The absence of fan activism in the queer fandom of Ho Denise Wan See (HOCC) in Hong Kong

Cheuk Yin Li

University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

[0.1] Abstract—The queer fandom of female Hong Kong pop singer Ho Denise Wan See (HOCC) from 2009 to mid-2011 is dealt with through the qualitative methodology of in-depth interviews and media ethnography. HOCC, an idiosyncratic cultural producer who dabbles in the politics of ambiguity, creates texts that invite queer interpretations from fans and from queer activists in Hong Kong. Via analyses informed by both queer studies and audience studies, the various creative practices of fans in reshaping their sexual identities via popular culture are explored. These practices are highly political and empowering to a queer audience. However, the intensive rewriting of meanings as queer symbolic creativity and tactics in cultural politics fail to transform into formal institutional politics and more confrontational queer activism. This is so for several reasons. Internally, the hierarchical structure of fan organization, fan proximity to the culture industry, and the top-down encouragement of social charity as the only channel of activism have all reduced the possibility of transforming fans' queer sensibilities into institutional queer politics. Furthermore, Hong Kong, under the influence of three major discourses that seek to discipline and regulate sexualities—traditional Chinese ethics, the British colonial legacy, and the postcolonial revival of rightist Christianity—has a long social history of heterosexist discrimination and a preference for normalizing when striving for queer citizenship. This empirical study examines relations between cultural specificity and fan agency in a non-Western context.

[0.2] Keywords—East Asia; Identity; Popular culture; Popular music

Li, Cheuk Yin. 2012. "The Absence of Fan Activism in the Queer Fandom of Ho Denise Wan See (HOCC) in Hong Kong," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0325.

1. Interweaving popular culture, fan activism, and the queer

[1.1] I seek to address a single question here: why isn't there any queer fan activism in Ho Denise Wan See (何韻詩) (HOCC) fandom in Hong Kong? HOCC has been the most salient queer icon in the Hong Kong popular music scene since the late 1990s, and in the literature, queer audiences are widely suggested to be creative and expressive in consuming star texts. In this case study, situated in the context of queer theory and audience studies, I argue that in the queer fandom of HOCC, fans engage in dynamic everyday tactics (de Certeau 1984), such as gossiping, fantasizing, and engaging in queer symbolic creativity, to rewrite texts and reshape their sexual identities. Even though these cultural practices are political and empowering, both internal features of the fandom and broader sociocultural contexts hinder these small-scale tactics from resulting in political action in the form of institutional queer activism that strives for sexual citizenship for the queer (Richardson 1998, 2000; Bell and Binnie 2000).

[1.2] To address HOCC fandom, we need to rethink what kinds of fan activism we are considering, the meaning of the notion of queer, and whose agency encourages and perpetuates HOCC's queer images. There has been little debate on the nature of audience since the Birmingham School (Hall 1973; Morley 1980). Audiences are now theorized and empirically shown to be active—or, more generally speaking, productive. Even if audience studies, with all of its different modes of focus, cannot prove that all audiences are active, they can at least demonstrate that not all audiences are passive (Jenkins 1992, 287). Jenkins (2006) has argued that fan activism can range from negligible levels to macrolevels. However, this approach to defining activism is not particularly useful because it is too inclusive. From one being active in textual poaching, it does not follow that one necessarily engages in activism. To distinguish between these two, I adhere to Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby's (1999) differentiation between active and activist fans. An active fan participates in fan activities such as fan clubs, soap magazine critiques, and online bulletin boards; an activist fan behaves strategically in specific events and contexts to achieve a specific goal. Fan activism thus differs from fan activities in its mass mobilization and strategic calculations.

[1.3] For the notion of queer fandom, I struggled with the question of whether I should attempt to specify the queerness evident in HOCC fandom. I decided to do so to better capture its important theoretical implications. Butler (1993, 315), in her theory of gender performativity, notes that "there are no direct expressive or causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy and sexuality." If we define queer as nonstraight and nonheteronormative, then we are adopting heterosexuality as the primary normative standard—a stance Butler disagrees with. For Butler, "gender is not a performance that a prior subject elects to do, but gender is performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express" (314). In this sense, gender, sexuality, and desires are compulsory imitations with no original scripts. Queerness, as a spectrum of potentialities, can therefore be said to exist in all sexual subjects.

[1.4] Parallel to this, in the realm of media reception, Doty (1993, 2–3) proposes that queer marks a flexible space for expressing all aspects of non-, anti-, and contrastraight cultural production and reception, and queerness is intrinsically shared by all agents with varying extents of consistency and intensity. Every audience can thus be considered as potentially reading in queer positions and proliferating queer discourses. More importantly, he notes that terminology such as "queer positions," "queer readings," and "queer pleasures" is part of this flexible reception space, which "stands simultaneously beside and within that created by heterosexual and straight positions" (15). However, Doty is also aware that the enthusiasm of breaking down rigid concepts of sexuality in popular culture may lead to problematic consequences of celebrating an apolitical utopia united by all straights and all queers. Therefore, he retained the radical and political connotation by using the term queer to highlight "a consciously chosen 'site of resistance' and a 'location of rational openness and possibility'" (3). Again, queer is always a dynamic, contradictory, and imperfect notion to challenge normative categorization of identities and subjectivities.

