'Country Report': Hong Kong: social and cultural issues

Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

Follow this link for Robyn Emerton's report on the Hong Kong report on legal issues. 

Acknowledgement: to Loretta Ho (Ho Man Wah) for her time and patience during numerous discussions.

Copyright Sam Winter to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

first uploaded 17/12/2002, revised 19/12/02,  and 24/08/09


Sex and gender in classical China.

Traditional Chinese society involved very clear power structures (entailing for those involved rights, privileges and duties) based on class, wealth, age, family position and gender.

Sexual activity and gender diversity has to be seen in this light. While marriages arising out of love were not unknown, weddings were often arranged by parents, with the marriage partners bound less by feelings of mutual attraction than by fixed ideas on filial duty and family enhancement, inheritance and production of heirs.

Contrary to Western views on this sort of thing, a Chinese male’s sexuality was defined less in terms of whom he had sex with (man or woman) than what he did during sex (acting as inserter or insertee). This perspective on sexuality had powerful implications for attitudes towards what we would now call homosexual behaviour. A man, particularly in a position of social power, might take a male partner without in any way compromising his sexuality. He might later marry. He might even be already married. Disapproval of non-normative sexualities was limited, so long as the men and women involved (eventually) fulfilled society's expectations to procreate. This expectation obviously posed a problem for those intending to live their lives as transpeople and desiring to live in relationships with members of a gender other than their own.

For detailed accounts of same-sex relationships see Hinsch (1990), Leupp (1995), Volpp (1996) and Chou (2000). The title for Chou’s first chapter, ‘A World Without Homo-Hetero Duality’ eloquently summarises the point I will try to make below. It is that for much of Chinese history same-sex intercourse has been a widespread phenomenon, involving emperors, aristocrats, ministers, warriors, land-owners, merchants, soldiers and common workers. Scholars too; Leupp remarks that by the Qing period (1644-1912) same-sex sex was often called hanling feng - ‘the academicians’ tendency’ (p14).

Among dominant male partners little distinction was made between penetration of a woman and penetration of another male. Both were often merely an accompaniment to (expression of?) power stemming from class, wealth, education or age. Younger and poorer males would act as the passive sexual partners, filling roles as intimate favourites and boy brides (xi-di, ‘adopted younger brothers’, sometimes sold by their parents), or male prostitutes (xiang gong). Whatever the role, the passive partner was either surrendering to a person of greater power (or maneuvering for social advancement). This is not to say that feelings of love and affection were not often involved, nor that relationships between social equals did not exist based entirely on these feelings.

Same-sex relationships pretty often made it into literature, and were described in favourable, indeed poetic, terms. One of the best known stories of classical Chinese literature, Hong Lou Meng (‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’) describes a character who, when he cannot get sex from his wife, chases after not only his girl servants, but also his boy servants.

Male prostitution (xiang gong) seems have to thrived throughout much of Chinese history, clearly documented, for example, throughout the Southern Song, Ming and Qing periods. The practice was particularly strong when, as in 1429, female prostitution was suppressed, and survived even when an edict against all extra-marital sex was issued in 1740. Chou (2000) cites an estimate by a western traveler to Tianjin that there were in that city in 1860 around male 35 brothels with 800 male prostitutes.

In many same-sex relationships both partners, active and passive, regarded their liaison as entirely consistent with subsequent involvement in male-female relationships. Dong Xian, the Emperor Ai-Di’s lover, was married with children (Chou, 2000, p28). The salient issue, both for the parties concerned and for friends and family, was not the sex of the persons involved, but the role played in that particular relationship.

Just as sexuality was viewed in terms of the role one played in sex, rather than whom one did it with, so apparently gender was seen in the same way, rather than in terms of one’s anatomy. Dong Xian, the Emperor Ai-di’s lover, was a case in point. He and the emperor’s other favourites ornamented themselves ‘as seductive beauties in light misty silk, gaudy feathers and heavy cosmetics in order to seduce the emperor’ (Chou, 2000, p35).

