Why HK village traditions are sexist and insensitive to the LGBTI community

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Arthur Tam talks to a Ma Tin resident about Hong Kong village traditions and how they impact the gay community 

By now, we all know why the recognition of same sex marriage is important. First of all, people of the LGBTI community are not second class citizens and deserve the same dignity as their heterosexual brothers and sisters. Second, they deserve the same rights and benefits including joint tax returns, spousal hospital visitations, shared family health coverage, inheritance rights and dependent visas in case one spouse relocates to another country for a job (check out our recent story on the QT case online, which describes the situation of a UK lesbian couple moving to Hong Kong). 

There are so many problematic situations and so much heartache that could be avoided if same sex marriage was permitted. There is also one particular issue in Hong Kong you might never have thought about that affects the homosexuals who are indigenous inhabitants of some of our city’s oldest 18 villages. It has to do with the right to build homes in villages known in Cantonese as ‘ding kuen’. Ding kuen can only be passed down the male bloodline in these rural villages. Yes, this is extremely sexist (as are most archaic forms of tradition), but for this discussion we’ll focus on the discriminatory practices of ding kuen as it relates to gay men.

We meet 25-year-old Derek (not his real name), who is a gay resident of the Ma Tin Village in Yuen Long. He is now the sole surviving son of his family and has the tremendous pressure of preserving his family’s lineage (a very Chinese problem). ‘I’m facing a paradox’, says Derek. “I carry the expected responsibility to pass on my father’s ding kuen to the next generation, but I cannot do so without marrying a woman, impregnating her and fathering at least one male son. I am gay and I have no intention of marrying a woman, nor do I want to father a child with a woman.” Unfortunately, many gay villagers will succumb to the pressures, marry a woman, live in the closet and lead a fake heterosexual existence for the rest of their lives. Derek continues to tell us, “I feel discriminated against and neglected under the current regulations, of which my heterosexual male cousins have no problem with. It is unfair and unjustified that my sister does not inherit ding kuen, but my situation feels just as frustrating and discriminated against, if not more. This issue stems from the lack of recognition of same sex marriage and surrogacy in Hong Kong”.

Technically, there is one way that Derek can go around this issue – by adopting a child according to the Adoption Ordinance (Cap 290) of the Development Bureau. But it’s tricky. Each village has their own individual policies when it comes to passing ding kuen to adopted sons. According to Derek, village elders are usually the ones to grant the option based on special circumstances where the parents are physically unable to have children, or if the parents are too poor to support the child that they must give him up to another village family to raise. Even if you pass this hurdle, adoption itself for a single man can be quite difficult. Throw homosexuality into the equation and it’s even more likely that the adoption won’t be approved in conservative Hong Kong. Not to mention, there is simply no guarantee that the adopted child will be a boy if the adoption is successful, since gender preferences are only considered, not guaranteed.

In an ideal situation, Derek would be married to a male partner and they could work together to start a family either through adoption or surrogacy. However, ‘I don’t believe the village culture or practice accepts LGBTI individuals,’ says Derek. “Being gay makes achieving cultural ideals difficult, if not impossible.”

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