A Room of One’s Own: Lesbian Desire and Identity in the Spatiality of Hong Kong Households



One day I was invited by my friend Cass to have dinner at her home. She showed me around the apartment she shares with her family, and told me the 37 square meter space (about 400 square feet) used to be shared by five people. I found a not-so-cozy spot on the sofa and sat myself down, trying not to knock anything over. Looking for something to do, she played her guitar and sang, but the music sounded muffled in the tiny space, bouncing off the many things piled randomly on every surface.

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Photograph by Yeung Chung-yan, one of Sonia Wong’s interviewees (2017)

Cass is a 24-year-old Hong Kong lesbian woman who still lives with her family, not unlike most of the city’s young people, with no plans and no hope to move out. Cass’s family owns a small neighborhood laundry shop; they didn’t earn much, and the workload was crushing, but they managed to send her older brother and younger sister off to Canada for their studies, and Cass was able to finish her degree at one of the best universities in Hong Kong. After graduation, Cass pursued a career in independent cinema. As one can imagine, this is a precarious profession and pays little, but nonetheless, her parents put little financial pressure on her. They managed to retire and are considering relocating to Taiwan, where the living cost is much lower.

After the performance, she showed me her room. Despite the fact that her family is financially better off than most people in the city (being small business owners), like many others I know, Cass didn’t have a room of her own until a few years ago. For nearly 20 years she and her sister shared a 9.5 square meter bedroom (less than 100 square feet), about the size of the average parking space, in their family’s government-subsidized apartment, sleeping on bunk beds, as is common for siblings in the city. The bedroom didn’t even have a door; for privacy Cass hangs clothes over the doorframe acting as the flimsy replacement for the missing room door.

Compact Living ///

We typically think of Hong Kong in terms of its extreme density: whether in the ultra-modern skyscrapers that serve as a backdrop for films like The Dark Knight and Ghost in the Shell, the endless rows of windows of austere public housing buildings, or the desperately crowded yet spatially innovative Kowloon Walled City. But Hong Kong is even more cramped than it is commonly depicted. Exactly how much living space do its residents have? According to a recent article by Hong Kong Free Press, the average living space per capita in the city is 15 square meters (about 160 square feet). In public housing it is 12 square meters (about 130 square feet), as regulated by the Hong Kong Housing Authority, but in unregulated subdivided flats it shrinks to a barely-livable 4.5 square meters (about 48 square feet) — less than the size of a table-tennis table. This comes as no surprise when the average monthly salary for the city’s residents ranks just 14th in the world, despite Hong Kong being the world’s second-most expensive city to rent in and Asia’s second-most expensive city for going out on a “cheap date,” according to Deutsche Bank’s latest annual index.

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Photograph by Yeung Chung-yan (2017)

So how do the physical constraints of the home affect its inhabitants? And how do young girls in Hong Kong learn to explore their sexualities inside these walls, or the lack thereof? Compressed living space often means a lack of privacy, heightened surveillance, and deeply intertwined family relations. As one can imagine, this can severely limit the exploration and expression of one’s personality and sexuality, especially for sexual minorities.

It’s easy to wonder why Hong Kong’s young people don’t just move out of their parents’ apartments and find a place for themselves. But because of the scarcity of space, together with government policies that favor high land prices and facilitate an oligopoly in the real estate market, housing is extremely expensive even for middle-class families, and downright unattainable for all but the most privileged individuals. As a result, like in many other major Asian cities like Taipei and Tokyo, young people in Hong Kong seldom live on their own.

This immense financial pressure forces most young people to continue living with their families long after reaching adulthood. In fact, according to government statistics, in the ten-year period between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of people between the ages of 15 and 24 living with their parents in Hong Kong rose from an already high rate of 91.5% to an even higher 94.6%. The average salary of young people has risen at a rate that has failed to track inflation over the past decade. The fact that the average rent has gone up by 50%, while the average price of private permanent housing has gone up by over 200%, only intensifies the problem further.

Yet young people in the city tend to live with their parents even in those rare cases when they earn a higher income than their peers. Another acquaintance, Carmen, who works at an investment bank in the central business district, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Why does she stay at home when, unlike most of the young lesbian women I know, she actually has the means to leave?

Despite being a highly modernized society, the traditional values of filial duty and close family ties still play an important role in regulating social relations in China. And given the spatial constraints and lack of privacy most residents of Hong Kong live with on a daily basis, the result is that the family can be experienced as an even more rigid structure than elsewhere in the country.