Chinese literature tells similar stories. The 17th century drama ‘The Male Queen’ (nan wanghou) tells of a boy, Chen Zi-gao, whose feminine charms seduce the first Emperor of the Chen dynasty. The Emperor has the boy join his harem, has him dress as a woman, and crowns him Queen. For a detailed account see Volpp (1996)

Throughout China, at all levels of society, sexually passive partners would dress finely, wear ornaments and fine make-up in order to cultivate an elegance and beauty. Many would go further, depilating their bodies and softening their skin. Some would dilate their anuses to make them function more as a vagina. Leupp (1994) notes that one group, cross-dressing prostitutes, became so well established that they ‘were allowed to form their own guild, with their own patron god’ (p15).

In their pursuit of a cross-gendered role many of these xi-di and xiang-gong may have been pursuing a true transgender identity (i.e. one driven by personal needs rather than social requirements). This certainly seems to be the case for many of the dan actors. These were young males (typically in their late teens) of the Qing period who acted female theatrical roles at a time when women themselves were banned from acting. Many dan maintained a female role off stage, adopting female dress and demeanour, and becoming involved in sexual liaisons as passive partners. To all intents and purposes they seem to have assumed a full-time and complete female identity. Volpp (1996) points out that they came to epitomize femininity in Chinese society, surpassing genetic females in this regard.

Such cases of transgender may not have been entirely rare. One certainly finds them in Chinese literature. The Ming poet Li Yu, living in the 17th century, tells of a scholar Xu Ji-fang who took a boy called You Rui-lang as bride, even paying a bride price to the boy’s parents. You sets about becoming a good wife, ‘castrating himself to preserve his boyish beauty and to show his chastity to Xu (Chou, 2000, p37). The famous Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) story has a clearly transgender character, Jia Bao-yu, who from his earliest years displays feminine manner, interests and traits, showing a repugnance for all things male. Jia Bao-yu is ‘soft, delicate, considerate, beautiful’ (Chou, 2000, p34). He decorates his bedroom as a girl might. His grandmother says ‘perhaps he was a maid himself in some past life. Perhaps she should have been a girl’ (op.cit., p34). His servant prays that ‘Master Bao-yu is reborn in his next life as a girl’ (op.cit., p34).

All of this suggests a traditionally positive Chinese view of gender identity variance. But the name yen-yiu (‘person changed against nature’) used in Classical dictionaries to describe gender variance and often used to describe transgender today carries a negative connotation. Perhaps the connotations have changed. As we will see, more modern attitudes towards transgender have been harsh. Another possibility is that apparent acceptance of transgender behaviour in classical Chinese society was context-specific, with transgender outside the social circles of the xi-di, xiang gong and dan not well accepted, and certainly less well-accepted than was the case for mere same-sex sex. The hardest attitudes may have been towards male-to-female transgender. Legends and historical stories (for example in the Sou Sheng Ji compilation) tell of the how MtF individuals were perceived as bad portents. Interestingly enough , FtM people could actually be auspicious.

If classical Chinese society had a problem with MtF transgender, why might that be? Perhaps the problem was that transgender is all about who a person is (identity). It is a state. Notwithstanding Dong Xian’s example, a son who persists in this state might have trouble finding a bride, cannot bring a wife into the home, and cannot have children to carry on the family line. It therefore represents a threat to marriage, procreation and the well-being of the entire family. Perhaps it is in this sense that it would be yiu - ‘change against nature’. By contrast, mere same-sex sex is just that – sex. It does not rule out a conventional marriage and children. Indeed, it can even go on while a man is married. Perhaps it is not so yiu.

Sex and gender in modern times

Chou (2000) argues that attitudes towards homosexuality only hardened when China came into contact with the Western world. I suspect also the associated contact with the Christian missionary line on homosexuality (as per Leviticus 18:22). Laws were passed against homosexuality in Hong Kong in 1865 (just a few years after a similar act in the UK) and in China in 1949, shortly after the new republic was declared. Things have loosened up now (though China only took homosexuality off the list of psychiatric disorders in 2001) and society is moving once again towards acceptance of same-sex sex.

As for transgender, Western ideas (associated with Christian teachings as per Deuteronomy 22:5) may have had a similar effect on attitudes, if not laws. It is difficult to say for sure, since I cannot find any more cases of transgender until recent decades.

