Setting The Stage: LGBT+ individuals struggle for representation in the entertainment industry

During Leslie Cheung’s legendary ‘Live in Concert 97’ show at the Hong Kong Coliseum in 1997, the 41-year-old actor and Cantopop star dedicated the classic Mandarin love song, “The Moon Represents My Heart”, to the two great loves of his life.

One was his mother; the other was his boyfriend, Daffy Tong Hok-tak. By confessing his love to another man on stage, Cheung became the first celebrity to come out in Hong Kong. 

Fifteen years later, Anthony Wong, one half of well-known Cantopop music duo Tat Ming Pair, followed suit. At a show in 2012, Wong announced that he was gay after performing two songs, “I Love You in Spite of it All” and “Forbidden Colours”.

Each has its own special meaning: the former supports gender diversity in love, while the latter rejects the notion that being gay is morally wrong.  

With both Cheung and Wong publicly proclaiming their sexuality on stage at different points over the past three decades, one might assume that Hong Kong is on a pathway to better LGBT+ openness in its entertainment industry.

But eight years have passed since Wong’s bold declaration. In the interim, only a handful of well-known musicians and actors in Hong Kong have come out. 

“Celebrities with a gender-neutral image often faced mockery.”

Ray Yeung, Hong Kong filmmaker

What’s more, locally produced queer movies remain scarce. So scarce, in fact, that Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film Happy Together, which follows two men as they live out the waning days of their relationship in Argentina, is still considered by many to be the most iconic LGBT+ film in the history of Hong Kong cinema. 

The fact that this film is now almost a quarter of a century old speaks volumes. Overall, there is a palpable lack of queer representation in the city’s entertainment industry, from inadequate public acceptance and unsupportive entertainment companies to limited investment in relevant productions. 

Sexuality in Context 

Regardless of the industry or sector, Hong Kong society has been slow to accept the LGBT+ community, mired as it so often is under the steady influence of traditional Chinese family values, which tend to emphasise honouring one’s ancestors as a prerequisite for ‘correct’ behaviour.

 Meanwhile, conservative organisations and religious groups play unique roles in governing sexual mores, with many Christian groups still claiming that homosexuality is a mental disorder.  

The Hong Kong government decriminalised homosexual acts in 1991 (35 years after Thailand). But legislation to protect individuals against sexual orientation discrimination is still pending, ever since a 1996 public consultation found that an overwhelming 85 per cent opposed extending such protections.

“It was a time the consult was in the 90s, so not sure why this is here when homosexuality [or any other forms of so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality] would be harshly criticised by the public as ‘nauseating’ and ‘disgusting’,” says Ray Yeung, a Hong Kong filmmaker focusing on LGBT+ issues. “As a result, celebrities with a gender-neutral image often faced mockery or harsh comments.”

A notable example can be seen in the late Danny Chan, one of the first Cantopop idols who hit his peak in the 1970s and ‘80s. With a tender and brooding personality, Chan, who remained single most of his life, was repeatedly questioned about his sexuality and was even alleged to have been HIV positive, which at the time was considered by many to be a ‘gay disease’. A blood test later came back negative.

As Chan remained quiet about his sexual preferences, vicious rumours began to take their toll on his career and his health. In 1985, he was admitted to the hospital for anxiety and, seven years later, he fell into a coma after a suspected drug overdose. After remaining unconscious for 17 months, Chan eventually died in 1993 at the age of 35.

Leslie Cheung’s story followed a similar trajectory. Despite rising to cult status by the 1990s, the musician and actor fielded attacks against his sexuality and ‘queer image’ throughout his career. Amidst all the unwanted attention, Cheung became the first Hong Kong artist to come out as gay publicly at his 1997 concert.

Cheung was no stranger to pushing boundaries, having played several notable bisexual characters in films throughout his career, including 1993 Chinese historical drama film Farewell My Concubine and, later a gay cross-dresser in Happy Together. In his own words, Cheung hoped to demonstrate that “a successful artist can play both a female and male role.”  

