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Friday, April 14, 2017, 10:42

The gender benders

By Chitralekha Basu

Leslie Cheung's red sequined high heels and Wilson Shieh's anthropomorphized financial buildings are part of M+ Pavilion's current show on the ambivalent and unknowable nature of gender identities. Chitralekha Basu writes.

The gender benders
The sequined red stiletto shoes worn by Leslie Cheung at a 1997 concert are a top draw at the Ambiguously Yours show at the M+ Pavilion.

One of the highlights of M+ Pavilion's current show is a stunning red-and-gold costume. Made out of glittering, intensely-woven brocade, the stage outfit - an extended bikini or a truncated jumpsuit with just one trouser leg, depending on your perspective - is in fact a takeoff on the over-the-top bridal gown Canto-pop legend and 1990s style icon Anita Mui Yim-fong wore to one of her concerts. Designed by Eddie Lau, these costumes helped the performers who wore them connect with different facets of their sexuality - male, female and those that belong somewhere beyond these two apparently-definable categories.

Tina Pang, who curated the Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture show now on at M+ Pavilion, draws our attention to another ensemble attire more recently worn on Hong Kong stage - a dark sleeveless jacket with multiple belts and fitting trousers that might work just as well on a military operative in a combat zone. Its stark, cold-blooded, post-apocalyptic vibe is hard to miss. "This one shows a shift perhaps to a possible post-gender age," says Pang.

The gender benders
The Chinese bridal gown morphs into a suggestive rock star's outfit in an Eddie Lau creation. (Photos Provided To China Daily)

The societal demarcations separating the sexes had begun to mutate and give way in Hong Kong's popular culture scene in the 1990s. Although there are instances of women performers defying heteronormative codes and singing male parts in Chinese opera as early as the 1920s - a tradition apotheosized in Chen Kaige's 2008 film Forever Enthralled based on the life of the legendary thespian Mei Lanfang - in Hong Kong such attempts to cross over to the other side of one's assigned gender role became more spectacularly apparent only in the last decade of the 20th century. One of the early pioneers of cross-dressing was the Canto-pop star Roman Tam who wore a sweeping peacock feather cape to a concert in 1996. By the time the singer-actor Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing was strutting around the stage in red sequined high heels in 1997, cavorting suggestively with a male co-performer, seasoned concert-goers had already got the drift. "By presenting highly choreographed, feminized version of a male star, Tam and Cheung were pioneers in pushing socially accepted norms of what it is to be a man," says Pang.

Around the same time a quiet revolution was taking place in portrait and fashion photography. The faces City Magazine put on their cover in the early 1990s were often an acknowledgement, if not a celebration, of the emergence of the several different vivid and piquant shades of androgyny. Lyricist and academic Chow Yiu-fai remembers being struck by an unbelievably feminine image of the actor Andy Lau Tak-wah - the macho action hero of many regional and international movies.

Has Hong Kong lost a bit of its openness towards embracing the other since then? Is it drawing back from the urge to explore and experience gender roles different from the one assigned at the time of one's birth, carrying the seal of societal approval?

The gender benders
Iconic Hong Kong buildings are turned into human beings of inconclusive sexuality in Wilson Shieh’s sketches.

As she was putting the show together, Pang was keenly aware that society may not look upon such transgressions in real life with the kind of tolerance it might reserve for the stage and screen. "We wanted to question why it is easily acceptable when we place those kinds of representations on a platform of popular culture, whereas in real life presenting oneself in terms of gendered identities is perhaps still a little less accepted."

"Our society needs to loosen up its stereotypes, its dominant expectations of what a man or a woman should do," says Chow, who teaches in the department of humanities and creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. "When I think of all the pressure to get married and give birth to children, even in 2017, I do wonder if our society did get more conservative. In Hong Kong, entertainment news is full of reports of celebrities' sumptuous weddings and cute babies, reiterating the heteronormative fantasy. My students are still afraid of coming out to their families." A curatorial advisor to the Ambiguously Yours show, Chow has also designed a sound installation featured in it.

The gender benders
An enormous peacock-feather cloak worn by singer Roman Tam to his 1996 concert.

Mounted on the ground floor of the two-tier M+ Pavilion, Chow's Twists and Turns sound installation series seems to be at the antipode of the in-your-face transgender designer ensembles on display upstairs. Some of these are so understated that one has to make an effort to catch what's going on. For example, in one of the sound installation pieces the breathing sounds edited out of song recordings have been retrieved and sewn back together. Interestingly, a man's breathing doesn't ring all that much different from that of a woman's, one more proof - assuming it were needed - that men and women are probably more like one another than we often take them to be. Chow seems hugely tickled that the sources of these breathing sounds are not so easily identifiable in terms of their gender, not even by listening to the sound that is vital to "one's very existence".

Wilson Shieh has created a series of ink, watercolor and gouache images featuring some of the iconic buildings that stand out in the Hong Kong skyline. These ever-familiar structures - centers of trade and commerce, mostly - have been given human features, dressed up in provocatively semi-transparent clothes and made to flirt with each other.

"Shieh represents the Hong Kong skyline as a group of anthropomorphized individuals of sometimes ambiguous genders," says Pang. "Or they could be asexual or of unknown sexuality," she adds, pointing to the male figures wearing heels. Such a depiction "undercuts the perception of buildings and built environments being very masculine, strong and very solid". The idea then is to provoke the viewers into re-thinking the existing notions. With a bit of luck they might even discover a side to themselves they had not known before.

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