Not that the bending of gender did not occur at all. In an interesting reversal of the dan heritage there were in the ‘40’s (Yam Kim Fai), ‘50’s and ‘60’s (Lin Qing Xia, Chan Po Chu) a string of Cantonese and Taiwanese movie actresses who became well-known and admired for their ability to portray male as well as female roles, even taking romantic roles opposite women as men. In some cases, for example that of Chan Po Chu, they attracted a female following who apparently idolized their male personas.

One of the films made by Lin Qing Xia, called Xiao Ao Jiang Hu’ illustrates the gender complexities involved in this film genre. The actress plays a male, Dong Fang Bu Bai, who cross-dresses as a female in order to sexually attract the female character, Ling Hu Cong. Contrary to most depictions of MtF transgender in classical Chinese art, Dong Fang Bu is portrayed unsympathetically. In this the film was possibly echoing overwhelmingly negative views of cross-gender that had by that time been imported from the West. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film was that it was an actress that played a man cross-dressing as a woman. No dan actors here.

For a well-known recent case of transgender one has the now famous case of Song Li-ling, the MtF person who, with the apparent knowledge of the Chinese authorities, had a long affair with a French diplomat (that affair later forming the basis for David Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, in 1993 made into a film by David Cronenberg). By then a male actor – John Lone - could be found to play the cross-gendered role, though this was more a reflection of Hollywood sexual liberalism than Chinese.

Finally, Hong Kongers (so long isolated by colonial and Christian education from these aspects of their own history and culture) have in recent decades begun to travel and come into contact with the most visible manifestations of transgender elsewhere in Asia, namely transgender prostitution. The result may be that prejudices against MtF transgender may have actually hardened here.

The contemporary transgender experience

‘Pre-op’ transgender people tell me that they can get the hormones they need in Hong Kong, and can do so without a prescription. For those who want to go further in their physical transformation sex reassignment surgery (SRS) has been available in Hong Kong since 1981. A Gender Identity Team (GIT) was set up in 1986. Its work is described in Ng et al., (1989), Ma (1997; 1999), and Ng and Ma (2001). As of 2001 the team consists of psychologists, social workers, endocrinologists, lawyers, geneticists, gynecologists, surgeons and, at the head, a psychiatrist. It aims to offer counseling, support and treatment to d people in transition. After taking a ‘real life test’ in which they live in their chosen gender, transgender individuals can get government subsidised SRS surgery. Ng and Ma (2001) report that by 1998 78 ‘gender-conflicted’ people had been assessed, of whom 71 had completed the assessment process. Of those, 48 had undergone SRS. Those approaching the GIT have ranged from 15 to 53 years of age, and have included students, civil  servants, doctors, managers, shop workers, labourers, hairdressers, designers, clerks, bar girls and even a Chinese herbalist.(SCMP, 1994b). In or around 2005 medical services for transpeople were de-centralised, and devolved to a set of regional clinics. This was done with very little warning or preparation, so that a number of healthworkers now found themselves working with transpeople without having had any expereince of doing so before.

Ng and Ma estimates a prevalence rate of 1 in 200,000 for Hong Kong. That is a clear underestimate. Given a mean Hong Kong population of 5.5 million since 1986, and a mean of 4.3 million over the age of 18, then the GIT’s own figures suggest a prevalence of 1 in around 110,000. In reality the rate may be much higher, for there is at least one doctor providing this surgery privately in Hong Kong, and in any case many Hong Kong transgender people might have obtained their surgery overseas in this period (SCMP, 2000), particularly in North America Europe and, increasingly, in Thailand. And Ng and Ma’s figures take no account of the many who do not feel able to undergo SRS, or would want to live a cross-gendered life without it.

Interestingly, the majority of applicants seen by the GIT are females intent on becoming male. Seen in a worldwide context, this is rather unusual. I am told a similar ratio may be observed nowadays in mainland China. One wonders why. Perhaps it echoes the higher prestige accorded the male gender in traditional (and to some extent contemporary) Chinese culture. It may also arise out of Chinese culture’s diverging attitudes towards MtF and FtM transgender (detailed earlier); attitudes that may persist even now in Hong Kong (Ma, 1997).

