Flora Mak discusses the complex – but somewhat ignored – issue of gender in/equality in Hong Kong.

Although Hong Kong may fare well on the global gender equality scale, its citizens receive “women’s topics” with a lukewarm attitude.[1] Not even the #MeToo movement in 2017, which shook the status quo in different institutions and public domains across the world, could help to popularize the gender equality agenda in Hong Kong – an agenda that is, after all, one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Indicative of this was the reception of the #MeToo post of “the hurdling queen,” Vera Lui Lai-yiu, which related sexual harassment by her former coach in her teen years. She was severely condemned by netizens for setting up an online trial and making false accuasations after her legal charge against the accused failed.[2] The public’s sceptical attitude to the accusations and their staunch concern for the reputation of the accused, seemed to make visible a broad schism between the acknowledgement of a necessity to pursue the gender equality agenda in Hong Kong and the reality of doing so.

In a city where 54% of the population of seven million are girls and women (in addition to the approximately 380,000 female foreign domestic workers), one might claim that it is always the right time for a discussion concerning gender equality in Hong Kong.

From talking to citizens at various gender workshops, it seems that the typical Hong Konger has the impression that the city has already achieved a satisfactory level of gender equality.[3] It is true, for example, that the number of girls entering universities has steadily exceeded that of boys, and it is also true that five of the major political parties were chaired by women between 2014 and 2016.[4] Indeed, such achievements seem to provide good evidence that Hong Kong girls and women enjoy greater opportunities than their Asian counterparts.

But, somewhat paradoxically, such achievements have been reached at the same time that the image of the “ideal” Hong Kong woman has become retrogradely conservative. While chanting the slogan of “be yourself,” Hong Kong women tend to ascribe to classical ideas of feminine beauty and the model of the good wife-and-mother.[5] Few would blame those who hold on to such images that honour the traditional role of a caregiver while striving for a perfectionism (which simultaneously fulfils the demands of a neoliberal capitalism that dominates every facet of life in Hong Kong). But these ideas of a “good” woman do little more than consolidate, rather than diversify, the possibilities of womanhood open to Hong Kong girls and women. While free to lead a political party, Hong Kong women are nonetheless subject to a somewhat illiberal image of the sexes. Perhaps not much more needs to be said to make the point than to highlight TVB’s promotion of its cookery programme, Lady Cook, last summer. The tag-line of the programme broadcast by the free-to-air channel asserted: “You can marry well if you cook well!”

When talking about women’s empowerment, apart from bold government measures, the strongest driving force comes from those who have the biggest stake in this conversation. However, the rather conservative – certainly unradical – self-portraits painted by Hong Kong girls and women suggest that the revisionary potential of this driving force is less than understood.

The General Picture

The Hong Kong government signed the Convention Against Discrimination Against Women in 1996 and established the Women’s Commission in 2001. The latter serves as a high-level central mechanism with an advisory committee. It is responsible for “promot[ing] the well-being and interests of women in Hong Kong.”[6] Among its handful of works are the Gender Mainstreaming Checklist, which requires bureaus and departments to achieve gender sensitivity in their programmes on a self-reported basis; the Capacity Building Mileage Programme, which provides a barrier-free learning programme for women; and occasional public campaigns. So far, though, the Commission has been criticized for its lack of actual administerial power. Chan Yuen-han, its current chairperson, added that rigid bureaucratic relations have worked to prevent the commission from launching more ambitious programmes.   

In these years of COVID, when the strength of female leadership at state level has begun to be recognized globally, the city finds itself awkwardly positioned with regard to the rising power of women. Since Carrie Lam became the Chief Executive in 2017, the implementation of women-related policies has slightly accelerated – such as the extension of statutory maternity and paternity leave. However, the effort to put in place such policies was overwhelmed by her worsening relationship with the general public following her attempted introduction of the Extradition Bill in 2019, which caused ongoing social protests for almost a year (the largest demonstration on 12 June was said to have involved upwards of two million people). Such socio-political turmoil divorced whatever progress had been made in improving citizens’ lives from the general conviction of human rights in Hong Kong. The public’s support rating of Lam plunged from 62.3%, when she stepped up to the role, to 18.2% in February 2020.

The Edison Chen Photo Scandal

It is from within this general environment thatcertain images of women have worked to drive the local sense of womanhood towards the more conformist end of things. The most influential images of this kind surely emerged from pop star Edison Chen’s photo scandal a decade ago.

