Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hong Kong Day 4: Sex and the City, Hong Kong-style

On Friday, the 29th, I still could not get over what occurred in Bar Amazonia the night before. I woke up feeling awkward and out of place and I realized that I was still very unhappy about the incident in Wan Chai.  I thought we should never have gone to a seedy place like Bar Amazonia so later that evening I asked Sam why he decided to take us there in the first place. He apologized and said that he should never have. I accepted the apology but still could not shake my misery over what happened.

It was my last night in Hong Kong though and I wanted to have a nice, relaxed, unproblematic evening. I just wanted to have fun. At the beginning of the trip I had wanted to visit the harbor, go to the famous Peak, visit different museums and possibly go to Disneyland. I did not have the energy, time and resources to do all those things though. But I could still get my obligatory harbor picture that night because the harbor was just near. So in 4-inch heels, I walked some distance to the place. I love walking and I had absolute fun getting there.

Harbor pic

After I decided to go to Lan Kwai Fong, a more upscale place, to have drinks. I went to a place called California Bar.

Last night with Santy

After probably half an hour, I was approached by an English guy. He just came over and did not even bother to introduce himself and asked me perfunctorily how much I charged. I was too shocked to speak for a few seconds and after gathering my bearings back, I told him “I don’t know if I should feel insulted or flattered. I am sorry but I am not a working girl.” This egged him on and he said, “That’s better. So can I take you home?” I said, “No you can’t. I have a boyfriend.” He then said, “Then I’m just wasting my time here.” I icily retorted, “Yes you are.” So he left.

At that point, it dawned on me that a nice respectable Asian girl can never get a break in Hong Kong or perhaps anywhere in the world. A certain reputation will always precede her and if she is not a sex worker then she is a ladyboy sex worker. When I was in Europe, I heard the exact same thing. Asians even if they have white or blue collar jobs tend to moonlight as escorts. Not everyone does it of course but the stereotype has stuck.

I myself have nothing against anyone who does sex work. There is a growing sex workers’ rights movement that have claims parallel to other liberation movements: sex work is work; sex workers have the right to self-determination as much as the next person; sex workers need to unite so they can collectively change their material conditions—rid their profession of its stigma and empower sex worker so they have more control of and security in their bodies while making sex work a safe, less hazardous and rewarding occupation.

Because of sex workers’ collectives around the world, laws have been put in place to protect sex workers’ rights. In Scandinavia, for example, it is legal to sell sex although illegal to buy it. This sort of Catch 22 has been debated among activists and policy makers and sex workers have begun to question the wisdom of this legislative model. In the Philippines, there are no organized groups advocating for sex workers’ rights but, awhile back, a lawmaker drafted a proposed bill to decriminalize prostitution very much following the Scandinavian model. The proposed bill purports to shift the responsibility of availing of sexual services from those who sell it to those who buy it. Selling sex, remains largely, illegal here though and much of the world.

In Hong Kong, sex workers cannot come together. It is okay to sell sex if one does it alone. There is an assumption that one only does it randomly, as a sideline and not really one’s main line of work. That means, a sex worker cannot work with a pimp or another person to sell sex. Further, one cannot advertise sexual services and profiting or benefiting from money gained through prostitution is punishable in the Hong Kong penal code.

I have met many trans girls in Hong Kong who are working girls. Many of them are just in it for the money and have become apologists for what they do. I have yet to meet someone who does it who is empowered, who feels no guilt over what she does, actually thinks she can do it as a lifetime job and demand societal restructuring to protect her rights as a service provider and proprietor. But such is not the case. This idea was addressed in Gayle Rubin’s seminal article Thinking Sex: Notes for a radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. According to Rubin, one of the ideologies that have held people’s views on sex and sexuality in a stranglehold is sex negativity, the view that sex is “a dangerous, destructive and negative force.” Sex negativity underpins the view of sex as sin and its non-free, non-procreative expressions as bad. In this view, sex is neither for pleasure nor profit. Such a view explains people’s condescension on sex work and those who do it. After all, one is not supposed to sell sex but give sex for free. Rubin notes that such thinking combined with other anti-sex and sexuality attitudes has resulted in socially ingrained sexual hierarchies where the married heterosexual occupies the most privileged position while sexual outlaws like prostitutes, crossdressers, pedophiles, BDSM-practitioners and even transsexuals occupy the bottom rung.

