Christina, a schoolteacher in her mid-twenties, felt unsafe every day as she walked home from the MTR station in Sham Shui Po. Groups of men would harass her on her way home from work, yelling comments such as, “Hey beautiful,” or “You’re so sexy!”

She learned to ignore it, but one night, things got more threatening.

A tall, broad and hairy man wearing no shirt and carrying a bottle of alcohol in one hand started walking toward her, deliberately blocking her path.

Christina. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“He whispered something in my ear, I don’t remember what he said…He really got close enough to touch my face with his nose – it was horrible.”

The sudden contact and the man’s menacing presence triggered her fight or flight response, Christina said. “I was just in a reactive state, which was why I just shouted ‘fuck you, fuck off!’ – I can’t even remember what came out of my mouth… I was just trying to fight, to make sure that I wasn’t raped.”

Her reaction angered him, and he started shouting at her and following her as she tried to walk away. Fortunately, the incident went no further, as there were witnesses nearby.

The stress from the daily harassment took its toll. Christina recalled being afraid to present herself too attractively, she became frightened of going out alone, and she began asking her boyfriend to join her on the five minute walk home. She had only lived in Sham Shui Po for a year before moving away, even though she liked the area and her apartment.

Christina is not the only woman in Hong Kong to feel unsafe in public places. Others interviewed by HKFP said they experienced types of harassment ranging from staring, whispering, catcalling, following, to groping and indecent assault. Men also experience sexual harassment, but it happens disproportionately to women. Though there is no data for street harassment specifically, according to the latest government figures, over 85 per cent of the sexual harassment complaints received for investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the past ten years were filed by women. In 2015, 97.4 per cent of victims in sexual violence cases – including indecent assault and rape – were women.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

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Over a thousand cases of rape and indecent assault are reported to the Hong Kong police every year. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has received an average of 72 complaints per year related to sexual harassment in the past three years.

But government data fails to reveal the entire picture. A 2013 study conducted by local charity the Association Concerning Violence Against Women (ACSVAW) found that almost half of the women it surveyed in Hong Kong had experienced sexual harassment, and one in seven had experienced sexual violence. The number for women who have experienced street harassment may be even higher – research conducted for a 2015 Lingnan University master’s thesis found that 80 per cent of 350 respondents aged between 18 and 25 reported experiencing stranger harassment at least once in their lifetimes. It seems to match anecdotal evidence. Every woman interviewed for this article by HKFP said they knew of another woman who had experienced street harassment.

Yet harassment in public spaces is not adequately acknowledged by Hong Kong’s institutions. The Sexual Discrimination Ordinance only protects against discrimination in formal settings such as the workplace, schools, and during the provision of goods and services. The EOC has a broad definition of sexual harassment: any unwelcome sexual behaviour or conduct which is offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It provides advice on how to deal with sexual harassment, but can only investigate incidents which occur in the formal settings according to the law.

Furthermore, police only investigate cases which involve criminal elements such as assault. This means that victims have few avenues of recourse when sexual harassment does not occur in a formal setting, or when it does not involve criminal elements – such as some cases of verbal harassment. For example, when two women shouted homophobic slurs at lawmaker Ray Chan on the MTR in 2015, the EOC condemned their actions but said it could not investigate as it was outside of the scope of the Sexual Discrimination Ordinance.

A set on a bystander intervention workshop run by local NGO ACSVAW. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

‘Grab her by the pussy’

The prevalence of harassment may be underestimated in government data as victims often do not report incidents, even in serious cases. Hazel, now a university student, did not go to the police when a boy tried to grope her on a minibus when she was 13. That day, she was sitting next to a boy in a school uniform, who was about the same age as her at the time. She felt a shuffling against her thigh and saw his hand start to move up her leg, but thought it may have been accidental. She used her laptop as a barrier in an effort to stop him, but he moved his hand around the laptop.

“I grabbed his hand, I put it away, he just went for it – he just went – like you know, Donald Trump, ‘grab her by the pussy’ – like he just totally tried to do that.”

Nobody knew what was happening on the bus, and he didn’t respond or acknowledge her when she told him: “Could you fucking not?” though that did make him stop. He got off the bus before she did, and – at such a young age – she did not think to report it to the authorities or to her family.

