Alexter is the fan name for the fictional pairing of two actual Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution student leaders, Alex Chow Yong-kang, 24, and Lester Shum, 21, a relationship that has an ardent following on popular social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Alex Chow and Lester Shum, along with other student leaders, have been at the front of the Umbrella Revolution, which has brought more than 100,000 Hong Kongers to the streets since September 26. The Umbrella Revolution most immediately protests the Beijing White Paper 2014, released on June 10 and declaring an electoral “reform” of the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election (underlining Beijing’s control of the candidate selection), and in the long term fights for the future of democracy in Hong Kong (handed over in 1997 from Great Britain to the P.R.C.). It is part of an ongoing pro-democracy political movement in Hong Kong. On the Alexter fan Facebook page, members of the Lester Alex He He Group post words, photographs, and animated drawings that together imagine Alex and Lester engaging in romantically suggestive scenarios.
On these sites, the two activists are written into the transnational genre of Boys’ Love (BL), male-male romances popular online and most often written by and for women — but with contemporary Hong Kong characteristics. On Lester Alex He He, for instance, the two “characters” coyly eye each other, hold hands, hug, share sweets, snuggle under a single scarf, and even share a kiss under a yellow umbrella (the de facto symbol of the Umbrella Revolution). Frequently, the images posted about Alexter are accompanied by fan fiction writings that set the scene of the original, fan-driven illustrations. Most of Alexter’s Facebook fan fiction is updated daily as the majority of updates are based on real-time news events that occur during the real-life happenings of the Umbrella Revolution.
Respectively, Alex Chow Yong-kang and Lester Shum are the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a long-established (since 1958) student organization turned pro-democracy activists and currently closely allied with Hong Kong student activist group Scholarism, headed by Joshua Wong Chi-fung, 18. Alex and Lester are most familiar transnationally for their recent appearance on Oct. 21, alongside Wong and fellow student leaders Nathan Law, Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok (president of Hong Kong University Students’ Union), and Eason Chung, in the televised debate with Hong Kong political leaders Edward Yau, Rimsky Yuen, Carrie Lam, Raymond Tam and Lau Kong. Alex and Lester are also known through their political statements and clashes with police. After the annual pro-democracy July 1 rally, Alex organized an overnight sit-in on Chater Road until 8 a.m. Police began arresting protesters at 2:45 a.m. but failed to finish clearing the site before morning. A total number of 511 protesters were arrested, and Alex and Lester were among them. (Lester was also later detained in police custody from Sept. 27 to 28.)
And here’s where Boys’ Love (in Chinese, danmei) meets activism: Alex and Lester are friends. Photographs of them in threatening situations show their courage, and also show moments of shared grins, comforting pats, banner holding, and standing side by side. In a way, the homosocial power of their friendship stands for the overwhelmingly youth-generational force of the Umbrella Revolution and its likely generational legacy.
Their friendship also feeds the two gently into the East Asian communities of Boys’ Love writers, fans, and producers, who following the Japanese yaoi market starting in the 1960s, have created a large, multi-valent online set of websites and participants in other countries including China. Popular Chinese BL web sites have sprung up since the 1990s with the spread in the P.R.C. of widespread urban Internet usage in that decade. Today these include blnovel, dmshu, and fumanhua, and they foreground mainly romantic stories of young men in love, such as Sherlock/Watson slash fiction in the west. But the Chinese web sites, as analyzed by scholars such as Jin Feng (Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance, 2013) and Ling Yang, also provide spaces for lively, funny, serious, contentious, and engaged discussions about genders and sexualities, that, while not illegal elsewhere in the P.R.C., are not easy to pull off either in the Mainland Chinese system with no right to freedom of expression. Homosexuality has been legal in the P.R.C. since 1997, but some prejudices prevail and there are no legal protections against such discrimination; further in the large array of genders and sexualities discussions on Boys’ Love web sites the young male romances are not necessarily or exclusively about homosexuality and may touch on a great diversity of desires.
There are times and places when different Boys’ Love communities align with LGBTQ rights activism (other times and places not). On Nov. 8, in the Hong Kong Pride Parade, Alex and Lester made a public appearance. One participant described their participation on Facebook as commonplace and central to their political views: “Actually, the Student Union has joined the Pride Parade in the past. No matter your sexual orientation, we come together to all participate and support the parade.”
Alex and Lester are not the authors of Alexter, nor are they, as some entertainment firms design to do with fan communities, making money or consciously growing follower numbers from the often gleeful Lester Alex He He Group postings. Neither has spoken publicly about their sexuality and there is no reason to believe that either man identifies as gay. In fact, all that is publicly known about them are their ages and what they study (Alex is studying sociology and comparative literature at Hong Kong University; Lester Shum is studying government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong). Alex has also been profiled by the centrist South China Morning Post as facing parental pressure from family members who want him to stop protesting and get back to focusing on his studies [Oct 28, 2014]. Both are known mainly through their pro-democracy statements and actions. Alex believes that “it’s not enough to repeat the march and the assembly every year. We have to upgrade it to a civil disobedience movement,” as remarked to The Guardian during the time of July’s sit-in. He also stated in online forum MIC after the arrests in July that “in the past 30 years, the democracy movement has been too slow and too painstaking. The power of civil disobedience lies … in the blood and tears of everyone who is behind the struggle.”
They are friends, they are male, they are cute. Many of Alex and Lester’s fans respond to their public image by using lighthearted and playful methods to extend their support for the Umbrella Revolution. Fans keep their participation up-to-date by frequently posting fictional reprises of actual events that feature the Alexter characters. For example, one post from Nov. 8 was centered on the activities of the 2014 Hong Kong Pride Parade, a popular event among Alexter’s fans. A fictionalized first-person diary account of “Alex Chow,” penned by the unknown Alexter fan page’s author, writes, “2:45pm, Victoria Park. Today is the Hong Kong Pride Parade. I never thought I would be able to participate in an event like this. You (Lester) discussed your ideas with me about this event around a week ago. Your wish was that our Student Union would be able to fully participate in this year’s parade, not just because it’s a great opportunity, but because the fight for gay rights is closely tied to democracy and is just as important as democracy.”
Posts in the Lester Alex He He Group, like the unknown poster posing as “Alex Chow,” often use these fictional descriptions of events to express developing political ideologies and personal sentiments about current social climates. Later on in this fictional post, the author uses another diary-like exposé to express political opinions about the occurrences of the Umbrella Revolution over the past month: “Actually, I am very surprised at the recent events. I have day dreamed about it, but I never thought it would happen so fast. One month seems longer than a year … I dream every night. In my dreams Hong Kong no longer has freedom of speech and has no democracy. Kids have only one choice – to study hard. Adults are forever slaves to apartments with outrageous prices. Working hard without benefits or respect, even the food contains unhealthy, artificial ingredients … I know many voices from society say we are too young, too immature, and don’t understanding the whole situation. However, we recognize this political ‘game’ and believe it cruel to ignore the facts. We hope for change! Change for our, next generation!” Other fan posts on the Facebook page are done in a similar fashion and reflect sympathetic ideological sentiments. However, like this post, the majority of Lester Alex He He Group posts still emphasize events that feed into the Boys’ Love fan fiction audience desire. At the end of the diary post, the two characters share a kiss, “and then I kissed him (Lester).”
Maud Lavin, Professor of Visual Critical Studies and Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently co-editing a volume on Queer Fandoms of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan with Ling Yang and Jing Zhao. SAIC Alumna Xiaorui Zhu, who works in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s media relations department, is a critic whose projects include essays on the artworks of Ma Liuming, Yin Xiuzhen, and Cao Fei.