As the last two posts have shown, I have my own prejudices to unpack. I think that Hong Kong has ultimately brought out my sex negativity by my public declaration of neither being a ladyboy nor a prostitute. I somehow feel guilty over this and I think I need to reflect on this further. I will try to do so in a future post but for now I hope these thoughts will suffice.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hong Kong Day 3: It Could Happen To You Redux

On Thursday, 28 January 2010, Santy and I agreed to go out. Half an hour before midnight, I was dressed and ready to see her in her hotel downtown. I myself stayed over with the Winters, in a spare room they keep for guests. On my way out, I saw Sam Winter in the kitchen and he decided to come along with Santy and me. We picked Santy up at her hotel and when we were all together, we decided to go to a place playing live music.

It was a bar called Amazonia in Wan Chai and when we got there, the first thing I noticed was that it was packed with white guys and pinays (short for Filipinas). All the waitresses were Filipina and the guys who brought along dates, brought Filipina women. Even the band was all-Filipino. A waitress led us to a sitting area near the side of the stage where the band was playing and we ordered drinks. While waiting for them to come, we decided to go down to the area in front of the stage to dance.

The band’s lead singer was this cute pinay and when she saw me she gave me a warm smile. After about 3 songs, the band’s repertoire shifted to slow songs which I thought were not very danceable. We decided to go back to our seats and enjoy our drinks. After the set of slow tunes, the band went on intermission and the bar played canned dance music. They played recent hits by the Black Eyed Peas, Shakira, and Lady Gaga and others. Meanwhile, we were all having fun dancing to all the songs.

Beside me was a Filipina with a group of foreign guys. We danced together and she said that all her guy friends who were sitting a few step from us had a crush on me. I said I was very flattered but not interested thank you very much and remarked that she was not bad looking herself. It was then that I kind of figured out that she was a sex worker. When I looked around I saw more of them hanging around in pairs or alone cruising the guys inside the bar. I paid them no mind and kept dancing with the pinay I just met until the song ended. I went to the lady’s room because I felt very hot and needed to pee. When I came back, I asked Santy and Sam if they wanted to have some fresh air outside. We took our new round of drinks with us, made our way outside and stood by the side of the entrance, where other people were also standing around with their drinks. I asked a waitress to take a picture of us (see below).

Outside Bar Amazonia

We were there for about half an hour and at Bar Amazonia for almost 2 hours already. When we heard the band inside play a good dance tune, we decided to go back to the dance floor. Sam went in first while I and Santy followed him behind. Sam was already in and I was about to go in as well when the door man/bouncer, a short, pudgy looking Chinese guy in black shirt and jeans, put himself in front of me, with his arms spread to the sides, barring my entrance. I said, “Excuse me” and he said “No!” while shaking his head side to side. I said, “I’m sorry but what’s the problem? I was just in there an hour ago?” He just looked at me icily and said no again without saying anymore. I was starting to get annoyed. At that point, people inside started to look on.

I saw Sam rushing back outside to us and when he got to the door he started talking to the bouncer. He asked him what the problem was and he said, “I’m sorry sir but no ladyboys allowed here. We are not a gay bar.”

I got very angry at this remark and addressed the door man, “You just fucking insulted me. I am not a ladyboy. How dare you!” Sam told the door man, “These are women!” pointing at Santy and me. “I’m just doing my job,” the bouncer said. He then directed us to the manager, another short and stout Chinese man in a light blue shirt and slacks, who was by then standing at the door. “Talk to the manager if you want,” he said. I went up to the manager and told him that just around an hour or two ago, we were all inside enjoying ourselves dancing to the music. We went out for air and when I tried to go back in, the door man blocked my way. I asked the manager, “What is the problem? What happened between now and then? Have I done something criminal that you do not want to let me in?” The manager just looked at me, with no emotion on his face, and pointed to a sign at the door saying that management reserved the right to refuse entrance to anyone they choose. I said that that was insane because we were just in the bar and we even danced in front of the band. He said sorry but it’s their policy. Santy had my camera then and she started taking pictures of our argument (see picture below). The manager looked at her and said, “No pictures please!” but Santy said, “I don’t care. I will take pictures if I want to!”

