Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

A Dialogue on Intimacy with Chan Kwok Chan
in Yau Ching's Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong

Denise Tse Shang Tang

    State of emergency. Don't let the battle break out between our bodies. Let the connection happen somewhere else. So that our bodies won't be mutilated immediately by the clasp of hands, by the warm embrace.[1]
    There is always one body too many in one's life.[2]
    – Nicole Brossard

  1. It is very rare for a film to resonate within me as much as Hong Kong independent filmmaker Yau Ching's Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong (Chinese title: Hao yu).[3] Set in Hong Kong and a not-so-distant future, the film is often referred to as the first feature-length experimental film to depict lesbian desires in Hong Kong. There have been other Hong Kong productions such as Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together (1997), and Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu (2001) along with more recent ones like Yan Yan Mak's Butterfly (2004) and Simon Chung's Innocent (2005) that contain representations of queer desires.[4] But what makes Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong somewhat different from these productions is its depiction of lesbian desires and their contentious relations with the city of Hong Kong itself. Chan Kwok Chan (played by Wong Chung Ching), Zero (Erica Lam) and Nicole (Colette Koo), as the female protagonists of the film, are intimately connected and disconnected in their social relations and erotic matters. In this essay, I bring together notions of lesbian intimacies, disappearing city spaces and mobile bodies as depicted on the film through its narrative and cinematography.[5]
  2. Chan Kwok Chan, whose name in Chinese means 'Made-in-China Chan,' is a cyber porn sex worker/performer who walks very slowly in contrast to the pace of Hong Kong. Nicole is an upper middle-class career woman, with money at her disposal and who fancies Kwok Chan only through a porn website called 'Let's Love.' She masturbates to the image of Kwok Chan, changes her costumes and manipulates her actions online. A typical tomboy, or 'TB' in Cantonese-English, Zero works at odd jobs and lives in a deserted theatre that has been turned into single seat living cubicles.[6] She chases Kwok Chan after seeing her in the same flat that Zero is trying to sell to another customer. Kwok Chan lives at home and has a close relationship with her mother who does not know what she does for work, or the fact that she herself visits a sex worker for pleasure. Zero develops a habit of following Kwok Chan around the city, and, one day, by looking over her neighbour's notebook computer, she discovers that Kwok Chan is a cybersex worker. She proceeds to talk her out of her sex work by offering her a job selling mobile phones. The film ends with a scene where all three characters run into one another at different moments with Nicole asking Kwok Chan for a light without recognising who she is and Zero confronting Kwok Chan only to find herself being rejected yet again.
  3. Filmed in an experimental style with a long-take camera resulting in multiple still frames, the film stands out as a slow, affective engagement with the city of Hong Kong through Kwok Chan's disconnection with the city, Nicole's insomnia and Zero's loneliness. One can witness the characters' strengths in navigating and mediating their lives in a fast-paced city as the title Ho Yuk suggests. Ho in Cantonese denotes 'very' and yuk means 'movement.' When both words are put together, they mean 'a strong vibration' or 'strong movement.' The film first struck me as a narrative of immense loneliness in a city that is dominated by late capitalist ideologies. Yet, as I began to unravel the film's narrative carefully, I could see that agency and self-empowerment are well-demonstrated by the characters through their desire for women and their strategies of resistance against lesbian invisibility. In this essay, I will discuss how intimacies between female characters are negotiated, rejected and imagined. I argue that the lead character Chan Kwok Chan has been constructed as the centre of a sphere wherein notions of intimacy are created and erotic relations are defined through her multiple roles as a cyber sex worker, an object of sexual desire, a daughter and a client of a sex worker from the Mainland. The film represents a version of Hong Kong lesbian subjectivity in which inconsistencies and solitude go hand in hand with nostalgia and an eclectic blend of local wit.

    Cybersex and the object of sexual desire
  4. 'Welcome Nicole!'

    A male voice announces Nicole's return to the 'Let's Love' website. Nicole fancies Chan Kwok Chan as a cyber object of sexual desire, and she masturbates to her cyber image and, to stay aroused, constantly changes her into costumes such as a traditional Chinese cheong sam dress, a nun's gown, a headpiece from a policeman's uniform and a bimbo outfit. Kwok Chan's flirtatious and seductive attitude stays consistent on the website, just as might be expected from a professional cyber porn performer. In contrast, Nicole's room is dark and contains monitor screens stacked on top of one another, placed in the middle, as well as to the left and right of the room. Their sole purpose is for Nicole to enjoy her private frissons. Cybersex appeals to Nicole because it is a safe, confidential and secret affair wherein Nicole can navigate on-screen and project her own fantasies upon Kwok Chan. Kwok Chan, in return, performs and aims to please Nicole in a vacuum.
  5. In the film, intimacy is mediated by communication technologies and lesbian desires are no longer confined to a relationship between the user and the cybersex object. Kwok Chan is accessible to all through digital information and communication technologies. A Nicole in Los Angeles can have a transnational sexual connection just as much as the Nicole in Hong Kong. Sexualities as represented via digital landscapes have been destabilised and problematised. Identities remain fluid online and digital encounters provide sociability. Geographical boundaries become blurred.[7] Nations and cities aspire to become 'technopoles.'[8] Convenience is all that matters.
  6. As Maureen McLane summarises,

