Bare with us: Hong Kong’s nudists struggle for acceptance
Hong Kong’s nudists undress at the drop of a hat for aesthetic and leisure activities but they have trouble convincing Hong Kong’s prudish bureaucrats it is harmless enjoyment
With slow, soothing music playing in the background, a 40-something woman poses naked on a stage in a room in an apartment building in North Point, changing positions every 20 seconds behind a small timer placed on the stage.
Wielding charcoal pencils or colour brushes, seven painters flesh out the faint outline of the slim female body in their sketch books.
This is the weekly drawing session organised by the Hong Kong Body Art Association. Besides drawing sessions with nude models, the association regularly organises indoor yoga sessions, hiking and yacht excursions and overseas trips – all in the buff.
With Hong Kong being a conservative society and the public more likely to associate naked human bodies with pornography than art, it’s not surprising that the events held by the association raise some eyebrows.
In 2006, when the association applied to the Sai Kung District Council for a section of a remote beach to be used as a nudist zone, they were rejected by the government.
Simon Cheung, the founder of the association, says Gary Fan Kwok-wai was the only member on the council who supported the proposal then.
“We often organise nudist boat outings around remote islands in Sai Kung. We hoped that we could have a legal specialised nudist zone in a deserted island off the east coast of the New Territories for nude barbecues, swimming, hiking, yoga, boating and photography, but we were rejected in the end. Hong Kong people are hostile to such things due to moral constraints.”
Hong Kong bureaucrats are infamous for being hidebound and prudish, their feathers easily ruffled by naked human bodies. In 1995, the Obscene Articles Tribunal made Hong Kong a laughing stock when it banned an advert depicting Michelangelo’s David because of nudity concerns and required New Man, a statue by world-renowned sculptor Elizabeth Frink, to wear a cardboard fig leaf.
Attributing such bizarre government decisions to a lack of artistic education in the city, Cheung, 56, hopes that their association can help remedy public misconceptions about the human body.
Cheung recommended himself to painters as a nudist model when he was 16 years old.
“Since I was very young, I have loved standing in front of the mirror striking poses, admiring my movements and body contours. When I was a child, I lived in Tsuen Wan and I ran around naked with no problem. But I couldn’t do it after I grew up. I wondered how I could be naked in public legally. Then I had the idea of serving as a naked human model. I went to painting exhibitions and approached painters in cocktail gatherings and recommended myself,” he says. “There were only foreign nudist models then. The painters were surprised that an Asian would recommend himself. At that time, they could hardly find female models in Hong Kong, not to mention a male one as men are more reluctant to shed their dignity.”
Brimming with self-confidence, Cheung is comfortable with his own body. “I have a beautiful body. I did karate. I am not the muscle-bound bulky type, but my body is like Bruce Lee’s. The painters loved my body. I was paid HK$80 per hour and the pay from a two-hour session could cover my living expenses for two weeks.”
Cheung later took up photography and made it his full-time job. One of his favourite pastimes was taking self-portraits. “I used a tripod and the 10-second time-lapse function in the camera.”
In 1996, he set up a website promoting nudism with a server in America and posted nine nude pictures of himself on it. But the US server gave him a warning for spreading pornography and obscenity. Angry that even liberal America was so prissy, he held a human body paint event in North Point as protest.
“My wife, who was introduced to the art form by me and later took it up herself, was the model. I informed the North Point police station beforehand and they were OK with it as the event was held in an arts venue. Open to the public, it was the first public nudist painting event held in Hong Kong.
Watch: the first human body painting event in Hong Kong
A hundred people came, half of them reporters. The international media, including Reuters, reported on it. After the event, the American server apologised to me.”
The media attention forced him to reveal his work as a nude model to his family. “I hid it from my family for more than 20 years. I only allowed the media to shoot my back but my mother still recognised me from my voice on TV,” he says.
Being frank with his family brought him relief. “I was so afraid to tell them for all those years. But I’m happy they turned out to be supportive of what I love to do.”
He founded Hong Kong Body Art Association with 12 other local nudists in 2001. There are now about 400 members including his wife.
Members are from a variety of backgrounds. Cheung Min-yau, 51, a fashion designer, is a participant in the North Point nude drawing painting session. He says such sessions boost his creativity.
“Drawing nude models can help me design faster. Men have more angular muscles while women’s body lines are softer. Getting myself familiar with body lines can help me make my design proportion more accurate.”
He thinks Hong Kong’s acceptance level of nudism is higher than before. “Hong Kong people won’t care much if they are not affected nowadays.”
The Body Art Association has laid down strict rules preventing unseemly behaviour: no physical contact, no fixed staring at female private parts, no commenting on models’ bodies. Simon Cheung says he has encountered dubious men who join their sessions for more salacious than aesthetic purposes.
“He kept harassing a woman member throughout the activity. Such people are kicked out right away.”
One of the association’s gutsy ventures is to hit the nature trail in the buff.
“Only males will join the hiking as women don’t want their bodies to have scratches from the sprigs and bushes. We hike rarely-used trails to avoid visitors. Such trails can be found all over Hong Kong. They are usually brooks with rocks. We go on weekdays. Each hike takes two to three hours. We used to run into other hikers who were fine with us. We can directly jump into ponds we came across. It is very enjoyable.”
Though still a rare occurrence among the general public, nudism is embraced by a minority of Hongkongers who are eager to shed all for relaxation. Nudity is illegal in Hong Kong and there were people arrested for skinny dipping in the sea before. So nudists like Cheung and his association members have to venture overseas for public outings.
In February, an alternative travel company called Asia Couples Travel, based in Kuala Lumpur, organised a seminar on nudist travel tours in a commercial building in Kwun Tong. About 20 locals attended the talk.
Asia Couples Travel is aimed at couples. They held nudist travel tours to Thailand before, with all the clients coming from Asia including Hong Kong. The February talk recruited participants for a nudist travel tour on Phuket in Thailand involving nudist yoga and tennis, and underwear and poolside parties. The location for the event was Coconut Island in Phuket with hotels with private piers. The tours cost HK$10,000 to HK$15,000 for five days, depending on the price of the hotel room.
Interested people paid a deposit to join the tour after the talk. But later they were informed that it was cancelled due to lack of permission for some activities from the hotel.
With Asia being more conservative than the West, Cheung and his association members have also visited Greece and France in order to bare all in public.
“In some public swimming pools in Europe, the governments set aside a session per week for nudists to use the pools. There are many nudist colonies around world. Why can’t we have a single one in Hong Kong?” asks Cheung.