Why is Hong Kong More Comfortable Talking About Gay Rights?
Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
We’re talking about gay rights a lot more these days. What’s the reason behind it? – LGBTQuestion
Much of Hong Kong society’s acceptance of LGBTI people has come—where else?—from its celebrities.
We owe much of it to actor and singer Leslie Cheung, one of the most talented performers of his generation. Cheung was at the forefront of the rise of Cantopop as a singer and a composer, before shifting into an acting career and setting the template for every Hong Kong entertainer to come after him. Officially bisexual, Cheung was unafraid to take on film roles that others would think twice about. In Chen Kaige’s 1993 “Farewell My Concubine” he played a gay opera singer, while as one of the central couple in Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 “Happy Together” he appeared in what was (at the time) a relatively explicit sex scene. His suicide on April 1, 2003 due to depression was a tragic end to a brilliant career. He left behind a boyfriend of 18 years and legions of mourning fans. Given Cheung’s incredible popularity, it’s no exaggeration that he helped to change the public perception of gay people in Hong Kong and across Asia.
It seems to be as late as 2012, though, that gay Hong Kong celebrities began to talk about themselves. In 2012, Cheung Nak holdings tycoon Cecil Chao thrust his lesbian daughter Gigi into the limelight when he offered $65 million—later raised to $80 million—to any man who would marry his daughter. Gigi publicly refuted the idea with an open letter in the SCMP. “Since this whole thing has played out, it has opened my eyes to how many people out there are voiceless, and living in fear,” she told HK Magazine in January 2013. The greatest irony of Chao’s egregious offer was that it showed how amazing his daughter truly is.
Cantopop star Anthony Wong Yiu-ming came out publicly in April 2012 at the end of a reunion concert, telling the whole of the Hong Kong Coliseum that he was gay—to roars of applause. Cantopop singer Denise Ho, aka HOCC, came out in November 2012. The pair has since used their celebrity status to advocate tirelessly for gay rights, in particular pushing for the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation that covers the LGBTI community.
Much of Hong Kong society still may not welcome gays and lesbians with open arms, but the current of public opinion is only going one way. Celebrity is a tricky brew, but at its very best it can be used not to sell Nespresso machines, but to help change the world. The times are changing and Hong Kong’s celebrities—along with countless others—are helping us to get there. If Leslie Cheung were still with us, he’d be right at the front of the march.