How a PR Huckster Scammed China’s LGBT Activist Community and Pro-LGBT Businesses

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Adam Robbins, ALMA Awards judge and author of this piece.
Adam Robbins, ALMA Awards judge and author of this piece.

I was honored, at first, to judge the 2016 Asia LGBT Milestone Awards (ALMA), even though I’d never heard of it, but they stole our community’s voice and we think they stole some cash as well.

By this point, I know that ALMA was started in 2014 by a very busy man named Fu Yiqi (付奇 though he calls himself Hiro Mizuhara).  Just a year earlier Fu founded Element, a glossy “gay men’s high fashion and lifestyle journal” that features pop stars on the cover and softcore muscle studs inside. And just this year he started Fabstory Communications, a PR company with only one client: his ALMA awards.

Fu promoted the awards as “the region’s premier LGBT event aimed at celebrating key occasions, programs, activities, and initiatives deemed to be a key milestone moment.” However noble that sounds, an investigation by journalist Henry Lam found a pattern of broken promises and money misspent.

When I was asked to be a judge, I was humbled. I’d only been in Beijing one year, working and volunteering with groups like the Beijing LGBT Center. I knew activists for gender equality and mental health reform who spoke of police surveillance and harassment. One stayed away from home for weeks after cops broke down the door and detained her activist roommate. At other times they face interrogation at the police station, with my friend told she’s a “nice girl” who should just get a husband and forget this lesbian business.

If I could help honor their work, I was happy to spend the time and fly to Shanghai for the award ceremony. 

Then I learned the truth of this sham. 

ALMA Awards, Teddybear, Shanghai, LGBTQ, Fraud, Lost Awards, WTF
The ALMA rainbow teddy bears that were handed out as awards when the organizer misplaced the original award. The Chinese roughly reads “I’d like to give the award to anyone I want.”

The Judges Were Ignored

After the long process of deliberating on nominations and winners, only half the judges’ votes actually counted. Two judges from ShanghaiPride who helped organize event elements including the vote, noticed as soon as the winners were called to stage. After the show, when they checked the list they’d reported, they saw that Fu’s list was radically different.

Of the eight winners announced, only four received our votes. Fu decided that another person should win “Hero of the Year,” added a second winner for “Young Hero of the Year,” and entirely ignored two other selections.

He invented a new award for “Visual Impact of the Year.” This honored a straight director, Caobao Ping, because his film The Dead End featured a gay kiss (though the two men were self-destructive rapists). Strangest of all, the ALMA organizers took our award for the UN’s groundbreaking “Being LGBTI in Asia”  program and turned it into a “Role Model of the Year” honor for policy advisor Edmund Settle.

edward settle, alma awards, shanghai, china, lgbtq, queer
Edmund Settle, one of many organizers behind the UN Development Programme’s “Being LGBT in Asia” community research initiative.  (Photo via ALMAAwards.org)

“Being LGBT in Asia”  is a massive community research initiative launched by the United Nations Development Programme in late 2014 to address “inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and promote universal access to health and social services.” It’s linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and has already produced some of the largest and most reliable data on the lives of people in China, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Vietnam and Nepal.

Like most of the world, there’s little data on gender or sexual minorities in these countries, but now that’s starting to change. With this baseline measurement of harassment, violence, and legal discrimination facing LGBTI people, the world can now point to the facts when lobbying for protections and reforms.

But to ignore the project’s huge team of researchers and community activists — to just focus on Settle’s management role as a “role model” we should aspire to — is silly. At worst, it’s saying we should ignore the contributions of the many and focus on the white guy in the management chain.

I saw Settle’s head shaking during the awards ceremony when he was called up by name. He went up with the others, but he looked as confused as the rest of us.

But this was the tip of the iceberg. 

The Event Itself was a Trainwreck

The ALMA events had been confused and messy throughout. When I first met Fu outside the ALMA business forum, he was standing at the check-in desk, shouting at a woman who sat with lowered eyes. I had to interrupt his rant to suggest that he let her check me in. After the awards, investigative reported Henry Lam reported that Fu had threatened to give ShanghaiPride bad press and deny them access to the event if they displeased his and that Fu had used abusive language towards other judges, primarily liberal use of the word “fuck.”

transphobia, alma, awards, shanghai, china, awful, wtf
An (arguably transphobic) ALMA promotional image sent to the press.

