Leonard was glued to a tiny moving dot on his mobile phone, and that dot was his lover, Salome. She had given him her geolocation access before leaving Hong Kong for New York City so that he could check on her safety – while she went on a date 13,000 kilometres away.
Sitting at home in Hong Kong, Leonard felt something weird rising in his chest as he followed the dot’s progress on the map through the New York City streets. Abruptly, it stopped moving, and Leonard realised what that meant. That morning, his longtime girlfriend Salome had texted him to say she’d met an attractive man on this business trip. And that she was going to spend the night with him.
“But I didn’t feel jealous,” Leonard said. “That for me was a turning point, because I realised that I could be okay.”
Leonard and Salome are among a growing number of Hongkongers experimenting with polyamory – couples who give each other permission to simultaneously pursue other romantic or even sexual relationships outside their own.
Different ways to love
Before they decided to try polyamory, Leonard, a finance executive, and Salome, who works in the arts, were a conventionally monogamous couple, living in a city that has a reputation for being rather conservative when it comes to matters of sex and relationships.
While contemporary Hongkongers have demonstrated growing acceptance of non-traditional partnerships and sexualities, the city’s puritanical reflex is still strong, as evidenced in the recent homophobic remarks by public officials about the upcoming 2022 Gay Games.
But a closer look at Hong Kong’s not too distant history reveals a city in which romantic and sexual relationships that we might now call “alternative” were in fact accepted by mainstream society, and even enshrined in the law.
Polygyny – marriage between one man and several women – was legal in Hong Kong until as recently as 1971. The late casino magnate Stanley Ho famously left behind four wives and 17 children. Some Hongkongers may even remember their own fathers or grandfathers having multiple wives. The old custom of male-dominated polygamy still echoes today in society’s tacit acceptance of married men having mistresses.
In Hong Kong’s “public story about marriage,” the abolition of polygyny is viewed as a rejection of repression against women and a step towards equality, said Joseph Cho, a gender studies lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong. He added, however, that although contemporary Hongkongers have become more relaxed about public displays of desire, and accepting of people who identify themselves as sexual minorities, the city’s values about love and sex remain conservative.
Cho said that Hong Kong people often have fixed ideas about what love is. It prevents them from believing it is possible that emotions could be experienced in a different way. Polyamorous Hongkongers, however, argue that it is possible to love more than one person at a time, and to do this ethically – if consent, equality and honesty are respected scrupulously by all parties in the relationship. According to Cho, most Hongkongers would view this idea sceptically: “They [would] think it’s impossible, it can’t be done,” he said.
But polyamory is being practised, and successfully, in Hong Kong. We visited a few of the city’s polyamorists to learn more about how they are creating an alternative lifestyle of loving.
Salome and Leonard are the picture of a typical Hong Kong thirty-something couple on the way up. Salome is petite, her skin dramatically tan against a slim, bright pink dress. Leonard sports a smart, corporate blue shirt, a chrome Apple watch, and speaks with a crisp, British-inflected accent. We met one evening in their blond wood panelled Mid-Levels flat to chat about their alternative romantic lifestyle – and about the other man that Salome has been seeing for nearly a year.
Salome and Leonard met at a bar in Lan Kwai Fong about seven years ago and started dating soon after. Leonard introduced Salome to BDSM—the acronym refers to the erotic practice of Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism. The couple would sometimes invite a third person to join their sexual play, and gradually, Leonard said, he realised that he and Salome could enjoy the company of other lovers, and still love each other as they have always had.
Salome is more soft-spoken than Leonard, but direct and forthcoming as she recounted the story of how the couple moved beyond monogamy. “It is difficult for me to believe that it took me so long before I went out and tried to find someone [else]. And once I’ve enjoyed that it’s like, hmm, it’s pretty nice,” she said, laughing.
Leonard said that he and the “other man” know about each other, but they haven’t met. Salome’s new lover was not familiar with polyamory, but still agreed to start a relationship with her, even though she made it clear she lives with another man. Leonard previously had other partners outside of his relationship with Salome too, and he has signed up on dating apps looking for new opportunities. But for now, Salome is his only lover.
Neiko, a thirty-something with a curvy figure and a bottom lip piercing, identifies as non-binary gendered and prefers the pronoun “they.” Neiko has had as many as five or six partners at the same time, including a man from New Zealand, a friend-with-benefits, a “triad” – three-way relationship with another couple – and a man who did not identify with polyamory (“It was terrible.”)
Neiko was a self-described serial monogamist until finally encountering a sympathetic and supportive community of polyamorists in the UK, around 2015. “I enjoy the freedom of knowing that my current relationships aren’t going to restrict me from forming new relationships, because you never know,” Neiko said. “I might bump into someone new tomorrow and it might be amazing, but if I was in a monogamous relationship, there wouldn’t be a healthy way to proceed with that.”
Two years ago, Neiko started dating E, a woman in her early twenties. Neiko said they did not like the idea of cohabiting with a romantic partner, but agreed to for convenience’s sake. Now the two each have their own room in a Wan Chai walk-up building flat, decorated with a tie-dyed rug, floor cushions instead of a sofa, and a festive string of mini lanterns dangling overhead. They are joint owners of a chameleon, an albino corn snake and two emerald swifts (spiny green lizards).