      Intimacy appears to be an affair (or a technology, or a discourse) of near and knowing bodies. Inasmuch as this intimacy might speak, its utterances would be elemental, economical, pure: the language of the body brought to rare and perfect speech.[9]

    Cyberspace has been increasingly popular among lesbians, gays and queer cultures in urban areas. The promises of discretion in 'computer-mediated communication' make it easier for lesbians, gays and queers who live in environments not conducive to being 'out' to meet each other and to develop online communities.[10] Popular websites such as LesLoveStudy, Blur-F, A Fresh Web, Relez and Les Zone function as community centres to gather Hong Kong lesbians together for socialisation, expression of erotic interests, and political activism.[11] Online message boards, ICQ and MSN messenger prove to be common channels for lesbians to seek solace, join online communities and to set up net meetings in public venues where they physically meet each other for socialising. These websites are particularly pertinent to the formation of lesbian communities in Hong Kong since there are fewer visible lesbian spaces in comparison with commercialised gay venues. The use of the Internet also has broader implications in connecting diasporic Chinese queers with local Chinese communities. The Internet's anonymity and accessibility to information has allowed diasporic Chinese to keep in touch with what is happening in their home countries. At the same time, identifying as ethnically Chinese and queer can lead to one's search for connecting with other queers along the lines of Chineseness. By this I mean a Hong Kong Chinese lesbian might log on to the Internet and chat in Chinese with a Chinese-identified lesbian in Beijing, Chengdu, Kaohsiung, Taipei or Shanghai. This notion of familiarity can be extended to popular cultural forms where novels, comics, films and pop music representing same-sex desires are shared among Chinese queer communities in many locales. Further discussions on what Chineseness means across queer communities as well as the potential linkages and tensions within this relational category are necessary to better understand Chinese queer cultures. Apart from lesbian websites, there are only a few bars and upstairs cafés that market themselves to lesbian communities.[12] As a result, I have noticed more of a lesbian use of heteronormative spaces to meet others and to assert lesbian subjectivities in public.
  7. In their research on Internet lesbian, gay and queer networks in Taiwan and South Korea, Chris Berry and Fran Martin indicate that the accessibility of the Internet contributes to the emergence of similar communities.[13] Meanwhile, political activists pose the question of whether the anonymity of online identities can be complicating for public community mobilisation strategies. Identities remain discreet and protected, unstable and hard to reach. Activists can call for meetings on virtual space but when it comes to the materialisation of direct actions, there are always the risks of plans being stalled and lives being threatened. Oppressive environments, of course, require alternative political organisational strategies. Olivia Khoo describes how lesbians, gays and queers in Malaysia link up with diasporic Malaysians to build community capacity, to share mobilisation strategies and to unsettle marginal positions.[14]
  8. Despite significant cultural differences and different political histories among these Asian countries, I want to suggest that certain social movements involving sexualities and human rights in these locales often utilise cyberspace as a platform and a safer route to visibility. Digital media is attractive in many ways and indispensable among urban enclaves. Like chatting online, the motivations for reading between the lines and interpreting words have never been so mundane but curious, immediate yet enduring. Photographic images on the Internet can be fabrications of what we want to be seen as. We can make choices about how we want to be visible. In this sense, personal safety is of particular concern to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people and queer communities. Discrimination has material effects on many. The list of fears about what might happen if one's identity as a lesbian were to be involuntarily exposed runs deep: loss of employment, eviction from one's apartment, inability to receive adequate healthcare, sabotage of friendships and family relations, and becoming victim to various hate crimes.[15]
  9. Although Nicole's desire for Chan Kwok Chan is more of lust than trust, one cannot neglect the role that new communication technologies have played in how we have come to define intimacies. In watching Chan Kwok Chan log on in order to become a part of the lesbian, gay and queer cyber communities, as depicted in the film with Kwok Chan living in a 200 square feet with her parents, we quickly come to understand that privacy is a privilege. Where and how does a computer fit in the room? How can one afford to be online? Also, it can be dangerous to surf queer websites if someone is watching over one's shoulder. In the room where Nicole lives as well as many others in Hong Kong, the difficulties involved in connecting are real and tangible.
  10. By connecting online at a public venue, one's lesbian desires might be known to others outside that sphere, depending on the websites and the surveillance imposed upon us. If we enter what Nina Wakeford describes as a hybrid space such as an Internet café we can leave our own urban gendered body to log on and travel without 'material/biosocial realities.'[16] Wakeford notices how our bodies consume material and imaginative spaces in order to create technological landscapes. These landscapes stretch across urban centres, global economies and national boundaries. Our bodies do not abandon us when we log on; instead we multiply them through imaginative pronouns and descriptive body parts. Truly, we can succumb to many bodies in our cyberlives.
  11. But if physicality is a concern and visibility is a must as in meeting other lesbians, it might be threatening to some lesbians. In a scene where Kwok Chan faces a mirror that was placed on the upper level of a bunk bed, and sprays on perfume, we hear her voice:

      The only requirement for this job is, I'm not allowed to let anyone know what I actually do for a living.[17]

    She puts on her jacket and the next scene shows her leaning on a railing in housing estate and looking more thoughtful.

      My agency doesn't want my clients to realize I'm flesh and blood, that I walk the same streets they do. Even my mom's not supposed to know because my agency says my mom's friends, even my mom herself, may very well be our customers. What they least want to happen is to run into me, the real person.