Buses shuttled guests to the awards venue hours early, for a ceremony that started 15 minutes late. Running more than two hours, the show was packed with so much dubious entertainment that Fu would later claim he “didn’t have time to announce all the winners.”

BNY Mellon, ALMA Award, China
An award originally intended for BNY Mellon went out at random to indie filmmaker Fan Popo without any changes to the award itself. (photo via Adam Robbins)

It started with interpretive dance and not one but two videos showing off photos of Element’s mostly naked muscle studs. Fu himself took the stage to perform not one but two drag performances. I commend the pale blue kimono and geisha wig he whipped together, and when he remembered to act the part it was rather convincing. But when the music came on and he tried to dance, it was a graceless mess that sent him tumbling into the MC. It couldn’t tell if it was a mocking satire, if he didn’t have enough time to practice, or if he just didn’t have any fucks to give.

And they didn’t even give out the awards they’d originally intended on distributing.

My friend Fan Popo, a bold indie film maker in Beijing who successfully sued China’s censorship authority, was rightly announced “Young Hero of the Year” according to the judges’ ballot. He was supposed to receive a laminated certificate with his name and his honor … but instead he received a teddy bear. He overheard from organizers backstage that they couldn’t find the certificates, so they used the stuffed animals instead.

When they did sort it out, and distributed the awards, they seemed to give them out at random. Instead of an award in his name, Popo received an award for “Best Corporate Employer in Diversity & Inclusion” meant for BNY Mellon. That bank, like most of the 27 companies that received honors, did not even attend the event.

Promises to Pay Were Not Kept

But Fu and his team added economic injury to the insult. Community activism is not lucrative and many award winners couldn’t afford a weekend in Shanghai. Three could only front the expense when ALMA promised to reimburse them for the flight and hotel. They made the same promise to the judge from South Korea. 

Those promises were broken. 

The South Korean judge and award winner suffered the least: they got half the money promised. The honorees from Taiwan and Mongolia, though, got nothing.

It’s just cruel to steal from those with so little to work with. 

And the staff working the event? Two report their promised payments were denied when Fu claimed “there’s no money left.”

ALMA Awards, China, LGBT, Shanghai, Rainbow Bears
The ALMA Awards winners and their rainbow bears crowd onstage. (image via Adam Robbins)

So Where Did That Money Go? 

Lam’s investigation found that Fu channeled half of ALMA’s corporate cash into his own Fabstory Communications, like Donald Trump charging his campaign to rent the Mar-a-Lago.

Fu set up a company with no physical headquarters, and no other clients, and used it to invoice for that corporate cash. Nearly half the sponsor money ($6,300) went to Fabstory to administer the awards events, even though Fu relied on volunteers from ShanghaiPride and those two freelance workers who were never paid. 

When one person controls where the money goes, and spends half of it on his own private business, we should doubt he has the community interest at heart. And when Lam’s reporting tells us that another chunk of cash ($1,725) was wasted on six “VIP guest” suites at the Kempinski that nobody used, or spent on drinks and expenses for Fu and his friends, we should say: “No more.” 

fabstory, element magazine, alma, shell corporation
As of this publication, the only thing on Fabstory’s website.

Our community needs to expose scammers like Fu

Hiro Mizuhara, Fu Yigi, Fabstory, ALMA Awards, Element magazine
Fu Yigi (aka Hiro Mizuhara), the PR huckster behind the ALMA awards fiasco

Personally, I applaud ALMA sponsors like IBM that support community events and change their policies to include gay and lesbian (and sometimes transgender) employees. I appreciate when they use their leverage to improve our visibility, and I am grateful when they invest in our community. 

But Fu Yiqi’s ALMA isn’t our community. It’s one man pimping out our activism for personal gain. 

When we simply trust private companies to act for us—behind a shroud of secrecy, under a veil of respectability—they exploit us. We need transparency and we need to refuse honors like this that reflect so badly on our community.

IBM and other companies: be warned. Do your due diligence. Don’t hand over your cash to scams like this.

I’m writing this even though it’s two months after the event took place because Fu will likely try this again in 2017. It’s important that people know the truth behind his glamorous sham. When there’s so little funding available, local activists and corporate sponsors shouldn’t waste what they have on one man’s vanity project. He, and others like him, shouldn’t get to hide their bad behavior behind the rainbow flag.

(featured image via ALMA Awards)

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