Last March, the M+ Museum put on a very original and stimulating multimedia show called Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture, which showcased the high level of gender fluidity that the Hong Kong public had grown to love in its greatest local stars.

The most beloved names from film and Cantopop were represented through photographs and film clips – from the androgynous seductiveness of the extraordinarily talented Anita Mui, to the languid multi-layered bravura of Leslie Cheung, to quote just two of the most iconic Hong Kong superstars.

They have been far from the only ones: Roman Tam, whose peacock costume made fashion history, Anthony Wong and Denise Ho have all been expanding the boundaries of what gender means on the stage, and their large fan bases have rewarded them.

the ambiguously yours exhibition
Ambiguously Yours at M+. Photo: West Kowloon.

The M+ exhibition concentrated on the impact these gender bending attitudes had on local culture in the 80s and 90s. It examined the deep ongoing influence in contemporary art and society given by a broader view of what masculinity and femininity might imply.

This is not to say that it all started only in the 80s but, by then, gender fluidity and ambiguity in performing art were largely accepted by the general public, becoming mainstream, and gaining currency even away from the stage. Fast-forward 40 years, and you wonder where Hong Kong’s political and business elites have been all this time.

Take the much-leaked speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club by Carrie Lam just last month: asked for a reaction to the news that Hong Kong had been awarded the “Gay Olympics,” Lam was totally unable even to utter the word “gay,” which she replaced with “same-sex” – and logic be damned.

So, she said, she had noted that the “same-sex Olympics” had been awarded to Hong Kong, and hopefully they would also bring events for “non same-sex people” to enjoy. All this, she hastened to add, was by no means a precursor to “same-sex marriage” as that would have been polarising for society. Not to mention that, as a practising Catholic, she could not support it.

Pointing out that all Olympics are “same sex” as women and men do not compete against each other, or that a single individual cannot be described as “same sex” is good for a giggle, but the matter is a serious one. Hong Kong can be shockingly conservative and hypocritical when it comes to attitudes about sex and morality.

Remember the Edison Chen erotic photos scandal, and the flood of complaints to TVB when Gillian Chung – a victim – took part in a charity programme? But when it comes to drafting policies, local elites are way more bigoted and judgmental than the average member of the public.

And yet, it is these unrepresentative and unelected elites who still determine what rights people have access to, whether they concern respect for diversity or reproductive health and rights.

carrie lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File photo: GovHK.

The range is stiflingly small. As Lam just reminded us, same-sex unions are not recognised in this modern city. Religious opposition – that ought to be irrelevant to a secular government – is allowed to carry more decisional weight than it should, given that a rather small percentage of the population (about 12 per cent) defines itself as Christian.

There is more: infertility treatments in Hong Kong are only available to (heterosexual) married couples, withdrawing access to reproductive hopes to any couple that doesn’t fall in that category. Civic partnerships among gay or straight adults are not considered enough for the law to grant access to infertility treatments, even at private clinics.

A little leeway is given as far as adoption is concerned – single people are allowed to adopt a child in Hong Kong. However, in the case of same-sex couples, only one of the adoptive parents would then be recognised as such, leaving the door open to complications should the couple split, or the legally recognised adoptive parent pass away.

Contraception is widely available – with the exception of the “morning after pill” which cannot be obtained over the counter, but requires a prescription from a physician. Given that such pills do not require any kind of examination, asking women to get a prescription only implies a loss of privacy, time, and money, which points to a punitive, judgmental attitude towards women’s sexuality.

When it comes to abortion, too, Hong Kong’s laws are more conservative than its society: pregnancy termination is legal, but only if two doctors agree that avoiding it would put the woman’s life at risk, or if the foetus presents serious mental or physical abnormalities.

What is called “chemical abortion”, procured through the use of one type of hormonal drug, is available in Hong Kong only for the first ten weeks of pregnancy, but even then the opinion and consent of two doctors is required. Which means that women in need of a termination may resort to travel (for example across the border) in order to exercise their right to choose. Others order abortion pills online – which is not only illegal, but can be truly dangerous too.

lgbt gay pride
Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

From respecting LGBT rights, to making space for diversity and keeping up with the evolution in family structures, Hong Kong’s laws and the attitude of the elites are painfully out of sync with the times. Which brings Hong Kong to the peculiarly painful situation it is in at present: a narrow-minded elite opposes a more contemporary and open view of social and sexual values, on one hand, while alien political values are being imposed upon all in order to please the Beijing elite on the other.

We are unambiguously sandwiched between a bigoted local elite, and a one-Party system at the central level.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.