“I just felt so dirty afterward, I felt like I had to take a shower, but I didn’t know exactly why I had to take a shower. And I just remember telling a teacher the next day… and she just said ‘that’s disgusting,’ and that’s about it.”

The fact that women don’t feel safe in public spaces is a manifestation of gender inequality, and harassment represents an imbalance of power, said Linda Wong, director of the ACSVAW.

Linda Wong (L), director of ACSVAW, and Eva Leung, project officer. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Although the feminist movement has brought the issue of street harassment into the global spotlight in recent years, public discussion of the phenomenon seems to be lacking in Hong Kong. Susanne Choi, an expert on gender and family issues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong has been better at dealing with the problem than Japan, but the situation is worse than in northern Europe, for instance.

Angie Ng, founder of SlutWalk Hong Kong, said she feels that street harassment is normalised in Hong Kong, as it is in other places. She founded SlutWalk in the city as a way to start a conversation about slut-shaming, sexual harassment and assault.

Though street harassment occurs across the world, the problem in Hong Kong is also closely entwined with local attitudes and gender norms.

“A lot of women have experienced this type of thing,” Eva Leung, project officer of the ACSVAW’s sexual assault crisis hotline, said. “I have too – so why is it that, in so many years, these things are still condoned?”

Leung said it may have to do with traditional patriarchal Chinese attitudes of valuing men above women, “But it’s not necessarily just a Chinese concept,” she said, adding that women are not valued as highly as men in many other cultures.

Hazel said that, in her experience growing up with traditional Chinese attitudes, “women are taught to suffer, that we bear, and to keep quiet, and to quietly endure, while men can go off and do whatever the hell they want.”

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Jason Ho, a professor at Hong Kong University who studies gender and sexuality in East Asian film, says although Hong Kong society is not as patriarchal as Japan or Korea, ingrained gender norms and sexual conservatism are factors in how we deal with sexual harassment as a society. He says the subject of sex is treated as a sort of taboo, which may contribute to the lack of public discussion on street harassment and victims’ reluctance to speak out.  

“We, as Hong Kong society, may think of ourselves as more advanced than China, but I feel that when it comes to gender norms, they’re still very much ingrained.”

“I think everyone uses a very convenient excuse: ‘We’re a Chinese society, we don’t talk about this kind of thing…’ You can’t imagine anyone talking at their dining table about anything to do with sex.”

Because sex is so rarely discussed in schools and at home, “girls are made to feel like sex is something that is dirty, something that you shouldn’t talk about or mention, while boys will become very curious towards it, and use their own – maybe not very appropriate – ways to find out about sex… such as porn,” said Ho.

This may lead to misunderstandings about sexual relationships and a lack of respect for others’ bodies, Ho said.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

One form of possibly harassing behaviour in public that is particularly hard to pin down is staring. While it may not be directly harmful, it can affect the way that women feel and behave in public spaces over time. It is also an indication of the lack of respect for women in society, says Leung.

“It’s a sign of gender inequality and sexual stereotyping that people think it’s okay to stare at women – society thinks that it’s a form of enjoyment to stare at women,” whether or not they like it, she said.

If confronted, men might say “you only wear so little clothing because you want me to look at you,” or some variation thereof. This is a sign that the myth of “when women say no, they mean yes” holds sway, Dr. Choi said.

“If society doesn’t acknowledge the fact that women are an independent and equal persons, then of course they will not respect what women say.”

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“Most of the time, I don’t feel like I’m in any immediate danger, but I [dislike] just the hubris of it,” says Hazel, who gets intensely stared at on a regular basis. “It’s the entitlement behind them seeing me as, you know, as just a product – product walking down the street and going, oh, there’s a pretty picture.”

“It’s also when the eyes go up and down – it’s very disturbing to see, because you can tell what they’re imagining, you can tell what they’re thinking about.”

‘Virgins and whores’

Slutwalk organiser Angie Ng, who also studied gender and race issues in Hong Kong for her Ph.D, said the religious school system in Hong Kong, combined with traditional Confucian beliefs, may have strengthened the separation of women into two groups in people’s minds – the “good girls,” virgins who should be protected and “bad girls,” who go out to bars in short skirts, for example.

