Another chapter in sexual openness
AT 18 Wo On Lane, customers sit sipping beer and coffee under an explosion of faux greenery festooning the walls. A retractable awning is unfurled, casting its shade over a frolicsome knot of plaster cherubs. On milder days it will be rolled up to let the sun pour in.
It could be a scene from any of the dozens of upscale, trendy bars in the vicinity - except it's a bookshop.
Angelo De Carpi - named for a tiny town near Modena in Italy - is the newest addition to Hong Kong's burgeoning gay scene - a place where patrons can browse through the latest gay literature and Japanese soft porn, or simply enjoy free drinks and a chat.
Its Singaporean owner - 'just call me Matthews' - says his shop is a novel development for the SAR. 'This is the first time a gay bookstore has been on the ground level, open to a busy street like this,' he says.
'Hong Kong has become a lot more open-minded and tolerant in the past year or two, people seem to accept gay culture now, so we want to take advantage of that and be more open as well.
'People can come in here and enjoy free beers, coffee or soft drinks, and we have a good selection of books, magazines, cards and guides to the various gay scenes in Asia. We aren't sleazy, we don't sell sex toys or anything like that. We are upmarket, relaxed,' he says.
This burst of openness has sparked an advertising war of sorts. Hong Kong's three gay book stores - a fourth is rumoured to be opening soon in Tsim Sha Tsui - are now promoting their wares with display advertisements in free weekly magazines. Two men cuddle beside a cryptic rubric - 'This is not (a Dream)' - in the ad for General Gay Bookstore in Causeway Bay, while a rippling torso cropped strategically welcomes gays and lesbians to Angelo De Carpi. A less vivid graphic of bookshelves proclaims the existence of the Park Book Store in Mongkok.
Says Matthews: 'We opened four months ago, and business has been quite good. I'd say probably half our customers are tourists - being near Lan Kwai Fong, we are a convenient place to come for information on the scene here.' General Gay Bookstore is a bit more off the beaten track, tucked away in a dilapidated building in Causeway Bay, down a corridor darkened by soot and old age. There is nothing conspicuous about the entrance - you could walk right past and not notice it. The only clue is a faded sign announcing '10/F B General'.
Manager Dicky Yau says he started the business eight years ago, aiming at the local gay community. 'That's our selling point - people can come here and not feel self-conscious,' he says.
He understands the reluctance of some gay men to display their sexual orientation in public. 'It would be really awkward if a customer was in a regular shop and picked up 10 gay magazines and brought them to the counter. What if there was a lady standing right next to him? How would she react and how would he feel?' His customers are usually between 25 and 40 - 'more cultured' gay men. 'We don't get so many youths here because they tend to like to dress up and go out dancing.' In previous years, the bookstore was a meeting place for gays but that happens less and less, as more gay bars, clubs and saunas spring up.
'We used to have a message board where people could post messages. But now there is less need for an undercover social system, so we stopped.' He also runs the Eyes Cafe around the corner in Tang Lung Street, although this is closed temporarily pending approval of a liquor licence. He hopes it will be open again 'in a month or two', resuming its theme events, including its uniform nights where patrons are urged to turn up in 'disciplinary, army, work, school uniforms'.
Less exotic is the Park Book Store, tucked away on the first floor of Rex House in Nathan Road. Owner William Leung Wah opened the store four years ago, and it boasts Hong Kong's biggest range of gay books and magazines. It has none of Angelo De Carpi's atmosphere, with books stacked on white shelves under harsh fluorescent lights.
Leung says he will consider shifting to a more welcoming locale 'if things continue to open up for gays'.
Matthews is more daring: 'We want to provide the right ideas and a sense of culture for gay men in Hong Kong, so they can enjoy and celebrate their lifestyle. The Government accepts us now and I believe the next step is to work towards a gay festival.'