If you go down to the woods today
Arthur Tam goes on a bear hunt in Hong Kong and explores the natural habitats of the city’s burlier gays
Bears by nature are ferocious predators. Be it polar, brown or black, they’re all grizzly. True, cuddly toys and cartoon characters have helped soften their image over the years – but you wouldn’t want to be locked in a cage with a wild one. Unless you’re gay, that is. And you’re referring to those big guys who are both cuddly and ferocious all in one.
Today the term ‘bear’ has taken up an entirely different meaning in the complex world of gay labelling systems. It describes a subgroup of homosexual men, often covered in facial and body hair, who look like cute and cuddly versions of Hell’s Angels. Spring is in the air and Hong Kong’s bears are emerging out of hibernation, so it’s perfect timing to go on the hunt to find some local breeds (pandas, perhaps?) at the city’s only dedicated venue for this special type of gay man – Boo Bar in Jordan.
We venture over to Boo not knowing what to expect. Will we be eaten alive by large men in ill-fitting shirts? Or, perhaps, will we be overwhelmed by the inimitable scent of their rustic habitat? As we near the bar’s fifth floor location, a faint sound starts to get louder. Then the lift doors open to a packed house of chatting bears in a surprisingly spacious bar while an emphatic voice booms out from a karaoke stage (note – bears really can roar with a microphone). We find Boo, one of the few gay establishments across the harbour, to be a lively, fresh take on gay nightlife. From the look of the bustling crowd it seems like no-one’s missing the usual Central scene.
We soon hunt down Rick Wong, co-owner, who shares with us his inspiration for starting the venture. “I thought to myself if Japan, Singapore and even China have their own successful bear bars, why doesn’t Hong Kong? I wanted to create a space for Hong Kong bears and give them a sense of pride.” And since its debut in October 2010, Boo has done just that, giving bears and men seeking these enigmatic beasts a place to relax and rub hairy shoulders.
As we peer into the crowd of burly bar patrons, we wonder what qualifies a gay man as a bear. “What’s a bear? Well, bears are supposed to be hairy, stocky and have a belly,” says Bernie Cheung, Boo’s resident DJ. “My boyfriend isn’t a bear – but he’s becoming a bear. It’s a work in progress,” he chuckles. And Rick Wong believes that Asian bears in Hong Kong specifically are ‘a bit more put together, fashionable, passive and, well, they have less hair’.
With the stereotypical gay boy hitting the gym to carve out a six-pack, bear culture stands as a firm front against the narrow perception of acceptable body image. “Bars in Central are just twink-orientated,” says the bearish Kelvin Yau, who says he frequents Boo about three times a week. “All those guys are fit and lean and they seem to look you up and down, checking you out. But they don’t do that here. People here are more friendly and accepting.”
For Yau and his sloth, the existence of bear culture allows for a camaraderie to develop between certain members of the gay community that wouldn’t have existed before – to identify with each other without the constraints of the mainstream. “In gay culture, if you gain one or two pounds, they look at you differently,” says Yau. “But since bears already look like this, they don’t care so much. Weight is an issue for most gay men. But bears are more easygoing.”
Amusingly enough, on our tour of Boo, trying to find anyone who admits to the ursine label proves to be difficult. We approach a group of men with scruffy facial hair, bulky builds, ample bellies and crew cuts. When asked about their ‘bear-ness’, most respond with a quick chuckle. “No, no, no, I’m not a bear – but he is. He’s bigger than me right? A lot bigger than me!” With our considerably smaller frames, we wonder how we might fit into the scene. One stocky man has a fitting answer: “If you were a bear, you would be an anorexic one.” Well, there’s hope yet…
Boo Bar 5/F, Pearl Orient Tower, 225 Nathan Rd, Jordan, 2736 6168, www.boobar.com.hk.