the big sleazy
YOU WILL forgive me, I trust, if I seem a tad confused. I am sitting in a minuscule conference room on the eighth floor of a mid-sized North Point office tower, waiting to interview one William Sickey, editor of Kiss magazine and purveyor of bilingual porn. A pink-faced chap bursts into the room in a blur of blond hair and announces with cheeky Cockney cheer that Mr Sickey will not be gracing us with his presence as he has been detained by pressing matters elsewhere. He, however, is the general manager of Dimension Publishing, which produces Kiss, and would be happy to answer any of my questions about the ins and outs (fnarr fnarr) of the porn industry.
Fine. And your name would be? 'Er, you can call me William Sickey.' Oh, so you are actually also the editor? 'No, he's William Sickey as well.' Sickey, it transpires, is the all-purpose pseudonym that allows these chaps to peddle their wares from the cosy bunker of anonymity. A quick flick through a couple of recent issues demonstrates the aptness of this particular moniker, although Slimy or Sleazy would have done just as well.
This tale of two Sickeys encapsulates the paradigm - and the paradox - of Hong Kong porn. Publishers will fall over themselves to gush about what good, clean healthy fun their magazines are, but ask them to pose for a photograph or divulge their real names and they come over all coy. They are happy to reap profits from the most intimate and gynaecological posturings of their models, but have no wish to stand up and be counted themselves.
These are the best of times and the worst of times for Hong Kong's print-medium pornographers. The public's appetite for porn has, by all accounts, never been stronger, but a proliferation of magazines in the past year or two has created a fierce battle for the hip-pocket nerve of Joe Perve.
News-stands have become lubricious vistas of plastic-swaddled flesh, where come-hither eyes and torpedo breasts vie for the affections of legions of haggard Kleenex abusers. The Internet has proved the wild card in the city's porn wars, allowing magazine proprietors to get their publications on-line, yet opening up a whole new front of competition in the form of easily accessible hard-core material.
The Obscene Articles Tribunal ensures Hong Kong magazines hover towards the softer end of the spectrum, with no explicit sex or erect penises allowed. But the likes of Kiss, Ichiban and Akasi leave little to the imagination when it comes to their depictions of women.
MR SICKEY - in fact, let's re-christen him Mr Sleazy, to avoid confusion with the other Mr Sickey - has taken a seat and is enthusiastically expounding his theory of pornography and why, as of two months ago, there is a 'new hardcore Kiss'. When the magazine was launched last September, with a massive MTR billboard campaign, it purported to be catering to the Loaded-style new lad audience, with the added bonus of naked women. At the time, Mr Sickey said: 'We are trying to make Kiss a cross between the normal men's magazines, with pictures of women, and those you get in Britain like Viz or Loaded. They talk about sex all the time but there are none of the explicit photographs you get in the Chinese magazines here.' It was Hong Kong's first bilingual porn mag, aimed at 'men with more sophisticated tastes', and sport would be 'a big part of the magazine'. Owner Patrick Leung couldn't have picked a better editor than Sickey if it was sophistication he wanted: Sickey's last job was on that august and respected Australian men's periodical, Big Ones.
Now, Mr Sleazy says: 'We've changed our style a lot, getting rid of most of the articles about sport and movies and cars. Now we have more pictures of women, the shots are stronger, and the stories are more sex-oriented. We found that, generally, the readers were not interested in anything but sex. Once it's in the plastic wrapper, people want to feel they are getting their money's worth. If you buy Kiss now, you won't be disappointed. All the other local magazines have three main models, all Asian. We have three Asians and three gweipors every month.' Far from Penthouse-style pretentions to serious journalism, Kiss celebrates its masturbatory potential and repeatedly sends up its own constituency as a pack of sad onanists. Its puerile and poorly written captions and stories embody the twisted philosophies of that sad but sizeable community of beer-bellied, balding Westerners who mistake their spending power in Asia for evidence of their status as proud, priapic and irresistible sex gods. Its columns praise the delights of oriental nymphettes, in counterpoint to crude descriptions of the demerits and deficiencies of white women. It could only be compared to Loaded in the same way it could be compared to the Ladies Home Journal, which is to say that each is a magazine. It is about as sophisticated as a fart-lighting contest; fodder for sexually inept lads with lobotomies.
Two recent issues - which I perused, you understand, strictly for research purposes - entice readers with the promise of 'Naughty Nurses', 'Cloe - Bigger Than Average', 'Blow Jobs - A Ladies' Point of View' and a column by Japanese porn star Suzi Suzuki. Only the most pathetically schoolboy-minded reader could find the humour of the letters column remotely amusing, packed with edifying tales of sex with dead grandmothers, penile dimensions, assorted bodily functions, and rampant homophobia and racism.