Outside of their bohemian-chic nest, Neiko also has a relationship with a “comet” – that is, “a person that passes through your life repeatedly who is intense and awesome, and when gone you are still in contact with that person in some way but they are not a continuous partner.” Neiko and the “Comet” only started long-distance dating about a year ago, despite knowing each other for more than a decade. The pandemic has made it impossible for them to visit each other.
Asked what makes the “Comet” a partner and not just a close friend, Neiko said the two share commitment and friendship, even though the line between those things “can be blurry.”
But what is very clear to Neiko is that they reject “the relationship escalator.” By that, Neiko means the conventional trajectory that begins with a romantic connection, then continues to marriage, sharing a household together, and having children. These are the goal posts of most intimate relationships, often seen as marking levels of commitment. The template of monogamy is that a couple reaches the top of the relationship escalator and remains there until “death do us part.”
“For me, commitment is” – Neiko paused to consider this – “sharing my love with people and making plans together and having that deep connection.” Neiko said they get “a bit twitchy” about maintaining certain boundaries with their partners. They had sworn off cohabitating with a partner, for example, but only conceded to live with E in separate rooms. Planning a long trip together does not seem attractive, either. Eventually, Neiko is keen to move away and live in another country, while E would stay put in Hong Kong. When that happens, the couple might “de-escalate” the relationship, but they do not see it ending.
The polyamorous family
Victor and his wife Angeline are struggling to relocate their mutual partner, Anastasia, to Hong Kong, so the lovers can finally settle down together as a threesome.
Victor started dating Angeline about 10 years ago when they both attended the University of Hong Kong. Angeline met and fell in love with Anastasia on a trip, and eventually the three began dating as a trio.
“We didn’t have a name for it,” Victor said.
They still don’t. But Victor, Angeline and Anastasia are working to create a household together, in a committed relationship with children – a polyamorous take on family.
When Angeline and Victor married at the end of 2015 for work visa issues, Anastasia was at the wedding. The married couple now shares two children, aged 1 and 4. Up to now the married pair have been striving to maintain the long-distance relationship with their third partner.
Victor has reached a point in his career where he is able to call in a favour and find someone to sponsor a work visa for Anastasia. “For these five years we’ve tried literally everything that we could [to relocate her],” he said. They will soon get their wish: Anastasia’s visa is now being processed by Hong Kong immigration and the trio hopes to reunite at last by year’s end.
Love, in a triad, is a complex affair where sentiments and attractions shift and evolve over time. Victor said the closest relationship in the trio now is in fact the one between the two women. They see themselves as close confidantes. Victor said he feels more like a protector towards Anastasia, similar to what his role would be in a traditional, heterosexual romantic relationship. He and Angeline are more like “best friends.”
In the closet
The root word “amor” in polyamory comes from the Latin word for love. And love is what Hong Kong’s polyamorists speak about first when they describe what’s most important in their relationships. Emotional qualities like trust, love, freedom, honesty and sharing are central to polyamory – not property, money or public status.
Monogamy, however, is a different story, according to Dr. Emil Ng, a psychiatrist specialising in sexuality and the co-director of the Asian Academy of Family Therapy. He put it bluntly: “Monogamy is a social system, it has nothing to do with psychology, sex or love. It is like paying taxes.”
Monogamy, said Ng, maintains the social order by allocating a woman to every man and by providing a basic framework for the division of wealth, property and status in society. By contrast, the polyamorous lifestyle is not merely a non-traditional way to experience love – it’s a direct challenge to the existing economic and social order. For Hong Kong polyamorists, open relationships are a simple, albeit unconventional, lifestyle choice. But others outside the circle may see polyamory as threatening, even dangerous.
It’s no surprise that many polyamorists choose to be discreet about their lifestyle in public. Salome, from a traditional Hong Kong family, said it may not ever be possible for her to introduce a second partner to her parents – and on several occasions she and her lover have had to dodge colleagues, so they wouldn’t think she was cheating on Leonard. This upsets her. “I haven’t done anything wrong, so why should I hide?” she said.
“There are things that I won’t be able to give him,” she said, referring to her lover. Not being able to cohabitate is one. Public recognition is another. “I can give him the commitment that I won’t run away tomorrow. When he needs me, I will be there.”
Neiko, Leonard and Salome want to help people in the polyamorous community connect with others like themselves, so they might feel less alone. Together they created the “Hong Kong Polyamory and Non-Monogamy Meetup Group” on meetup.com, a social networking website. Their last offline meeting attracted around 80 people, Neiko said, and added that polyamorists may be even more closeted and stigmatised than members of LGBTIQ communities.
Ng, the psychiatrist, had some advice for people who might be considering the polyamorous lifestyle: They should handle it carefully, and above all make sure that mutual consent and trust are established upfront, and that expectations are clear to everyone. “What do you consent to, and to what extent?” he said. Ng also suggested that couples therapists can help mediate a transition from monogamy by “popping the question” on behalf of a spouse considering polyamory.
But Ng warned that couples using polyamory to avoid dealing with existing issues in a monogamous relationship are likely to fail, miserably.
For Salome, the path forward is clear. “It is difficult to imagine going back, once you have seen the nice garden behind the backdoor,” she said. “It’s so liberating – you don’t need to follow the prescription.”
And perhaps, she added hopefully, one day those who find themselves in love with more than one person need not be condemned by society.
“Maybe things can be different, in another world.”
The polyamorists interviewed for this story spoke to HKFP under pseudonyms, citing fear of repercussion from family, friends, and employers.
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