TA: A New Voice for Queer Hong Kong

Kary Kwok spent one of the most memorable days of his career so far in bed with Kylie Minogue. “The shoot was in her hotel room at the Regent in Hong Kong. It was 1997,” says Kwok, an artist, photographer and creative director who at the time was an editor of Amoeba, a now-closed monthly fashion magazine. “As soon as I arrived, I asked, ‘Can I photograph you in bed?’ She said yes and started jumping up and down on the bed. It’s a wonderful memory for me.” 

Kwok photographed many other celebrities in the 1990s, including Hong Kong actors Charlie Yeung and Michael Wong. But while he was shooting stars for magazines by day, at night he was busy working as both a documentarian and an artist. Kwok was an unofficial photographer of the queer nightlife scenes in his hometown of Hong Kong and his adopted home of London, where he lived intermittently between 1986 and 1996. When he wasn’t photographing club kids and drag queens, Kwok was taking photographs of himself, staging self-portraits that explored ideas of sexuality, race and identity. 

Much of Kwok’s artistic output has been overshadowed by his work in magazines, although a recent string of exhibitions is helping to change that. Aaditya Sathish, who was helping Kwok organise his archive of thousands of never-before-seen photographs from the 1980s and 90s, curated the first of these exhibitions at the Eaton Hong Kong hotel in Yau Ma Tei in June and July 2022. The solo show combined Kwok’s self-portraits, images he’d taken for magazines, and some of his nightlife photography. 

This January, the hotel hosted another exhibition of Kwok’s work, this time featuring images he’d taken at the 1995 Alternative Miss World Competition, a mock beauty pageant. The exhibition then moved to UltraSuperNew’s galleries in Singapore and Tokyo, where it was co-hosted with Soho House, Silk Road Sounds and DJ James Banbury, who created a limited-edition vinyl to accompany the exhibition. In March, Square Street Gallery also exhibited two large-scale self-portraits at the Art Central fair. Next, Square Street Gallery is opening a solo show of Kwok’s photography on June 15. 

Kwok is also launching a project that combines the ideas and skills that he’s developed through his work on magazines, his documentary photography and his art: TA, which Kwok describes as a “community zine focusing on contemporary LGBTQIA and nonbinary issues.” The publication will be both online and in print, although it will not take the form of a traditional magazine. Instead, TA will be released twice a year as a limited-edition archival box filled with objects related to the issue and loose pages printed with articles and images. TA’s website will launch on June 23 with a party at Eaton Hong Kong. The first TA archival box will be released on December 1, World AIDS Day. 

“The archival box format allows us to include whatever we want  – we’re thinking about records, cassette tapes, but we could include anything,” says Kwok. “There’s this ancient notion of a magazine, that you must go page to page. With TA, we are making the viewer the editor. They can enter the box however they want to.” 

The zine takes its name from the Chinese word taa1, which, depending on which character is used, serves as a pronoun for he (他), she (她) or it (它. Although these three characters have different written forms, their pronunciation is identical. This has led some queer communities around the world to adopt ta as a non-gendered way to address people, without having to use the English equivalents of he, she or they. “The sound of ta is genderless, so we thought it was a good name because it’s inclusive and non-binary,” says Kwok. 

Some influential figures from Hong Kong’s art world have already committed to contributing to TA. Ellen Pau, a pioneering video artist and prominent member of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community, and Ho Tam, a Hong Kong-born, Canada-based artist and graphic designer whose work explores sexuality, are both involved. Diana Lin, who is one of Hong Kong’s most prominent TV journalists, having hosted TVB Pearl’s current affairs programme The Pearl Report from 1988 to 2018, is working behind-the-scenes as a consultant. “Diana did a programme about transgender people [in 2017] and got an award for it. She’s been very supportive,” says Kwok. 

Kwok doesn’t see his work in magazines, including TA, as separate from his art. “I’ve always wanted to blur the line between art and commerce because even when you’re editing a magazine, it’s an art form,” he says. “People who don’t work in magazines don’t know how much work goes into it. It’s not just the glamorous life – it’s really hard work. So being an artist, doing commercial photography, being an art director at magazines – to me it’s all interlinked. I can’t separate them. They inspire and influence each other.” 

Kwok’s artworks often explore — or feature — experiences from his own life. One of his earliest artworks, which he exhibited at Eaton Hong Kong, is a video recording of him performing in drag on stage at Disco Disco, the legendary nightclub run by Gordon Huthart in Lan Kwai Fong from 1978 to 1986. “Disco Disco was the place that really created a queer scene in Hong Kong,” says Kwok. “Every Wednesday they’d have a queer night. And every season or every six months they’d do a private party with a drag show, when I’d perform.” 

But Kwok didn’t do a traditional drag show with over-the-top makeup and highly feminine clothes. Instead, he danced on stage as a more androgynous figure. “I was already interested in the in-between: drag but not drag, man but not man, woman but not woman. I wanted to go for in-betweenness,” says Kwok. “There was already a punk element in me that wanted to question: why do we have to do gender like this?” Kwok says his icon at the time was Tina Chow, the model who became a fashion icon in the 1970s and 80s with her short hair and androgynous style.

Kwok was particularly interested in how clothes defined gender, which he explored further when he moved to London to study art and photography in 1986. He would photograph people’s outfits at nightclubs and would also attend alternative fashion events, like the Alternative Miss World pageant that he documented in 1995. As time went on, he found himself being invited to photograph more official fashion events, too. “I covered Alexander McQueen’s shows,” says Kwok. “At his shows, he created a whole atmosphere. There was such a strong concept behind each collection. It was wonderful.” 

His time in London had its challenges, too. “I spent a lot of time by myself. I was quite isolated. At the time, there wasn’t much of an Asian community. At the same time, in the gay scene, Asian bodies were not seen as the most desirable,” says Kwok. He channelled these experiences into one of his multiple series of self-portraits, in which he dressed up as a maid, sometimes carrying a plate of rice. “I dressed up as a maid to subvert the idea that Asian people are submissive. I was targeting how I felt in society as a queer Asian artist.” 

Other artists in London were also making work about race, gender and identity politics. Kwok lived for a while with Sonia Boyce, one of the British Black Arts Movement’s most prominent figures and now one of the UK’s most celebrated contemporary artists. Boyce represented the country at the Venice Biennale in 2022 and her show won the event’s Golden Lion prize, which is given to the best national exhibition at the event. “Sonia and I had a lot of conversations about our work, photography, art theory, the ideas behind the British Black Arts Movement,” says Kwok. Their third housemate was Ajamu X, an artist and activist whose work has focused on the lives of LGBTQ Black people in the UK. 

Community is perhaps the one thing that links all of Kwok’s projects. As a documentarian, he photographed the queer community. Through his magazine work, he’s been part of a creative community of writers, photographers and editors. Even Kwok’s self-portraits are reflections on his experiences in the LGBTQ and Asian communities. His biggest hope for TA is that it will help strengthen the queer community in Hong Kong by giving its readers, whether LGBTQ or not, an insight into both the challenges and triumphs of queer people in the city. 

“I have a positive view about the queer scene in Hong Kong,” he says. “I think there are more conversations happening about LGBTQ issues, queer issues, gender issues, non-binary issues. There’s more dialogue. But I’m always thinking, what’s next?” TA, he hopes, will push these conversations even further.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a quote that mistakenly referred to Diana Lin’s documentary as having aired in the 1990s. In fact, it aired in 2017. We apologise for the error.

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