2. HOCC as queer icon and the politics of ambiguity

[2.1] Ho Denise Wan See (aka HOCC, pronounced as Ho-C-C, or Goo), was one of the top 10 best-selling local singers in Hong Kong from 2006 to 2010 (IFPI Hong Kong Top Sales Music Award 2010; IFPI Hong Kong Top Sales Music Award Presented [2001–2009]). Winning the Golden Award for female singer in the Ultimate Song Chart Awards Presentations in 2006 proved her popularity. She works in the mainstream market (the nonindie sector), yet she owns her music label, Goomusic, and she often works with independent musicians. She is regarded as idiosyncratic because of her androgynous body, her wide range of topics for cultural expression, and her ambivalent attitudes toward gossips speculating about her sexualities (Li 2011a, 12–17).

[2.2] If texts are polysemic and HOCC, as an idiosyncratic cultural producer, has produced a variety of products ranging from LGBTQ texts to texts dealing with poverty to madness, then why is she still regarded as the most salient and influential queer icon since the late 1990s? Whose agency encourages and even perpetuates these queer images? The answer: HOCC as producer, the media, scholars, queer activists, and her fans.

[2.3] HOCC is the major agent who oscillates between ambiguity and explicitness in evincing the possible interpretations of her star texts. She is the only female singer to repeatedly sing songs about queer sexualities; all of them were big hits, and many of them won awards. These songs include "Rose-mary" (露絲瑪莉; lesbian romance), "Goodbye Rose-mary" (再見露絲瑪莉), a sequel to "Rose-mary," "Rolls.Royce" (勞斯.萊斯, gay romance), and "Coffee in Cola Bottle" (汽水樽裡的咖啡, transgenderism). She overtly interpreted "Rose-mary" as lesbian romance and "Rolls.Royce" as gay romance at the SuperGoo concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum in October 2009. She produced the stage drama Butterfly Lovers (梁祝下世傳奇) in in 2005, which modified a Chinese classic romance into a homoerotic romance, and it received positive responses ([HOCC's New "Butterfly Lovers"] 2005). Concerning these cultural products and her androgynous, nonhegemonically feminine appearance, she has adopted a laid-back and ambiguous attitude, which in a sense invites further queer reading and articulation ([Homosexual, HOCC] 2003). Her sexuality and affairs with other female singers are the subject of intense speculation in tabloids and by gossips—allegations she has neither openly rejected nor admitted, even as she remains a queer-friendly figure (in the name of social justice). However, she once came out to the public on a game show in July 2009, although she subsequently denied being a lesbian (Li 2011a, 197–208). If we consider only the game-show revelation and not her subsequent retraction, she is the first queer female star in Hong Kong to come out to the public (note 1).

[2.4] Media discourses and scholars often help to perpetuate the queer reading of HOCC. Tabloids surrounding HOCC's affairs and sexualities tend to adopt heteronormative language, such as calling her the "King of Flirt" (Apple Daily 2002). Time Out Hong Kong (2011) chose her as one of the four artists shaping the future of Canto-pop for her androgynous presentation and unique style in music production. Scholars such as Chan (2006) and Tang et al. (2010) have argued, respectively, that she is a "queer body" and "filling in the gender and sexual gaps in Hong Kong popular music." Kong (2010, 65) also considered her to be the descendant of androgynous superstars of 1980s Hong Kong. Queer activists have also played a part in perpetuating queer reading (or queering of) HOCC's star texts. In 2007, "Illuminati," composed by HOCC with lyrics written by queer lyricist Wyman Wong, was chosen as the theme song of the third International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) rally in Hong Kong because of its implication of mass mobilization for revolution. And fans skillfully queer her texts to substantiate such queer images.

3. Methods

[3.1] This study is drawn from data collected during from 2009 to mid-2010 for my master's thesis. I continued to collect data and keep in touch with my informants (both socially and virtually) until mid-2011. With their consent, I have updated the data presented here. The main methodology is media ethnography (Marcus 1998; Bird 2003), which yields the strength of rich and firsthand data. As Bird puts it, "Only ethnography can begin to answer questions about what people really do with media, rather than what we imagine they might do, or what close readings of texts assume they might do" (2003, 191). I have conducted qualitative in-depth interviews with 13 voluntary respondents (aka gootoes in online fan expression, which is derived from Cantonese pronunciation, literally "followers of HOCC") recruited from the HOCC International Fan Club (IFC), the only official fan club. There were 10 female and three male respondents ranging in age from 15 to 35 years. Education level ranged from junior secondary school to holders of master's degrees. Fields of occupation included student, education, finance, social services, and medicine. Duration of activity in HOCC fandom ranged from 2 to 9 years. Echoing Butler's (1993) and Doty's (1993) arguments, I deliberately did not seek from the respondents any particular rigid sexuality but rather let them self-identify. This resulted in sexualities including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and unknown; some change over time, suggesting a fluidity of sexualities and desires in this sample. Despite the small sample size, the group was a fairly diverse group of informants (Appendix).