In passing, please note that SRS is also available in mainland China. It has been since the early eighties (Ruan et al., 1989; Ruan and Lau, 1997). In 2002 I was writing on this page that I had heard that some of the surgery there is pretty basic, involving the removal of the penis and scrotal sac, and the use of a small flap of skin to form a pocket vagina underneath that runs parallel to the exterior of the body rather than inside it. Just the sort of surgery that appears to have been done in Hong Kong in the early years. However, it is clear that standards like this can only improve, and they may have already done so. They certainly have in Hong Kong, with surgeons nowadays even doing corrective SRS involving colonovagiplasty, and apparently doing it to such a high standard that one MtF person reported to me that she was now able to attain multiple orgasm (presumably through massage of the prostate).

As elsewhere in the world, the worst time for the transgender person (if one discounts the period in which he/she agonises over whether indeed to transition) is the transition itself. This is particularly true for those who have long lived in the hope that they could rid themselves of their incongruous feelings, and have married according to their birth sex or have had children.

But even for those who transition early things can be tough. A young FtM person was disowned by her parents, and now has to call them ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’. A MtF educator experienced so much ill treatment and prejudice from her colleagues that she had to leave her post, only returning to the profession once she had obtained her SRS, and only then at another institution where her gender past was not known. University students found out that one of their classmates was in MtF transition, and put the information up on a university-wide bulletin board so that the whole student community would know. She was then subjected to such abuse as to make her drop out from her studies. Over the years I have known other bright and capable transgender people who have ended up working in the sex and drugs industries. See also SCMP 1994b; 1996b. Many of those involved may do so not because they want to, but because they cannot get a proper job.

But the problems don’t end with SRS. A top-notch MtF business professional working for a prestigious international company now finds herself working for a third tier local company. A successful self-employed MtF businesswoman was excommunicated by her church.

Faced with these prospects it is not surprising that many transgender Hong Kongers stop short of a full transition and end up living a dual life. Some live out their birth sex during the day and chosen gender at night. Others, often those living with their family, live out their birth sex almost all the time, with only occasional forays into a cross-gendered role, either in real life or onto their website. Some repress their transgender almost totally.

Not surprising then that so many transgender people end up lonely, isolated and depressed, caught between (on one hand) repressing their true identity and living a false life, or (on the other) living as an object of derision in an ill-informed and prejudice-ridden society. Associated helplessness / hopelessness is sometimes so great as to prompt attempts at suicide. See for example SCMP (1996a). I was talking with a bunch of Hong Kong transgender people recently and almost all of them had tried to kill themselves at one time or another. Some had tried it a few times.

In 2002 why do transgender people still get such a raw deal in Hong Kong? The prejudice is one factor of course. Nowhere did I see it so baldly as when one of my research students, to whom I had given the task of entering data from a survey project on transgender, told me of her grandmother’s reaction to the pile of questionnaires that she had brought home. ‘Uggh, horrible,,, get them out of here!’ she said, motioning frantically with her hands to shoo the sheets away. The message was clear; anything to do with transgender was dirty, repugnant and harmful.

But prejudice and discrimination do their best work when given a free hand. There is little protection from them in Hong Kong legislation. The Sex Discrimination Ordinance offers none on the basis of transgender. Any protection offered by the Disabilities Discrimination Ordinance (on the basis of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’) is untried. Like all other Hong Kong residents, transgender individuals have to carry I.D. cards. For pre-op transpeople, especially perhaps those who are engaged in a real life experience,  this poses a great problem. No matter their appearance, demeanour, identity, their I.D. cards mark them out as different from other people. Whenever and wherever they are required to show I.D. - at a library, at a bank, when applying for a course, when applying for a job, - they run the risk of prejudice. Post-op persons are able to change their I.D. cards to reflect their lived gender.

The birth certificate remains another issue. Under Hong Kong law it cannot be changed. This means that, for all sorts of legal purposes, the post-op transgender person remains legally a member of their birth sex. This has all sorts of consequences, many detailed by Emerton in her legal report on this site. One particularly important one relates to marriage. Many transgender Hong Kongers appear to be heterosexual; that is, they are attracted to persons other than their adopted gender (i.e. sharing their birth sex). Hong Kong law would regard this as a same-sex marriage, and therefore legally invalid.

