by Sheung Yiu

© Ka-Man Tse from the series 'Narrow Distances'

A photo of a woman tending to her rooftop garden in Yau Ma Tei shows a rare and tranquil sanctuary for queer individuals in Hong Kong. At first sight, the scenes in 'Narrow Distances' seems quotidian, almost inconspicuous. On a second look, the poses and gazes reveal the subject’s camera consciousness. Standing behind of the large format view camera is photographer Ka-Man Tse. For a decade, the part time Parsons lecturer travelled between Hong Kong and the US, making portraits of the local LGBTQ community. 

The series was inspired by one specific couple she saw on a humid Tuesday night in October. «I was making a half-hour exposure with my view camera, in Prince Edward, when midway through the exposure, two teenage girls emerged into the public square, laughing, flirting with each other in that direct and indirect way that only adolescents do when they are discovering their bodies and desire; it is like when two people’s knees touch for the very first time. They were full of hope, or perhaps defiantly oblivious to their surrounding world.» Since then, the mental images of the visibly young queer couple has stayed with her. I half-jokingly asked if all these years have been her searching for lovers to recreate that moment. «I will never find it again.» She replied.

In many ways, Hong Kong lags behind in LGBT rights. Marriage equality aside, the local queer community is almost invisible, politically and culturally, in the conservative heteronormative society. LGBT individuals have learned to cover up. The term “covering” is an idea put forward in Kenji Yoshino’s book of the same title, which suggests that social minorities intentionally keep their differences under wrap to blend in. Homosexuality was once criminalised and seen as a mental illness. Time may have changed, the world is moving toward an ever more gender-inclusive society, yet queerness is still a taboo subject in some countries. Lacking space, both physical or cultural, the LGBT community in Hong Kong struggles to claim ownership of its own identity, often times pigeonholed into cheap stereotypes in mainstream media. In Tse’s photos, space, whether public and personal, is as important as the subjects. The space allowed Tse, as a queer individual, to navigate, connect and open up much-needed conversations about queerness, between audience and the photographer but more importantly between the photographer and the protagonists. The photographer asked the subject to choose their shooting location, a place where they are free to interpret and perform their identity in front of her lenses.

Portrait by portrait, Tse reclaims the queer identity. In a photo, a young couple is cuddling is a small apartment in Shum Shui Po, the poorest district in Hong Kong. In another, the scene shifts to a mansion in rural Hong Kong, where a middle-aged couple is enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. The woman, with her back facing us, was reading a newspaper on her girlfriend’s body and her girlfriend, with a leg on hers, laid leisurely on a bench. Each photo adds nuance to an aspect of the multifaceted queer identity and relationships, young or mature, rich or poor, passionate or intimate. Not one individual can embody the complexity of the whole community and not one word can summarise all homosexual relationships, but when these glimpses of queerness are put together, like beams of refracted rays that reveal the outline of clear glass, we can almost begin to see this invisiblised community.

Do you feel that people can finally put their guards down when you ask them to pose for your photograph, in the space they chose that they feel safe?

Ka-Man Tse (KT): No. I think the people let me work with them. They are already quite conformable, so they are okay with it. I can tell when I am walking around who is covering. I am using covering based on Kenji Yoshino’s book called 'Covering', he is a lawyer and a poet. Is not just about LGBTQ issues, it’s about any sense of identity, in the workplace, in the public or in certain social situation where you have to turn something off, or muted, or act a certain way. I think that’s applicable for more than LGBTQ individuals. Even straight people has to cover in a certain way, even straight people has to find a way to make out. (We play characters) exactly, so I think like definitely is a fluid thing.

© Ka-Man Tse from the series 'Narrow Distances'

Hong Kong LGBTQ people rarely show their faces in mainstream media. A lot of them wanted to be anonymous, and when they agree to show their face, photographers often portray them as an underground community. What do you think about that?

KT: I think it’s also an issue of trust, when I first started the project, those early pictures, a lot of people wanted to cover their faces, but I think through time, when you really show that you are invested in a project and in each person, sometimes that trust happens, you may need a year or two or three years for them to show their face. But at the same time, I fully understand that it’s completely vulnerable when they do that. It’s an issue saying when to do it and when to not. There are photos I am not showing because they can lose their job, because they work for the government or they can be ostracised in their family. (Do you still take their pictures even if you can’t show them to anyone?) yeah. there are people that I interviewed and photographed. They have a picture. I have a picture but the picture is never shown. It’s not on my website, it’s not in a gallery. It’s not in a show or lectures. It’s just for them. This is important. when I first started the project. people are calling me and asked if I charge money and I am like ‘What are you talking about? I am an artist.” It’s because if you are queer and you are in a relationship, you don’t have wedding pictures. You can’t go to a studio. They are not comfortable in going into a studio and getting an engagement pictures. So, the idea of even being seen, the idea of…you know, when you walk into people’s home, you always see a picture on the wall, you never have that as a queer person and I fought for years before my parents put up a picture of me and my wife together in their home. And the same for her parents. It’s really of wanting, even a cheesy picture, to seen and say ‘we are here’. I am totally in to make a picture that they want and just give it to them. We will try the ideas that I have but it’s never in public. It’s very 床下底。(4:30). It’s a paradigm shift. It’s used to be criminalised. It used to be seen as mental illness and it’s still taboo. That idea of showing of queer body, has to be done in a way that doesn’t criminalised them. 有名有姓. So to show a blurry face of someone give viewer a sense that they are gangster or criminal, in that kind of representation actually does more harm to the community.