Mr Sleazy says its monthly circulation hovers around 15,000 at present, which includes sales to Chinatowns around the world. The Hong Kong edition of Penthouse (whose editor, Wong Ki-long, agreed to an interview, then promptly refused to return more than 30 phone calls) claims to sell about 40,000 copies - which Mr Sleazy disputes. The second top-selling magazine is probably Ichiban, which shifts some 25,000 copies a month. Most of Kiss' ads come from massage parlours, escort agencies and phone sex lines, as well as a mail-order sex toy service in which the company has a stake.
'We can't really sell Kiss in many places in Asia as it's too strong. In many places you can't show pubic hair or genitals. We would have to put out a different version. I mean, you won't see a pube in sight in Taiwan,' says Mr Sleazy. 'We're also on the Net ... We have previews of the magazine, plus a club you can join, Datababes. We're getting a lot of hits, something like 70,000 a day.' He professes to be shocked by how rapidly the porn industry has grown since the launch of Kiss. 'It's quite suprising. Every time I go down and look at the news-stands, there seems to be a new girlie mag.' There are the glossy and better-produced magazines like Kiss, Ichiban and Akasi, that sell for about $30 to $40, then a slew of poorer quality weekly publications which fetch as little as $10.
Mr Sleazy says few of the photo shoots are done locally. Most are bought in from Japan, Britain or the United States, where models are cheaper and more plentiful. 'Actually, the Asian girls are the most expensive, much more so than white girls. I guess the whole industry in the US is more mature and organised, and there are a lot more white women willing to, you know, go naked compared to Asian girls. All the girls have to sign a model release form and must be over 18.' He is quite candid about the fact that punters want the youngest girls possible. 'People want the youngest, freshest faces. We go for the prettiest models, and that usually means the youngest. They have the best shapes. Mind you, we get letters from people wanting fat women, older women, hairy women. One girl we had recently was particularly hairy and we got a few letters of praise. There are all sorts of tastes, but generally the readers want young, slim, shaven or trimmed girls. I would say most gweilos want to see Chinese girls, and a lot of the Chinese readers are curious about white women. We get some funny letters, people wanting to meet the girls or whatever. One Filipino guy rang up wanting the number for some guy who was in a picture wearing rubber gear.' Mr Sleazy, 30, says he is an engineer by profession, who decided a career in porn would be more fun. 'I think we shook things up a bit. People in Hong Kong have such an entrepreneurial spirit, and because our launch was quite high profile, a lot of people went out and jumped on the bandwagon.' Like all pornographers, Mr Sleazy plays down the dubious aspects of his trade, rejecting suggestions that the women featured are demeaned or exploited. And he has no qualms about the captions accompanying the photo spreads, portraying each model as mad-for-it, gagging nymphomaniacs. 'The models get quite a lot of money, so they don't mind. What's the alternative? Dancing in a bar or working as prostitutes? It's a better life to be a model than a prostitute, isn't it? And if men get our magazine instead of going to a prostitute, it's cheaper, there's no chance of disease and I'm sure most wives would rather catch their husbands with a copy of Kiss than another woman. So actually,' he opines, without a hint of irony, 'we are providing a valuable social service to thousands of people.' Indeed. Perhaps the Government should stop wasting money on all those coffer-draining STD clinics, counselling services and anti-vice squads, and simply distribute Kiss to every Hong Kong household.
Mr Sleazy says he has a girlfriend, and she isn't bothered by his job. He then delivers his last word on the subject, which seems somewhat at odds with the heart-bleeding humanitarian of several seconds ago: 'As long as it makes money, who cares?' DR KWAN KAI-MAN cares, for one. Dr Kwan is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at the Baptist University and member of the Joint Committee of Concern Groups on Pornography. He is alarmed by the explosion of porn in all its myriad forms in Hong Kong in the past couple of years, and believes that it will exact a grim social cost. 'There is so much more pornography available now. It's on the Internet, Cable TV, in newspapers, magazines, comics. I think 10 years ago, maybe 50 per cent of the hawkers would not sell pornography. Now, just about all of them do. So that is also contributing to the proliferation. And many hawkers, when the kids come back from school, ask them to look after the stall, which means children are frequently exposed to this stuff.' Dr Kwan says that while hardcore porn is illegal in Hong Kong (although easily accessed via the Internet or from certain hawkers), even the softer stuff can be dangerous. 'A lot of it is dehumanising. It sends out the message that the woman is just an object to be used by men for their gratification. They always display women in very subordinate positions, thirsting for male domination. The pictures may not be immediately harmful, but the ideas involved are. I certainly believe the explosion of porn is colouring the way young Hong Kong men see women. I have been teaching for quite a number of years, and I hear the words and phrases some of the male students use about women. They are so similar to what is depicted in the magazines. I'm not saying young people are turning into rapists overnight, that's ridiculous, but I'm talking about something more subtle, in the way they talk about and to women.
