Hong Kong’s Queer Evolution: Patrick Sun Brings LGBTQ+ Art to Tai Kwun

When Patrick Sun came out as gay to his parents in the 1970s, when Sun was in his 20s, his mother was distraught. “She felt that I was sick. She thought I needed to see a psychiatrist to be cured,” he says. Now, roughly fifty years later, Sun is collaborating with Tai Kwun Contemporary to open a major exhibition of art exploring LGBTQ+ themes, one of the largest of its kind ever held in Hong Kong. 

Sun’s mother passed away several years ago, but he still has his father, who is more than 100 years old. If his father feels well enough, Sun will bring him to see the exhibition. “In the old days my mother felt that it would be so shameful if anybody in Hong Kong ever found out that her son is gay,” says Sun. “Now I’m hosting a gay exhibition, talking to you about my sexuality, I have no shame – it’s such an accomplishment, not just for me, but for general attitudes in Hong Kong. That’s how different the world has become. We have moved forward in such a dramatic and wonderful way.” 

The exhibition at Tai Kwun, Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III, runs from December 24 to April 10, 2023. It is the third in a series of exhibitions that Sun has hosted with the Sunpride Foundation, a non-profit organisation he founded in 2013 with the aim of using art to advance gay rights around Asia. The first exhibition, Spectrosynthesis—Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now, was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei in 2017 and the second, Spectrosynthesis II—Exposure of Tolerance: LGBTQ in Southeast Asia, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre from late 2019 to early 2020. 

Sun has personally witnessed how those exhibitions sparked meaningful conversations about gender and sexuality. At the show in Taiwan, he saw a woman walking around the exhibition with her son, who was maybe five or six years old. They came across a huge charcoal drawing about gay parenthood by Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong, which featured two naked women cradling a baby. The son asked his mother what the drawing meant, and Sun saw her calmly explain that some women love women, and some men love men. It is one of Sun’s fondest memories.

He hopes that the show in Hong Kong will encourage discussions on both a personal and a political level. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Hong Kong in 1991, the age of consent was standardised for gay and straight relationships in 2014, and in 2018 the government announced it would grant dependent visas for individuals who had entered same-sex marriages or civil unions outside of Hong Kong. But same-sex marriage remains illegal in the city and there is no comprehensive legal protection against discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, Hong Kong’s laws protect only against discrimination on the grounds of sex, family status, race and disability.

“Hong Kong is lagging behind other cities and countries. Taiwan has legalised same-sex marriage and Thailand is talking about it. In Hong Kong, we don’t even have a law to protect the gay community against discrimination,” says Sun. “People in Hong Kong complain to me about things like the loss of promotion opportunities, or the fear that they would be looked down upon if their colleagues found out they have a partner of the same sex.” He believes that exhibitions can encourage acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community among the public, which in turn leads to greater support for the passing of laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community.  

Sun also hopes that the show will encourage people to reflect on the fact that gender and sexuality is only one aspect of people’s identities. “In 2017, Tate Britain hosted a show called Queer British Art, curated by my dear friend Clare Barlow,” he says. “She said that she hoped the show would reach gay and straight people. And she hoped that people would come and see that there are huge talents who they didn’t even know were gay. That’s how I like people to perceive their friends or colleagues: he’s a great person, she’s a great architect or a great doctor, and they just happen to be gay.” Queer British Art succeeded in its mission to attract a mixed audience: only 55 percent of visitors identified as LGBTQ+. 

Myth Makers has been curated by Inti Guerrero and Chantal Wong, who have selected more than 60 artists from Asia and its diasporas. Also included are several from or based in Hong Kong, including Isaac Chong Wai, Zheng Bo and the late Tseng Kwong Chi. Sun is particularly excited about two works by Ellen Pau, a pioneer of video art in the city. The first work Pau is showing is her 1992 video Song of the Goddess, which reflects on the life of the celebrated Cantonese opera star Pak Suet-sin, who had a lifelong artistic partnership — and many believe an off-screen lesbian relationship — with Yam Kim-fai, another Cantonese opera star, from the 1940s until Yam passed away in 1989. “I think what’s mind-boggling is that [if] you talk to anyone in Hong Kong, nobody has any negative thing to say about them. Ellen Pau shows a very tender portrayal of the relationship,” says Sun. Pau is also presenting a new work that she has made especially for the show, which is being kept under wraps until the opening. 

