Sunday, 5 March 2017

Interview with Beatrice Wong Suet-ling

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Beatrice Wong Suet-ling, an inspirational woman from Hong Kong, a 36-years-old out and proud transgender IT support staff, and amateur filmmaker from Hong Kong. Hello Beatrice!
Beatrice: Hello Monika, I’m so honored to be interviewed by such an international platform, never thought I could have global appeal!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Beatrice: I’m a simple transwoman from Hong Kong. I’ve appeared in news media a few times (thus the discovery by Monika) but I do not consider myself a representative or an activist. I do not believe I am well versed in academic speak or inspirational speak, I’m just simply available to talk about my experiences. A lot of transgenders hide from the limelight because no matter how society has progressed, there is always some form of social stigmatization in some corner.
But I’m not afraid to stand out into the limelight because I believe the world is a big place and if one corner doesn’t accept me, there’s always some other corner for me to exist in. I also made a documentary about my transition which has been shown in a few festivals. (I will share my documentary with your blog once the screenings are finished. I’ve submitted it to a few other festivals and pending results so it will be a few months before I can publicly share my video).

Beatrice just before high school.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Beatrice: I started transitioning around 31, and had surgery at 35. I was very fortunate not to have a difficult transition because I didn’t lose all my friends, my family stood beside me after I came out, and cared for me during my surgery and recovery, I am still able to hold on to my job. The struggles when I am trying to figure out why I hate my (male)self so much is more profound.
Monika: What is the quality of the Hong Kong health service that is offered to transgender women? In our part of the world, we usually have our feminization surgeries in Europe or in the USA or if we cannot afford them, we go to Thailand. And in Hong Kong?
Beatrice: The government healthcare system is kind enough to provide care for us, so we don’t have to go panicking looking for affordable private practices. To be referred to surgery (under the government healthcare system), you need to go through psychiatric and clinical psychology evaluations, and the dreaded 'real-life experience test', but I found such evaluations very helpful in affirming my gender convictions, I wasn't repulsed at all, it helped me a lot through the transition.
Quality-wise, I had a pretty successful surgery, things look good down there, it's attractive enough for my girlfriend, but since the surgeons aren't dedicated to just performing SRS, and sometimes more experienced surgeons retire or are reassigned, some surgeons may be quite green. So some transgenders in Hong Kong would prefer to go to Thailand because their skills are better, or if they don't agree with the evaluation process.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models in Hong Kong or China that you followed? Are there any transgender ladies that you admire and respect in Hong Kong or China?
Beatrice: I don’t have a particular role model, but Joanne Leung, who founded the Transgender Resource Centre in Hong Kong, gave me a lot of advice and encouragement, and support throughout the whole process. She is very strong because she is one of the first transgender persons to become publicly visible in Hong Kong and have a hand in turning the tide for more acceptance in Hong Kong. And she works tirelessly to expand transgender presence in many fields, she even dabbled in politics.

Beatrice going to work after graduating
from University.

I guess I needed a mentor more than a role model, because transgender experiences are unique to each person, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so a lot of self-discovery is involved, and mentorship is more valuable than a distant role model. 
Monika: What is your view on the general situation of transwomen in your country? 
Beatrice: Well, the country is a difficult concept for me, a person who is living in Hong Kong. Is my country China? Or Hong Kong? China is a mysterious place that I know very little about, so I can only comment on the general situation of transwomen in Hong Kong. 
Speaking from my own experience, I am fortunate that I wasn’t a victim of violence. I also haven’t heard many violent incidents among my circle of sisters. It’s generally safe to walk on the street in one’s preferred gender identity.
Employment is still an issue for us, as there is still a general impression that the presence of transgender staff will hurt business, so it’s still hard in this area. As for changing ID documents, there is a rule that you need to have some semblance of sex organ of the corresponding gender, which means surgery is very much needed, however, such rules would be very hard on transmen when the surgeries they have to go through are much more complicated and would likely result in many complications.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Beatrice: I guess the hardest thing is coming to terms with the fact that it is going to be harder to know new ‘vanilla’ friends. When I decided to come out, I am ready to survive life alone, though it’s a relaxing way to live life too. So the fact that a lot of friends stayed beside me is a bonus.

