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9 September 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:45pm

Hong Kong’s new feminist wave

Hong Kong has long been home to sexism and inequality with little protest. But things are starting to change.

By Sarah Kwong

The throng of defiant, energetic men with bras strapped around their chests was the first indication of a new movement. Last month’s “breast walk” was in aid of Ng Lai-ying, a 30-year-old woman who was sentenced to three months and 15 days in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer with her breast during a protest in March. She recalled that the Chief Inspector in question, Chan Ka-po, put his hand on her breast when he was attempting to grab her bag, but the judge accused her of using her “female identity” to “trump the allegation” that the officer assaulted her.

Despite its overtly westernised society, which has remained intact since the 1997 British handover, Hong Kong has avoided the public sexism scandals seen in cities like London or New York – like an increasing pay gap, and the backlash against catcalling in NYC, after Hollaback’s street harassment video went viral. Hong Kong has managed to maintain its archaic hierarchy system thanks to “tradition”, and shut the blinds on the changes occurring in mainland China, namely women exercising their ambitions and making considerable dents in the glass ceiling.

People have found their voices, thanks in part, to the Occupy protests last year against Beijing’s power over the selection of Hong Kong’s new leader. With more noise being made about feminism, it’s no longer just city politics Hong Kongers are breaking their silence over.

While Ng Lai-ying’s case is extraordinary, sexism in Hong Kong isn’t. In 2013, the Secretary for Security, Lai Tung Kwok, commented that women “should not drink too much” if they wanted to avoid being raped, after it emerged that the number of rape incidents had risen by 60 per cent.

It doesn’t end there. One of Hong Kong’s biggest problems for women lies in the boardroom. The eight tertiary education institutions across the city are dominated largely by men, with women making up just 35 per cent of professional staff. It’s not surprising, then, that none of these colleges has had a female at the helm.

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While gender parity seems to have been reached within the student body, with the number of women choosing to study having risen 20 per cent over the past 30 years, it gets less promising the further up the timeline you go. Women are quitting their jobs to look after their families, with a staggering 83 per cent admitting they wouldn’t ever go back to work. For most, this comes off the back of the economic crisis. Only 10 per cent of families are able to afford childcare, and new mums only get 10 weeks maternity leave, falling four weeks short of the International Labour Organisation’s recommendation. With tradition condemning stay-at-home dads, women are left with few options.

In an interview with Time Out Hong Kong, Su-Mei Thompson, the head of non-profit organisation The Women’s Foundation, called it “western guilt”, a result of the aforementioned barriers. “Hong Kong women are prone to western guilt about being a bad mother if you also have a demanding job,” she said. The lack of women in work is also largely fuelled by the overriding attitude that females who work part-time are uncommitted. Add to that the recent widening of the pay gap (by HK$500 since 2011), and the current situation doesn’t look good.

“There are so many bright women graduating from our universities and joining the workforce, but the upper echelons of power are still dominated by men across industries and professions,” Thompson said, adding, “How can it be that in our Court of Final Appeal, all 21 judges are male?”

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But the landscape for women in Hong Kong is changing. One of the initiatives raising the flag for feminism is She Objects, a project spearheaded by The Women’s Foundation, which focuses on the reality of female objectification and sexualisation within the media. The short film, due to be released in early 2016, covers media-bred eating disorders, sexual harassment and features young women defiantly stating, “I am not an object”.

Meanwhile, the first all-female e-gaming team emerged last month, sponsored by Logitech to compete in professional gaming battles. Earlier in the year, lecture phenomenon TED teamed up with a host of successful Chinese women to host TEDxWanchai Women, covering everything from technology to challenging the status quo. Amazingly, through a successful petition, the women of Hong Kong also recently took down a new advice book titled Get Laid in Hong Kong, which had become an Amazon bestseller.

While this is only just the beginning – American sports bar Hooters and new “dirty” burger bar Double D are set to open in the city this month, both complete with sexualised advertising – it’s clear that feminism in Hong Kong is finally having its moment.