[3.2] I also conducted participant observation between early 2009 and mid-2010 at various functions, including the Happiness Is Free concert in February 2009, a fan amateur video production for HOCC's birthday party in April 2009, HOCC's birthday parties in May 2009 and 2010, Jade Solid Gold Recording in July 2009, and the Supergoo concert on October 9–12, 2009. Participant observation is essential to acquiring further understanding of gootoes' everyday lives and social experiences. The primary purpose of participant observation is not to collect data but to obtain a glimpse of fans' activities and to establish rapport with informants by enriching my experiences of engagement and shared experiences with them. In response to the academic myth of keeping a distance from subjects, Jenkins (1992) argues that the more distanced perspective espoused by some researchers does not necessarily secure a better understanding of complexity of the phenomenon; rather, "academic distance has thus allowed scholars either to judge or to instruct but not to converse with the fans community, a process which required greater proximity and the surrender of certain intellectual pretensions and institutional privileges" (6).

4. Gossip, fan detectives, and fantasies

[4.1] HOCC fans are discursively empowered through various forms of queer symbolic creativity, a notion derived from Willis (1990) referring to the everyday creative use of expressions, signs, symbols, and art to establish and negotiate one's identities and meaning. These practices include fan detecting, gossiping, fantasizing, textual poaching, materializing fantasies, and interacting in online forums as heterotopia. Again, fans, without necessarily self-identifying as queer, use their queer reading to reshape, rethink, and rewrite their own changing and challenging sexual identities (Hanmer 2010, 150). The practices of play and creativity are empowering to the queer because they question and explore links between pleasure and power, body and subject, when participating in popular culture (Lipton 2008, 163). They seek to negotiate their life stories and sexual identities in the flexible space offered by popular culture.

[4.2] The most intensive form of queer symbolic creativity is gossiping and playing with the tabloid curiosity surrounding HOCC's sexuality and her alleged affairs with Joey Yung, another popular female singer in Hong Kong. Fans term their affair the goo/cho relationship, with goo standing for HOCC and cho standing for Joey Yung. While Gamson (1994) has suggested that gossip is a free realm with no repercussions and no accountability, Turner (2004) has argued that gossip as "an important social process through which relationships, identity, and social and cultural norms are debated, evaluated, modified and shared" (24). Importantly, "fantasy" is not binary to "reality" (Ang 1996, 92; Fiske 1989, 124). HOCC fans' fantasies of tabloid stories take place online—either in private chat or, subtly, in the IFC forum—as well as in off-line social life. I consider this process a form of detection, with the fans playing the role of detective as they share clues, find "correct" clues, play hide-and-seek with paparazzi, and appropriate scenarios by drawing on resources from various media texts. They look into what outsiders would consider trivial; for instance, a tiny logo on a piece of tissue at the corner of a restaurant table in Joey Yung's Facebook picture may match with the background of HOCC's newly uploaded picture on Twitter. In this empowering process, complex and unstable pleasure in negotiating a queer world and queer identities also unfolds.

[4.3] Felicity, a HOCC fan for more than 6 years, claimed that she had loads of insider information about the goo/cho relationship. During our 3-hour interview on September 25, 2009, she kept checking HOCC's blog for updates because that day was believed to be their anniversary. She vividly recalled the moment when she heard that HOCC and Joey Yung were together:

[4.4] Everybody was so excited at that time…I was so happy that…even happier than me having a date! I feel like…they are finally together despite all the barriers they had previously and then I keep thinking, "Oh my God! What if paparazzi know about it?"

[4.5] Kaitlin is another believer in goo/cho. She directly asserted, "This is true," thus implying that any validation from fan detection is unnecessary. For her, it is reality, not imaginative engagement—in contrast to Lipton's (2008, 174) findings. She was keen on fan detection for fantasizing and for expanding the information archive on her own blog—for example, photo albums gathering similar clothes worn by both of them, and an album dedicated to pictures in which either of them is wearing the famous "fishing line" bracelet at public functions. The bracelet was so named because it is extremely thin and can only be noticed by enlarging and carefully examining the photos. Kaitlin constantly went online to check the updated schedule of public functions attended by Joey Yung and HOCC. She analyzed HOCC's pattern of updating on Facebook and the Sina miniblog (Weibo, the People's Republic of China's version of Twitter) to speculate whether they went abroad for holidays together. In February 2009, she was one of the first fans to discover that HOCC went to Rome with Joey Yung. She did so by analyzing the "reliable clue" of their new lovers' rings.