    One can take Kwok Chan's responsibility to remain invisible for her clients as a signifier for both the marginalisation of sex workers and for lesbians in society. Yet the nature of cybersex, if one can afford it at leisure, is simple. Nicole can have Kwok Chan as her object of desire whenever and however she wants. Intimacy can be so arranged and predictable. A kind of programmable lust that is only to be disrupted by the snapping of a cybernetic cable.

    Commodification of intimacy
  12. In Kwok Chan's conversations with her lover, one can catch a glimpse of her desires for another woman. Chan Kwok Chan as portrayed by Wong Chung Ching seems to evoke a sense of repression or, at best, a character feeling distanced by the demands of the real world. Director Yau Ching's deliberate use of static shots to depict a slow-walking Kwok Chan or a Kwok Chan in still motion seems to tell us that she is in disconnection with the pace of the city itself.
  13. The character Kwok Chan as a solitary being has her comfort zone established through paying for the services of a sex worker. There are no big surprises here. It is not hard to understand why she chooses to engage in sex work and to visit a sex worker for pleasure. Appointments are regular. Time slots are filled and utilised according to a client's requests. Payments are agreed upon. One gives consent to a service that is performed with skill and integrity.
  14. In a 2003 report on Hong Kong's female sex workers, one hundred fifty women working in one-woman brothels were interviewed to discuss their work experiences. Their identities as sex workers were often socially stigmatised as they suffered routine abuse from landlords, police, neighbours and triad societies.[18] Female sex workers also provide 'skilled emotional labour' such as 'showing affection, providing care and offering "counselling" to their clients, but consciously set up an emotional boundary with clients in order to manage a work persona different from their "real" selves.'[19] In the film under discussion, I take Kwok Chan's solitude as necessary for her to protect her own identity as a sex worker as well as her desire to be with women.
  15. Josephine Ho's research with sex workers in Taiwan alerts us to the potential agency exercised by sex workers in their negotiation process with clients. Professionalisation of services is maintained by allocating monetary amounts to each service. This is not to say that sex workers do not encounter violence or oppressive conditions as a result of their occupation. But we need to acknowledge the professional wisdom and negotiation skills employed by sex workers to protect themselves and their own interests. In other words, sex workers redefine gender dynamics and body politics during their business transactions.[20]
  16. Even in the case of Kwok Chan, when her lover wants to be intimate with her beyond services, she insists on paying for them. In a scene where both Kwok Chan's lover and Kwok Chan are in bed, Kwok Chan runs her fingers along her lover's thigh and her lover touches Kwok Chan on her arm. A dialogue unfolds:

      Kwok Chan's Lover: Wei, I won't take your money this time, okay?
      Chan Kwok Chan: You're crazy!
      Kwok Chan's Lover: (Pushes Kwok Chan's arm softly.) Please, just this once, please.
      Chan Kwok Chan: (Touches her lover's thigh.) If I don't pay up, how do I know you're mine?
      Kwok Chan's Lover: (Takes Kwok Chan's hand and touches her thigh, breasts and stomach.) How do you know if this part's yours? And this part? Here? And here?
      Chan Kwok Chan: (Pushes her lover's hand away and points at her thigh, breasts and lips.) Because I paid for this part, this part. This and this, I paid for them. (Lies back down and looks up at the ceiling.) Even this room and the time, I'm paying for it, too!
      Kwok Chan's Lover: (Looks directly at Kwok Chan.) So, who do you belong to?
      (Chan Kwok Chan gets up on bed and jumps on her lover. Kwok Chan's lover giggles.)

  17. What I can make of this scene is that intimacy is a commodity, just as commodities are highly valued in a society such as Hong Kong. We are deceived into a private mode of intimacy when Kwok Chan begins to enter into conversations with her lover about her future plan to buy a house on one of the outlying islands for both Kwok Chan and her mother. In return, her lover describes her son in details and her future plans. The exchange is endearing and warm. The giggles and the playfulness are all seemingly genuine, as if money has nothing to do with it. The conversation challenges viewers' general assumptions about sex work. Being a lover does not necessarily preclude monetary exchange. It is often an economic transaction and arrangement which might not dare to name itself love, intimacy and romance. In Kwok Chan's case, the few hundred dollars that she gives her lover only serve to validate the relationship as well as to validate Kwok Chan's own profession as a cybersex worker.
  18. Intimacy can also take on a noble stance. Director Yau Ching uses images of giraffes running through fields or rubbing their long necks with each other as interspersing scenes between characters. Giraffes are depicted as a source of inspiration for Kwok Chan as well. She describes them with affection in her conversation with her lover. Kwok Chan verbalises the intricacies of the giraffes' behaviour by acting out how giraffes display affection towards each other. It seems to tell that their living habits fascinate the film's director and the protagonist in a most peculiar way. Kwok Chan talks to her lover, who is urinating in the washroom: 'Do you know how giraffes drink water?' She then stretches her own arms out, imitating what she knows of giraffes, and continues: 'They stretch their arms and bend down to drink. Since they can die from brain hemorrhages. They stick out their tongues when they eat.' The next scene unfolds:

      Kwok Chan's Lover: (Break to Kwok Chan's Lover sitting on the toilet.) You think giraffes are funny? Giraffes think you're funny, too. You know how to make money. You spend it by having sex with me. You spend it by watching me take a shit. Who's funnier than you?