In 2008, the Hong Kong public was shocked by the leak of several hundred intimate photos shared between Chen and his celebrity girlfriends. One of those was Gillian Chung, a member of the well-liked pop group Twins. The culprit of the leak was Sze Ho-chun – the technician who fixed Chen’s computer, and in so doing secretly copied the photos and (it was claimed) accidentally published them to an online forum. The speed with which the photos spread online drew global attention, and pressed the Hong Kong Police to call for assistance with the case from Interpol.

Sze was imprisoned for eight-and-a-half months under the charge of “Accessing a computer with criminal or dishonest intent” while the dozen or so people involved in the photo scandal suffered immeasurable harm to their reputations. Despite being the victims of the theft, Chen and Chung both apologized for their behaviour to the public. While the former announced his withdrawal from the entertainment industry, Chung tearfully admitted to a past of “naivety and folly.” To this day, the 40-year-old Chung continues to be assaulted by unfriendly gazes in Hong Kong. Along with posts that tease her for weight gain, disrespectful comments referring to the photo scandal are still made online.

But this case of unauthorized publication and circulation of sexual photos is exemplary not only of a widely unacknowledged breed of sexual violence but of the constraining narratives that are born of such violence and levelled at Hong Kong women.[7] The continual shaming of Chung’s past by Hong Kong’s netizens serves as a frightful lesson to the city’s girls and young women – the seemingly liberal city can endlessly punish a young woman for her (sexual) adventures. The lesson is simple: it is better to tend towards the conservative side of things to escape from such shaming.

Andy Hui’s Extramarital Affair with Jacqueline Wong

To this end, it is hard to argue that Hong Kongers have become gentler to victims of such incidents. A decade or so after the Edison Chen scandal, a similar event unfolded across Hong Kong. In April 2019, a video of the married singer Andy Hui kissing the rising TV actress Jacqueline Wong in a taxi went viral on social platforms and chat groups (the video was sold to Apple Daily by the taxi driver who witnessed the kiss). Like the previous photo scandal, the two protagonists made a public apology. And, the consequences each faced reflected the fact that Hong Kong had not shifted in its attitudes to such matters over the previous ten years. While Diva Sammi Cheng defended her husband from public shaming in the name of Christian forgiveness, the same defence was not raised for Wong. Apart from being spammed with hate messages on her IG account, many felt compelled to write about the fact that they felt cheated by her public image of innocence. An anti-Wong campaign was launched, which resulted in TVB suspending all of her works from public screening – a move that ultimately ended Wong’s career in the industry.

But is it justifiable for such moral misconduct – in this case, the unfaithfulness and seduction of a married (public) figure – to be tried in the court of public opinion? Is the expression of sexual desire still a condemnable trait of young women in the twenty-first century? Both scandals seem to kindle the conservative thought among Hong Kongers that it is dangerous for women to be seen as sexual beings. Not only could it cost women their careers, but they may become the teasing object of endless anonymous spectatorship.

Dragon Centre’s Controversial Billboards

Celebrityincidents aside, there is a recurring debate over the female body that reflects the self-righteous nature of the public gaze.For a decade, the Dragon Centre shopping mall at Shum Shui Po has regularly commissioned the local comic artist Elphonso Lam to create huge, sexually suggestive graphic billboards for its outer walls. Take as example, the juxtaposition of a woman’s hip and a peeled banana.

Lam’s Billboards for Dragon Centre in 2017
Lam’s Dragon Centre Billboards in 2021, interestingly, with the messages “Focus on the Good,” “Indulgence” (放肆), and “Do not forget the initial wish” (不忘初心) removed.

Different women’s groups in Hong Kong have filed complaints about these public images, but always in vain. In 2020, the Dragon Centre renewed the billboards, which showed six teenage girls in either bikinis or school uniforms (most showing a good degree of cleavage). Part of Lam’s “Good Girl” series, there was a message on each of these billboards, such as “Focus on the Good,” “Indulgence” (放肆), and “Do not forget the initial wish” (不忘初心), an idiom that was also commonly used in the anti-extradition bill movement – one speculates if this was what partially led the pro-establishment district councillor Nicole Lau Pui Yuk to take up the complaints of some local parents about the indecent nature of the images.

As the controversy over these public images grew, the weak political power of the public female voice in the city became evident. Indeed, to some it became something of a joke. After receiving complaints about the billboards, the Dragon Centre seemed at first to respond favourably: it removed the billboards. However, it quickly replaced them with sarcastic re-creations of Lam’s teenage girls by the comic artist Gum Siu Man. It was a move that drew ever more cameras.

Gum Siu Man’s parody of Lam’s works.