[4.6] Fan detectives are not limited to fans who self-identify as queer or queer-friendly; detectives include those who are homophobic. Sheena is an anti-goo/cho fan who also engages in these daily detection activities, but she seeks to deny their affair by the way she chooses to read the ambiguous space that HOCC creates for her sexuality. Sheena feels that she has to keep up to date with the various clues, but she simultaneously feels distressed when she assesses the evidence collected by others. Within this complex dimension of desires, Sheena struggles between the happiness of HOCC and her personal hatred of lesbianism. She even read the book published by one of HOCC's speculated exes, Theresa Fu, because Fu was said to disclose some information about her relationship with HOCC. She skillfully read between the lines and twisted the words of tabloids reporting HOCC's alleged affairs with male celebrities—for instance, Oriental Daily's January 15, 2010, headline: "HOCC Turns STRAIGHT and Goes Shopping with a Man."

[4.7] To these fan detectives, tiny bits of trivia loom large in their daily lives. They take active pleasure in their role as detectives, scrutinizing tabloids for clues, fantasizing, and discovering and celebrating minute pieces of evidence. This activity constitutes queer symbolic creativity, which empowers fans in negotiating desires and sexual identities, regardless of whether they are queer or nonqueer.

5. Materializing fantasies in The Dreamland

[5.1] The migration of fan communities to the Web is one of the most significant shifts in audience research in recent years (Baym 2000; Soukup 2006; Jones 1997; Booth 2008). For queer subjects, cyberspace has become a site of increasingly intensive engagement through which to live their sexualities (Plummer 2003, 275). Their queer symbolic creativity, together with the materializing of fantasies in the form of making videos and writing slash fan fiction, frequently take place on the Web. Kaitlin set up an underground forum, known as The Dreamland (note 2), parallel with HOCC's official forum, for discussion of gossip and fantasies in mid-2009 because HOCC's sexuality and goo/cho are, according to most informants, taboo topics in the official forum. Fans who dislike Joey Yung personally and who are against homosexuality attacked posts that discussed HOCC's sexuality, accusing fans involved in the discussion of being "dogs" (paparazzi), even traitors. Discussion topics such as "whether HOCC looks handsome in a particular costume" were also attacked, as the word handsome implied that HOCC was a butch lesbian (or "TB" [tomboy], in local lesbian parlance), based on the commonly perceived secondary gender system of the butch/femme binary (Kam 2003; Martin 2010). The Dreamland as a platform for free articulation of fantasies and fan detection play attracts fans who do not want to be too high profile in their articulation of homoerotic fantasies. The platform also permits circulation and consumption of amateur fan videos and slash fan fiction.

[5.2] Video making is the most common and popular form of materialized fantasies. All of my informants knew about the online goo/cho videos, such as those posted on the Imagination Is Free Production YouTube channel, whose name was appropriated from HOCC's 2009 concert, Happiness Is Free (note 3). Imagination is free in two senses: it is free of price, and it is free of borders. Goochos—fans who subscribe to the goo/cho relationship—play with this name to justify their active imagining and their fantasies. They juxtapose clues that include video clips, pictures, and Twitter status updates to construct the love story between HOCC and Joey Yung. Some of these fan videos are more than 10 minutes long, with editing used to highlight duplicated costumes and personal belongings, complementary interview content provided on separate occasions, and photo hunts, such as identifying a Miffy doll in a corner of HOCC's bedroom. Materializing fantasies via video making is an extension of fan detection as a fan activity. The background music of those videos is usually HOCC's or Yung's songs. Although the channel has been removed, there are still a number of videos made by other fans in favour of the goo/cho relationship, such as "Joey Yung x HOCC Endless Love (10 minutes)" ( and "(Joey Yung x HOCC) WE Support GOOCHO Forever" ( They enjoy the highest hit rates.

[5.3] Kaitlin defined these goo/cho videos as romantic videos showing the two as a couple. Summer, who identified herself as a straight person, admits that she watched them repeatedly: "I don't know gootoes or goochos who make the videos in person, but I am always touched when watching. They make me believe in true love again. I always search for different goo/cho videos and keep watching them repeatedly" (interview, October 5, 2009). The pleasure is real, and so is the fantasy (Li 2011a). Most of my informants do not watch HOCC's concert DVD repeatedly, but they do watch the goo/cho videos again and again. These materialized fantasies intersect with the most minute aspects of their everyday life. Video making and consumption as fan activities are more than daydreaming; they are potentially empowering, but not necessarily resistant.