While fans lauded his acting abilities, society was not ready to accept his queer lifestyle or experimental fashion. During a concert in 2000, Cheung wore waist-length hair extensions, a tight transparent shirt and a short skirt only to be dismissed as a  “shemale” and a “female ghost” (perceived as having long, messy hair in Chinese culture) by local media. 

Looking back, Cheung’s flamboyant performances and open talk of same-sex love might seem tame compared to the music and art scenes in Europe and America. After all, the late David Bowie, one of music’s most influential artists from the 1970s until his death in 2016, experimented freely with gender boundaries throughout a long and successful career. 

For Bowie it was at once anybody and nobody’s business whether he was gay, straight, bi, or anything in between. The era that witnessed the provocative sexual experimentation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, as well as the synth-pop and New Wave movements, was a testament to peculiar, shifting British sensibilities and relative artistic freedom.

Elton John, who remains popular at 73, recently remarked in an interview with Variety that he felt privileged to work in a business that “kind of accepts gay people.”

But Hong Kong is its own unique place, and for various reasons, it has been slow to respond to more widespread acceptance of sexual freedoms and expression. According to Yeo Wai Wai, a key member of Women Coalition of HKSAR (WCHK), an NGO focusing on promoting LGBT+ rights: “Cheung’s performances were so progressive that people found them unacceptable at the time; in this case, we over-estimated Hong Kong as an international city.”

A positive sign, perhaps, is that Cheung’s music and performances still attract a loyal following as well as new, younger audiences, many years after his death. In 2003, Cheung committed suicide due to depression.

Freedom, But Not for All

Gradually, Hong Kong is becoming a more accepting place to live and work for members of the LGBT+ community, thanks to the continued efforts of various NGOs and advocacy campaigns. Yeo, an organiser of the annual Hong Kong Pride Parade, has seen the changes first-hand. 

“Participation, whether from the community or straight people, keeps increasing [from 1,000 in the first parade in 2008 to 12,000 participants in 2018]. Many mainstream brands, such as Levi’s and Lush, have also been willing to support our parade in recent years, unlike in the beginning when finding sponsors was difficult.” 

The public mood is gradually shifting, too. A 2018 survey published by the University of Hong Kong found that 50 per cent of respondents now support the right for gay couples to marry, while support for the introduction of anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of sexual orientation grew from 58 per cent in 2013 to 69 per cent in 2017. 

Several months after Anthony Wong came out in 2012, Cantopop singer Denise Ho Wan-see told the crowd at the Hong Kong Pride Parade that she was a lesbian – and a proud one at that. Singers and songwriters Chet Lam and the late Ellen Joyce Loo, as well as DJ Suzie Wong, have also opened up about their sexuality over the past few years.  

These artists arguably face less pressure about coming out because they are independent talents, rather than part of a major agency, and have the freedom to manage their own image. Chet Lam is an independent singer, while Ellen Joyce Loo was managed by People Mountain People Sea, a local production company established by Anthony Wong.   

Yeung worries that younger artists may not enjoy such freedom because they are usually under contract at larger, more commercial entertainment companies and struggling to build their careers.

“Proportionally, the number of artists who have come out is very low,” he stresses. “Artists are very dependent on whether people like them or not and are often restricted by their companies’ guidelines on how to maintain their image.”

Queer on Screen

This May, Yeung released his latest film Suk Suk, a delicate drama about two gay men in their 70s struggling with their sexual identities. The film received nine nominations at the 39th Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA), and went on to win ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Supporting Actress’ awards.

This made Suk Suk one of the few queer films to have made it to the annual awards event. Others include Jun Li’s Tracey (2018), which depicts a 51-year-old married man and father coming to terms with his gender identity; Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood (2016), about the love between two female massage therapists in Macao; Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2001), about a secret love affair between a college student and a successful businessman in Beijing; as well as Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997). The list, evidently, is short. 

“Hong Kong has only produced around a dozen queer movies that are representative of the LGBT+ community over the past three decades,” says Jason Ho, a senior service-learning consultant at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) specialising in film and gender studies.

“Given that Hong Kong’s movie industry has been so productive, especially during the early 1990s [when Hong Kong produced over 200 movies a year], this number is low.”