Fooling around a photo studio a few
months after SR.

The situation is the same with my family, if they don’t want to recognize me as Beatrice, I’ll just move on. It’s sort of like a scorched earth policy, it’s a big gamble, but why not? Losing control over your own gender identity is worse than losing people who don’t side with you.
At work, I didn’t come out though, I only waited until after I am able to change my identity card before I announced that I am a Miss Wong. So for quite some time I was a dress-wearing Mister Wong at work, these times were a bit hard but it’s the only way for me to pay my bills. 
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a beautiful woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass?
Beatrice: Well, to me, to ‘pass’ as a woman is like playing a video game with infinite levels. There is no final showdown with the big boss since there is no way to reach perfection, but you get joy in advancing through the levels.
In the first few levels, one always has to start with some primitive weapons and keep failing to advance to the next level, but in the process, you get to learn new skills, accumulate more powerful tools/weapons, know what to avoid, and eventually, the process gets easier, and you can advance through the levels naturally. You just try the best you can, make an effort whenever you can - all swans start out as ugly ducklings, but as long as they believe in themselves and grow and evolve, they will become swans too. If they get stuck with the idea that they are one ugly ducking and hide in a muddy cave and stop hunting for food and starve, they will lose all chances to be a swan.
I guess there is no rigid standard in defining what should a woman look and act like, it is already 2017, norms are shifting, even biological women don’t all adhere to a certain set of rules that control how they look and act.
To transition in such a liberal time is a blessing, not only to me but to other sisters who are transitioning as well. I was once blinded by the pursuit of perfection, trying to be perfect in the walk, the voice, the body, the wardrobe, the gestures, but in doing so, I realize no women on the street bother about such pursuits, they just live life casually, look for a way to define their own style that they are comfortable with, and that’s about it, so I just follow their example, there is no need to turn my life into a 24/7 beauty contest.

At a storytelling event talking about SRS.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Beatrice: Of course, a lot of NGOs that are originally dedicated to gay and lesbian causes have now expanded to include transgender causes. So there are more resources and especially events for transgenders from all stages to come together and exchange knowledge, ideas, queries, struggles, support, etc. I guess being the last letter in an acronym doesn’t equate to our position in the community, we are all equally visible.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Beatrice: It’s getting more and more positive now. I remember when I was a teenager, transgender characters are 99.9999% used for comic relief in local HK TV series (the situation is still more or less the same now, in fictional films or TV shows), and there wasn’t much coverage in news media.
However, appearances in the local newspapers and news features have gotten more and more humane, in-depth, and heartening now. Things are definitely more progressive in English media (and European too, but my exposure to European media is very restricted so I cannot say for sure, thus the parentheses), with entire movies and TV series centered around transgender characters, so the local Hong Kong media has some catching up to do.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Beatrice: I personally did not participate in any lobbying campaigns. But I know Joanne tried to run as a councilwoman in a recent election but her political party is very much against this idea because the party doesn’t want to be labeled as a Tranny Party, which is so narrow-minded, and she is eventually not selected to run.
Politics in Hong Kong is intertwined with the business world and different industries, so a transgender, who are usually forced to grow up in isolation due to social stigma, is difficult to breakthrough in the world of politics because of lack of connections and thus an inability to effect much influence on industries or the business world.

Posing for Laura Simonsen's gender identity photo project.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Beatrice: As a transgender, I have to be very aware of fashion choices. My goal is to blend in on the street and then find some form of individuality without sticking out too much. So my wardrobe is always in flux because I love buying clothes and the prices are so low now (though very environmentally unfriendly), I also love experimenting but sometimes it’s hit and miss so I rely on friends’ feedback a lot.
I am a big fan of one-piece dresses that hug my waistline, so I generally avoid shift dresses. It’s mostly because I still retain my masculine bone structure which means my upper body is quite broad and shift dresses will make me look like a sail. I know peplum styles are not everyone’s favorite but I find them very elegant. I also like asymmetrical designs, especially if the outfit is in plain color.
I would never wear boxy designs, and velvet, even though everyone seems to wear velvet now (now means spring 2017). Colour-wise, I love burgundy, I try to limit the colors on myself to 3 or less and I choose patterns very very wisely. Neon colors attract too much attention and I am not drawn to them. I normally do not keep a close eye on trends, as long as the clothes I wear gives me femininity, I’m all smiles!
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Beatrice: I admire their dedication, it’s a very high maintenance affair. I am exhausted by just basic skincare and makeup, and I have poor skills in hairstyling, so to do those day in day out, it’s an accomplishment that I can only dream of.

