Most locals want gay and lesbian couples in the city to enjoy the same civil rights as their heterosexual peers, but marriage is still off the cards for now, new research from the University of Hong Kong shows.
One of the authors of the report, Kelley Loper from HKU's Centre for Comparative and Public Law, said the results showed that it was not an "all or nothing" debate when it came to legal protection for same-sex couples.
"There is not strong public support for same-sex marriage but there are other policy options that are available which still move things forward for them," she said. "These other rights are particularly salient for same-sex and heterosexual couples and have resonance in Hong Kong but also around the world.
"For example, if your partner got ill, you would want to be able to visit them in hospital."
Three out of four respondents to a phone survey last June said they supported granting same-sex couples many of the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
These included hospital visits during hours designated for family members, protection from housing discrimination, the right to sue and claim compensation in the case of wrongful death, and the right to inherit property in the case of their partner's death.
But only 27 per cent completely agreed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
The survey took a random sample of 410 people aged over 18, with 98 per cent of interviews conducted in Cantonese and the remainder in English.
A spokesman for the Equal Opportunities Commission welcomed the findings as it has been advocating for anti-discrimination legislation to protect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
"We are encouraged to see that a large majority of people in Hong Kong support conferring rights on committed same-sex couples as for heterosexual couples," the spokesman said.
Teacher Michael Morrill, who won Mr Gay Hong Kong in October, said 74 per cent of people welcoming an extension of rights for same-sex couples meant "Hong Kong is moving in the right direction". The American moved here from South Korea five years ago and said that in recent years, society had shown a greater openness towards the gay community than before.
Protection from housing discrimination was particularly important, he said, because this was something he experienced when he first moved to Hong Kong with his boyfriend at the time.
"When we said we didn't need a two-bedroom apartment and that one bedroom was enough, our application was rejected," said Morrill, 35.
Holning Lau, a law professor from the University of North Carolina who co-authored the report, said he hoped the research would further the debate in government on this issue.
"Looking around the world, we know that there are many ways that governments can extend rights to same-sex couples without legalising same-sex marriage." These included civil unions and partnerships, registered domestic partnerships, and reciprocal beneficiaries.
"I wanted to investigate whether there is public support in Hong Kong for these legal solutions, solutions that exist somewhere on the spectrum between no rights and full marriage rights," he said.
Both Loper and Lau hope the study - also co-authored by social scientist Charles Lau - will inform the debate, which gained momentum late last year after Equal Opportunities Commission chairman York Chow Yat-ngok recommended that the city develop legal protection for same-sex couples, short of marriage.