  19. Giraffes are graceful, noble and at the same time, funny creatures. Tall as they are, they still need the camouflage of green trees. Fran Martin describes them as possessive of an 'other-worldly air and lofty demeanor' in juxtaposition with Kwok Chan's aimless drifting in the cityscape of Hong Kong.[21] Kwok Chan's few words on giraffes are met with her lover's ridicule and off-screen laughter. This scorning moment alerts me that lesbian desires can be so isolating and ambiguous at times. The lover's ridicule can be perceived as a token of intimacy. The off-screen laughter can be heard as a warning bell to remind us of hostile worlds outside of the hotel room.
  20. If I take the representation of giraffes as symbolic of lesbian subjectivity in the film, it implies that the lead character is just like a giraffe, stretching her neck out to take in the highest view and to feel safe. More so, it demonstrates to me that one needs to rise above the rest in order to breathe and to live freely as a lesbian subject. The giraffe, which blends in with the natural environment and runs freely among tall trees, seems to be in contrast with Kwok Chan's character. She dwells in silence that in due course engulfs her within a sphere of lesbian invisibility.[22] The city of Hong Kong becomes an environment that borders on rendering one painfully reticent to act on one's same-sex desires.[23]

    Rejection of intimacy
    Figure 1: Chan Kwok Chan followed by Zero

  21. Nothing is more explicitly painful and vulnerable in the film as the relationship between Kwok Chan and Zero. One becomes weary of clumsy words and what they cannot articulate. The scene between Kwok Chan and Zero on the Mass Transit Railway is critical in this aspect. Sitting very close to Kwok Chan, Zero leans over to talk to her and she appears very uncomfortable. The following scenes depict the connections and disconnections between the three characters:

      Zero: I know. Why are you so slow? You're so cute.
      Chan Kwok Chan: Cute? I don't even know you.
      (Chan Kwok Chan keeps looking down, then looks away, shifts her body and plays with her hands.)
      Zero: (Sarcastically.) Do you know a lot of people? (The next scene shows Chan Kwok Chan on website, dressed like a showgirl making sexy moves. A cursor manipulates her moves; Nicole starts to undress. Return to Zero and Chan Kwok Chan on the subway. The following scene shows Chan Kwok Chan on the monitor screen as a sex worker hitchhiking. Nicole continues to undress.)
      Zero: What do you like to eat?
      (Nicole looks at the monitor, turns on her vibrator and starts to masturbate.)
      Zero: I like to eat turnip cakes. (Zero smiles at Chan Kwok Chan.) Which station are you getting off? (Zero looks attentively at Chan Kwok Chan. Zero starts to look slightly sad.)
      Chan Kwok Chan: And you?
      Zero: Whichever station you get off, I'll get off, too.
      ... ...
      Zero: How come your forehead always look like there is thunder and lightning on it? (Zero falls backward to touch Chan Kwok Chan on her neck.)
      (The next scene shows Chan Kwok Chan on the website masturbating. Nicole masturbates.)
      Do you know, when I look at you this way, your neck is a bit longer than other people.
      (The next scene shows the long neck of a giraffe behind a tree. Chan Kwok Chan appears distressed and moves away from Zero.)
      Chan Kwok Chan: You're always following me around. What do you want?
      (Break to shots of Nicole masturbating and the moaning sounds of her pleasuring herself. Zero proceeds to touch Chan Kwok Chan and massages her foot. She stares at Zero with disbelief.)

