Same-sex activists hug outside the parliament in Taipei in 2017 as they celebrate the landmark decision paving the way for the island to become the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage. The rest of China has yet to follow suit, and prejudice against same-sex couples persists in some quarters. Photo: AFP
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

When same-sex relationships were not recognised and interracial ones were frowned upon, the euphemisms for such couples ran from civilised to contemptuous

  • Earlier generations did not have neutral words for people in same-sex and interracial relationships, using instead terms ranging from civilised to contemptuous
  • These days ‘partner’ is widely used and terms such as ‘his husband’ or ‘her wife’ are in common usage in enlightened places. Not among some in Hong Kong, alas

How were long-term relationships that fell outside society’s generally accepted parameters once labelled, both by the wider world, and those who wished to recognise two people’s validity as a couple?

Earlier generations lacked the neutral vocabulary – such as “partner” – that today’s world possesses to help explain and quantify love and commitment of a different kind. These definitional challenges particularly affected interracial relationships not formalised by marriage, and further complicated by socio-economic disparities, personal shame and public disapproval. These thorny issues – hard enough to negotiate in the heterosexual world – were further complicated when same-sex relationships, at least officially, didn’t even exist.

Various euphemisms – from civilised to contemptuous – filled the gap; junior, submissive or dependent roles were often implied, even where such dynamics were absent in the relationship. Thus, a long-term, fundamentally equal partner from a different racial background became a “driver”, “factotum”, “gardener” or “Man Friday”; in other instances, live-in “godsons” or “honorary nephews” hinted at the real domestic situation.

All these labels demeaned and diminished these relationships, serial dishonesty inevitably damaging everyone concerned. Examples are legion; the significantly younger Chinese partner of one prominent, much-loved member of a long-established local Portuguese family was habitually referred to as the man’s “ward” – this was about as close as the world around them came to positive recognition of decades of mutual devotion.

In the early days of the Aids epidemic in the 1980s, “long-time companion” began to appear in obituaries in various places, including Hong Kong. This term suggested that the person so named was not “just a friend”, and often marked the furthest extent of public acknowledgement that the deceased partner’s family would allow. Without formalised domestic rights, the survivor could be – and often was – brutally cast aside, like so much embarrassing rubbish, and with as little consideration.

These days, marriage equality in more civilised parts of the world has led to widespread deployment of formerly heterosexual gender pronouns, to occasional confusion among the newly initiated. Thus, “her wife” and “his husband” serve to clarify that a legally defined, same-sex relationship exists.

Taiwan has embraced the idea of same sex marriages, Hong Kong has some catching up to do. Photo: Chiang Ying-ying/ AFP

As with many other social equality markers, Hong Kong remains shamefully backward; coy euphemisms that – in other places – have become quaint, barely comprehensible artefacts from less enlightened times, remain perpetrated by Christian bigots, through their insidious influence on local schools and – as graduates of these institutions – the higher levels of the administration. Taiwan, as the most socially progressive part of modern China, finally legislated marriage equality in 2019; the rest of the country – including Hong Kong – has yet to catch up with their example.

Some heterosexual relationships had to remain informal; depending on an individual firm’s policies, marriage to an “Asian” (however so defined) could result in their European partner’s summary dismissal, with loss of pension and other benefits. In these circumstances, “one eye open, one eye closed” from those in power was the best that anyone could hope for.

“Sleeping dictionaries” referenced a (usually heterosexual) Asian live-in partner, where the relationship’s semi-permanent nature was tacitly acknowledged, and provided a sardonic nod towards men whose careers required fluency in one or more Asian languages. Where gender-specific variants existed – such as Thai or Japanese – humorists might wryly maintain that “Old So-and-So” spoke with a distinct female accent; after all, his most frequent language practice was assumed to be nocturnal.

“Housekeeper” was another thinly veiled heterosexual euphemism; in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) a specific term – Nyai – signified the legally acknowledged native housekeeper/mistress of a European, and the mother of any children that resulted from the relationship. As various family histories sadly make plain, many modern descendants cannot even discover the actual name of their Asian ancestress; on paper, she existed only as the Nyai of X, and within the family as mother, grandmother or auntie. Permanent erasure of personal histories, thus, became inevitable.