chinese history.

Pak Tsz (百子) literally means “Hundred Alleys” in Cantonese, 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 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 revolutionaries when they had to flee from  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 (tongzhi 同志) 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 compared to some of our Asian neighbors, 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, meandering through historical landmarks in Central and Sheung Wan. It includes visits to iconic settings for Hong Kong’s preeminent LGBT movies, such as Happy Together and All About Love, 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  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, and Accenture for education and advocacy purposes.

As a middle-class and well-educated lesbian in Hong Kong, I came out with little difficulty or discrimination. 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 that gender identity and sexual orientation are topics not publicly discussed in Hong Kong. This needs to change.

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

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

Are You TB, TBG or Pure?

Victoria Harbour separates Hong Kong’s population of seven million into two: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. 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. Kowloon’s Mong Kok and Hong Kong Island’s Causeway Bay neighborhoods both attract “tomboys,” or TBs, to whom we owe much of the city’s open attitude towards lesbians. TBs behave and dress in a typically masculine way that falls somewhere  between “boydyke” and “FTM” (female-to-male). While the “cool” TB style is popular among many of Hong Kong’s straight population, they still hesitate to make public displays of affection, unlike TBs, who un-shyly hold hands and kiss their girlfriends in public. The TB phenomenon has quickly spread throughout Asia, influencing TB-themed movies and even lifestyle magazines. It especially took root in Hong Kong, 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 honor their parents, who boast about their achievements, while women are meant to just serve males. Women can fly under society’s radar without as many restrictions by choosing a TB style.

In the 1990s, many local lesbians relied on a website called “Blur-f” to network and mingle. This forum was full of chat rooms on various topics. Of course, the most important function was the “friends” room, which 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.

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. Their partners are TBGs, who are more feminine in contrast. Women calling themselves “Pure” or “Pure Lesbian” may appear feminine, but do not take  gender roles as seriously as TB romantic couples. Then there’s the versatile “Les,” short for “Lesbian”: those who identify as such can look and act either masculine or feminine.

In Hong Kong, these labels matter.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 question they’re asked is “What are you? TB, TBG or Pure?”

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” – and for heterosexual men posing as lesbians in the forums and using fake identities to trick lesbians to go out with them.

In recent years, a new label has become popular, both in Hong Kong and Taiwan: “No-label.” Most No-labels are “gender fluid,” in that they are lesbian but may have a huge range of masculine and feminine behavior, appearance and sexual preferences. The term fits all those who feel they do not fit neatly into one category.

Cafe Culture

In the late 2000s there were up to three lesbian cafes in Hong Kong, including LINE on Percival Street, near the popular tourist destination Times Square. While gay bars had been in the city since the early 90s, lesbian gathering places were always very limited. Lesbian cafes offered an alternative for people who just wanted to meet up with their friends in a cosy environment. The cafes would  organize events ranging from book reading and oyster tasting (no pun intended) to board games. 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. These were interesting alternatives to meeting people online on Blur-f, and also provided sanctuaries for many lesbian activities. Sadly, these cafes were unable to sustain their businesses, and gradually closed down.

Cafe culture never totally went away, though. In 2005, Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni started the group Les Peches.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 you’re not too intimidated by the loud music and dancing, Les Peches is still rocking the lesbian scene every month.

We Are Here

In 2012, Gigi Chao, the daughter of a billionaire, planned to marry her female partner Sean. 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. One year later, the incredibly popular and politically active singer Denise Ho came out, boosting pride and visibility.

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.

While 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 like Butterfly, I assume many single lesbians depend on apps like Tinder or Coffee Meets Bagels to meet new partners. I hope to see more lesbian activity groups, like the sports empowerment group SWEATITUDE, and more hangout spots. But they’re out there – you just have to know where to look. ∎

This is an abridged version of an article first published by NüVoices. Read the full article here. Header image: Pak Tsz Lane Park. All images courtesy of the author.