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Photographs by Vivian Chan, one of Sonia Wong’s interviewees (2017)

Because of the importance of filial duties, parents in Hong Kong are often reluctant to encourage their children to move out. Many young lesbian women I know feel obliged to remain at home so that they can better attend to the needs of their parents, even if only for the smallest things. Ling, a lesbian coffee shop manager in her early 30s, who still lives with her family in a public housing building, tells me: “There are times when you really feel like they need you there, like when they have trouble with their phones, or when the wifi stops working. They can’t handle things like that on their own.”

Furthermore, it is not uncommon for parents in the city to treat their offspring as though they are too immature to care for themselves or behave properly without supervision, regardless of their age. Parents can even forbid their children from moving out after they start working and become financially independent, under penalty of being disowned. For women especially, parents routinely forbid moving out until after marriage. Carmen, as the lone unwed child of the family, is naturally expected to stay at home. “I couldn’t ever be married in the way my parents would understand and accept,” she tells me, and thus has no “legitimate” excuse to move out.

A Room of One’s Own ///

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Photographs by Vivian Chan, one of Sonia Wong’s interviewees (2017)

Cass’s tiny apartment, shared with her parents, is typical household in Hong Kong for both its size and the problems that arise there. Surveillance and control are the norm in spaces like these, where privacy is considered a luxury, and the influence this can have on a developing child is dramatic. Homes in Hong Kong offer little to no physical space for private intimacy or sexual exploration with another.

For Cass, not growing up with a bed of her own was by no means atypical. Even having one’s own desk as a child is a privilege few would know — most of the time, siblings sit around a folding dinner table and do their homework together, after all the plates have been cleared. Even though Cass’s sister left for Canada three years ago, the room is still filled with her sister’s belongings: old textbooks, comics, CDs, stuffed toys, and clothes. With her parents’ plan to emigrate to Taiwan — her mother leaving first, and her father in a few years’ time — bit by bit there will be more space for the remaining inhabitants, yet this still comes with no promise of true privacy. Without doors in the apartment, conversations are easily overheard, and actions impossible to hide.

If Cass wants time alone with her partner, she has to go to her partner’s place. Cass’s ex, Scarlett, moved to a school dormitory during her undergraduate years and refused to return home afterwards. But being a freelance musician and music teacher without a stable income, she, like most young people, can’t afford to rent an apartment by herself. She shares an apartment with a friend in Sham Shui Po, an older part of town where the rent is slightly cheaper, and even though it’s listed as dilapidated (and allegedly haunted), the rent is only 30% cheaper. But the flat Scarlett shares with her friend is relatively spacious, and as she has her own room, she enjoys a great degree of privacy. Cass used to visit her at her flat, or even spend the night on occasion. Opportunities for intimacy like these are rare in Hong Kong , as it is much more common for both parties in a relationship to be living with their respective families, where even if one has a separate bedroom, it is hardly experienced as truly private.

Being a lesbian, at least for most of the young women I know, is not necessarily explicitly dangerous. The social, and especially familial, stigma surrounding lesbianism is rarely expressed through physical violence. But it would be a mistake to interpret the relatively unaggressive opposition of Chinese families to homosexuality as a sign of acceptance. As Hong Kong-based queer scholar Lucetta Kam (Querying Marriage-Family Continuum, 2011) has pointed out, this seemingly passive silence should be understood as a systematic silencing and marginalizing of sexuality (especially sexualities which deviate from the norm), reducing it to the unspeakable and invisible. Instead of being a shelter for the individual, where a woman can relax and “be herself,” domestic spaces in Hong Kong are seen as an extension of social space, where duties must be performed and duties fulfilled. Constrained space leads to constrained personal development and expression in the family, hampering
the development of anything apart from a woman’s designated role as a daughter.