Argument outside Bar Amazonia

Sam needed to go back for his credit card inside so he excused himself. The manager followed him in and we were left standing in front of the bouncer who was looking at me with hate in his eyes. I could not stop myself and started to berate him. “You are such hypocrites. Don’t think that I do not know that there are so many prostitutes inside your bar. You allow prostitutes to go in your bar but you will not allow someone like me. I am not a fucking prostitute! Do you hear me?”

The bouncer got enraged, turned red and started to pick things up to throw at me. First he picked up plastic cups in a stack but it flew in the wrong direction. Then he picked up a small bottle of mineral water but missed me again. The bottle cap hit my left hand though but it did not hurt. At that point, some men from inside and outside rushed to stop him. He was screaming “I’m just doing my job all right! I’m just doing my job.”

One of the guys who calmed him down, a Australian lawyer working for the University of Hong Kong came to my side and asked what the matter was. He knew Sam and they started speaking about what just transpired. Sam informed the lawyer that the manager was refusing to let us in because we were transgender. The lawyer said that that was not right especially since he saw me earlier dancing in front of the band. He said, “But I saw you in there earlier and you were having such a good time.” I said yes that is why I was surprised myself that they did not want to let us back in.

We discussed the matter some more but at that point all I wanted was to get out of there so we thanked the lawyer for his kindness and left.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hong Kong Day 2: I, Transpinay

On January the 27th, Wednesday, I went to the University of Hong Kong around lunch time to get a feel of the campus. My talk was scheduled around 4 pm so I wanted to walk around, watch students and be in the middle of the hustle and bustle of campus life first. As I did, I saw different student organizations in booths advertising themselves or an issue. I think I passed by an environmental organization with their booth decked out in all green with posters on climate change. It made me reminisce briefly on my old college life. Dr. Sam Winter took me to lunch at the Faculty Lounge and left for several meetings after. I was pretty much on my own before I decided to go back to the auditorium that the good professor pointed out to me was the venue of his Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD) class.

With Dr. Sun Yat Sen

The auditorium was housed in the Knowles Building beside which was a lily pond with a full figure statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Around 3:30 pm, Dr. Winter's class began. The SGD, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is one of the broadening courses in the University of Hong Kong for undergrad students. It aims to broaden students' understanding of the nature and development of sexuality and gender by focusing on areas of knowledge that are not traditionally available to them such as: homosexuality, transgenderism, cross-dressing, and power-exchange relationships and expressions such as bondage, domination & sado-masochism.

Dr. Sam Winter talking about GRS

The course will run this semester from January to April and the last two sessions in January are devoted to trans issues. A Hong Kong transgender advocate named MoMo was the class's guest speaker for the January 20th session while I was the guest for the January 27th class. The afternoon's session on Growing up transgender in Asia was divided between Dr. Sam Winter and I. For the first hour, he was going to give a sort of a Transgender 101 lecture talking about the issues facings Asian transmen and women (see pic above). Apart from the lecture, Dr. Winter also showed the class several videos of transpeople in transition so the students could understand the process. Videos of both transmen and transwomen were shown.

I, Transpinay

At around 4:30, my turn came. I was introduced and I started by thanking the class and the University for giving me the honor to speak before 160 undergrad students. I remarked that the University was truly doing its job by not only opening students' minds but their hearts as well. My presentation was divided into two parts. The first part, tells about my growing up years, from childhood to working as a professional post-college, while the second one, chronicles how I ended up advocating for transgender human rights. The class was generally attentive and laughed on cue at my jokes and asides (see pic below). I talked to them about transgender advocacy in the Philippines.

During talk

After my talk, we opened the floor to questions (see pic below). Many students stayed for the Q&A and Dr. Winter told me later that it was unusual for that many students to be seen in the auditorium at that time. Many of them had other classes to attend at around 5:25 and the fact that we had a lot of them in the room till 6 was indicative of their interest and genuine investment in the issue being discussed at hand.