Yeung believes that the lack of funding is a big challenge for making queer movies. “They are still considered unpopular. It won’t be easy for filmmakers to obtain sponsors or funding because the companies they approach will always tell them that it won’t perform well at the box office.”

The low acceptance of queer movies might also reflect the attitude of many Hongkongers towards the community. “They may not hate the LGBT+ community and they may not mind hearing things about them, but they don’t want to face it in their own life,” Yeung says. “They are used to not seeing gay people in broad daylight [for instance, in a movie].”

Mainstream television culture, which naturally caters to a mass audience, is no better. TVB, the largest mainstream media company in Hong Kong, has not produced a single show with LGBT+ themes, nor have they screened any dramas with major gay or trans characters. Whenever LGBT+ roles have appeared they are often pastiches and stereotypes of the most retrograde kind.  

For instance, the most popular queer character on TVB has been Koo Ming Wah’s supporting role in Divas in Distress (2012), in which he plays a femininised, middle-aged man called “So Gay” who wears colourful, flamboyant clothes, walks delicately, and likes to gossip with his girlfriends, eventually falling in love with a masculine woman.

And in its popular sitcom Come Home Love: Lo and Behold, which has been on the air since 2017, the friendship between George and Chi Zi Hau features comedic innuendo,but their relationship will always be maintained as ‘just close friends’. 

One of the problems is that audiences enjoy watching these kinds of characters. “A character who displays queer traits in the beginning and is later adjusted to be heterosexual can offer the mainstream audience the amusement of sexual misplacement and also a fulfilling and acceptable ending,” says Yeo from WCHK.

“Such treatment [of a character] reflects that non-heterosexuality is still considered wrong in mainstream ideology.” 

More Hurdles

Among the five Best Film nominees at this year’s HKFA, Suk Suk is the only local production. The other four were co-produced with companies from mainland China.

A year earlier, the thriller Project Gutenburg, also a co-production with mainland companies, received seven awards at HKFA and grossed around HK$30 million (US$3.8 million) and RMB 1.3 billion (about US$184 million) at the box office in Hong Kong and mainland China, respectively.  

Ho from HKBU believes that this rising trend will spell more challenges for filmmakers who want to tell LGBT+ stories or artists who want to openly express their sexuality.

“They basically have no chance to enter the mainland market,” he says, noting that LGBT+ content is among the most censored topics in mainland China. 

When it comes to concerns over ‘career suicide’, Yeung says he knows many artists who decided not to come out publicly in order to protect their privacy.

“Many of them think that as long as their friends know about their sexuality, then that’s fine and that what they’re doing in their career has nothing to do with their sexuality. They question why they have to put this label [as an LGBT+ person] on.”

Another reason some artists choose not to come out is to avoid being labeled an activist. “They will only [want to be an activist] if they see it as a mission, but some of them just don’t want to take up the role and share their personal life with the public,” says Yeung. “It really depends on their personality and their preferences.” 

While respecting the decision of these closeted LGBT+ artists, Yeung believes it’s important for celebrities to come out, as they can become an inspiration for young gay and trans individuals.

“Seeing that these popular singers are not ashamed of coming out, they will be hugely motivated to do the same thing,” he adds.

Echoing Yeung, Ho says openly gay artists can help debunk certain stereotypes and misconceptions that exist among the non-LGBT+ community.

“Unlike the unrealistic LGBT+ portrayal in the TV dramas, where gay men are always effeminate and lesbians are always manly, most artists have a healthy image. They can tell people that in reality, LGBT+ people are just like ‘normal people.’”

10 Hong Kong LGBT+ Films

1. Oh! My Three Guys Sung Kee Chiu, 1994

2. Happy Together Wong Kar-wai, 1997

3. A Queer Story Shu Kei, 1997

4. Intimates Jacob Cheung, 1997

5. Beauty Yonfan, 1998

6. Lan Yu Stanley Kwan, 2001

7. Butterfly Yan Yan Mak, 2004

8. All About Love Ann Hui, 2010

9. Tracey Jun Li, 2018

10. Suk Suk Ray Yeung, 2019