Chan, Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema (2023)

Table of Contents
Talk Back Note Works Cited
  1. As Hong Kong's anti-climactic 1997 decolonization came and went, theBritish (post)colony experienced a tumultuous decade--it was discovered bythe international media, by Hollywood, and finally by the post-modernists. Maybe the question put by a contemporary academic Sepulveda to alatter-day Bartholomew de Las Casas should be: "Are they Truepost-modernists?" or "Are they True post-colonialists?" If there is anydoubt that the project of Enlightenment, or secular Rationalism, is stillvery much with us, the burgeoning publications of postmodern studies ofdeveloping countries and "Third-World" cultures testifies to theuniversalizing Western intellect's mandate to name and classify. As weenter the new century, the knowledge-power regimes in which Hong Kong andChina seem already to be enmeshed are apparently as inescapable andindispensable as the cyberculture.
  2. The modernist zeitgeist, according to Jurgen Habermas, ismarked by the passage of utopian thought into historical consciousness. Since the French Revolution, Western utopian thinking is no longer merepie-in-the-sky, but is armed with methodology and aligned with history. "Utopia" has become "a legitimate medium for depicting alternative lifepossibilities that are seen as inherent in the historical process.... [A]utopian perspective is inscribed within politically active historicalconsciousness itself" (Habermas 50). In a succinct formulation, ImmanuelWallerstein described the Enlightenment as "constitut[ing] a belief in theidentity of the modernity of technology and the modernity of liberation"(129).
  3. We can see how Enlightenment beliefs, through theimperialist expansion of the West, get translated into the parlance of theMay Fourth Movement that erupted in China in 1919. Apparently the pursuitof the first generation of Chinese intellectuals in the last century isstill haunting China at the beginning of the present one. The May Fourthcrowd was looking for guidance from Mr. D (democracy--the modernity ofliberation) and Mr. S (science--the modernity of technology). However,even at the time of the French Revolution, the parting of ways between Mr.D and Mr. S became inevitable in terms of realpolitik. The ruling classquickly noticed that Mr. D and Mr. S don't really share an agenda. Thosewho embraced Mr. S were often appalled by Mr. D and had the means torestrain him. The inevitably mixed results of this venture as regardsChinese civilizations can be charted today in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China,and Singapore.
  4. Whatever merits a theory of postmodernism may have, todeclare the total bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project, of which theidea of universal human emancipation is a key component, seems a bit of ajoke for Hong Kong and China. We have seen powerful arguments developedby the Frankfurt School and then by Foucault that unmask the unfreedom ofmen in the post-Enlightenment West. We can certainly appreciate theinadequacy of formal freedom when economic inequalities and other trickymicropolitics are built into the everyday life of civil society. However,Hong Kong is a place where the promise of democracy has been deferredagain and again--from its colonial era to the post-colonial present, wherethe persistent official myth is that Hongkongers are simply moneymakingmachines who are antipathetic to politics. Yet, in May of 1989, a quarterof its 6.5 million-person population took to the streets in support of thedemonstrating students in Tiananmen Square; and in May of 1998, about thesame number of people showed up at the first post-colonial polls to casttheir votes for the window-dressing seats (twenty out of sixty) that areopen to direct elections. It is hard not to agree with Habermas thatmodernity--as a set of emancipatory premises--remains an unfinishedproject here!
  5. The past decade also witnessed a periodic bruising battleover the US renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation status. Undoubtedlythere are racist undertones in the American Right's pounding of the humanrights situation in China, given their silence on, say, Israel. Still itwould be easier for the two-thousand-plus prisoners of conscience in Chinato accept US foreign policy as pragmatic and calculating than to swallowthe theory that universal human rights are a mere Western prejudice. Anunwitting intellectual irony has been spawned by theexistential-structuralist debate since the rhetoric of culturalrelativism--of respect for "differences" as expounded by Levi-Strauss--hasbeen co-opted by Third World authoritarian governments themselves. Thelobby for American business in China has begun attacking the imposition ofalien values on this country out of supposed respect for its specific customs and traditions.
  6. Meanwhile, Confucianism, which was once furiouslycondemned as an impediment to China's modernization, has recaptured someof its lost lustre. It has been articulated, along with the growth of theFar East dragons, into the narrative of capitalist development under therubrics of "Asian Values" (Dirlik 341). A chief advocate of this conceptis none other than Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew, an acknowledgedidol of decolonized Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed executive chief TungChee-hwa. In my recent documentary film, Journey to Beijing,Hong Kong's democratic leader Martin Lee and political commentator PhilipBowring both call the bluff of "Asian Values," a convenient newConfucianism in which political apathy and submissiveness are urged uponthe populace as the means to economic success. Lately the downside ofAsian Values--nepotism and corruption--is supposed to be at the heart ofthe region's economic crisis. What this setback will mean to theneo-Confucian revival remains to be seen.
