Tom Tom Club
The spicy allure of Hong Kong and its tomboy culture
One of Asia’s most cosmopolitan, energetic, safe and easily navigated destinations, both logistically and language-wise (thanks, British colonialism!), Hong Kong is also a place where queer women can enjoy a high degree of public freedom and expression.
Geographically, Hong Kong–population 7 million–is divided into two halves separated by Victoria Harbour: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The former sees itself as the more sophisticated and urbane of the two and its denizens often refer to Kowloon, snarkily, as “The Dark Side.” It’s a rivalry akin to Manhattan vs. Queens. In fact, every night, a brilliant light show and laser “war” colorfully erupts between the two sides’ skyscrapers and buildings across the Harbour–it’s a spectacular, romantic sight.
However, the past several years has seen a boom of new, upscale development on Kowloon including shopping centers, condos and Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 108-floor ICC (International Commerce Center), which overlooks Hong Kong Island from its southwest edge. The Ritz-Carlton (ritzcarlton.com), the world's highest-altitude hotel, occupies its uppermost 15 levels along with sky100 (sky100.com.hk), a stunning 360-degree, 100th floor observation deck. Both the hotel and the observatory are slated to open later this month.
Aside from its bustling development, much credit for Hong Kong's open attitude toward gay women is due to the TB. No, not consumption. Rather, tomboys, TB for short.
Assuming a masculine demeanor, fashion and swagger somewhere between boidyke and FTM, TBs make no bones about holding their girlfriend’s hands and even canoodling in public. The TB is a phenomenon that has spread rapidly throughout Asia – there have even been TB-themed movies and lifestyle magazines! - while reigning supreme in labels-obsessed Hong Kong. PDAs are rare even amongst heterosexuals, but with TBs, nobody bats an eye.
TB style is so hip that “cool” straights have assimilated it. Locals have explained to me that this empowerment can be, ironically, attributed to societal misogyny. Males are expected to carry on their family name; parents can show sons off to neighbors and peers, bragging about his accomplishments. Women? They’re just here to serve the men, so they can get away with much, much more (see sidebar for the scoop). Gay men are green with envy.
The entire tongzhi – “gay” in localspeak - community comes together at several annual events, including November’s Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (hklgff.hk), the Floatilla boat ride, and a Gay Pride March (hkpride.net). Alas, the latter’s 2010 edition was cancelled due to a fundraising shortfall, but 2011’s is in the works.
Dim Sum (dimsum-hk.com) is Hong Kong’s free gay magazine: download current and past issues in pdf format on its website. Time Out Hong Kong (timeout.com.hk) features a dedicated LGBT section, while free weekly HK Magazine (hk.asia-city.com) is definitely worth combing through. The excellent, English-language Fridae (fridae.com) is the go-to website for all things LGBT in Asia, from personal ads to news articles, while the Chinese-language BLUR-F (blur-f.com) is strictly lesbian.
Both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island boast neighborhoods that lure tomboys: Causeway Bay and Mongkok, respectively. Both are perpetually bustling, youthful and fashionable, although the distinctive “Mongkok style,” which can be summed up as a cartoonish vision of hip-hop urban stereotypes, is deservingly subject to outsiders’ ridicule and mocking.
In both districts, you can grab inexpensive snacks—from Taiwanese bubble tea to “Ireland’s” French fries—and weave through shopping centers whose labyrinthine floors are broken down by theme. One increasingly popular type of shop is the “box store,” in which individuals rent small cubicles and stock them with whatever merchandise they care to hawk. It’s like a neatly compartmentalized version of a flea market.
However, Hong Kong’s de facto gayborhood and LGBT nightlife scene is located around Lan Kwai Fong, a sub-district of Hong on Island’s hilly Central neighborhood. A substantial portion of HK’s sizable Western expat community lives, or at least hangs out, here. The famed Central Escalator, a lengthy, connected series of automated walkways and staircases, helpfully cuts upward through it.
While boutique hotel properties at reasonable prices have begun to proliferate, HK accommodations tend to be splurge-level—and worth it. Try the Mandarin Oriental (5 Connaught Rd., Central, HK, 852-2820-4202, mandarinoriental .com/hongkong) or Four Seasons (8 Finance St., Central, HK, 852-3196-8888, fourseasons. com/hongkong). And on Kowloon, in the shopping-rich Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) neighborhood, the Intercontinental (18 Salisbury Rd, Kowloon, 852-2721-1211, hongkong-ic.intercontinental. com) and The Peninsula (Salisbury Rd, Kowloon, 852-2920-2888, peninsula.com), the latter an HK icon and top-notch.
Chock full of contempo Chinese art, The Langham Place (555 Shanghai St., Kowloon, 852-3552-3388, hongkong.langhamplacehotels. com) is right in the thick of Mongkok’s madness and attached to the sprawling Langham Place Shopping Mall. All of the above properties boast incredible spas and restaurants to boot.
