A conversation in three parts with Professor Petula Sik Ying Ho, Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Next to being an educator, Ho is an author, researcher and videographer specialised in gender and sexuality qualitative research and cross-cultural comparative studies. The interview was broadly based on Ho’s lecture for TC participants titled “Alternative Knowledge Processes for Transcultural Collaboration”.
For the research project Be a Man you interviewed several middle-aged, middle-class men and talked to them about moral behaviour in intimate relationship. In how far did they react differently compared to the women you’ve talked to? Indeed, they behave differently and I already expected that. That is why I used another method to approach them. I wondered how I could create an environment where they’d feel more comfortable and natural than just one-on-one with a female researcher. Hence, I created the pair-stranger-interview and paired two guys that hadn’t known each other before. I wanted to see how they behave in a shared context like this, how they make sense of themselves in front of other guys and in front of me. Moreover, I preferred to conduct the interview in some of their homes. I was prepared to tell a different kind of story by way of a different methodology.
Hearing about this project was really interesting to me because somehow you managed to bridge the gap between private and public life. By doing so you shed light on the interplay of self-perception, sexuality and political transformation. Could you expand a little bit on how they are connected? I didn’t expect it to be like this. But during that time, Hong Kong had become so political and I myself thought a lot about politics—much more than before. Therefore, maybe it was me who provoked them to talk about politics. Or maybe it was a combination of the Hong Kong political climate at the time and of their knowledge about me and my work. Hong Kong had become such an interesting place at that critical juncture in 2014 when Occupy Central with Love and Peace was going on—even though it was rather a minority thing. Many people—me included—didn’t sign up to join the movement. It was mostly social workers, some intellectuals and some activists that organised Occupy Central. When the men I was interviewing started to talk about it without me asking, I figured that I might inquire more into the sense they made of those events and the positions they took towards them. I chose to take my research into this direction in order to combine the extensive studies I’d been doing on people’s personal lives with macro politics.
Was it the first time you made an effort to combine these dimensions? No, it wasn’t. For my PhD thesis for instance I’d analysed the effect of de-colonialisation on and the de-criminalisation of homosexuality. I’ve always been interested in how the postcolonial situation in Hong Kong changed people’s preferences and taste in finding partners. Before 1997, many Hong Kong men were interested in Caucasians but after—with China becoming more wealthy and the gwailos losing their status in Hong Kong—there was a shift in preference and I saw gay friends become more interested in Asian guys. I found this a fascinating phenomenon. Why would my gay friends who had always been interested in gwailos suddenly have mainland partners? So, seeking this kind of connection comes natural to me. Nevertheless, combining institutional politics, government issues, universal suffrage questions and democratic development with my social research was somewhat new. At the time, I asked myself what I could do to contribute. As democratic knowledge production has always been among my interests, this seemed a good way to go. I always wonder how to democratise knowledge and how my kind of research can be part of the democracy movement. I believe it can be. My PhD supervisors were Ernesto Laclau, Aletta Norval and Sue Golding. With them, we often talked about democratic revolutionary movement at different fronts. They kept stressing the political being personal and the personal political. Yet, I’ve never expected to face these topics head on. It was only due to Hong Kong’s specific situation that they became an essential concern in my work.
Would you say it is too soon to state the effects of the recent political events on the personal lives, self perception and sexualities of the men you’ve interviewed? I wouldn’t say it’s too soon. At every moment you can see the impact of politics and social movements on daily life. Every political change will have its repercussion on personal lives. Now, it’s been four years since the Umbrella Movement and in a lot of people’s eyes it has not past but continues. A democratic movement doesn’t happen over night. It is an ongoing struggle. In that sense, also the influence of politics on personal lives is ongoing. Still it would be nice to conduct the research in a longitudinal way in order to trace the development of the political climate and portray people adapting to it at different stages over time. Hong Kong has just started the democratic struggle and I trust that things will get better as we keep gaining experience. I have friends whom I didn’t want to talk to anymore for a while but now we’re back to speaking terms. Somehow we have to find a way to let go of some of the grudge we hold against each other based on the polarised views on the Umbrella Movement.
And in terms of the self perception of men who haven’t been involved in the activist struggle. What have you observed so far? I feel like they’re getting more stubborn. They’d say: “Look, I told you. This is what will happen.” Often they need to demonstrate how wise and long-sighted they are. I’m under the impression, however, that people want to justify themselves more than before. Many feel guilty, helpless, hopeless. It might be a combination of all these emotions that makes them talk this way. I don’t think that Hong Kong people are ignorant. Deep down we all sense that some things are getting more absurd. But many will just say: “I don’t want people to rock the boat and make things more complicated.” So, there is a lot of ambivalence about it and people who weren’t involved in the social activism before, might be even less motivated now. But these things are contingent, never static. People change and the Umbrella Movement is unprecedented. Maybe the tide will come back, maybe it won’t. Sometimes it takes a life, it takes a death to wake people up. Sometimes it’s because things are not that bad. But if they get worse, maybe more people will get involved and be willing to speak up. I want to stay hopeful, understanding and sympathetic towards different positions but I also want to be critical.