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What Does It Mean to Navigate Queer Life in Hong Kong?

Meet the winner of the 2018 Aperture Portfolio Prize.

By Stephanie H. Tung

Ka-Man Tse

Ka-Man Tse, Untitled, 2017, from the series narrow distances
Courtesy the artist

It began with a landscape in the viewfinder. Ka-Man Tse was making a long exposure of a Hong Kong public square with her large-format camera when a teenage couple waltzed onto the scene. The image of the girls laughing and openly flirting imprinted on Tse as she indulged in imagining the infinite possibilities of their budding romance. “What does it mean to navigate queer life in Hong Kong?” she recalls thinking. “What does it mean to look, who has the right to look, what does it mean to be seen?”

In 2004, Tse began working on narrow distances, an ongoing body of images that attempts to visualize the circumstances that led up to that moment. Tse’s photographs propose what she calls “B sides”: queer narratives and obsessions set against the backdrop of Hong Kong, the place of her birth, and New York, where she grew up and now lives and works. Shifting back and forth between the two cities, her images are made at the intersection of the Asian and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities. In a society in which queer folks are often either hidden—as she states, “invisibilized”—or oversexualized and objectified, Tse tells the stories of her subjects by looking for the most subtle of gestures: a halfheartedly held cigarette, an affectionate caress, a longing gaze.

Ka-Man Tse

Ka-Man Tse, Untitled, 2017, from the series narrow distances
Courtesy the artist

Each portrait starts with an interview. “I often ask for a mental image, memory, or location,” Tse tells me. She likes to inquire: “Is there a space that you have that you go to?” As photographer and protagonist trade images and ideas over the course of months, or even years, they collaborate to imagine a world recast according to their own experiences and desires. References from pop culture and literature weave in and out of the work. Lines from Ken Chen’s debut poetry collection, Juvenilia (2010), become touchstones for musings on family and intimacy. The toxic relationship of Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film Happy Together appears restaged as a desperate embrace. A parody of the postpageant group photograph channels the “bad Asians” of Hellen Jo’s LA-based comic book, Frontier #2 (2013). “The work is about responding and seeing, rather than directing or executing,” says Tse.

The physicality of Hong Kong frames many of the pictures. There are few images of vast, open spaces; the only unpeopled photographs are of the abandoned Kai Tak International Airport and close-ups of water and cramped rooms. Most of the portraits are made on rooftops and in alleyways, the nooks and crannies where people go to escape. In one photograph, a friend, who is an outspoken queer activist by day, changes his clothing in the stairwell of his building, a ritual he completes each night before returning to the apartment shared with his family. Light pours from his chest as he gazes outward in the unabashed act of either putting on or taking off. In a place like Hong Kong, where it is common for young people to live with their parents until marriage, spatial precarity shapes the everyday lives of its queer inhabitants.

Ka-Man Tse, Untitled, 2017, from the series narrow distances
Courtesy the artist

When Tse writes about how “occupying a space and a conversation is an act,” she invokes the urgent, political need to “establish a sense of personal space and agency where it is often contested and eroded.” Tse centers the gaze in narrow distances on queer subjectivity as she and her collaborators carve out space, both physical and psychological, to be vulnerable. Maneuvering through the city with her 4-by-5 camera, she compels others to make way, as she writes, to “be deliberate, breathe together, slow time together.” Each resulting composition is carefully layered, activating the space between the viewer and the protagonist.

Curator Helen Molesworth, citing Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, connects the notion of “holding space” with a more gentle, generative, and provisional act of displacement that Molesworth sees as manifested most powerfully in Rosa Parks’s 1955 refusal “to make room for whiteness” on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. It seems that narrowing the distances with “small gestures, clear or coded,” as Tse says, is a means of challenging spatial dominance.

Hong Kong itself is a contested space, caught between a British colonial past and an increasingly Chinese colonial future. Navigating through the territory’s streets, Tse continues to investigate the condition of being in between, making visible the everyday acts of care—for one’s home, each other, and our built communities—that sometimes get lost in the gaps and dashes.

Ka-Man Tse, Untitled, 2017, from the series narrow distances
Courtesy the artist

Stephanie H. Tung is assistant curator of exhibitions and research in the department of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

Ka-Man Tse is the winner of the 2018 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Her exhibition narrow distances is on view at the Aperture Gallery through February 2, 2019. Click here for more information about the 2019 Aperture Portfolio Prize.

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