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Humans of Hong Kong: Through a queer eye with Ray Yeung

By Catharina Cheung 4 November 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We catch director Ray Yeung after the release of his stunning queer movie to find out more about courageous choices, giving Hong Kong’s fringe communities a voice, and why older homosexuals would rather stay in the closet.

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“One of my favourite childhood memories is watching Cantonese martial arts movies. There was this one called Buddha’s Palm—this kung fu movie with cartoons drawn all over it that was just very imaginative and really crazy. I remember watching it and playing all the different characters afterwards. I would be the baddie, I would be the goodie, the hero, the monsters; just recreating the whole story in my mind.

“It’s very difficult to say what initially sparked my interest in films because it’s almost something that is inside my DNA. I was just attracted to it. I watched TV and movies, and they stuck in my mind, and I just felt this is something I wanted for myself. It’s almost like you meet someone and it’s love at first sight, and you can never really explain it but somehow you feel that it’s right for you.”

“I went to boarding school in England when I was 13. It was a bit of a culture shock because we had to do this thing called fagging—basically doing services for the prefects. Very bizarre, and it sounds so ‘last century.’ Then I went to university to do law, only because my parents wanted me to, but I always knew that I wanted to do something creative.

“I was odd compared to other gay people in Hong Kong in that I never intended to stay in the closet. Even at a young age, I had never thought that being gay was wrong. I only felt that society and the world was half a step behind me; I was sure that one day they would catch up. My parents ‘didn’t know’ due to denial. I never tried hard to conceal my sexuality, so it was a case of not addressing it and just mutually tolerating it.”

“My first film after post-graduate studies was based on my own experiences in boarding school. It was difficult as a young boy trying to fit into a foreign culture. I got laughed at for my Chinese accent, for things I did, or simply for my Chinese image. In order to blend in, I had to minimise my Chinese identity, making myself more ‘white.’ Eventually, you really do feel divorced from your Chinese culture. The movie was a satire of a typical rom-com, with quite a classic Hollywood structure, but through a racial and LGBT lens. It’s the most closely personal story in my works.”

“To keep Suk Suk realistic, I looked for actors who were at least 60 years old for the two male leads. It was very difficult because most actors of this age did martial arts movies or were on television in roles like heroic characters or detectives, and they didn’t really want to be playing a gay man. Some people I approached would ask, ‘Why did you come to me? Do I look gay to you?’ Some others insisted they would not strip, would not film kissing scenes, would not hold hands with another male actor. Discounting them, there weren’t many actors left.

“By the time Tai Bo agreed to do this project, it was already about nine months into my cast searching. Later, I found out he had also given the script to his wife to review—it needed her stamp of approval! I had pretty much exhausted the list of actors aged 60 and above, whether on screen, behind the scenes, and even in theatre, so I expanded my search to slightly younger actors. Ben Yuen is actually in his fifties, but he matched with Tai Bo best in their chemistry test.”

“For the older generation, homosexuality was still illegal in Hong Kong when they were younger. They lived in a society that didn’t accept their identity, that told them their sexual preference is against the law, and that they could be arrested for it. Being gay was immoral. You could have been blackmailed if people knew. Your sense of shame would have been immense, and you would have thought you were in the wrong—so wrong that the world could very well punish you for it and get you thrown in jail.

“One of the people I spoke to is this flamboyant man about 80 years old, who would tell me all about his boyfriends and flings. But when the topic shifted to his family, he became very quiet. He had come out as gay to his mother 40 years ago, and then she fell sick with cancer, passing away within a year. To this day, he would sometimes cry in front of her ancestral tablet, apologising for causing her illness—he was convinced his coming out was the culprit. It goes to show that these older men have a very low sense of self-acceptance, and they deeply believe their being gay is a sin. Another interviewee once told me, ‘Being gay can only be about flings. Two men can never be together in the long run.’”

“I’ve seen comments from overseas viewers such as, ‘If the two actors were actually gay, it would be more interesting,’ but just filling those parts already took me a year. Actors of that age willing to play such roles are few and far between, let alone if you wanted them to also be openly gay! The crux of the film is precisely this issue anyway: that people are unwilling to come out. My film tells the story of older men being deep in the closet. The audiences who thought that way were foreigners who just don’t understand Hong Kong culture. Nobody in Hong Kong thought my straight casting was an issue—they know there isn’t an actor like that here, let alone two.

“My work is here to open a window into the struggles of the queer community, the things we wish for, and the issues we encounter. Another common thread through a lot of my films is depicting overseas Asians, dealing with racism, and representations of Asians in Western media in particular. As we know, in western media there is still either barely any Asian representation or, if there is, it’s pretty negative or just very stereotypical. I see giving these true representations as my calling in life.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.