Pandas in the mist
Arthur Tam steps into the city’s steamiest saunas and finds a legitimate business concept that isn’t as seedy as you’d think
Gay hook-up spots have existed for centuries – but certainly not on Google Maps. Only a close circle of homosexual peeps knew of their whereabouts and new gays found the locations only by word of mouth. Those places had to be kept secret because police raids were common and queer men could be persecuted – or even executed – in some societies. A gay dude back in those days often risked life and limb just to find a place to have sex. But, over time, these hook-up joints evolved into the modern-day gay sauna.
Fast-forward from those secretive times to a far more liberal Hong Kong today and we see about 16 of these venues – making HK one of Asia’s most sauna-drenched cities. Here, saunas are no longer hidden, but are still located in inconspicuous areas, ‘not because the businesses are illegitimate, but because we want to protect the privacy of customers’, says Ken Siu, the owner of Hunter, a sauna that brands itself as a ‘youthful hang-out spot’. Since many gay men in Hong Kong still live in the closet (and with their families), man-on-man sex at home is inconvenient so saunas prove to be the best alternative location.
On average, gay saunas provide about 15 private rooms for guests, with a few lounge areas, a changing area with lockers, an open shower, a dry sauna and a tanning room – all of which provide plenty of space and amenities for sex and a freshen-up afterwards. A definite upgrade from ‘meeting in a smelly bathroom or paying a pricy $1,000 for an entire night at a hotel’, says Siu.
These days, sauna admission rates are becoming even more affordable due to competitive undercutting practices. Coupled with the emergence of mobile dating apps like Grindr and Jack’d, prices have dropped from $160 to $60 for admission. “Before, we would have a customer that would frequent our sauna, possibly four times a month, looking for a possible good match. But now, the same customer searches for a partner using a mobile app first before committing to a sauna visit, cutting his visit down by at least half,” says Siu. However, according to Mr Mak, a frequent sauna-goer, customers still visit because ‘it’s direct and jumps over the bullshit of meeting someone at a bar and [we] can see the person’s face, body and dick instead of relying on some photoshopped pic’.
The modern day sauna implements many smart business tactics, which sometimes means rejecting potential customers. “If we let someone in their 60s in or someone grotesquely overweight, then what would our other clients think? We might gain a few customers, but we will lose a future bulk to our competitors,” says Sui. The uber-fugly drunks, drug addicts and reported rabble-rousers are also rejected. “It’s like running a restaurant. You want your customers to eat fresh meat. You wouldn’t give them a rotten piece of food. They’ll get sick and never come back,” says David Yeung, owner of the ABC group of saunas.
With so many men meeting up for casual sex, it begs the question − are saunas a breeding ground for STDs and other diseases? According to Siu from Hunter: “There are two sides to saunas and two perspectives that surround them. From one perspective, saunas are immoral, filthy, and only [where the] degenerate go. On the other side, it’s a convenient, clean place, where gay guys can feel secure and search for the right hook-up.” While the health of the individual man can never be certain, owners do their best to keep spaces hygienic. “Our facilities are very clean. We clean them at least four times a day. The private rooms are fully stocked with lubes and condoms and are cleaned each time they are used. We are a competing business,” says Yeung.
In Hong Kong, where progress means monolithic financial centres and heaven-reaching hotels, LGBT rights are left in the backseat. So what develops in the place of sexual equality are competitive businesses fighting for a piece of the socially repressed man-pie. For the queer who isn’t comfortable putting his sexuality out online, gay saunas are great spots for a covert hang-out.