[5.4] Slash writing and reading are relatively less popular among fans. Many of my informants did not even know that fan fiction was written about HOCC; only a few had either heard of or read them, in part because the site for slash in The Dreamland is only accessible to senior forum members. Up until mid-2009, there were 50 stories in total, including both complete stories and works in progress, jointly contributed by 22 registered forum accounts. Some are situated in modern everyday life, while others are situated in ancient Chinese royal palace settings. All are romances between characters symbolizing HOCC and Joey Yung. Same-sex romance is more popular than heterosexual romance in terms of readership.

[5.5] There is one major difference between goo/cho fictions and slash studied by Anglo-American scholars. Jenkins (1992, 191) suggested slash as female pornography that may liberate women who have long been regarded as asexual because it allows for female sexual fantasy through creating and consuming explicit homoerotic sex scenes. Goo/cho fictions keep sex, both homosexual and heterosexual, invisible by merely portraying "the night and then the morning of the next day"—that is, they elide any actual intimacy. Stories instead mainly focus on the homosocial bonding and emotional interactions of the leading characters. In fact, the comments to the pieces of fiction often ask for more sex scenes, but Kaitlin, as an administrator and a writer, chose to keep the sex scenes subtle. In most societies, pornography for women in the process of gender socialization is limited (Ybarra and Mitchell 2005). In Hong Kong, female exposure to erotic materials and sex-related issues, as well as scholarship about it, is extremely limited (Ho and Tsang 2004). Lesbianism is also almost invisible in Hong Kong society (Tang 2010). This may confine female homoerotic fantasy and hinder transformation of such activities to activism and fan civil engagement. Yet Jenkins (1988, 99) argues that fans' writing involves a translation of personal experience into social expression, and slash writing is still potentially empowering by allowing LGBT writers a space to creatively explore and experiment with their identities and desires (Berger 2010, 183). Kaitlin, as a self-identified bisexual woman, channels the struggles between straight and queer born of family and religious pressure into slash writing, which partially serves a therapeutic purpose (Hanmer 2010, 150–51). As a result, in late 2009, she wrote a trilogy consisting of a homosexual romance between the two leading female characters in imperial China, and two separate heterosexual romances of the actresses in the life after death.

[5.6] The Dreamland online community can be regarded as a countersite—what Foucault called the heterotopia that contests the "real" site (1986, 24). The Dreamland as a heterotopia can also be understood as simply "a space where active consent to normative practices is suspended" (Hetherington 1997, 46; see also Bury 2005, 17). Therefore, to fans who just want to have fun, The Dreamland is a space that in some ways exists in contrast to the heteronormative official forum. The symbolic creativity is empowering; it reiterates the queer desires, experiences, and identities of fans. Some fans interact with other fans on these sites by transgressing and breaking the codes of the dominant cultural inscription of stereotypical identity (Hanmer 2010, 151). Their sense of agency and lived experiences as sexual beings is also articulated and negotiated. Real-life experiences plus queer readings, therefore, challenge normative cultural practices and readings.

[5.7] Not every fan I interviewed feels the sense of resistance to HOCC IFC as a symbol of normative control of the queer. The Dreamland can be regarded as a space for expressing alternative fantasies and permitting cultural practices of queer and homoerotic imagination. This is in line with Berger's (2010, 183) observation that online queer fan forums are less subversive: they "often [enact their] transgression and subversion through play, rather than necessarily direct politics." Why do fans' resistant readings, which position and queer cultural sensibilities in the form of vibrant, dynamic, and rich queer symbolic creativity, fail to transform into a more institutional and confrontational queer politics in Hong Kong society?

[5.8] I identify two causes for the absence of organized fan activism, with its components of strategic calculation and mass mobilization: the internal structure of the fandom, and Hong Kong's cultural specificity. I turn to these next.

6. Internal fan structure as limiting fan activism

[6.1] The internal organizational structure of the HOCC fandom may suggest why proactive fan activism for queer sexual citizenship is absent. Fans' proximity to the culture industry is the first internal constraint. Soon after the establishment of the HOCC IFC as an official fan club supervised by HOCC's mother, Ms. Janny Ho (aka Goomo, which literally means "HOCC's mum"), in May 2002, the HOCC forum, which was created in 2005, and the emergence of other international communication tools such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, HOCC appeared to be the producer, not her record label or management company. This made HOCC seem to be actively in control of her career and her self-presentation. This is different from the so-called Corn fandom of androgynous female singer Li Yuchun in mainland China; in this case, the "corns" (Li's fans) regard the culture industry as being exploitative of their beloved superstar (Yang 2009, 536). In contrast, HOCC fans thank the music label for granting HOCC autonomy in music production, and HOCC has openly expressed her gratitude to the record label for this freedom ([Homosexual, HOCC], 2003). HOCC's gratitude to the record label and her being her own representative to the culture industry make fan activism almost impossible because any grievances and opinions are absorbed before they can be accumulated. Fans' relationships with the culture industry are therefore carefully mediated and orchestrated. Most informants' attitudes toward their occasional discontent with HOCC's music and themes are best summed up by Sheena's comment: "Everybody knows she's a typical Taurus, very stubborn. Once she has decided, it is decided. She just ignores you, or 'pouts' in her blog or Facebook. But whatever she does, most gootoes endorse, because she is our 'headmaster'" (interview, October 3, 2009).

