They wanted to take control of their lives, take advantage of their youth and travel like nomads, while sustaining the most basic of livelihoods by selling trinkets they either made or found. Chow Kong-chuen was a fashion designer, and his partner of 16 years Makui Ma was a visual merchandiser. Quitting their jobs together, they decided to go on a working holiday in Australia and New Zealand.
But with just one phone call their plans were cut short.
“Chow’s dad passed away, and in an instant things changed,” Ma says. “We realised that there are too many things you can’t plan for in life. So, whatever happens in the future, we will handle it when it comes. The most important thing is to be happy now.”
After returning to Hong Kong, the pair continued to sell their travel finds and handmade accessories, until one day they came across a dingy, dilapidated flat in Yau Ma Tei. And with that, MUM’s NOT HOME found a home.
“I thought it was really cute and charming,” says Chow. “We immediately rented the space and decorated it. We cut hair, sold our wares and started offering floral teas. Gradually, more and more people started coming, and organically it transformed into a café.”
Now, the flat is lined with leafy plants, Southeast Asian adornments, and an LED light shaped like a happy face with peace signs for eyes.
But MNH is more than just another bohemian-chic café. Sure, you can indulge in a slice of masala cheesecake and a passion fruit soda while listening to folk, indie, or classical music, but—intentionally or not—the space is also a gay/queer sanctuary.
Recently I caught up with photographer Ka-Man Tse at MNH, who was in town working on her ongoing series “Narrow Distances”, a visual investigation of identity by recasting queer people as protagonists throughout popular social landscapes in New York and Hong Kong.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to queer tween heaven,” Tse says. “The space has such an abundant vibe; the plants, decorations, glitter ball, sparkly curtains flowing from light fixtures repurposed from laundry hangers is queer representation. It’s celebratory and also fits in the context of the underground.”
It’s only when your mum isn’t home that you can do what you really want.
The café has become a bit more mainstream as of late, with straight couples co-opting the space for that perfect Instagram post. But at its core, MNH was conceived as a cool visual space, where patrons can come and freely express themselves without the threat of judgemental glares.
“That’s what inspired the name,” Ma says. “It’s only when your mum isn’t home that you can do what you really want. We imagined a place that’s free from obstacles.”
What also makes MNH a queer-affirming space are Chow’s whimsical portrait paintings, which have become a semi-permanent exhibit at the corner of the café. “His paintings are so expressive, bold and joyful, and his subjects are by and large gender non-conforming,” Tse observes.
Chow has been a painter for as long as he can remember, but he used to focus on people who looked somber. That changed after the couple travelled to Germany: at their homestay, they met a host who was so gracious that Chow painted her and gave her the portrait as a gift.
Since then he’s completed around 200 such portraits, some commissioned pieces, but most are portraits of people that Chow finds to exude a strong sense of character. His signature is to give his subjects vibrant, clownish cheeks like birds of paradise. Most recently, Chow illustrated the album cover for German musician Matthew Wood.
“I owe a lot of how I view life to Makui,” Chow says. “Because of him I became happier, and I’ve been able to approach different people. He takes care of me, so I don’t feel like I have a lot to worry about and because I feel relaxed, I feel like I can paint with more colours.”
The couple is inseparable, helping each other grow and reach their potential. “We’re really compatible,” Chow says. “We find the same beauty in things, and it’s difficult to find that type of partner in life. We just got used to doing everything together, and we want to do everything together.”
The dyed-hair duo is always travelling, chasing the aurora borealis or taking a dip in the Ganges river at Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar. Spain is up next.
“I painted a Spanish friend of ours before he returned home,” Chow says. “Then a few days after he posted the portrait on his Instagram, we found out that he passed away from a brain infection. So, when we travel to Spain, we are going to visit his plot and burn that portrait for him, so he can get it.”
“You just never know what’s going to happen, so play now and worry later,” says Ma.