Sex Photos Stir Tempest in Hong Kong

Say Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton took it all off for Justin Timberlake and his camera, who promised the tabloid queens that no eyes but his own baby blues would ever see evidence of their tryst. Say J.T. kept some of those photos on his laptop. Say that laptop fell into the wrong hands.

You might have a sex scandal on the level of what's rocking Hong Kong right now.

Hundreds of explicit photos of singer-actor Edison Chen and a bevy of female starlets — including Canto megastar pop singer Gillian Chung and actresses Cecilia Cheung and Bobo Chan — catapulted their way through the Internet after police say the files were stolen from Chen's pink Apple Macbook when he took it in for repairs.

The whole debacle has been dubbed "Sexy Photos Gate." It has touched off a media frenzy across the globe, dominating Asian front-page headlines for weeks.

Originally believed to have discovered 1,300 sex images, the Hong Kong Commercial Crime Bureau has found even more photos, as well as video, according to local reports published last weekend. Many of the photos were screen grabs of videos.

Last week, Chen, 27, issued a public apology and said he would bow out of the Hong Kong entertainment industry indefinitely.

"I would like to apologize to all the ladies and to all their families for any harm or hurt that they have been feeling. I'm sorry," the Canadian-born heartthrob said at a mobbed news conference Thursday, followed by apologies to his mother, father and the people of Hong Kong.

Chen Departs Hong Kong

It is a case with seemingly as many twists and turns as the plot of "Infernal Affairs," the Hong Kong cinema classic about the underground world of police and triads — in which Chen played a role — and on which Martin Scorsese later based his Oscar-winning film, "The Departed."

When the scandal first broke, Chen left Hong Kong. Some speculated that he departed out of fear for his own safety. Tabloids were alleging a contract was out on him. After all, Vincy Yeung, one of the ladies photographed with Chen, is the niece of a tycoon that many believe has ties to the mob.

Unlike in the United States, where the likes of Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and Kim Kardashian have seen their careers take off after sex scandals, such controversies have tended to destroy careers in the more conservative Asia region.

In Vietnam, 19-year-old TV celeb Hoang Thuy Linh's show was canceled after a 16-minute sex video featuring her and her former boyfriend hit the net in October.

Last month, Malaysia's married health minister resigned after an hourlong sex video of him and another female companion circulated anonymously.

In this most recent case, the effects on the high-profile starlet's career remain to be seen. Chung, half of the bubblegum pop Twins singing duo, has apologized publicly saying, "I was naive and very silly but now I have grown up."

While many fans vow to stay loyal to Chung, an online survey showed more than 2,400 votes supporting the statement: "We don't need artists like this [Gillian Chung]. Please do not poison our young generations."

In Hong Kong, there aren't many privacy laws to protect celebrities or the general public.

"Hong Kong has been struggling with issues of privacy for seven to nine years now," said Doreen Weisenhaus, director of the Media Law Project at the University of Hong Kong's journalism school and author of "Hong Kong Media Law."

'Private Photos'

Chen made it clear in his public statement that not only were the photos private, but that most of the photos being circulated were taken by him, implying intellectual property rights and copyright infringement.

"These photos were very private and have not been shown to people and were never intended to be shown to anyone," Chen said. "These photos were stolen from me illegally and distributed without my consent."

Said John Marray, Hong Kong's barrister at law, "Privacy is always going to be a tricky problem and especially now with the Internet. The danger is that stricter privacy rules will be difficult to enforce and probably be out of step with public opinion."

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether Chen will face civil, private or negligence action from the women and, as a result, the possibility of criminal penalties.

"In my opinion Chen is not legally liable for the release of the images," Marray said. "At the end of the day the women should be responsible for their own actions."

Seven men and two women have been arrested in this case. Two charges have been made for "publishing obscene articles." One of the charges was withdrawn after the Obscene Articles Tribunal deemed the photos in question to be indecent, but not obscene — contributing to the ongoing debate about not having clearer definitions for the two terms in Hong Kong.

Another charge has been made for "access to a computer with dishonest/criminal intent." Both outstanding cases have been adjourned until next month.

"Internet sex crimes are escalating, particularly throughout Asia," Weisenhaus, of the University of Hong Kong, said. In many countries in the region, Internet content is already being closely monitored and sometimes blocked.

In Korea, fines for those who post illicit material of sexual content is at least $1,000 or one year in prison. In Vietnam it is six months to 15 years in prison. The government in mainland China blocks content through what's known as the "Great Firewall."

Criminality Is Minimal, Lawyer Says

In Hong Kong, publishing an obscene article can result in a fine of $128,000 and imprisonment for three years. As part of the fallout from this case, police are cracking down on pornography and criminal activities relating to the manufacturing and sale of illegal discs from the island and in neighboring mainland China. The crackdown has caused a backlash by Internet users who see the action as an infringement on their freedom.

Chen is assisting the police investigation, urging people to stop the circulation of photos and his lawyers to protect the innocent in this case.

"This matter has deteriorated to the extent that society as a whole has been affected by this, and in this regard, I am deeply saddened," Chen said in his public statement.

As for Chen's popularity polls, according to local language Web site, 30 percent thought he was "sincere and had guts," 30 percent agree he was "pretending to be miserable to gain sympathy," 21 percent said they would forgive and continue to support him, 9 percent thought he was quitting because he planned to establish himself in Hollywood and 6 percent thought he deserved to be blamed and should not be forgiven.

Sexy Photos Gate continues to feed the headlines.

"This is a celebrity-led investigation pushed along by the media. The criminality involved apart from the actual theft and resulting distribution is minimal if any," Marray said. "If only the energy had been spent on cracking down on those involved in child pornography and those that abuse innocent women."