[6.2] The second internal cause concerns the hierarchical structure of the HOCC IFC as the sole official fan club and the fans' reactions to the power that IFC wields. Gootoes join IFC for different purposes. Some seek social networking, as stated in the songs "Illuminati" (光明會), "Diamond Sutra" (金剛經), and "The Last Date" (舊約). Others look for utilitarian benefits from the club. Although many informants acknowledge that their purpose in joining IFC was to support HOCC (their headmaster in the forum, and the one who guides their personal behavior and helps them be good people), they admit that the biggest incentive for continued membership is their access to exclusive concert tickets. Megan said, with a sarcastic smile:

[6.3] Goomo supervises IFC. Therefore the way IFC distributes ticket[s] is quite fair…It's very true that unless you know other sources or "big people" that you can get exclusive tickets from, IFC remains the only source for ticket[s] since it's…OFFICIAL. So? You don't dare to antagonize Goomo by talking about [the] goo/cho relation publicly and loudly. (interview, October 1, 2009)

[6.4] As Megan suggests, obtaining exclusive tickets is important to the fans, and thus there is a perceived need to strategically mute the discussion of goo/cho affairs in public functions and in the HOCC official forum, or the perk might be withdrawn. The practice of HOCC IFC administrators informally punishing "misbehaving" fans who articulate queer readings is similar to Hollywood's attempt to shut off fans' queer reading of stars (Gregg 2010). As suggested by Gregg (2010), these measures are of little use, but at least internally, it deters fans' public celebration of queer readings and queer symbolic creativity.

[6.5] The third internal cause is related to volunteer opportunities. HOCC set up the HOCC Charity Fund in 2007 to encourage fans to volunteer, although IFC membership is not a prerequisite for joining the volunteer team. Members who pay a membership fee are entitled to join the Volunteer Award Scheme each year; HOCC personally presents certificates to volunteers with outstanding performances. This top-down agenda of social services in a sense channels fan cultural sensibilities in reading HOCC's queer text to other non-queer-related social issues, such as animal rights and poverty of the elderly, as clearly stated in the Charity Fund's mission:

[6.6] Without limiting ourselves to any specific target group, the foundation aims to offer help through services and donations to as many people in need as possible, be it small children, youths, or the elderly. With sufficient funding, we will extend further to promoting kindness and prevention of cruelty to animals. Under the foundation, we have our own team of over 350 volunteers. From time to time, we also work closely with other charitable organizations…to provide more welfare services to the underprivileged. (Goomo 2008)

[6.7] Many popular singers in Hong Kong have founded their own charitable institutions, including Gigi Leung, Miriam Yeung, and Leo Ku. For supergirl Li Yuchun in China, her fans, the corns, founded the Corn Love Foundation as a way to get positive media coverage for Li (Yang 2009, 535). This became a trend in Hong Kong and China to improve celebrities' images through donating and encouraging volunteering. The effect of gootoes volunteering for the HOCC Charity Fund to represent HOCC's public image positively can be regarded as limited, a reality governed by neoliberal logic under the East Asian welfare model of self-reliance, family unity, and state minimalism (Mok 2011).

[6.8] However, these internal organizational features of HOCC fandom, which use access to the star and perks like free tickets to ensure fan compliance and self-policing, are not sufficient to account for the absence of fan activism in the broader sociocultural context of Hong Kong.

7. Sociocultural specificity as limiting fan activism

[7.1] The second major reason for the failure of fans to transform the vibrant queer cultural sensibilities in HOCC fandom to a more confrontational queer politics is related to the broader historical, social, and cultural context of Hong Kong society. Given the possible diversity of queer audiences, Dyer's (2004, 191) analysis of gay men's reading of Judy Garland in the post-Stonewall era suggests that such audience activities were random but were rooted in the social history of how a particular marginal identity is constructed. I attempt to use Grossberg's (1993, 90) notion of radical contextualism to define and articulate the specific contexts that defines the relationships of power and culture (Hall 1996).