No Room for Sex ///

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Photograph by Yeung Chung-yan (2017)

For Queenie, a friend who lives in a comparatively spacious apartment with her parents, the best option is to “smuggle” her partner into her room at night after the rest of her family is asleep. “It’s too awkward for her to be marching in just like that,” she says. “I’ve always introduced her as a ‘good friend,’ and I don’t want them poking their noses into my private life too much.” Lesbian relationships are on the one hand “passable” in relation to “sisterhood,” as girls are imagined to be less sexual than boys, but on the other hand, the sexuality of not-obviously-heterosexual female children is constantly denied. They are continuously seen as, and expected to be, a chaste and sexless child. Lesbian women, as the sexual other, have to negotiate the surveillance of their families by strategically managing their personal lives, simultaneously allowing certain things to be revealed while concealing the rest. And any space for intimacy has to be temporarily created without disturbing the rest of the family. As Queenie tells me: “My parents go to sleep early and leave for work early, so I wait until they are in their room, then sneak my girlfriend in, hiding her shoes in my room, and we spend the night together without making too much noise.”

All this, as one can imagine, is not only inconvenient, but also extremely stressful, and certainly does not encourage interest or investment in intimate exchange or (homo)sexual exploration. Mei-ling, a friend whose ex lives in a crowded public-housing building, shared an even more traumatic experience with me. She once had sex with her partner in her ex’s apartment, behind flimsy curtains that served as the only boundary between rooms. The lack of privacy made her feel exposed and disrespected: “I felt like I was putting on a sex show in front of everyone. You could even hear them chatting right next to you. Later on I suggested that we do it elsewhere. Because we were both so young, and didn’t have the money to get a room, we did it in a handicap restroom, and it was a terrible experience. The physical space and environment are all wrong. The fact that we were doing it in a public toilet felt incredibly demeaning.” The inconveniences around and spatial unsuitability for sex discourage intimate exchange, and further alienates women from their sexuality by adding to the existing psychological taboo and social stigma against even heterosexual sex.

Furthermore, this spatial condition does not simply mean for queer young women the lack of a place to be intimate with a partner, but rather the lack of a place for sexual exploration as such, even on one’s own. For Carmen, who always had her own room, private space was closely linked to the exploration of her sexuality, but particularly through exposure to information on the Internet: “It wasn’t until I went to university that I had both my own room and my own computer, all to myself. Back then, computers were not so common — unlike now, when everyone has their own phone, PC, or laptop — so the computer we had at home was more or less public, even though 90% of the time I was the only one using it. So I couldn’t use it to watch porn or masturbate or anything; what if my mom came in all of a sudden? But when I went to university and stayed in a residence hall where all of the rooms were single occupancy, I finally had my own private space.”

Moving out of the family apartment to live at a university residence hall is, for many young women, the only chance of leaving home. Yan and her partner, like most of the lesbian couples I know, enjoyed their most intimate moments in the sanctuary of college dorm rooms. Because the domestic spaces of Chinese families are silently hostile towards both homosexuality and any explicit manifestation of one’s sexuality in general, the university setting is largely experienced as a welcoming place. Violence or explicit acts of discrimination are rare, and most of the lesbian women I know did not encounter major challenges coming out in these spaces. Yan, however, wonders if homosexuality in women might be “more tolerated” than in men, as lesbianism is considered “non-threatening” when it comes to public displays of affection: “People are less hostile to lesbians than gay men, because lesbian sex can simply be dismissed. I wouldn’t say that we have an advantage, but the sexual acts of lesbians are usually glossed over. On the one hand it works in our favor, because if it does not exist, you cannot control it; but on the other hand, there is no way or space for us to talk or think about it. It’s as if our desires don’t exist.”

Hong Kong makes little space for queer sexuality. Astronomical real estate prices make it close to impossible for young lovers to find the space for intimacy. College dormitories are some of the only safe havens where romance is allowed to flourish, if only temporarily, before young women return to their families and their tiny apartments, where more often than not homosexuality is reduced to the unspeakable. Even for those who enjoy the privilege of “a room of one’s own,” the thin walls, half-opened doors, and potential for sudden intrusion in these apartments make the privacy to explore one’s own body and desires is an extreme luxury. The lack of space shortens the distance between family members; living spaces overlap, which results in heightened surveillance. The physical constraints of a small living space, along with the custom of keeping quiet about any sex-related issues and the domineering presence and lack of sensitivity of parents over the sex lives of their adult children, seriously hampers the development of women’s sexuality — which feeds back into the myth of lesbian women being asexual, or non-sexual. Unfortunately, this concept of a “natural” lack of sexual desire in women is very often internalized by lesbians, who are forced to wage a war on two fronts: the structural regulation and denial of women’s sexuality in the public and professional sphere, and the limiting of sexual agency within the thin walls of the home.