The Blackwood Research Group

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Queer time? Family time? Re-Thinking Queer Temporality


This is a common Hong Kong wet market scene. Unlike supermarkets in the United States that open 24/7, wet markets in Hong Kong open within a certain time frame, usually from 8:00 in the morning until noon, and then open again at 4:00 until 7:00 in the evening. Wet market is a place embodying family time: kids go to school before 8:00, so moms and domestic workers are free to go to wet markets after 8:00. Family dinner time should not be later than 8:00, so wet markets close at 7:00. As defined by Judith Halberstam in her book In a Queer Time and Place, family time refers to the normative scheduling of daily life, and queer time refers to specific models of temporality that leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family. According to the definitions, shopping at a wet market is a family time because it orients to the normative schedule of most ordinary, nuclear families. 

But, is family time always neatly distinct from queer time? Can family time produce a queer moment, let say in the wet market? My research on female same-sex relationships among Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong provides me a window to re-think the notion of “queer temporality.” It also enables me to recognize the productive effect of family time in producing queer time. Let me explain it.

As live-in domestic workers, the Indonesian women are required to stick to the family time—early to rise to finish household duties and not allowed to leave the apartment without employers’ approval. Through understanding how they worked out their same-sex relationships on weekdays, I found that the women managed to queer family time. I was told that it was not uncommon for them to date an Indonesian woman, who was also a domestic worker and lived nearby, when they went shopping at wet markets. The family time of shopping at wet markets enables Indonesian domestic workers to gather at a certain time, i.e. 5:00 in the afternoon, at a certain spot, i.e. wet market.Shopping at a wet market is not necessarily a mundane daily routine, but may be a queer moment–seeing a woman she is longing for. 

Family time and queer time are not necessarily separate or distinct categories.

Family time may produce queer moments.




I am part of the world I studied

How would an ethnographer’s personal identification be changed in the process of fieldwork?

12 years ago, I pursued my Master’s degree in Anthropology, for which I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong’s lesbians, focusing on the identity and body of masculine lesbians who identified themselves as “tomboy.” My academic interest on female masculinity, I cannot deny, is caused by my personal identification. 12 years ago, I was living in the cage of lesbian feminism—regarding any gendered labels, such as butch/femme, tomboy/tomboy’s girl, as restrictive. Although I am masculine and people usually read me as a tomboy, I refused this label. During my 12-year-ago fieldwork, I insisted that I was not a tomboy but a woman if my informants, many of who are my personal friends, took me as a tomboy in the conversation. After all, my fieldwork experience did not change my personal identification. I am masculine; I am a lesbian; but I am not your “tomboy.”

Right now, I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Anthropology, for which I am writing a dissertation about women’s same-sex relationship among Indonesian migrant women in Hong Kong. Still, one of my focuses is about the masculine women, who identified themselves as “tomboi” (an Indonesian word for tomboy). Did I change my personal identification in this new fieldwork experience? Yes. I did.

Since my informants did not know me before, some of them mistook me as a man based on my masculine appearance. Some of my closer informants would help me to explain, “No, she’s not a man. A tomboi, still a woman.” They positioned me as a tomboi—a biological woman with masculine attributes. At the beginning, I did not correct them when they said I am a tomboi.  I did not want to draw a boundary because I was very eager to become a part of them. My “tomboi” identity did help me to establish closer relationships with them. We shared a common identity “tomboi.”

Surprisingly, after my 2-year fieldwork, I felt I had accepted “tomboi” as one of my personal identification. Especially after going to their “tomboi fashion contest” a couple times, I began to appreciate the way they made sense of gender. As one my informants said, “It’s just usual. There are tombois and girls, so we have tombois’ fashion contest and girls’ fashion contest.” Contestants could join both divisions if they were confident to do both. In their real-life relationships, some of them also changed from girl to tomboi, or from tomboi to girl, when they thought a particular gender would help them to fit into that new relationship. The two genders, tomboi and girl, were not as restrictive as I imagined. I began to appreciate these gender categories—not absolutely restrictive but allow rooms for individuals to imagine and make changes.

I am glad but I am also surprised to recognize that how my recent field work experience had changed my fundamental way of seeing this kind of label, as well as my personal identification. When I am trying to tease out how my informants were influenced by particular discourses that were circulated around them, I just realized how I was shaped by their discourse of tomboi and girl. I am part of the world I studied.

Call me a tomboi. I won’t reject it this time.


A Sunday Morning in Hong Kong

Tomboy Funky

It was a shocking scene to me when I was invited to a pageant of Indonesian women domestic workers in Hong Kong last year. I was told that the theme of the pageant was “Tomboy Funky” with all participants wearing the trendiest clothes and make-up and walking with masculine gestures. I was shocked because their masculinities were under the spotlight — they displayed no smile, short hair, flat chest, leather boots and heavy metal accessories.

My shock did not go away with the end of the “Tomboy Funky” pageant; instead, it was further intensified when the “Miss Evening Dress” pageant began right after the Tomboy Funky show. The candidates’ sweet smiles, soft gestures and slim-cutting evening dresses highlighted their body curves, making a strong contrast with those tomboys’ masculinities. I was amazed to see both Tomboy Funky and Miss Evening Dress taking place in one event because it suggests that female-bodied persons are now free to choose what attributes, either femininity or masculinity, they want to show off in one event. Everyone has a place to run if one likes to, no matter you are a tomboy or a femme. Isn’t it fair?

Miss Evening Dress

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are live-in domestic workers. They are required by law to live with their employers. The only holiday they get every week is Sunday. And so, Sunday is the only day they can really express themselves, especially in a gendered way, as either a tomboy or a femme. Some Indonesian domestic workers told me that at their employer’s house they could only wear simple clothes (such as T-shirts and sweatpants) and were asked to tie up their hair. Neither hyper-femininity nor hyper-masculinity is allowed. They are being de-sexualized from Monday to Saturday. Sunday is the only day they can celebrate their beauty and their masculinity, and also refresh and recover themselves from the laborious 6-day work.

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