[7.2] Queer politics in Hong Kong is historically different from its European and American versions (Kong 2010). I draw on the work of Ho (2008), Kong (2010), and Li (2011b) to identify three major discourses disciplining and governing sexual cultures and constraining institutional queer politics in Hong Kong as an East Asian locale: residual Chinese ethics, which value social harmony and family unity; the British colonial legacy; and the growing influence of rightist Christian influences and nongovernmental organizations in the emerging civil society. Unlike mainland China, which underwent a socialist revolution and various active interventions in reproduction and sexuality (Ruan 1991), Hong Kong retained traditional Chinese ethics and ritualistic practices, especially in terms of family unity under noninterventionist colonial rule. One of the best examples is the colonial government's making the Ching Ming Festival, a festival symbolizing respect for ancestors and family lineage, a public holiday; it is not on mainland China (Cheung 2011). British colonial legacies include the overwhelming influence of missionaries and churches on local education and social services organizations (Ho 2008), as well as the criminalization of male homosexuality from the mid-19th century to 1990. It has been argued that the colonial government, rather than traditional Chinese thought, accounts more for the creation of gay stigma and heteronormative society in Hong Kong (Kong 2010). Finally, increasingly influential rightist Christians in Hong Kong find that their discourses fit into the emphasis on family values in traditional Chinese thought and exert their influences through schools and nongovernmental organizations—for instance, in the debate over passing antidiscrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation in 2005 (see Ho 2008). The intertwining of these three discourses suggests that Hong Kong is still a heterosexist and homophobic society. Local LGBT organizations only started blossoming in the late 1980s, and the LGBT (Tongzhi) movement only began two decades ago (Kong 2010). Queer politics is largely channeled into nonconfrontational cultural politics, such as media representation, instead of institutional politics (Kong 2010). These culturally and historically specific contexts serve as backdrops for fans' mixed feelings about queers, their own queer identities, and the politics of ambiguity in HOCC star texts.

[7.3] Even though most of my informants actively rewrite and negotiate their queer identities by engaging in queer symbolic creativity, and some informants, such as Megan, wanted HOCC to be more outspoken on LGBT issues, others who identified themselves as queer held the opposite view. Erin, a self-identified lesbian, regarded the association of HOCC with lesbianism as undesirable, since "being lesbian is…not that good in our society" (interview, October 13, 2009). The division between gootoes and goocho, and the establishment of The Dreamland as a heterotopia and an alternative playground of fantasies illustrate this division. As a result, gootoes who openly participate in civil engagement about queer politics may associate HOCC with queer as well, which may adversely affect HOCC's career.

[7.4] Definitely she will be criticized by religious groups like the Society for Truth and Light and parents will boycott her for "being an immoral figure" to kids. She will probably lose her mainland China market as well, as Chinese government can be conservative as well. (Megan, interview, October 1, 2009)

[7.5] Hence, being intentionally or unintentionally packaged as androgynous (combining qualities of masculine and feminine) or neutrosexual (being neither masculine nor feminine) guarantees an ambivalence that secures HOCC's marketability. In this sense, gootoes' neither initiating nor participating in queer politics can be regarded as being governed by neoliberal regulations, which restricts "the institutionalization of heteronormative forms of social and cultural life" (Richardson 2001, 163). This rejection of connecting institutional queer politics to subcultural practices in fandom for fear of politicizing one's long-term relationship to the fandom echoes the well-known example of the Gaylaxians' refusal to participate in Star Trek fandom's letter-writing campaign demanding more queer characters in the show (Jenkins 2000, 263). This illustrates that the hindrance of transforming popular culture fandom to institutional and confrontational politics does not solely come from cultural-historical specificity, but also from voices within fandom with marginal and subcultural identities and subjectivities, and both are inseparable from each other.

[7.6] What is equally important is that as a cultural producer and as one of the agents promoting queer readings of her stardom, HOCC (as well as her politics of ambiguity in her star texts) may not necessarily pose a challenge the compulsory heterosexuality inherent in postcolonial Hong Kong. Stein (1995) argues that the rise of female androgynous stars in American in the 1980s did not improve the cultural visibility of the queer as a result of social repression and industrial constraint, noting that "lesbian music appears in the mainstream as a series of floating signifiers, linked to feminist/lesbian sensibilities, but having no real loyalty or commitment to an organized subculture or movement" (421). It was in the 1990s that the industry gradually understood that sexual ambiguity allows for a double appeal of the music to the subculture and to mass audience. The politics of ambiguity in HOCC stardom is similar in this sense, as an example of non-normative gender and sexual representations being neoliberalised in East Asian popular culture in the recent decade. In spite of various agents, including HOCC herself, perpetuating a queer image, there is plenty of room for camouflage, such as arguing that homoerotic songs such as "Rolls.Royce" demonstrate homosocial bonding. Her reaction of shifting attention to the paparazzi's ethics after the public coming-out incident of July 19, 2009, is regarded as chickening out by many informants (Li 2011a). In this sense, her alleged queerness and lesbianism remain largely underground, and her fans remain largely nonsubversive to heteronormativity.