Those who defended Lam cited artistic freedom while at the same time deriding those who complained of the sexual nature of the images as cultural conservatives. In the face of such a response, Lau became less insistent about the removal of the billboards. Seizing the opportunity to promote the taboo topic of sex education, Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai, the democratic district councillor, dressed up like one of the girls in the billboards. In this way, the focus of the debate over the billboards slowly shifted to a conflict between political ideologies, which ultimately resulted in the original concerns of women’s groups being ignored.

It is unfortunate that neither Lau nor Yuen, both female politicians, commented on the billboards through a more gender-sensitive lens – that the marketing team of the Dragon Centre continually encouraged the association of commercial activity with the sexualized bodies of young women. One cannot help but wonder whether this is the only formula that can successfully promote the shopping mall…

These kinds of incidents lead one to ask what kinds of opinion have been voiced by the female population of Hong Kong. Is it protest, a condemnation premised on moral conviction, or a comment on the naivety of the victims? While discerning netizens begin to pick fights against such things as hate speech, it is rare for the critical feminist voice to come through the noise of broad social critique. When women’s groups do sometimes pierce the din, it seems that they are more often than not met with jibes from (typically) male columnists. Nonetheless, it is important that the common female voice continues to try to make itself heard. Questions of abusive spectatorship – of viewing images that were not intended for public consumption – have emerged at precisely the same moment that more liberal ideas of the body have seen young women begin to sell their own “sexy selfies” on online platforms like Patreon.

Earlier this year, with the funding of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Women Affairs Department of the Hong Kong YWCA conducted a survey on the public’s knowledge and experience of image-based sexual violence. It received 450 responses, 80% of which were completed by females 16–60 years old. The finding shows that 7% of the respondents had suffered from this specific form of violence, and a few even admitted that the experience had led to suicidal thoughts and actions. For those who had not experienced episodes of image-based sexual violence, they were asked to give their anticipated response to such a hypothetical scenario. Alarmingly, most chose not to tell others about the abuse because they would not want to get into trouble (70.2%), would not know how to react (69.1%), or would feel shameful about it (66.9%). It is difficult not to imagine how results such as these reveal a prescient climate of victim-blaming in Hong Kong, and how the silence of the many can easily be taken advantage of by those with ill intentions.

Until girls and women in Hong Kong are brave enough to speak up against those who have infringed the autonomy of their body, the notion of gender equality in Hong Kong will remain a hurdle to be overcome.

Hong Kong YWCA’s pamphlet that promotes the message of ‘zero tolerance against cyber violence’ with illustrations of self-defence skills.

Flora Mak researched on the idea of impersonality in Romantic poetry for her PhD degree in English (Literary Studies) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a co-author of The Value of the Humanities in Higher Education: Perspectives of Hong Kong (2020). She is currently a part time lecturer and serves as a committee member of the Hong Kong YWCA Movement.

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[1] It is calculated that Hong Kong ranks 16th in the Gender Inequality Index, slightly ahead of the UK (27th) and the US (42nd). However, the rubrics of the Index remain limited in reflecting social reality. This is evidenced in the fact that South Korea – a country known to be highly patriarchal – takes 10th place. See https://www.women.gov.hk/download/research/HK_Women2019_c.pdf

[2] The case’s judge stressed that the verdict was based upon the given evidence and did not necessarily reflect truth. He particularly acknowledged the functional difference of social movements such as the #MeToo movement and legal procedure, as well as Lui’s courage to speak up.

[3] Women’s Comission survey on “Comunnity Perception on Gender Issues” (2009) shows that 58.9% of the respondents are very satisfied or satisfied with the level of gender quality in Hong Kong. See https://www.women.gov.hk/download/research/Community-perception-survey-findings.pdf

[4] Democratic party: Emily Lau Wai-hing; Civic Party: Audrey Eu Yuet-mee; People Power: Erica Yuen Mi-ming; Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong: Starry Lee Wai-king; New People’s Party: Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

[5] As argued by Kara Chan. See Kara Chan, Girls and Media: Dreams and Reality (City University of Hong Kong Press, 2014).

[6] As a side note, the “women in Hong Kong” in the objective of the Women’s Commission does not include foreign domestic workers, which gives a good sense of the invisible – and therefore potentially exploited – situation faced by almost all foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.

[7] See Thomas J. Holt and Adam M. Bossler, The Palgrave Handbook of International Cybercrime and Cyberdeviance (London: Palgrave, 2020). Holt and Bossler define image-based sexual violence as “first, the non-consensual taking or creation of nude or sexual images; second, the non-consensual sharing or distribution of nude or sexual images; and third, threats made to share or distribute nude or sexual images.”

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