This article was originally published by The Mantle.
By Tony Lin
In December 2014, eight months before I left Hong Kong for my graduate studies at Columbia University, I was suddenly seized by a strong sense of responsibility to say something about the city where I lived for years and where I launched my Chinese writing career.
At that moment I was attending a visual art workshop under Tim Yip, the Academy Award-winning designer and art director for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” My passion for a grand farewell to Hong Kong was translated into a film project: I wanted to document the city’s ethnic segregation, the explicit racism, the wealth gap, and my love-hate relationship with this living example of a post-colonial metropolis. And that was when I decided to reach out to two friends and document their parallel worlds of being old gay men in Hong Kong.
Nigel Collett, an Oxford graduate and ex-Lieutenant-colonel, is a long-time friend. Collett, 63, is a successful British businessman living in one of Hong Kong’s fancy neighborhoods. I met Smiley Sze through my college professor. Sze, 70, is a high school dropout dwelling in public housing. As an unemployed Chinese clerk, he is living on a government subsidy of $260 a month.
A still from “A City of Two Tales.” Nigel Collett is on the left, Smiley Sze on the right.
In a segregated city like Hong Kong, these two people would have never met each other. Not a chance. It is a land where expatriates earn on average 100 percent more than local workers, and they cluster in the west side of Hong Kong Island—the local equivalent of Manhattan. Many expats half-jokingly refer to anywhere beyond the island as “the dark side,” and some even take pride in the fact that they have never set foot in those districts. The Cantonese-speaking locals like Smiley, on the other hand, only visit the expats’ habitat several times a year, and probably get lost in translation in their own city.
The social segregation is even more prominent in the gay world. All the gay bars and clubs are located in the expats’ bubble on Hong Kong Island, and a drink costs at least $9—slightly above Smiley’s daily expense for food. On “the dark side,” however, there are gay saunas, parks, and public toilets that are unheard of by the island residents.
Although living in such different conditions, Nigel and Smiley do have one thing in common: they are both facing the inevitability of aging. In a gay world where the premium is young and beautiful, how do these two people handle sickness, pain, and death encroaching on their lives?
I entered the field to collect footage with this clearly-defined research question and was left stunned by the answers. Nigel and Smiley did have drastically different attitudes about aging, but nothing was what I expected. Smiley, single and fabulous, found himself in a niche gerontophilia market and enjoyed a promiscuous lifestyle that he called a “second spring.” Nigel, on the other hand, married the love of his life and planned on continuing his side career as a biography writer. After five in-depth interviews and 20 hours worth of material of their amazing life journeys, a new problem emerged: How can a 30-minute documentary incorporate such different experiences without breaking down the film into two irrelevant stories?
After six gin and tonics and a night of deliberation with Owen Fung, my assistant director, an idea popped up: If the city, social class, and ethnicity segregate Nigel and Smiley, why don’t we have them communicate on screen instead?
That was when the idea of “A City of Two Tales” eventually took shape. It is not about two elder gay men, but two individuals happened to be located in different sets of identities: the old, gay, poor, Chinese, and single, as opposed to the old, gay, wealthy, British, and married. Off the screen, they are two random strangers who would never cross paths, but on screen, they can talk to each other, share experiences, and argue fiercely about their attitudes toward living.
“It isn’t strictly a documentary. On some level, it is a “mockumentary,” Timmy Yip, my mentor at the workshop, jokingly commented.
I completely agree with Yip. And I believe it is the virtual quality that paradoxically mirrors the truth about people in big cities like Hong Kong, London, and New York. There are just so many great tales hidden behind the barrier of language, ethnicity, and social class. And we should make them heard.
Tony Zhiyang Lin is a writer, filmmaker, and a master’s candidate in international affairs and journalism at Columbia University. He is director of the documentary “A City of Two Tales,” which was nominated for Best Short Film at Taiwan Queer International Film Festival and received Audience Choice Award at ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival.
[Photos courtesy of The Mantle]