  7. Chan, Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema (1)
    Figure 1. Production still from Journey to Beijing
  8. Despite postmodernism's growing currency, one can stillfind wholesale dismissal of its conceptualization. Ellen Meiksins Woodrecently described the condition of postmodernity as "not so much ahistorical condition corresponding to a period of capitalism but as apsychological condition corresponding to a period in the biography of theWestern left intelligentsia" (40). But the odds are stacked against her. Terry Eagleton, who harbours a deep revulsion against postmodernism,laments that "part of postmodernism's power is the fact that it exists" (ix). Wallerstein castigates postmodernism as a confusing explanatoryconcept but considers it a prescient "annunciatory doctrine." "For we areindeed moving in the direction of another historical system," says he,"The modern world-system is coming to an end" (144).
  9. Via Taiwan auteur Edward Yang's The Terrorizer,Frederic Jameson notices that both modernism and postmodernism arrive "inthe field of production of [Third World cinema] with a certainchronological simultaneity in full post-war modernization" because ThirdWorld films emerge from "traditions in which neither modernist norpostmodern impulses are internally generated" (Geopolitical151). I think Jameson's observation can be extended to the realms ofculture and politics in much of the Third World in general. One can sensethe wound caused by the incompleteness of the utopian Modernist projectwhile the post-modern present seems inalienably here--if by postmodern, werefer to the meshing of high and low cultures as well as to themulticultural character of lived experience in the contemporarymetropolis.
  10. Recently, I took an Italian TV producer up the CentralEscalator (reputedly the longest escalator in the world) on Hong Kongisland in order to show him the dizzying mix of HK's urban semiotics--aChinese temple next to a blues club, a mosque at a stone's throw from theJewish Community Center. We find Nepalese, Vietnamese, Scandinavian andPortuguese restaurants on a street where Indian immigrants and Tibetanmonks saunter past a cluster of Chinese paper offerings to be burnt forthe imminent Ghost Festival. That moment is, well, postmodern, asdistinctive and recognizable as the (modernist) experience at a passportcontrol point that Auden described as "Kafkaesque."
  11. This Baudrillardean eclecticism may just be an icing onthe drab cake of a Chinese city. The escalator area has been considered amere hangout for the elites of international expatriates and Hong Kongyuppies. Incidentally, Jameson has no qualm in dubbing yuppies the agentsof postmodernism (Cultural Turn 45). It makes sense. Who ismore perfectly and compliticitiously with the cultural ideology oftransnational capitalism than the urban boomers and Gen-X professionals?While one can still polemicize endlessly against postmodernism, Jamesonseems right when he argues that "ideological judgment on postmodernismtoday necessarily implies... a judgment on ourselves..."(Postmodernism 62). Or in our context, what manner ofjudgment can the Hong Kong intellectual pass on postmodern Hong Kong?
  12. An apartment right by the Central Escalator is, as amatter of fact, one of the main sets for Wong Kar-wai's ChungkingExpress, Hong Kong's breakthrough movie in the international arthouses. One can't overlook Chungking's postmodern pastichestylistics, which are part MTV affectation and part retro fantasy. Quitea number of people I know dismiss the first half of the movie as littlemore than HK action flick with a chic twist. Yet it is in this segment(starring Brigitte Lin as a gun moll) that I saw something both indicativeand symptomatic of Hong Kong's visibility!
  13. In a new essay, Gina Marchetti describes Lin's outlandishimaging in Chungking: "blond tresses framing anAsian face, dark glasses and raincoat... 'disguised' as a Marilyn Monroe'look alike,' this drug dealer... forms the visual foundation for thefilm's bricolage of American pop culture, British colonialism, and Asiancommerce." For Marchetti and other critics, the Chinese gun moll isfighting--150 years later--an opium war of her own.
  14. Whatever the categorical significance of the story--in myopinion, the 1997 subtext in most Hong Kong films is more often anafterthought than an integral part of the creative intent--the Chungkinggun moll arrives in intrepid playfulness and self-assurance. Sheproclaims the moment of Asian/Chinese/Hong Kong ascendancy. There-presentation of a white pop icon is no longer an exclusive whiteprerogative--Brigitte Lin has as much a right to vampirize the Monroe imageas Madonna. The semiotic significance of Lin in ChungkingExpress, to my mind, forges a powerful link to that of BruceWillis in Pulp Fiction, made by Quentin Tarantino,Chungking's hip sponsor in America.
  15. In Chungking, Lin finally guns down herenemies, who include a Caucasian heroin supplier and an array ofbrown-skinned South Asian runners. In Pulp Fiction, Willissaves a black gangster boss from being raped and murdered by wielding aJapanese sword--a stylish weapon of choice among seemingly more deadlygear--against the boss's sicko attackers. The axis formed by Lin (thewhite Asian woman) and Willis (the Asianized straight white male) maysignal a new, and not exactly innocent, alliance in this postmodern hourof global (image) politics.