  22. When Zero touches Kwok Chan's forehead and neck unexpectedly but nonetheless affectionately, Kwok Chan displays such discomfort that she physically moves away from Zero. There is one possible reason for this rejection of intimacy. The character herself personifies an intense fear of intimacy. The fear stems from her close proximity to Zero. The encounter is not prearranged like her appointment with her lover. Zero's relentless pursuit is too threatening, too easily recognised and without doubt, too attainable. Zero, who lives in a deserted theatre with too many neighbours sitting right beside her reminds viewers of what high density living can lead to in the city of Hong Kong. Zero, who has numerous pets as companions, reminds us of the isolation that she was experiencing.
  23. A lonely soul with a cheerful façade, Zero follows Kwok Chan from the housing estate where she lives to the Star Ferry Terminal and finally gets to sit down beside Kwok Chan on the subway train. Zero's touch is traumatic for Kwok Chan—it borders on harassment. The next scene shows Kwok Chan standing on the platform with a dizzy spell and hence feeling as the title suggests, ho yuk. The most ridiculous thing is that she develops a fever from the touch. It is almost as if Zero's touch represents something very foreign, something so immensely unknown in Chan Kwok Chan's zone of intimacy. The sense of not wanting to be touched is so deep and strong that it induces a kind of emotional distance that is necessary for Kwok Chan's survival. To survive, in this case, is to be ruthlessly cold. I tend to understand this kind of emotional distance as an extension of the isolation that Kwok Chan experiences with the city, as well as a coping mechanism for being a lesbian.
  24. Touch is recognised as a basic sense that we can easily relate to physically and psychologically. When Zero touches Kwok Chan in public, she exposes her lesbian desire and risks being rejected by Kwok Chan. By touching Kwok Chan, Zero finds a way to narrow the physical distance between them, which can also signify Zero's intention to narrow their emotional distance. Both Zero and Kwok Chan's masculine appearance present a transgressive moment where two tomboys [TBs] might be engaged in erotic relations beyond casual acquaintance. In a study on tomboys in Hong Kong, Lai Yuen Ki asserts that even though TBs choose to dress masculinely and to exercise masculine behaviour, they often do so at the expense of conforming to gender expectations as imposed by both society and the lesbian community. Lai further argues that it is through a TB's strong determination to normalise her masculinity within wider society can she eventually have her TB identity naturalised within the lesbian community.[24] In other words, the potential romantic relationship between the two TB characters challenges the TB and TBG culture held within the Hong Kong lesbian community.
  25. A woman's masculine appearance does not necessarily mean she is a lesbian. As Lucetta Kam Yip Lo observes in her study of masculine women, there is a cultural tendency for masculine women to be immediately assumed to be lesbians in Hong Kong. Those who identify themselves as lesbians take on this cultural assumption and create their own sexual subjectivities within this available discourse on gender identification. But for women who are not lesbians, Kam suggests that identifying masculine women as lesbians will conjure up 'bitter discursive struggles and continual resistance against the labelling effect.'[25] The visibility of butch lesbians has made them easy targets for acts of blatant homophobia and physical violence such as police strip searches, verbal assaults, beatings, sexual violence and trauma. In the context of Western queer scholarship, a butch lesbian's response to such violent acts has been 'stone,' as Leslie Feinberg and Ann Cvetkovich point out. This public 'stone attitude' has been essential as a survival tactic and a form of protection for butch lesbians, whether they are socialising in bars or they are working on factory assembly lines.[26] Although stoneness has often referred to a kind of sexual untouchability, I want to suggest that stoneness adopted as an attitude can be taken as protective of one's body and emotions from the public gaze. Instead, butch lesbians have relied on their support networks, such as close friends and partners, to gain emotional support. Butch-femme culture, in other words, alerts us that any public response to trauma is reserved for the privacy of our erotic lives and emotional experiences. But contradictions are common, whether this comes to signify a departure from sexual untouchability or the lack of emotions in public arenas. The notion of touch is not only physical, it also holds a poignant grip within butch-femme relations. Being touched is synonymous with being affected.
  26. Kwok Chan is repeatedly addressed as Mr. Chan by the receptionist at the hourly motel and the real estate agent. The character, in masculine appearance, seems to take on a female-to-male transgender appearance when she becomes visible in public yet in her performance in cyberspace, she remains fluid in her gender identification. I am not trying to say that TBs or butches are synonymous with transgender dykes or are presumed to be stone butches. Instead, I want to highlight the way butches utilise this emotional distance as a coping mechanism when confronted with hate crimes and other forms of violence in their everyday lives. In Kwok Chan's situation, she adopts a distant attitude to cope with living in Hong Kong, an environment that is, in essence, strange to her as signified by her exaggerated slow movements in a fast-paced city.

    Embrace of intimacy
    Figure 2: Chan Kwok Chan at home with her mother

      And whenever space is a value—there is no greater value than intimacy—it has magnifying properties.[27]
      – Gaston Bachelard

  27. One can argue that the most intimate scenes in the film are those between Kwok Chan and her mother (Maria Cordero). These scenes are full of cultural memories where turnip cakes, crabs, chicken legs and Coca-Cola all connect Kwok Chan to a form of nostalgia that is reminiscent of home and intimacy.[28] These scenes also evoke a form of everyday Hong Kong life through its depiction of daily activities such as eating and cooking. They seem to provide an anchor for the audience from the abstractness of the experimental style of the film. Consider a scene where Kwok Chan's mother is teaching her how to make turnip cakes:

      Chan Kwok Chan's Mother: (Stirs with the spatula, then puts her arm on Kwok Chan's shoulder, and proceeds to stir the mixture vigorously while Kwok Chan holds the pot.) You have to remember, 5 parts turnip to 1 part flour, do you know that? Are you okay? Then I'll put the rest in. Remember, when I'm gone you should know how to make it yourself. 5 parts turnip to 1 part flour.

  28. This intimate scene of cooking is in stark contrast with the rest of the film in its warmth and tenderness among the characters. Kwok Chan's mother exhibits a nurturing side despite directing seemingly harsh comments at her daughter. I imagine the relationship between Kwok Chan's mother and herself as significant in the way it shows a parent-child relationship to be so intimate that even though her mother has no idea of what Kwok Chan does for a living, the intimacy is felt through their sharing of everyday objects and habits in the 200-square-feet room In the scene that follows, household items such as the electric fly swatter, the bottle of face cream on the TV, the stool on the ground, and the thermal flasks and glasses in the brown cupboard contribute to ground the intimacy in stability. It is as if Kwok Chan's consistent feeling of ho yuk as depicted throughout the film has dissolved into thin air and her dizzy spells as a disconnection to the city of Hong Kong are no longer an issue once she is inside the flat with her mother. Kwok Chan's mother grounds her and provides her with a refuge from worldliness.
  29. In a scene where Kwok Chan fell ill after feeling an 'earthquake' as she stood dizzily on the MTR platform the night before, she woke up to see her mother sucking on a chicken foot:

      (Chan Kwok Chan sits on a stool, opposite her mother. Her mother is eating chicken feet, making slurping sounds.)
      Chan Kwok Chan: Ma, you look happy when you eat chicken feet.
      Chan Kwok Chan's Mother: (Looks at Chan Kwok Chan, looks away, then looks back at her.) Should I eat it with a long face? There is only one way to eat chicken feet. I'm not smoking marijuana. (Waves a chicken foot at Chan Kwok Chan.) You used to look happy when you ate chicken feet. When you were a kid, I bought you orange-coloured chicken feet, and you held some with your mouth from one end of the street to the other. (Chan Kwok Chan shifts her body and plays with a can of Coca-Cola in her hands.) You're not like the way you're now. Now you look like as if your whole family has been massacred. (Chan Kwok Chan's mother continues to eat chicken feet while she talks.)