In 2002 I wrote on this page as follows:

There are signs that things are changing. The availability of SRS in Hong Kong (since 1981) and China (since 1983) has resulted in the issue of transgender being discussed more widely in the media. There are clear role models. Most post-SRS people settle down to quiet lives, sheltered from the glare of publicity. TVB Pearl, a Hong Kong TV company, in 1999 to find one willing to be interviewed and failed (SCMP, 1999a). This year (2002) the Government radio station failed also. But some transgenders are beginning to ‘come out’.  Two Western transgender residents have been quite open about their transgender (for example see SCMP, 1999b). In addition two Chinese transgenders -  Sasha (MtF and working as a model), and 'Kam' ( a local FtM person)  - have recently told their stories to the media. From mainland China Jingxing, a well-known MtF transgender dancer / choreographer, has been quite openly transgendered. All three of these ethnic Chinese transgenders have told their stories to local media; for example see 'Kam's story in the South China Morning Post (1994a). Others are coming out on the web. In mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong a steadily increasing number of transgender individuals are making themselves known via personal webpages, and telling their stories (see this site’s links page for a selection). A local Chinese transgender person has operated an e mail support group for a couple of years. Another has started a support group with monthly meetings. Two are in contact with local political parties and the Equal Opportunities Commission. A group called Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities (CR4SD) is working for change. All in all, transgender people in Hong Kong may have cause to hope for a better future.

In fact at the time of writing (late 2009) there has been very little progress at all. On one hand more and more transpeople are prepared to out themselves and speak about trans issues, for example to media, and to groups of students and doctors. On the other hand, while the Hong Kong Government adopts the appearance of being concerned about the plight of sexual and gender minorities, it does little more than spend an extremely small amount of money educating the public (or more often getting local groups to do that job on its behalf), arranges the occasional meeting of a 'Sexual and Gender Minorities Forum', and runs a small 'Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Unit' which seems to do little except hand out the small amounts of money available for public education.



Chou W.S. (2000) Tongzhi: politics of same-sex eroticism in Chinese Societies. New York: Haworth.

Hinsch, B. (1990). Passions of the cut sleeve: the male homosexual tradition in China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leupp, G. (1995). Male colors: the construction of homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ma, J.L.C. (1997) A systems approach to the social difficulties of transsexuals in Hong Kong. Journal of Family Therapy, 19, 1, 71-88

Ma, J.L.C. (1999). Social work practice with transsexuals in Hong Kong who apply for sex reassignment surgery. Social Work in Health Care, 29, 2, 85-103

Ng, M.L. and Ma, L.C. (2001). Hong Kong. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Vol.4.  Francoeur, R. (Ed.) New York: Continuum. link to resource

Ng M.L., Wong K.K., Chow S.K., Tang S.K., Leung,A., and Chan M.M. (1989) Transsexualism: service and problems in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Practitioner, 11,12, 591-602

Ruan F.F., Bullough,V. and Tsai Y.M. (1989). Male transsexualism in mainland China. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 18, 6, 517-522

Ruan F F and Lau M.P. (1997). China. In the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Francoeur, R. (Ed.)  link to resource

SCMP (1994a). Living life as husband and wife. South China Morning Post, 9th Jan. Reporter Ruth Mathewson. 

SCMP (1994b). Bar girls, civil servants, doctors, shop workers, labourers, hairdressers, designers and even a Chinese herbalist have all taken the rocky road to a sex-change operation. South China Morning Post, 9th Jan. Reporter Ruth Mathewson. 

SCMP (1994c) Fine for sex swap defendant. South China Morning Post, 1st June. Courts page. 

SCMP (1996a). Suicide attempt. South China Morning Post, 6th May. Anonymous. 

SCMP (1996b). Heroin dealer blames bad life. South China Morning Post, 2nd Oct. Reporter Magdalen Chow. . 

SCMP (1999a). Gay talk.  South China Morning Post, 26th Feb. Reporter Alice Cairns. 

SCMP (1999b). Just let me be a woman. South China Morning Post. 30th May,. Reporter Helen Luk.

SCMP (2000). More women opt for local sex change. South China Morning Post. 29th Oct. Reporter Patsy Moy.

Volpp, S. (1996). Gender, power and spectacle in late-imperial Chinese theatre. Ch. 9 in Ramet, S. (Ed.) Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures. London: Routledge.