Experimenting with looks, one year
before SRS.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Beatrice: I guess love and support are important in anyone’s life, not just me. I feel a lot of love from my mother, though she is very subtle, I can feel it whenever she comes to visit me in a hospital or ask about my wounds and emotions every now and then. Love for myself is important because being a transgender is not about looks and dresses, there is also career and financial planning, personal healthcare awareness, it takes a lot of focus and energy, and if I don’t have any love for myself, it is hard to push myself to put any effort in these areas.
And then love from a partner (same-sex or opposite-sex or not defined) is also important, but for me is quite optional, unless the partner fully understands my situation and is 100% comfortable with it. Therefore I only love people who are simple and direct and doesn’t know how to hold back thoughts, it could be annoying, but at least there isn’t a deep dark corner in my partner’s mind that I have to worry about since everything is clear and out in the open. Only then will I consider such love important, otherwise it is going to be a burden. It’s like unconditional love, but unconditional love can be forced.
I’ve actually prepared to be alone for quite some time, because people I know are always holding back feelings and thoughts and thinking they are making a sacrifice for the greater good, for the growth of the relationship only to explode later on when they don’t have the energy to repress things any longer.
So I rather live happily alone than be with a ticking time bomb. Fortunately, I am able to find someone who adheres to my “specifications” so I am comfortably in love now, but I am still very used to depend on myself, because I feel strong, though this sometimes make my partner feel isolated, so this is an area I need to re-adjust.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Beatrice: Yes I have, I started writing something a few years back, and I am writing bits and pieces here and there, but it is difficult to focus and organize things when you work in a high-stress job 5 days a week and it’s the only job you can find that accepts you and not care about your gender differences.
Also, there is a language problem too, I started out in Chinese, but it doesn’t reach a lot of people, so I switched to English, so there is now a problem with translation work. I know some sisters would like to forget their “male” days but for me, they are equally precious, and funny too, so recording them on paper is something I would very much like to do.

Posing for Laura Simonsen's gender identity photo project.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Beatrice: I am planning a long-form fiction video based on a transgender character, and how she helps a depressed lesbian who thinks life is meaningless get back on track. It’s going to be heavily influenced by David Lynch.
There are many ways to tackle transgender stories, and there is already a tonne of such transgender-themed films out there, so I thought I would do something special and enlightening (I hope).
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria? My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Beatrice: The operating table isn’t the only place where dreams can begin, because some sisters I know will not go on the operating table out of respect for their parent’s wishes or health issues or other stuff, so to make the operating table the goal or the starting place would be very difficult for them.
I guess dreams can start from anywhere and at any time you want, as long as you can balance dreams and survival, if you start your dreams too prematurely, e.g. when you have no financial means to support yourself and you are renounced by your parents, and got dismissed from work at the same time, then your dreams will die fast. And dreams can start little, like wearing less masculine clothes first, and then slowly moving on to more feminine pieces of clothing.
And for me I have many dreams, one of them is to become a filmmaker of sorts, another one is to live in a comfortable state of mind, and then another one is to have a good looking body, the operating table helps me reach part of my goals, and I still have to work hard for other goals. And I think that dreams don’t have to be limited to body and gender, dreams can also be about anything, there are just so many possibilities in this world if you think that once you left the operating table, your goal is achieved and then you stop fighting and just sit on the sofa and watch TV all day, it’s still a waste of a precious life.
Monika: Beatrice, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Beatrice Wong Suet-ling.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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