  30. Helen Hok-Sze Leung suggests that intimacy is achieved only when the space is small and 'closed-up.'[29] The effects are a form of 'intimate immensity.'[30] No longer are we looking for a large space in two dimensions; we are instead looking up at the heights of ceilings in order to dwell in depth. In the scene where Kwok Chan met Zero for the first time, she kept looking at old apartments with high ceilings and old staircases to find a more comfortable living space for herself and her mother. It signifies how Kwok Chan has always hungered for depth within intimate relations and living spaces. Housing estates built from the 1950s resemble factory-made parts assembled together for reasons of cost and efficiency. Repetitive blocks line up at a minimal distance across from each other. As hyper-dense apartment buildings spring up along newly developed MTR stations and emerging KCR stations, they are set on podiums where shopping malls, theme parks, and sports and entertainment complexes are part of the development package.[31] Developers sell 'collective fantasies' now.[32] As old housing estates start to be torn down, old communities began to be displaced and eventually disappear, similar to the disappearance of many older buildings that make up familiar streets. As documented in Yau Ching's production notes, the film's locations were specifically chosen to 'expose a quintessential Hong Kong and the human struggles and sentiments.' Actual street locations were shot 'without a permit' and in a 'guerilla style' to counter the fast disappearance of Hong Kong culture through urban renewal projects. The film seems to suggest that this particular blend of nostalgia and local culture is primary to asserting lesbian subjectivity on screen, in particular, a subjectivity that is sensitive to a broader queer Asian cinema. By this I mean that local films such as Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong have the potential to overturn the dominance of European and American cinema in Asian queer circuits as demonstrated in festivals such as the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Locally produced films are significant in asserting queer subjectivities that are relevant to local communities. These films provide temporal cultural sites that are in response to the ongoing social movements and visibility efforts in local communities.
  31. Returning to the depiction of intimacy between Kwok Chan and her mother, the room and the bunk bed which she shares with her mother, tight as it is, magnify simple expressions of intimacy. One imagines what disclosure of Kwok Chan's sexual identity and profession as a cybersex worker would mean to her mother. These two worlds are closely connected together in their potential to lead to ostracism by society. Yet disclosure might speak of a kind of love that would mend schisms. Ruptures might have been imagined and secrets might not be secrets after all. In one scene Zero's sudden visit to where Kwok Chan lives so as to talk her out of her work might have triggered her mother's suspicions. All it takes is one glance and one gesture.

  32. Yau Ching's Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong is significant not only for its critical contribution to Hong Kong queer independent cinema but more so for its portrayal of lesbian desires in contested terrains of sex work, family, cyberspace and the city.[33] The film centres around Chan Kwok Chan and her expressions of intimacy in relationships with Zero, Nicole and Kwok Chan's own mother. As women who have lesbian desires, Zero, Nicole and Kwok Chan exercise their agency and display resistance in everyday life by traversing emotional boundaries, negotiating gender identities and destabilising psychological topographies. Yau Ching's experimental take on lesbian desires urges us to rigorously search for the meanings of intimacy, lesbian, urbanity and isolation in one breath.


    I would like to thank Colette Koo, Erica Lam and Wong Chung Ching for their interviews. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Hong Kong/Hollywood at the Borders: Alternative Perspectives, Alternative Cinemas Conference at The University of Hong Kong, 1-5 April 2004. My gratitude also goes to Olivia Khoo, for her insights and her suggestions on the first draft. Last but not least, my sincere thanks to the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of Intersections for their constructive feedback.

    [1] Nicole Brossard, These Our Mothers, Or: The Disintegrating Chapter, trans. by Barbara Godard, Montreal: Coach House Quebec Translations, 1983, p. 15.

    [2] Brossard, These Our Mothers, p. 15.

    [3] Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong, directed by Yau Ching in Cantonese with Chinese and English subtitles, Hong Kong, 2002 (35mm/87min).

    [4] For analysis on queer representation in Hong Kong queer cinema, read Helen Hok-Sze Leung's 'Queerscapes in contemporary Hong Kong cinema,' in Between Home and World: A Reader in Hong Kong Cinema, ed. Esther M.K. Cheung & Chu Yiu-Wai, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 459-83, and Yau Ching's Xingbie guangying: Xianggang dianying zhong de xing yu xingbie wenhua yanjiu [Sexing shadows: Genders and sexualities in Hong Kong cinema], Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Critics Society, 2005. An English-language overview of the latter work can be found in this issue of Intersections in a review by Helen Hok-Sze Leung.

    [5] I use the term 'disappearing city spaces' to highlight various street locations used by the director to symbolise rapid urban development and gentrification in old districts. For extensive analysis on disappearing city spaces, read Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

    [6] A 'TB' is similar to what is commonly referred to as a butch identity in popular gay and lesbian scholarship. The term is used to describe women who appear masculine by wearing men's clothes. A TB is usually expected to date feminine women and would refer them as her 'G.' Recently the term 'TBG' is widely used to denote feminine women who desire tomboys. Being androgynous has a different term, 'PURE.' I have often queried the boundaries between TBs and Female-to-Male transgenders. This area of research remains to be investigated and documented.