Wong and Guerrero are particularly excited about the new works they have commissioned for the exhibition. One of these, made by Samson Young, is inspired by the legendary gay nightclub Propaganda, which operated in Soho, just around the corner from Tai Kwun, from 1991 to 2016. “Young’s new work uses subwoofers to produce low frequencies that penetrate the fibres of our cells, dissolving our sense of solidity, creating a feeling of liquifying from the inside,” says Wong. “It’s reminiscent of the sensation of freedom felt inside of and while waiting in the queue of Propaganda.” 

The curators have also commissioned new works from New York-based artist WangShui and Beijing-based Xiyadie. WangShui has made an LED installation that draws upon science-fiction writer Octavia E Butler’s Xenogenesis series and explores how technology might alter human evolution. “And we’re very excited to share the precisely and tenderly crafted hand-dyed papercuts by Xiyadie,” says Guerrero. “He has produced three new works based on seminal gay stories set in early Chinese history that were windows for a young Xiyadie to imagine his own future.”

Mythologies, both ancient and modern, are key to the exhibition – hence its title, Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III. The curators were drawn to myths because they believe that they are foundational stories that underpin societies and often define what is acceptable, meaning that many myths uphold heterosexual, cisgender people as the norm. But queer myths do occasionally pop up in history. For example, the Rabbit God is a deity in Chinese mythology said to protect same-sex lovers. The story dates from the 17th century and is explored in Myth Makers in Andrew Thomas Huang’s video piece, Kiss of the Rabbit God. Myth Makers also features works by artists who have created new myths to include queer characters, themes and perspectives. “We would like to propose myth making as a way of defining queer life, and queer artistic communities in particular, as micro-worlds of misfits who have invented their own mythologies through practice across different time periods, long before public manifestations of LGBTQ+ identities have been possible as they are today,” says Wong.  

Myth Makers is organised in three chapters. The first features “artists who evoke mythological figures, creation stories, and traditions that are based on homoeroticism, androgyny, cross-dressing, and gender ambiguity,” says Guerrero. The second explores power, shame, and the histories of criminalisation, a topic that is particularly poignant in the setting of Tai Kwun, which was formerly the site of the Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison and therefore a hub for colonial law enforcement, who could legally prosecute members of the LGBTQ+ community until homosexuality was decriminalised in 1991. 

The third chapter of the show is the most abstract. Instead of relating queerness exclusively to gender identity and sexual orientation, the curators want to encourage visitors to reflect on how queerness — which in its most basic definition means being different to the norm — might be a lens through which people can imagine alternative possibilities for themselves, their communities and their societies. 

Sun is reluctant to claim that the exhibition is the largest ever held in Hong Kong of art exploring LGBTQ+ life. “And we’re definitely not the first,” he says. “There are other galleries in Hong Kong doing exhibitions with gay themes, which is wonderful. We all do what we can. It’s important to have more of these shows to raise awareness and hopefully respect from the public.” Outside of visual art, the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has long championed the LGBTQ+ community; it is the oldest event of its kind in Asia, having been founded in 1989. On stage, the Xiqu Centre recently hosted We Are Gay, a new play by Candace Chong Mui-ngam that focuses on a love triangle between three men. Coming up in 2023, the international sporting event the Gay Games will be partly held in Hong Kong, the first time in its 40-year history that it will be hosted in Asia. 

For Sun, it is a joy to see any organisation in the city championing the LGBTQ+ community, and it makes him even happier to see the public engaging with these efforts. Sun is proud of how much more accepting Hong Kong has become in his lifetime. And as the opening of Myth Makers approaches, he is also proud of everyone who has worked on the show—and of himself. “Seven years ago, when I did our show in Taipei, I remember talking to friends in Hong Kong in the art world, and they said, ‘I don’t think you can bring this to Hong Kong,’” remembers Sun. “I’m always an optimist. I believed things would change. I always believed that we could bring it to Hong Kong. And now we are actually going to do this here, I feel an immense sense of achievement.” 

Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III is on display at Tai Kwun Contemporary from December 24 to April 10, 2023. Click here for more information.

 

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