The Hong Kong exhibition asking ‘why not here?’ for same-sex marriage

Photos and short film project raise awareness for LGBT rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 6:56pm

Photographer Laura Simonsen is exhibiting photos and a short film of same-sex married couples living in Hong Kong to raise awareness of how these civil partnerships are not recognised in the city.

On display at The Barbers Basement in Central for three days from Tuesday, the aptly named exhibition “Why not here?” showcases 13 same-sex couples who are “legally married in another country but settled in Hong Kong”, Simonsen said, to showcase how the territory is falling behind in marriage equality.

Twenty countries worldwide permit same-sex unions, while just one in Asia, Taiwan, legalised it in May this year. In mainland China, marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman and, although it is not illegal to be gay, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder until 2001.

In Hong Kong, same-sex couples are denied the right to marry and those who were married overseas enjoy no legal recognition as couples here. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights were thrown into the city’s spotlight last month after the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of a lesbian woman to be granted a dependant spousal visa from her partner following a two-year legal battle.

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The “success case” generated considerable discussion in the city – well-timed for her fourth solo exhibition, said Simonsen, who herself is in a same-sex relationship.

Although her previous exhibitions have all focused on Hong Kong’s LGBT scene that she describes as “underground, not talked about, secretive”, she credits her partner with the idea of the exhibition.

Photography for me is about capturing the essence of a person and a couple
Laura Simenson, photographer

Having met in Sydney and moved to Hong Kong 10 years ago, the couple had talked about “the problems in Australia and the survey being done for the yes/no vote for same-sex marriage”. Their thoughts turned to what was happening in their adopted hometown.

“I have to give her credit for this idea,” Simonsen said.

The project took three months to complete and showcases two photographs of each couple depicted in front of a black background meant to make the subject “pop”. “I wanted it to be all about the couple and the interaction between them,” she added.

Simonsen, who attended the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, characterised photography as “capturing the essence” of a person and a couple. Her challenge was to coax her subjects to relax and show who they really are.

She said she did so by giving each couple Prosecco as they arrived at the studio. “Luckily, because I am part of the LGBT world they can also trust me,” she added. “That is an advantage.”

The couples include local Chinese as well as Dutch, Thai and Italian nationals. The most prominent participant was Gigi Chao, socialite and daughter of local property tycoon, Cecil Chao Sze-tsung, who in 2014 famously offered HK$1 billion to any man who would marry his daughter. Over 20,000 men were said to have responded, despite Gigi Chao having married her lesbian partner, Sean Eav, in 2012.

Simonsen was especially happy to have Chao and Eav join the project, claiming their presence would “resonate” with local residents given their high visibility.

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The Brit’s aim is to show that “love is love”. While she did not expect to effect political change, Simonsen expressed hope that viewers’ minds could be “opened” and that “an awareness is raised” and a certain judgment “lost”.

“I think, immigration-wise, changes are obviously beginning to happen and that is really important”, she continued.

“But I know Hong Kong so well and things are so based on instructions, on rules. It is difficult to change that ... I like to think [the laws] will change, but when? I don’t know.”