    [7] For analysis on cybercity economies, read Vincent Mosco's 'Webs of myth and power: connectivity and the new computer technopolis,' in The Cybercities Reader, ed. Stephen Graham, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 199-204. Urbanist Anne Beamish's 'The city in cyberspace,' in The Cybercities Reader, ed. Graham, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 272-78, provides a discussion on how urban cities are represented in virtual spaces. She argues that online participants create virtual cities in order to be sociable and creative, and to develop alternative identities. Using urbanism as a framework, she questions the viability of these virtual cities in the real world and investigates the makings of physical cities.

    [8] See Manuel Castells & Peter Hall, Technopoles of the World, London: Routledge, 1994.

    [9] Maureen McLane, '"Why should i not speak to you?": the rhetoric of intimacy,' in Intimacy, ed. Lauren Berlant, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 435-42, p. 435.

    [10] Chris Berry & Fran Martin, 'Syncretism and synchronicity: queer 'n' Asian cyberspace in 1990s Taiwan and Korea,' in Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia, ed. Chris Berry, Fran Martin & Audrey Yue, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 87-114, p. 87.

    [11] See, for instance, the Hong Kong lesbian websites: Nutongxueshe (since 2005), 'Les Love Study,' in Rainbow Station,, accessed 5 September 2006; (since 2003), A Fresh Web,, site accessed 4 September 2006; Blur (since 1998), Blur-F,, site accessed 6 September 2006; Philip (since 2000), Les Zone,, site accessed 1 September 2006; and Niki (since 2004), Relez,, site accessed 6 September 2006.

    [12] The existence of lesbian commercial establishments can be best summed up as temporal sites. High rents and unstable income often forced bar and café owners to close down and to relocate to other commercial buildings. Lesbian bars and cafés are commonly located on upper floors within commercial buildings in Tung Lo Wan, Wanchai and to a certain extent, Mongkok. At the time of writing, there are approximately eight lesbian karaoke bars and four cafés. Not all bars and cafés cater exclusively to lesbian customers; rather, most of them are mixed venues but are known to have a lot of lesbian customers.

    [13] Berry & Martin, 'Syncretism and Synchronicity,' p. 106.

    [14] See Olivia Khoo, 'Sexing the City: Malaysia's New "Cyberlaws" and Cyberjaya's Queer Success,' in Berry, Martin & Yue, Mobile Cultures, pp. 222-44, p. 226.

    [15] A report on sexual orientation and discrimination has been released in 2006 citing thirty-one cases of discrimination. The project is coordinated by four community organisations and is available only in Chinese. For more information, e-mail

    [16] Nina Wakeford's 'Gender and Landscapes of Computing in an Internet Café,' in The Cybercities Reader, ed. Stephen Graham, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 263-66, p 265.

    [17] All quoted dialogues are my own translations into English from an incomplete Chinese script published in Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong: Script & Critical Essays, ed. Chris Berry, Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Fran Martin, Bérénice Reynaud & Yau Ching, Hong Kong: Youth Literary Book Store, 2002, pp. 65-112 which I supplemented by referring directly to the film.

    [18] Triad societies are illegal underground organisations that are run by gang members. They originated as a patriotic organisation with the purpose of overthrowing the Qing dynasty in the late eighteenth century but they had slowly become a criminal organisation by the 1930s after they had achieved their objective. Triad societies are primarily based in Hong Kong but have operations in Mainland China, Macau and Taiwan. They are also active in overseas cities with major Chinese populations. Triads are usually involved in criminal activities such as extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering, prostitution, illegal gambling and more recently, vcd/dvd piracy.

    [19] Travis Kong & Zi Teng, A Research Report on the Working Experiences of Hong Kong's Female Sex Workers, Hong Kong: Centre for Social Policy Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Zi Teng, 2003, p. 32.

    [20] I have found Josephine Chuen-juei Ho's 'Ziwo peili yu zhuanye caoyan: yu taiwan xinggongzuozhe de duihua' [Self empowerment and 'professionalism': Conversations with Taiwanese sex workers] in Xinggongzuo yanjiu [Sex work studies], ed. Josephine Chuen-juei Ho, Chungli, Taiwan: The Center for the Study of Sexualities, 2003, pp. 1-58, very useful for problematising certain feminist perspectives on sex work and gender relations. The Center for the Study of Sexualities (, sited at the National Central University of Taiwan, publishes a series of edited volumes on sex work and queer sexualities. For research on Hong Kong's female sex workers, see A Research Report on the Working Experiences of Hong Kong's Female Sex Workers, co-authored by Kong Shiu-Kei Travis and Zi Teng, Hong Kong: Zi Teng and the Centre for Social Policy Studies, Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2003. Also, see Chen Bao-Qing, ed., Yazhou xingfangjian: Xinggongzuozhe de xianshi yu mengxiang [Asian sex workers' stories], Hong Kong: Step Forward Multi Media Co. Ltd. and Zi Teng, 2002 and Chen Bao-Qing, Chen Hui-Fang & Li Pei-Er, Xing shi niuyiu he mianbao [Sex is bread and butter], Hong Kong: Step Forward Multi Media Co. Ltd. and Zi Teng, 1999. Visit Si Teng for more information on Hong Kong sex workers and the industries.