End of talk

The questions were really intelligent. One student observed that my working in the University of the Philippines shields me from the harsher world outside academe. Did I have any plans of working outside the University? Another student asked about my religious beliefs, while another asked about my relationship status. One student asked me, If you had not been born transsexual, do you think you'd have still achieved everything that you have in life? These youngsters do speak their mind and the quality of their questions was quite a revelation for me. I immensely enjoyed answering all of their questions.

With an HKU official

At exactly 6 pm, we had to call it a day. A senior academic in the University of Hong Kong joined us because he invited a journalist to attend the afternoon's session. He is a Welsh guy who has been in Hong Kong the last decade and he said that the journalist who sat in the class had very positive things to say about the discussion that afternoon. We had our pic taken with him (see pic above) and after proceeded to the faculty lounge where he, Dr. Winter and other professors of the University had drinks. I had coffee and after decided to go out to Wan Chai for dinner. I left Dr. Winter and company and went out in the cold Hong Kong night.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hong Kong Day 1: It Could Happen To You

PAL plane

My talk at the University of Hong Kong in their Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD) undergrad class was happening on the 27th of January but I and Dr. Sam Winter, professor-in-charge of the SGD class and an ally and advocate of the transgender community and author of Transgender Asia Research, agreed that it would be a good idea to come earlier so any other pre-talk concerns could be smoothed out with enough time. So my flight out of Manila was booked for the 26th and I was scheduled to come back home on Saturday, the 30th. I left Manila Thursday via Philippine Air Lines flight PR 306 at 2:45 pm (see pic above), and arrived in Hong Kong two hours later. The Philippines and Hong Kong lie in the same time zone so I did not need to adjust my clock upon arrival.

I flew to Hong Kong on an uneventful flight. Immediately after stepping off the plane, I could not wait to take pictures to document every step of the trip. A long time ago, I gave away winter clothes which I had accumulated working cold nights for a call center in the past. Most of them were rotting away unused in my closet so when I had the chance, I gave them to friends who started working for call centers themselves. For this trip I had to borrow from friends warm clothes for the Hong Kong winter cold to avoid having to spend unnecessarily money that I could use in the trip instead. 

Arrival in HK

A while back, I had written here about the humiliating experiences of several Filipina transwomen who had passed through Hong Kong immigration. Apparently, transwomen have been singled out by Hong Kong airport officers for "standard security checks". This means that once a transwoman approaches an immigration counter to exit into Hong Kong, she has no assurance of entry. Instead, she will be passed on to a chain of several people until she finds herself in a holding room where she will be interviewed by a senior immigration officer, the end result of which is anyone's guess.

There the interview will vary from a brief polite exchange to insulting, heated argument between the transwoman and immigration official on why the former wants to enter Hong Kong. Through the trans community grapevine we have heard of transwomen who have seen the insides of that infamous holding room of being accused of illegal activity in the Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR), being required to empty out their wallets to prove their financial capacity to stay in Hong Kong, and the worst one yet--of being asked to strip naked for a body search. I know some people who have not been exempt from these troubling practices and they were slapped with a limited number of visitation days (the standard is 14 for all tourists) by being allowed to stay between one to two days only, detained in the holding room for varying lengths of time (sometimes under an hour, sometimes more), and the worst of all--deported back to Manila immediately which in local Filipino slang is called "airport to airport" or A to A.

So it was with great trepidation that I approached this trip. But although I was anxious, at the back of my head, I still kept thinking that this immigration hitch was never going to happen to me. I was so wrong.

The immigration officer asked for my passport. He went through it and when he seemed finished and satisfied (the entire thing took about 15 minutes), he called over an older guy, Guy Number 2 and asked me in a terse tone to follow him.

At that point I started to get angry. While trying to follow after Guy Number 2, I said in a curt and cutting tone, "Excuse me sir, but what seems to be the problem?". Guy Number 2 seemed to have sensed the unhappy tenor in my voice and answered nicely, "Oh just standard security check." After passing through the immigration line but not yet exiting, we got to the middle of the airport where Guy Number 2 stopped at a group of airport security-looking people and then handed us over to another person, Guy Number 3. Guy Number 3 began escorting us and so I asked him the same question. With a hint of a smile and very politely he said, "It's just standard security check." I asked him, "How long is this going to take? I have someone outside waiting for me." Guy Number 3 answered. "Just around 20 minutes or so."