Boutique-wise, Lan Kwai Fong Hotel (3 Kau U Fong, HK, 852-3650-0000, lankwaifonghotel. com.hk) is both budget-friendly and conveniently situated within the gayborhood.
THINGS TO DO
Visitors soon realize that Hong Kong is a shopper’s heaven: in fact, that’s pretty much the main reason many tourists from within Asia, especially Mainland China, flock here. Prices are decent, too. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to ours, with an exchange rate that typically hovers around $7HKD to $1USD.
Large, chic shopping complexes include Pacific Place (pacificplace.com.hk), Harbour City (harb ourcity.com.hk), and Elements (elementshk. com), the latter conveniently adjacent to the W Hotel and a high-speed rail terminal servicing the HK International Airport and Hong Kong Disneyland.
Quirky, unique boutiques and eateries line the narrow streets around Central’s Hollywood Road (a.k.a. NoHo and SoHo). Art galleries have also proliferated of late, listed in the free publication and website hkgalleryguide.com. Burn a full day window shopping, gallery hopping and eating in SoHo/NoHo. One Hollywood Road must-do is G.O.D. – short for Goods of Desire – for its wide range of Hong Kong-centric, snarky-minded products including T-shirts, housewares, gift cards and accessories. Their slogan, “Delay No More,” sounds like “fuck your mother” when spoken aloud in Cantonese (god.com.hk).
Come evening, Mongkok’s Ladies Market—occupying Tung Choi Street between Argyle and Dundas—comes to life. It’s knock-off and tchotchke central, but also quite fun and a big tourist fave. Just be mindful of pickpockets.
A few other well-known tourist draws include Victoria Peak (thepeak.com.hk), offering HK’s most dramatic picture postcard views, accessed via a ride on the 120-year-old Peak Tram; Lantau Island’s giant Buddha and scenic Ngong Ping Cable Car ride; and Repulse Bay, the Venice Beach of HK Island. Locals and visitors take the ferry to Cheung Chau Island for its picturesque beach and seafood restaurants. For a full rundown of popular attractions throughout Hong Kong and its nearby islands—which includes Macau, the distinctively Portuguese-influenced “Las Vegas of the East”—check the HK Tourism Board’s official website, discoverhongkong.com.
The brainchild of backpackers Josie Cheng and Stephen Chung, Secret Tour HK (secrettour hk.wordpress.com) offers free, locals-led ventures into culture-rich nooks and crannies you won’t find in guidebooks. It’s also something of an art project. The only “cost:” you have to divulge a personal secret that will later appear in an exhibition. Register via secrettourhk @yahoo.com.
One of Hong Kong Island’s most striking aspects is its juxtaposition of skyscrapers against green mountains. In fact, there’s plenty of nature, hiking trails, and beaches– including gay “Middle Beach”–just behind the monoliths. Hiketilla (facebook.com/hiketilla) is an LGBT hiking group, although its members are primarily male, and their Facebook group lists upcoming and past hikes.
After a long slog through mountains and forests, treat yourself to a foot massage. It's a religion in Hong Kong—feet are believed to hold the answers to our health and foot reflexology is practiced like any medical or holistic treatment. Parlors pepper almost every block, ranging from dirt cheap and grungy to high-end spa style. Ask your hotel concierge for nearby recommendations.
Hong Kong's extremely varied food scene features everything from cheap Chinese street eats like fish balls and fried pig intestines to uber-expensive dining with cinemascope views. For a quintessential Dim Sum experience—you’re in Hong Kong, after all—Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington St., HK, 852-2522-1624) is a Michelin-starred, traditional favorite, much lauded for its roast goose. Cuisine Cuisine (IFC Mall, HK, 852-2393-3933, cuisinecuisine.hk) adds a slick, modern twist to both its décor and presentation of signature dishes, with the added bonus of floor-to-ceiling harbor views. Cantonese cuisine receives a thoroughly 21st Century reboot and dramatic cityscape backdrop at TST’s Nanhai No.1 (63 Nathan Rd., Kowloon, 852-2487-3688), located on the 30th floor of the new iSquare (isquare.hk) mall.
If you’re even remotely into spicy food, Da Ping Huo (Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Rd, Ground Floor, Central, HK, 852-2559-1317) is an absolute must. One of Hong Kong’s best “private kitchens”–homes and businesses that function as restaurants–this gallery’s resident artists, Wang Hai and his opera-singing wife Wong Xiaoqiong, serve respectively as maître'd and chef. For a mere $280HK (approx. $38), you’re served a set menu of about a dozen Sichuan courses that alternate between mild and spicy. Xiaoqiong closes each sitting with a song.