8. Conclusion and implications

[8.1] The reasons for the absence of fan activism in queer fandom of HOCC in queer studies and audience studies are multifocal. Various modes of queer symbolic creativity empower fans who are, in different ways and to different extents, queer sexual beings. Why, then, does the empowerment made possible by queer reading, queer symbolic creativity, and imagination fail to be translated into formal, institutional, and confrontational queer politics in Hong Kong society? The reasons are twofold. First, the internal organizational structure of the official HOCC IFC has a monopoly on various privileges, and its hierarchical and top-down volunteering structures restrain fans from publicly articulating queer readings. Therefore, fans do it in private and in secret in The Dreamland forum, although even at this fan-run site, they do so with some degree of conscious self-discipline. Second, and broadly speaking, the cultural and historical specificity of Hong Kong society mutes confrontational queer politics and the struggle for queer citizenship beyond mere cultural representation.

[8.2] The political and empowering queer symbolic creativity found in HOCC's fans are circumscribed within the transforming social contours and within a multitude of cultural and institutional constraints, which in turn suggests why there is an absence of voices demanding institutional and confrontational queer politics. These fans' activities as productive, active, and sometimes resistant are important survival tactics in a homophobic atmosphere in which macroinstitutional changes are unlikely to take place. However, in relation to local Tongzhi movements and endeavors to strive for queer sexual citizenship, these practices of queer symbolic creativity are definitely no substitute for other forms of media criticism and social activism (Jenkins 2000, 264).

[8.3] This phenomenon is unlikely to change in the near future, yet it is too early to be pessimistic of fans' queer reading, rewriting, and reappropriating of texts in an attempt to negotiate and articulate queer desires and identities. Considering the productive tactics of audiences, McRobbie (1999, 72) comes to a more optimistic conclusion: "The point is then that far from being merely the commercial low ebb of the subculture, as far removed from resistance as it is possible to imagine, these activities can be seen as central to it. They are also expressions of change and social transformation."

[8.4] The blossoming of seeds sown by the local Tongzhi movements in the 1980s is evidenced by the steadily rising numbers of participants at the IDAHO rally since 2005 (renamed IDAHOT in 2012, with equal attention paid to transphobia)and gay pride parades since 2008; increasing coverage in mainstream media; and a more open discussion of sexuality, at least in the realm of popular culture, even though there is still catching up to do compared with their Western counterparts. At least three questions are worth future study. First, from the perspective in Tongzhi movements in Hong Kong, how can the new generation of queer audiences be mobilized to go to the streets and push for changes to the status quo, let it be normalizing or confrontational, on the street or institutional? Second, concerning queer audiences in East Asian societies, how ought audience activity be theorized and contextualized in relation to various locales with very different historical and cultural backgrounds in LGBT movements, particularly in terms of the West in the constellation of global cultural flows? And third, how does charity work, as an increasingly popular and organized form of celebrity-initiated activism in (at least) mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, relate to the developmental path of social welfare, social activism, and civil society in East Asian societies?

[8.5] By probing these and related questions for possible future exploration, we can come to a more thorough understanding of fan activism, agency, and cultural specificity in relation to notions including queerness, power, desire, and pleasure.

9. Acknowledgments

[9.1] I thank the HOCC IFC and Janny Ho for their help in recruiting informants.

10. Notes

1. Leslie Cheung is often considered the first fully out queer star, yet his narrative of coming out was ambivalent.

2. For reasons of ethical concerns of confidentiality, I did not conduct virtual ethnography in The Dreamland. The Dreamland has undergone several server and administrator changes since mid-2010.

3. The Imagination Is Free Production YouTube channel shut down in late 2011 as a result of pressure within the fan community. Videos were removed from YouTube. They are now circulated privately within a small group of fans.

11. Appendix

Characteristics of the informants*

PseudonymAgeBiological SexSelf-claimed Sexual IdentityEducationOccupationDuration of HOCC Fan Activity†
Megan16FLesbianSecondary schoolStudent5
Erin18FLesbianSecondary schoolStudent2.5
Sheena18FStraightCollege diplomaStudent3.5
Felicity24FLesbianBachelor's degreeClerk6
Kaitlin24FLesbianCollege diplomaSales7.5
Summer27FStraightBachelor's degreeSocial worker4
Lorena28FStraightMaster's degreeFinancial planner3
Jamie29FLesbianBachelor's degreeAccountant3.5
Kirsten29FAmbivalentMaster's degreeResearch assistant9
Felix24MStraightBachelor's degreeBanking4
Percy25MGayBachelor's degreeMedical doctor2
Pete29MStraightCollege diplomaClerk6
Winifred35FAmbivalentCollege diplomaTeacher4

* Information was collected at the time of interview (September–October 2009). Sexualities and occupations of interviewees may have changed since the time of data collection. Some information has been slightly altered to protect anonymity.

† This does not necessarily equal the duration of membership in HOCC IFC.

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