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RTHK’s Crystal Kwok is candid about sexuality issues

Crystal Kwok Kam-yan doesn’t particularly like labels, but the word “controversial” has followed her throughout her career in television and radio broadcasting as she refuses to shy away from talking about what are often regarded as sensitive topics.

“I had a complaint actually from a Western listener last week,” she says as she sits in her Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) Radio 3 studio in Kowloon Tong. “She said there was too much discussion about vaginas and she didn’t feel that was a suitable subject to discuss at lunchtime. Presumably she meant it’s something to be discussed after hours, like when everyone is asleep.”

Kwok had featured “Vagina Week” on her weekday lunchtime Radio 3 programme Kwok Talk to raise awareness about women’s issues and promote a production of The Vagina Monologues – which featured Kwok, along with TV and film actresses Perry Chiu and Law Koon Lan – at the Sheung Wan Civic Theatre in March.

“Is there ever an ‘appropriate time’ to talk about things that are deemed private and sensitive?” Kwok says. “These issues shouldn’t be shoved under the carpet.”

Born in San Francisco, Kwok, 46, came to Hong Kong with her family at the age of three. She stayed for six years before returning to the US to complete her education. Then, before the start of the final year of her degree in theatre arts at The University of California in Los Angeles, she came back to Hong Kong and signed a two-year contract with the film company Golden Harvest to act in four movies, two of which starred Jackie Chan.

“It was my first introduction to the Hong Kong film industry,” she says. “The first film was called Dragons Forever, which was one of those Chinese New Year films. I was a legal assistant, while Jackie played a barrister. The second was Police Story 2. I was a kind of undercover cop and I got to do a few stunts.”

She describes how she had a special friendship with Chan, which she partly attributes to a rebellion she staged on the first day of filming for Dragons Forever. “They made me into a sex kitten,” she says of her legal-assistant role. “They permed my hair really tightly and put this tiny, tiny skirt on me. I said, ‘This isn’t right. I don’t feel this is appropriate for my character.’” The producers took her suggestion on board and, while Kwok still wears a tiny skirt at the outset, for the rest of the film she appears in more formal attire.

She admits, however, that she didn’t always possess such an attitude. While at college she had a job selling bathing suits at a swimwear store. To help sales, she would wear one herself to show off the merchandise. “I guess I was young, bold and fearless. I didn’t think about the sexualisation issues that I might think about now,” she says.

While Kwok enjoyed her initial foray into filming, she always felt more comfortable behind the camera and took the opportunity on set to learn about post production, directing and sound editing.

She returned to the US complete her degree but then came back to Hong Kong at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 she starred with Jet Li in The Master. She had smaller roles in Will of Iron in 1991 with Jacky Cheung and Ah Kam in 1996. She made her directing debut in 1999 with The Mistress, a controversial film about a woman’s sexuality.

While continuing to take on acting roles, she also turned her hand to TV and radio broadcasting, with Kwok Talk first airing on FM Select in the mid-1990s. Her live Cable TV show followed a similar format, with different issues up for discussion every day.

“But Friday was the sex day and that was what created all the noise,” she says. “It was in the newspaper every week as it was deemed as ‘crossing borders’. This is how I came to be associated with talking about these sorts of issues.”

Kwok then took a step back from the industry for a decade to have her three children, now 12, nine and seven. She did, though, still manage to write and perform a couple of plays during that time, including The Fertility Goddess, which is based on her own struggles to conceive her second child. Coming back to Kwok Talk in 2011 was quite a challenge, she says, but it had more to do with all the extra buttons to press than getting back to dealing with the city’s sexual issues.

“The biggest challenge was that I had to do all the technical stuff myself. I’m still screwing it up today,” she says. “My argument is that if I’m going to be engaging in in-depth discussions, I don’t want to have to worry about the exact countdown of seconds to the news. But that’s what they do at the station. I’m not a technical person – I suck at computers.”

Kwok Talk runs every day from 1pm to 3pm and features a series of guests talking about different topics. Monday’s topics are health and fitness; Tuesday is parenting issues; Wednesday is women’s issues; Thursday is environmental and cultural issues; and Friday is all about sex. The first season of the show was sponsored by The Women’s Foundation, but Kwok says that the programme is aimed at both men and women.

She says that although Hong Kong has made some progress on sexuality issues, it is still lagging behind. “I think LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues have come a long way in recent years, but generally, for sexuality issues, [our society] is still very conservative. Look at sex education in schools – it’s not even regulated,” she says.

“There needs to be a platform in Hong Kong for people to discuss these issues in a normal way. It doesn’t have to be sensationalist. I was once told I’m the only person who talks about dirty things without sounding dirty. That’s perhaps because I never talk about my own personal situation. I hope Kwok Talk breaks down some barriers and gets people to talk about things that they might not think are appropriate to discuss.”

When not involved with her show, Kwok produces bilingual children’s edutainment DVDs, which she started creating because she couldn’t find any for her own children. First she produced The Culture Cubs and then Mandarin Monkeys, where she teamed up with singer Joyce Lee. The pair co-wrote a bilingual rap song about hating vegetables and put it on YouTube as a fun and entertaining way to learn Chinese.

“The kids sang, ‘I hate, I hate, I hate eating vegetables.’ I had a scene where they went to Shau Kei Wan wet market protesting with signs and you had these old ladies there saying, ‘What the…?’ You have to have fun with children’s education,” she says.

Kwok is also keen to get back into directing movies. She has an idea for one about an off-balance middle-aged woman and her relationship with her more grounded children, which she intends to set on the mainland. She says funding a movie nowadays, however, is much more difficult than it used to be. “When I came to Hong Kong in the late 1980s, it was the third-largest film-making industry in the world after the US and Bollywood,” she says.

For now, though, it’s time to put her earphones on, welcome the first guest and start the show.

Crystal's top Kwok Talk topics

LGBT ISSUES "We need to create more awareness and acceptance."

SEX EDUCATION "This is still so taboo. People are still so ignorant about their bodies here."

SEXUALITY "People are perversely fascinated with things like transgender sexuality."

THE ENVIRONMENT "Do we need to wait until pollution wipes out the city?"

PRIVATE MATTERS "Things we want to know about but are afraid to discuss - everyone has them."