'There are quite a lot of surveys and research on the link between the exposure to soft-core pornography and behaviour towards women, and psychologists have found there is a widespread belief among some young men in Hong Kong that if a girl agrees to go out with them, it means she is expected to have sex with them. The underlying idea is that women are there to be exploited for male gratification.' Dr Kwan cites a recent survey that found almost half of the male secondary students who read newspaper sex supplements said they would commit rape if it did not mean going to jail. Of 1,000 girls and boys polled from eight mixed secondary schools, more than 60 per cent read newspaper sex supplements.
Dr Kwan says frequent exposure to porn fuels sexual desire and loosens attitudes toward sex. Sex 'expert' and Hong Kong Sex Education Association president Dr Ng Man-lun disagrees. He believes there is nothing wrong with pornography and no evidence to suggest 'porn makes people bad and no one can say how much is too much'.
The debate rages overseas, with one American study finding no significant difference in the porn consumption of sex offenders, prisoners convicted of non-sexual offences, and 'normal' men. Other research quotes Ted Bundy and other serial killers speaking of their addiction to ever-more violent and graphic porn, and how it fuelled their sickening acts. Even feminists cannot agree on its potential for harm. The likes of Andrea Dworkin would hold it responsible for just about everything that is evil about the world (then again, this is the same woman who claimed in all seriousness that an 'epidemic' of caesarean sections in the US was 'a sexual, not a medical, phenomenon. They f*** the uterus with a knife. Modern childbirth comes from the metaphysics of male sexual domination.') Cynthia Heimel takes a different view: 'Pornography is disgusting. It is sordid, ugly, foul and egregious; it has zero redeeming social value. It portrays women as depersonalised sex objects and mindless sex objects at that. It degrades and marginalises women and encourages feelings of alienation and hostility in men ... I just really, really hate porn. Unless, of course, it's good porn. Then bring it right over.' Dr Kwan is reluctant to say that pornography has no social value, and says for some couples, or for people who have no other sexual outlet, it might be healthy. 'But the danger is that the man ends up being more excited by the porn than by his wife - he would rather masturbate over the glamorous blonde model than have sex with his spouse.' He also takes issue with the sado-masochistic and often violent tone of some of the letters and fantasy stories in Hong Kong porn mags, saying that for some readers the boundary between fantasy and reality can become blurred.
He sees a symbiotic relationship between Hong Kong's porn industry and the sex trade, with rapid growth in the number of brothels and telephone sex lines fuelling and feeding off the porn boom. 'Many of these magazines feature detailed guides to massage parlours - where they are, what they charge, what services are performed, which girls are best. And when people read these articles and see the phone numbers right there, they may be more tempted to visit a prostitute or call a phone sex line,' he says.
CERTAINLY some of the Hong Kong magazines contain more than just 'girlie' pictures. In the latest edition of Akasi (some of the Hong Kong magazines adopt Japanese names, possibly in the hope readers will perceive them as more kinky or risque) there are pictures of women urinating, simulated rape scenes, non-explicit heterosexual and lesbian sex, women with torn clothing and tape over their mouths, and a preponderance of women who, if they are over 18, certainly do not look it. There are also pages full of guides to hardcore porn sites on the Internet, with partially obscured but still quite explicit pictures. The latest Ichiban includes pictures of a blindfolded woman simulating oral sex on a dildo, bondage scenes, and a woman sitting on a toilet which has been placed over a man's head.
Ichiban's publisher, Andrew Ho Kai-wah, 36, doesn't mind using his real name but declined to be photographed, saying it might affect his other publishing and advertising ventures. He spent 10 years working for Penthouse in Hong Kong before a friend persuaded him to take the reins of Ichiban (Japanese for 'No 1').
In a cramped office in the same North Point building as Kiss, Ho puffs on a Montecristo cigar and twitches his nose like a rabbit. 'Certainly the competition is quite keen now,' he says. 'Also there is a lot of stuff available on Video CDs and the Internet, which has had some impact on the magazine industry.' Ho believes the standards in Hong Kong are too strict, and would like to be able to offer punters more explicit material. But he believes the softer stuff is actually more erotic. 'Hardcore porn provides a very direct stimulation. Magazines like mine leave more space for readers to fantasise, to use their imaginations.' He says he doesn't find porn a particular turn-on personally, 'probably because I've been in this job for so many years'.
Ho has subtitled Ichiban 'The Magazine of Pleasure For Men and Women', and says he believes the fantasy stories and occasional picture shoots with men are attracting women readers. He doesn't know, however, what proportion of his readers are female. He is also in the process of getting the magazine on-line. With a rabbitty twitch and a puff of rank blue smoke, he declares that he has no problem with children seeing his magazine. He has no children himself, but says that if he did, he would let them read it. 'I don't have any objection. It's all natural.' Ah. Mr Slimy, I presume?