At that point, there seemed to be nothing that I could do but just go through the process. I followed Guy Number 3 who ended up taking me to the infamous holding room. After waiting for a few more minutes, we were asked to see a senior looking officer, Guy Number 4.

He took me into one of the cubicles and asked me questions (i.e., What are you here for? When are you leaving? May I see your return ticket?). After noting my return flight, he thanked me and I was good to go.This time, a lady immigration officer escorted me to a special immigration counter where a surly looking guy took my passport and asked for my name. After this, I exited into the baggage claim area.

And so it came to pass. What I had been dreading finally happened to me. How silly of me to think that I was "special" and immune from such treatment. I know this is a bit of a thorny issue and I will talk about that point in another post. But my main point is: all transwomen affected by this issue should come together and discuss how to move forward in responding to this humiliating process already institutionalized at the Hong Kong airport. At this point, there is no sense in finding who to blame because as it were, it is a problem that already affects us all. We must unite and stand up to this unneeded harassment and not exclude anyone in the conversation. After all, this is a clear case of discrimination that does not choose, that includes us all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

27 days down, 338 more to go

I apologize for taking long to get to this second post this month. My life has been a little hectic lately what with concerns in advocacy, my work and my graduate studies. In December, I decided to quit work actually to be able to go back to my MA thesis. I am currently working on a research in Language Education but because I have gone over the maximum residency rule for Master's students, I was required per University rule to enrol in a penalty course. Because I thought it was going to be easy, I chose to enrol in a basic Psychology of Reading class. Little did I know that it was going to be reading and writing intensive.

In January alone, I worked on three different assignments for the class. A set of comprehension questions based on a text of my choice, a set of assignment questions based on Schema Theory, and a written and oral report on a reading. The class was given a reading list to choose from and the selections had to do with reading, writing, the reader, the writer, the contexts where reading and writing take place, and language. The reading list was a healthy mix of novels, non-fiction work and even children's literature. We had a choice among Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, On Writing by Stephen King, Someday by Isaac Asimov, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and others. Among the children's books there were The War Between the Vowels & the Consonants which I absolutely loved, Maniac Magee, Inkheart and many more.

I chose to read Fahrenheit 451 for I have never gotten a copy of that science fiction classic and found it to be a work of pure virtuosity. It is set in the very distant future where firemen, instead of putting out fires, start them by burning down houses with inhabitants known to read books, a crime in that far-off time. The title of the book refers to the temperature at which paper burns.

For the oral and written report that I needed to present in class, I looked up available footage of the 1966 movie of the same title and found a really nice part to show to my classmates. It was the scene where an old lady, ratted on by her own neighbor, chose to go up in flames with her beloved books instead of surrendering to the firemen and the police. It was a chilling scene but also a significant moment in the life of the story's protagonist Guy Montag. I hope more people get the chance to read this compelling novel about the power of the printed word and how it threatens the stable order of a world that is continuously rendering it useless and obsolete.

After the class reporting, I borrowed The Reader from classmates who worked on that book and also loved it. After reading it, I watched the DVD of the movie starring Kate Winslet and found that I was emotionally responding to the film because of my recollection of how it was written. It was a little strange experience for me and something really new. I guess my reading and viewing stances have become much more aligned. I have evolved as a mature, adult reader.

January 2010 SGM

This month we held a Support Group Meeting (SGM) (see our group pic above). We met at the conference room of Isis International on the third Sunday of the month and had an education discussion on transsexualism and gender, sexuality and human rights. The former was discussed by our first clinical psychologist.

Brenda on Transsexualism

I am in Hong Kong now by the way, upon the invitation of Dr. Sam Winter, the author of the Transgender Asia Research website. He invited me to speak in an undergraduate class called Sexual & Gender Diversity, which is one of a handful of so-called broadening courses in the University of Hong Kong. I am getting ready for that session now and I will tell you more about that in my succeeding posts. In the mean time keep safe and I hope that all is well at your end.