[REVIEW] “See How Much I Love You: Reviewing Travis S. K. Kong’s Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Travis S. K. Kong, Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong: Unspoken but Unforgotten 男男正傳︰香港年長男同志口述史, Hong Kong University Press, 2019. 200 pgs.

In 2019, director Ray Yeung captivated films festivals around the world with Suk Suk, his film about a pair of older gay men in Hong Kong who have lived as straight their whole lives. In their twilight years, they reflect back on their accomplishments as heads of their families, yet there’s something desperately missing from their lives and they wonder if they could ever build a life together.   

Suk Suk is based on a groundbreaking study and book by Professor Travis S. K. Kong at the University of Hong Kong. Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong: Unspoken but Unforgotten has been published in Chinese and in English and tells the stories of 13 older gay men in Hong Kong, some of whom have been out for years. But the majority are still unable to come out as gay. They all tell of a time and generation that wasn’t accepting of homosexuality. What’s more, most of these men came of age decades before gay spaces like bars and clubs were allowed to operate in the open after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1991. As Kong writes,

Most interviewees had no idea how to name their same-sex desires when they were young. They did not know the word “homosexuality”, or had not heard the traditional Chinese euphemisms yutao, duanxiu, and Lord Long Yang. This was long before the queer reappropriation of the term tongzhi.

Travis S. K. Kong, Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong.

The men Kong interviewed were 60 or older and all had lived in Hong Kong for at least 30 years. They mostly came from working-class backgrounds and found male romantic partners in public bath houses, cinemas, and parks, as well as in the street or riding ferries. In other words, they could find partners just about anywhere.

Old Chan was the most senior of the interviewees and lived closeted his whole life until he passed away in 2013. He married in his twenties, as was expected in traditional Hong Kong society, and he and his wife had five kids. From the outside, his family appeared a happy one. Like many old timers, he told his children about his life in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation and how, without an education, he was apprenticed to an optician until he learned the trade well enough to open his own optometry shop. Yet he never told his family about the men he met in public toilets or movie theatres when he became a widower. This was after homosexuality was decriminalised in Hong Kong. As Kong writes at the end of Old Chan’s chapter:

He represents a typical example of a gay son who fulfils the moral economy of the Chinese family by getting married and suppressing his same-sex desires. He exemplifies an interesting example of the closeted—created not just by the hetero/homo distinction but the family/individual dualism. The only part he shared with his family and society was the struggles he had early in life—typical among Hong Kong people living below the Lion Rock—but not the later quest he experienced in the gay circle.

Travis S. K. Kong, Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong.

Some of the men Kong interviewed were able to live out as gay men, Shmily included. A pseudonym that stands for “see how much I love you”, Shmily never married a woman. Yet he still didn’t know it was possible to have relationships with men in the 1960s when he was in his twenties. It was also dangerous at that time because of homosexuality being illegal. Now he worries about ageism. As an older gay man, he finds it difficult to meet partners who are interested in him romantically, even though he has become a gay icon in Hong Kong.

Two of the interviewees were British and came to Hong Kong, one as a policeman and  the other as an. army officers. Kong used their experiences to tell the story of Scottish police officer John MacLennan, who was himself gay but died in mysterious circumstances and held information about a government-sponsored witch hunt, which aimed to weed gay men out of  the Hong Kong civil service and police force. It was soon after MacLennan’s death that the environment started to change in Hong Kong, becoming more accepting, although it took the better part of a decade for homosexuality to be decriminalised. Nigel Collett, one of these two interviewees, wrote a book about the MacLennan case and has become an advocate for LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong.

Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong is an important book for many reasons. One, it tells of a community in Hong Kong that has until now not been given proper recognition. Kong also shows how traditional Hong Kong society has become more accepting of LGBTQ rights in recent decades (the city will host the 2022 Gay Games). But it took so long for decriminalisation to happen after the MacLennan case because of pushback from Christian groups. And yet little has changed in this respect, with Christian groups now keeping Hong Kong from legalising same-sex marriage.

Still, many groups and public events have been formed since the 1990s, including Pink Dot, Pride Parade, IDAHO/IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia/International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), and the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. There are also hotlines and support groups, including Gay & Grey, a group for older gay men.

It is almost a decade since Kong started his interviews. Some of the men in the book passed away before the book was published. And now, as the older generations die off, it’s important to remember their stories, stories that helped shape modern Hong Kong. Kong’s research and his book will hopefully preserve these stories forever.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “See How Much I Love You: Reviewing Travis S. K. Kong’s Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 13 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/13/oral-histories/.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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