'Ambiguously Yours': How Hong Kong challenges gender norms through art
A cascading peacock-feather coat adorned with crystal applique is but one of the many couture outfits displayed at M+ museum's latest exhibition.
Fit for royalty, the theatrical garment was worn by singer Roman Tam, dubbed the godfather of Canto-pop, at his farewell concert in 1996.
It's a visually striking piece that resonates with many Hong Kong residents and embodies the '80s and '90s in the glitzy city -- decades widely considered the golden era of Hong Kong's arts and entertainment industries.
The exhibit, "Ambiguously Yours: Gender In Hong Kong Popular Culture," features 90 such works across various forms -- costumes, film, photography, music videos, graphic illustrations and voice recordings -- that provide a creative tapestry of Hong Kong celebrities that have dabbled in cross-dressing and mixed gender roles in this sexually conservative city.
"You could say we want to rock the boat a little," curator Tina Pang says.
"We knew we wanted to cover Hong Kong popular culture," she adds. "What jumped out at us was how daring, pioneering and experimental the artists in the '80s and '90s Canto-pop were and how we could introduce them to a younger generation with the intent of questioning gender stereotypes."
Challenging gender identity
In the 1980s, Canto-pop introduced ideas of androgyny and gender identity into the city's consciousness through an electric display of irreverent, provocative and sometimes sexually forward commercial art and music.
If the Western entertainment world had the likes of Boy George, Prince and Madonna, Hong Kong had the fearless, gender-bending Leslie Cheung, the on-stage chameleon Anita Mui, and of course the fierce flamboyance of Tam.
They were all larger than life and, since their premature deaths, few Hong Kong pop artists exude their level of cultural influence today.
"Roman laid a path for the likes of Leslie. And Leslie is a protagonist in the exhibition because he never shied away from pushing the boundaries of what it means to be man -- leaving his hair long and wearing high-heels, which are presented in the exhibit," Pang says.
"Mui, on the other hand, played a lot with how a woman could be represented with her personas that ranged from tomboy and dandy, from showgirl to bride. She was feminine and tough."
The exhibition proudly features an image of Mui's "Bad Girl" album cover, which stirred controversy in 1985 for presenting a sexually-empowered woman. On it, Mui wears a velvet gown styled with a purple wrap. This image is juxtaposed with a shadow of her dressed as a man.
"Ultimately, we want people to be proud of Canto-pop and to know that there is space in the city to look, dress and behave however you want, " Pang says.
The film industry was just as significant as music during the period covered by the exhibit -- it was the third largest in the world and gave rise to prominent, internationally renowned directors like Johnnie To, Stephen Chow and Wong Kar-wai.
Barry Jenkins, director of this year's Oscar-winning best picture film "Moonlight," has mentioned Wong multiple times as a big influence on the film.
LGBTIQ pop figures like Cheung, Denise Ho (Anita Mui's protégé) and Anthony Wong also feature in the exhibition, but Pang says they have tried to stay away from defining people.
"The issue will come up. I mean, Leslie is openly gay, but we didn't want to conflate that with the visual expression and impact of his camp, cross-dressing," Pang explains.
"What we do is bring up questions about what it means to be a man and woman."
The exhibition also depicts male Cantonese superstars who are often considered the epitome of masculinity -- like Chow Yun-fat from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Andy Lau from "House of Flying Daggers" -- in a soft, tender, feminine and even sexualized manner.
They are contrasted by images of female actresses bearing a tough, masculine look -- like Maggie Cheung from "In the Mood for Love," dressed in a chambray shirt and jeans -- or who are portrayed as gender neutral -- like actress Brigitte Lin from "Chungking Express," with slicked back, cropped hair.
While global conversations revolving around gender identity have never been more pressing and polarized, Hong Kong remains particularly conservative, says Chow Yiu Fai, an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is a curatorial advisor and contributing artist to the exhibition.
"It's the right time to talk about gender," says Chow, who notes that homosexuality was a criminal offense in Hong Kong until 1991.
Though there is increasing visibility of LGBTIQ people in the city, it's usually reserved for the context of pride and equality marches, Chow adds. Outside that, prejudice and discrimination largely built on notions of what defines a man or woman are still prevalent.
"I still hear a lot of students telling me stories about a difficult coming out process with their family," Chow says. "There is no good way to measure progress. The only thing I can definitively say is we have a lot more work to do. Hopefully, this exhibition can help facilitate conversations that broaden the definition of gender."
"Ambiguously Yours: Gender In Hong Kong Popular Culture" is on at the M+ Pavilion in West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong until May 21.
Arthur Tam is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.