Real victims are those who are considered to be “good girls,” which may actually lead to the blaming and even victimisation of those who are not, said Ng. “Some people think that ‘if she’s a ‘bad girl’ anyway, then she’s ‘fair game.””

Ng said she has personally experienced this. For example, men have called her a “drunk whore” as she was heading home after a night out. She said she has also been touched inappropriately by men who think it’s acceptable to do so in certain contexts – in a club, for example.

This attitude also come into play when it comes to victim blaming, which ACSVAW director Linda Wong says is “very severe” in Hong Kong.

Christina. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Dr. Choi said the burden is often placed on girls and women to protect themselves, rather than on boys to respect women.

In attempts to protect them from harm, parents often warn girls to cover up and avoid walking alone on the streets at night – even though there is no research to indicate that women attract harassment by the way they dress. Feelings of guilt and shame may persist long after the incident, and cause victims to be less likely to report cases of harassment, as in the case of Laura, now a university student.

When she was 13, a strange man professing to be able to read her mind took her to a quiet place, asked her to lay face down on a bench and think of a number, then held her hand and started masturbating. 

Fortunately, he was interrupted by a security guard, who afterwards asked Laura to give him her address and phone number so he could report the incident to the police. Afraid her family would find out, Laura gave him a fake address.

“I was scared, I felt like I did something wrong,” Laura said, even though she didn’t really understand what he was doing at the time. She said feelings of guilt and shame persisted long after the incident, even up to the present day.

In fact, when a man grabbed her hand and started touching himself on the street last December, Laura said her first reaction after she got out of the situation was to look at her own clothes.

“As if that was the reason why it had happened to me. I think this is quite twisted – as if I had invited it to happen.”

She also took off her makeup and wiped away her lipstick before going to the police. “I didn’t want them to think I was that kind of a ‘casual’ girl,” she said.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

In the ACSVAW study, less than 3 per cent of women who had experienced sexual harassment reported it to the police. 20 per cent reported it to their friends or family. Of those who did not report the harassment, nearly 30 per cent of them responded that they did not do so owing to feelings of shame, not wanting to make a big deal out of it, or not wanting others to know. Of the women interviewed for this story, only Laura reported her case to the police. She said she insisted on doing so because she regretted not reporting the previous incident.

Fear and helplessness

Dr. Choi said there is a data gap as well as a legal gap on street harassment in Hong Kong. The EOC’s focus on the types of sexual harassment that are covered in the Sexual Discrimination Ordinance, and universities’ concern about sexual harassment on campus means that researchers have more incentive to focus on these topics, resulting in the lack of data on street harassment, she said.

“I also think it’s very difficult to legislate, so I also believe that what is more urgent now is a way to reform our sex education.”

ACSVAW’s Eva Leung sees community education as another potential solution. In an effort to shift the responsibility from the victim to protect themselves, the group is using workshops and videos to teach bystanders about sexual harassment and how to intervene. “If [gropers] know that other people think they’re wrong, they might not do it,” Leung said.

A solution is long overdue, as victims of sexual harassment feel like there is nothing they can do to solve the problem.

Kimberly. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Kimberly – a digital designer in her late twenties who is regularly cat-called and followed by strange men – told HKFP how the frequency of these occurrences has caused a heightened level of anxiety, giving rise to rage that she has nowhere to direct.

“You just feel like the streets are unsafe, and the world is a bit more hostile to you as a woman.”

She said she is often disappointed at her own responses to incidents. She described a sense of helplessness, of fear – even when someone is driving by and honking at her on the street. And when she experiences harassment, she ruminates on the incident, trying to make sense of it. Despite this, she has not approached the police.

“How can you? What are you going to say? It’s so momentary and then they’re gone.”

Asked whether she has considered seeking help from NGOs or hotlines, another victim, Hazel, questioned the point of doing so.

“After that happens, what is the remedy?” asks Hazel. “The only remedy is to think to yourself: those guys are assholes, I’m not less than them… and that’s it.”

Some names of victims have been changed in this story for their protection. 

Resources for victims of street harassment:

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.