Speaking of spicy, at Sing Lum Khui (23 Lock Rd, Kowloon, 852- 2415-2424), an inexpensive Yunnan noodle house in TST, you fill out a checklist menu with options like noodle type and degree of spiciness. They don’t mess around: even “medium spicy” can entail an endurance test. Just nearby, Macau Café (Shop 6B, 7B, 12B on Mezz Fl. of TST Mansion, No. 83-97 Nathan Rd, TST, 852-2301-1999) is far gentler greasy spoon serving Macanese (Macau’s unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese) meals and snacks.
Vegetarians and vegans will find bliss at SoHo’s Life Organic Café (10 Shelley St., HK, lifecafe.com.hk), which serves up delicious vegan and organic goods including an apple quinoa pie and torte-like vegan banana cake. They also serve an afternoon tea, a UK tradition still alive and well. The Peninsula's and Mandarin Oriental’s teas are guaranteed wins (and please, dress formal).
Hong Kong’s gayborhood consists mainly of men’s bars and clubs like Propaganda, Zoo, Déjà Vu, Volume, and Stroll. Since December 2006, a monthly women’s party called Les Peches (facebook.com/group. php?gid=2420697659) has remained Hong Kong’s best women’s night out, and a must if your visit falls on one of its parties (see sidebar). Email email@example.com and join their Facebook page for details about upcoming dates and venues.
Co-owned by a lesbian, JaaBar (Pak Tsz Lane, HK, 852-9099-2027, jaabar.com) is a new, LGBT-friendly bar with a speakeasy-ish bordello style and excellent, creative cocktails like the Obama (vodka, blackberry liqueur, blackberries and mint).
Chinese lesbians tend to frequent Causeway Bay area karaoke bars Secret (6/F Allways Centre, 468 Jeffre Rd., 852-6180-6255) and No. 2 (2/F, Universal House, 229-230 Gloucester Rd., 852-2577-7027, facebook.com/group.php? gid= 80509670547), and Kowloon’s Temptation Twenty First (21/F, The Lamma Tower, 12-12A Hau Fook St., 852-3485-3228, twitter.com/temptation21bar). They can be cliquish towards Westerners and outsiders, so go with a local and witness authentic Hong Kong culture—and the idefatigable TBs—in action.
Founders of Hong Kong’s Les Peches, loving couple Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni--Singaporean-Chinese and French expat who’s lived in San Francisco and Australia, respectively-—first met in a straight Singapore nightclub, Velvet. They moved to Hong Kong in 2001, married in 2002 (in Sydney) and founded Les Peches, Hong Kong’s first women’s party, three years later. In addition to giving Hong Kong’s women and their friends a jubilant dance party and space to socialize, they can also be credited with bringing together the city’s Chinese and expat communities.
When and why did you start Les Peches?
The idea of Les Peches came to us in December 2006 after patronizing ‘Fruits In Suits,’ a networking event for professional gay men. We thought that such an event should exist for women as well. We didn’t have any grand idea when we started Les Peches - we just wanted a comfortable, safe place for like-minded women to meet and have fun.
Tell us about your different events.
Our first series of events is called ‘Les Peches – The Lounge’ and we have a different theme or twist each month. These have ranged from silly games to chocolate and wine tasting to fundraising for an LBGT cause. We’re especially keen to promote LGBT-owned businesses and art projects. Now we have two more types of events: ‘Les Peches – The Club’ and ‘Les Peches – The Salon.’ They all somehow end up being dance parties for up to 300 people, and the demographic of the women that come to our event is very wide and the mix is about 50/50 expats and locals.
Can you explain the codes and labels used in the Hong Kong lesbian community?
Labels are of the upmost importance. TBs have the most masculine outlook of all: sexually, they consider themselves tops and might not even undress completely during sex. They take care of their girlfriends in a way they find masculine. As the name indicates, TBGs are usually the partners of the TBs and would be more girly in appearance. Women who describe themselves as ‘Pure,’ which stands for ‘pure lesbian,’ might also assume a more feminine appearance but not take gender roles as seriously as the two previous groups. And ‘Les’ just means ‘lesbian’ and might look masculine or feminine.
When it comes to relationships, these labels have combinations: TBs can go out with TBGs, Pure and Les, but TBGs won’t go out with Pure. They might accept dates with a Les, but only if they’re masculine. TB’s won’t do each other but Les's would. These combinations might be a little funny and always surprise newcomers to Hong Kong, especially when one of the first questions they’re asked is, ‘What are you? TB, TBG or Pure?’ This labeling system was difficult for us to understand when we first arrived since both of us are expats and made us dizzy! We didn’t quite understand why labels were so important, but we see now that these are the rules of our community and if labeling is a way for queer women to feel empowered, we love labels.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in Hong Kong’s lesbian culture and life over the past five years or so?
We have definitely seen more acceptance of LGBT individuals, especially in the media. People in general are fairly tolerant. We’ve been able to live and work openly without worrying about any major danger. We hold hands and kiss on the streets. In many cities in the world, such displays of physical affection can lead to serious abuse from onlookers, and sometimes even arrest. Nothing like that happens in Hong Kong.