    [21] Fran Martin, 'Floating city, floating selves: Let's Love Hong Kong,' in Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong: Script & Critical Essays, ed. Chris Berry, Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Fran Martin, Bérénice Reynaud & Yau Ching, Hong Kong: Youth Literary Book Store, 2002, pp. 43-49.

    [22] There have been very few film and video representations of lesbian desires and sexualities in Hong Kong that are created by lesbians and/or queer women themselves. Yau Ching's Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong is the first lesbian feature film. Yau has produced many short videos and short films integrating queer desires, political and social issues, gender issues, sexualities and popular culture. She has written on these issues in magazines, film festival guides and news publications. Apart from Yau Ching, independent video artist Ellen Pau has produced short videos and video installations from the perspective of being a lesbian feminist. I am not only referring to lesbian invisibility in terms of popular representation. Invisibility also applies to lesbian spaces, in particular, gathering spaces for lesbians, bisexuals and queer women to socialise and to access support. Whereas gay spaces are available commercially and on street levels, lesbian gathering spaces tend to be more obscure and located in apartments or on upper floors of commercial buildings. Class and gender differences are crucial in any analysis of lesbian and gay spaces.

    [23] On reticence, I am inspired by Ding Nai-fei and Liu Jen-Peng's article, 'Wangliang wenjing: Hanxu meixue yu ku'er zhengzhi' [Reticent poetics, queer politics], in Working Papers in Gender/Sexuality Studies 3 & 4, Chungli, Taiwan: The Center for the Study of Sexualities, Department of English, National Central University, Taiwan, special issue: 'Queer politics and queer theory,' (September 1998):109-55. Through my conversations with Yau Ching, I came to understand the notion of reticence as possibly violent, especially in the use of reticence as a means to silence lesbian and queer desires in intimate relations as well as within a broader context of social movements.

    [24] Lai Yuen Ki, 'Lesbian Masculinities: Identity and Body Construction among Tomboys in Hong Kong,' M.Phil. Thesis, Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2003.

    [25] Lucetta Kam Yip Lo, 'Recognition through mis-recognition: masculine women in Hong Kong,' in AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Gender and Sexuality in the Asia-Pacific, ed. Peter Jackson, Fran Martin, Mark McLelland & Audrey Yue, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

    [26] See Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues: A Novel, New York: Firebrand, 1993, and Transgender Warriors, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. In my struggle to draw emotions (both positive and traumatic feelings) into sexuality theories, I have found Ann Cvetkovich's An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, very useful. By analysing trauma discourses in clinical psychology theories and by tracing how trauma is represented in lesbian public cultures (including sexual acts, butch-femme discourse, queer transnational publics, incest, AIDS and AIDS activism, and grassroots archives), Cvetkovich takes a bold step to connect acute trauma with everyday emotions. Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong has been criticised as a film that depicts negative emotions (e.g., loneliness, isolation and suppressed desires), but I assert that the protagonists demonstrate strength and agency in their survival mechanisms as women, as women with same-sex desires and as women who cross gender boundaries in Hong Kong. It is by looking at both sides of emotions and everything that falls within the gap that we can come to understand desires as complex, contradictory and transient.

    [27] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p. 202.

    [28] I found the scenes between Chan Kwok Chan's mother and Chan Kwok Chan, and the scene with Chan Kwok Chan putting on face cream as nostalgic partly because the domestic space signifies a form of stillness that is comforting and a past that holds Chan Kwok Chan emotionally intact. I want to clarify that I am not using nostalgia in the usual sense of material things since most certainly those things and settings are still very much commonplace in working class homes and domestic spaces for people who live on poverty levels.

    [29] Helen Hok-Sze Leung, 'Loving in the stillness of earthquakes: Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong,' in Berry et al., Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong: Script & Critical Essays, pp. 55-61, p. 59.

    [30] I borrow the term from Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 183.

    [31] Properties along the new KCR and MTR lines have boasted attractions such as artificial lakes and beaches, Japanese style hot springs, plots for growing plants and luxurious spa facilities.

    [32] For discussion on Hong Kong urban spaces, read Laurent Gutierrez & Valerie Portefaix, Mapping Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Map Book, 2000.

    [33] An incomplete list of pioneering Hong Kong independent queer films and videos includes Evans Chan, Qingse ditu [The map of sex and love], 2001; Yau Ching, Lingqi luzao zhi erzai tong [Diasporama, part 1: dead air], 1997, and Bai Xue-Xian de meimei [Suet Sin's sisters], 1999; Simon Chung, Shi Dan Li [Stanley beloved], 1998, Xinhui [First love and other pains], 1999, and Zhi ai moshengren [Innocent], 2005; Kit Hung, Tianshi [I am not what you want] 2001, and Chuanwai [Buffering] 2003; Julian Lee, Xinyuan yima [The accident], 1999, and Yaoye huilang [Night corridor], 2003; Anson Mak, Dabutong [Differences do matter], 1999; Yan Yan Mak, Hudie [Butterfly], 2004; Fion Ng, Gounvji [Gu Nui Gei], 1997; Ellen Pau, Sishi guren lai [Song of goddess], 1992; and Ellen Yuen, I.D., 1997, and Jiaocaitao: zunzhong butong xingqingxiang renshi (luyindai): jingxun [Education kit: respect for different sexual orientations], 1999.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified 19 March 2008 1412 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright