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

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Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.