In this the month in which the world celebrated International Women’s Day, the South China Morning Post, the city’s leading English-language publication, has struck a blow for the women of Hong Kong by deleting and subsequently apologising for an extraordinarily sexist article written by regular columnist Mike Rowse.

Mike Rowse. Photo: Wikicommons/SCMP screenshot.

Of course, the SCMP should never have uploaded the piece to its online platform last Thursday in the first place, but at least give credit to editor-in-chief Tammy Tam for pulling the plug and issuing an expeditious, damage-control mea culpa that stated, in part:

“. . . we will not be a platform that perpetuates the objectification of women, nor the demeaning of any group in society. In this case, our online posting of the column ‘How Hong Kong women manage to dress so well in cold climes’ represented a serious lapse in judgement.”

Correct—as any semi-enlightened, 21st-century SCMP sub-editor should have seen well before an avalanche of outrage and complaint forced Tam to get involved. The headline itself signals trouble ahead, and Rowse, a former civil servant who is now a private consultant and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, certainly did not disappoint.

The article begins with a titillating disclaimer: “WARNING: Readers of a nervous disposition, or who have supped too long at the well of political correctness, should turn away NOW.”

Photo: Slutwalk Hong Kong, via Facebook.

So, of course, many of us kept on reading, our eyes widening in disbelief as the author, clearly suffering under the delusion that he is poised on the rhetorical knife’s edge of wit and humour, proceeds to offer a condescending mix of sexist observations and counsel to Hong Kong women on how to and not to dress when temperatures drop. And then comes the transcendently creepy segment in which Rowse casts a lascivious street-side glance in the direction of those women willing to take his cold-weather fashion advice by donning “boots and a traditional dress with a smart coat on top” to his specifications:

“The boots [should finish] a couple of inches below the knee, the coat two inches or so above, and inside a dress or skirt not quite as long. So with every confident stride forward that they took, there would be just a glimpse of thigh, nothing immodest you understand, but enough to light a spark in an old man’s eye.”

Photo: Pixabay.

Rowse may have started this column with the belief that he was writing an edgy challenge to the political correctness of our times, but by the time it was finished he had created nothing more than an old man’s demeaning fantasy for which he will be taking knocks for a long time to come.

Before we go apoplectic about the sexism of one ageing SCMP columnist, however, let’s take an honest look at the bigger picture for women in Hong Kong. In that broader context of sexism and discrimination, you will quickly forget about Rowse’s transgressions.

Studies by the Census and Statistics Department show that women in this city make far less money for the same work as their male counterparts and that the pay gap is widening, not shrinking, in recent years. Meanwhile, all across Hong Kong, glass ceilings keep all but a relative few women out of the top echelons of the city’s business and professional worlds.

Moreover, sexist stereotypes abound in popular culture—in, for example, the ubiquitous television adverts for wedding services that present bagging a rich husband as every woman’s ultimate dream, as well as those for products such as cosmetics that do much more to objectify women than any single Rowse column.

Yau Wai Ching. Photo: HKFP/Facebook.

And let’s not forget Hong Kong politics, where women, especially women who have managed to succeed against all odds, are held to a different standard than men and routinely bashed with sexist rhetoric and actions. Recall, for example, the photo of localist lawmaker Yau Wai-ching that pro-Beijing protesters pasted on a sex doll late last year prior to her ousting from the Legislative Council.

Indeed, look at the race for Hong Kong’s next chief executive now playing out before us. While the candidacy of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is burdened by a number of factors—most prominently her loyalty to the current, deeply unpopular CE, Leung Chun-ying, and her favoured status with the heavy-handed powers that be in Beijing—there is also a definite sexist cast to the criticism against her. And the same can be said for the other female Chief Executive candidate, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, founder of the New People’s Party and a member of the Legislative Council, who dropped out of the contest after failing to muster the required 150 nominations from the Election Committee.

Photo: HKFP.

True, the two men standing for CE, John Tsang Chun-wah and Woo Kwok-hing, also face attacks from their opponents. Tsang, the clear favourite in most public opinion polls, is mocked for his resemblance to crisp mascot Mr Pringles and denounced by detractors as a former financial secretary who was incapable of forecasting an accurate budget during his nine years in office and now lacks Beijing’s trust. Woo, a retired judge, is dismissed for his lack of political experience; he too, analysts note, does not figure in the central government’s grand plan for Hong Kong.

But a unique vocabulary is reserved for Lam and Ip, especially in today’s increasingly vulgar and often anonymous cyber world. This writer, who has written critically of all four candidates, can offer disturbing personal testimony to that effect.

No one in response to any of my articles about Woo or Tsang has ever referred to either of them as a “cow,” a “bitch,” a “vagina,” a “cunt” or worse.

Mike Rowse is sexism lite. It can get a lot uglier out there.


Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.