© Ka-Man Tse from the series 'Narrow Distances'

In your artist statement, you mentioned “queering space and time”. Can you elaborate on that?

KT: Queer is a verb. it means disruption. A disruption of status quo, a disruption of the norm. If you see it as a verb instead of a way, it has a more active role. It’s more about doing something. When I am queering space and time, it’s about activating certain space with a queer visual or it’s about slowing time, especially in Hong Kong, where everything happen so quickly.

There is a theory of queering time because there a lot of couples in my photographs. They are not married, they don’t have children. In a way, time is queered because biological time is queered. Normally, in your late twenties, if you are in Hong Kong, a traditional heteronormative person, you would get married and have kids. If you are in your thirties and forties and you are not getting married nor having kids, you are sort of biologically queered. In a way, you can see them as ageing out, you can see them as invisiblised. What happen when you place that into the foreground. In a way, being forties not married and not have kids is an act. (In a way, LGBT people in Hong Kong has their own timeline.) Absolutely. OR they exist out of time. They don’d have a timeline. For my cousins, that’s their path. Saving moneys, getting married, buying a apartment, and having kids. I am not saying that everyone does it. It's about being out of time, out of place.

© Ka-Man Tse from the series 'Narrow Distances'

I am going to throw out a debate question. You are LGBT individual who are married to your wife, photography the queer community in Hong Kong. What about when straight photographers do the same thing. Can a non-LGBT photographer truly represent LGBT community?

KT: Will helika multicultural citizenship. It’s a really interesting books in the 90s. His idea of there isn’t a one-to-one representation. If I am wheelchair bound and … and native american, am I allowed to speak for hispanic men in their thirties. It became very tricky if it is about one-to-one representation. What he was really talking about was democracy but the idea that anyone should be able to act in a way and think in a way outside of themselves. That I shouldn’t only be representing, as a legislator, someone that looks like me or in similar conditions. Ideally, especially with art, because there’s no limit, this is something that anyone can approach with intention, and empathy and compassion. That’s not always the case. (It’s the same thing that happening with a call for asian american to stand with the african americans in the Black Lives Matter movement.) That’s huge right now in the community. It’s so important. That’s part of white supremacy, is divide and conquer. They want us to fight against each other. It’s really important for us to speak together. (it’s really interesting, when you talk about white supremacy and how they try to divide, it is similar in Hong Kong, but it’s China pitting people of different social economic status and ideology against each other). Yeah, it’s so obvious that it want us to pit against each other. You just have to look past that.

© Ka-Man Tse from the series 'Narrow Distances'

The fact that you grew up in a western culture makes you more comfortable with random encounters. Besides, I think that people are somehow drawn to you because you are not from here, people are curious about you. Does your foreignness help?

KT: It’s also that you can disclose to strangers. I didn’t go to school here and work here. I am not dating here. I have no histories. I have no complications. The LGBT community here is small, people know each other, people have beef with each other, they dated each other. It’s complicated. Because I don’t have that attachment, it’s easier to have that conversation. At the same time, I acknowledge that sometimes it’s easier to talk to people that is not in your circle that to your best friend or to your mom. It’s true that a lot of people told me very deeply personal intimate story. I ask them if they have talked to your mom about this and they replied no, nut this is normal whether you are queer or not. I totally understand that the idea that i am an outsider and that probably have fear of other things but I don’t fear rejections and strangers. I just say hey, give them my card. It’s also easier because… this happened once when I am talking to someone, I asked if my questions were too personal and they answered no, it’s not annoying, nobody asked them, when you asked me these question, I have a chance to talk about myself. Nobody listened to me at work or at home. It’s meaningful that I actually have a chance to talk about myself. I am not saying everyone has the same experience. Plenty of people I photographers are also doing advocacy here too, so I am also learning from them. Someone else said to me “I am you subject, you are my subject.”because they are also working on LGBTQ history in Hong Kong throughout the decades. It’s not about me pulling these things from people. It’s a back and forth, I am learning a lot. It’s really about letting things happen, listening and also unlearning.


Ka-Man Tse