  16. So Hong Kong films--an awkward subset withinChinese-language films--have arrived! And my pairing of Lin/Willis mayhave pointed to an unconscious Orientalist logic, i.e., feminizing theethnic Other, still at work in this stage of cultural encounters. I amstruck by the high percentage of works with a homosexual theme among thenotable award-winning Chinese-language films of the past decade:Farewell My Concubine (China), The WeddingBanquet (Taiwan), The River (Taiwan), and HappyTogether (Hong Kong). And the first historic documentary aboutChinese cinema with any international visibility is by another Hong Kongauteur--Stanley Kwan's Yin + Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema,the Chinese entry in a series commissioned by the British Film Instituteto celebrate the centennial of cinema. While extremely interesting,Yin + Yang favors a gay reading of Chinese cinema that tendsto edge out other equally valid interpretations. For example, the famousbutterfly lovers legend, which tells of a Chinese Yentl who cross-dressesas a man to attend school and falls in love with a schoolmate, is viewedexclusively as a repressed gay romance, at the expense of its profoundlyfeminist implications.
  17. Hence, to some extent Hong Kong/Taiwan/Chinese cinemagains respectability through the back door of postmodern culture'ssexuality agenda. While Eagleton's complaint about sophisticates who know"little about the bourgeoisie but a good deal about buggery" seemscantankerous and homophobic, his observation isn't entirely off-base(Eagleton 4). The advancement of the sexuality agenda in our times may bea result of the postmodern triumphalist pleasure principle backed by amaturing market of gay consumers as well as by urbanites fascinatedwith playfulness, artificiality, and alternative lifestyles. The point isnot to deny the urgency of the politics of gay rights, but to recognizethat the need for a workable class politics, which remains as great asever, has seemed to get short shrift since the rise of the new socialmovements in the 1960s and 1970s.
  18. The gay minority is not the only group that postmodernismpromotes. Its celebration of popular culture in a multi-racial contexthas given HK cinema, for a while, a global niche. In a recent article,David Chute said:

    The current high profile enjoyed by Hong Kong cinema in the West is almost entirely a grassroots phenomenon. The critics andfestival programmers who embraced these movies in the mid-Eighties weren't theones who created the current hot market for them in rep houses and videostores. The fans did that, by passing muddy bootleg tapes fromhand to hand, by launching 'zines and web sites devoted to the new religion.... And embracing thehigh-octane Hong Kong films of the mid-Eighties as purveyors of puresensation did give us a way to respond to them unselfconsciously.No mediating cultural analysis was required to enjoy them, at least onthis superficial level. (85)

    Chute's description is a telling indication of the gut-level appeal ofHong Kong cinema to Western in-the-know postmod audiences. For much ofthe past two decades, the Hong Kong film industry, never encumbered by ahigh modernist tradition, has borrowed right and left from Hollywoodmovies to keep up its frenzied output. In that respect, the postmodernpastiche aesthetic was practised from the very beginning. However, anEastern visual sensibility and martial arts-fed action pyrotechnics havegiven Hong Kong cinema its unique edge. Movies that have achieved cultstatus in the West include Naked Killer, a copycatBasic Instinct that focuses on a group of lesbian warriors,and the gorgeously lyrical A Chinese Ghost Story, which incorporates special effects reminiscent of Poltergeist.
  19. Yet, in the early 90s, the nostalgia mode, a key featureof postmodernism highlighted by Jameson (Cultural Turn 7),arrived in Hong Kong cinema in the form of mostly postmodern farces. HongKong cinema discovered its own tradition--by plagiarizing and satirizingit. A film like 92: The Legendary La Rose Noir, putativelyremaking an old movie about a Cat-woman Robin Hood, is a freewheelingspoof of Cantonese genre films from the 60s. At the lower end of thisaesthetics, we find Stephen Chiau, the biggest-grossing star of the 90s,cranking out dumb-and-dumber comedies that can, in the case of FromBeijing with Love, spoof Cantonese melodramas, Bond movies, andBarton Fink at one stroke. At the higher end we encounterStanley Kwan's Rouge, juxtaposing Hong Kong's past andpresent sexual mores; and Wong Kar-wai, who freely borrows the Chinesetitles of Rebel without a Cause and Blow Up forhis Days of Being Wild and Happy Together,respectively.
  20. In accordance with a familiar logic of consumption, HongKong cinema's exciting burst onto the international film scene, fueled byits grass routes enthusiasts, is already starting to fizzle like ashooting star. Almost before one has made a wish, the moment is gone. Istill remember how in the late 80s, Hong Kong was celebrated by someWestern film cognoscenti as a model of ethnic cinematic culture that stoodits ground against the onslaught of Hollywood, the very motor of ourpostmod cultural industry. Maybe HK cinema has flown too close to itsburning sun. Ellen Wood took the postmodernists to task for their retreatfrom examining the logic of the EuroAmerican capitalist system whichfinally became "mature," viz globalized, from the 70s on. Postmodernismdoes signal the maturing of the capitalist logic--its relentless abilityto absorb different native cultures. The film products of HK, from theepochal Bruce Lee onward, have bequeathed Hollywood with a tremendous fileof software: remake possibilities like Stephen Chiau's The God ofCookery, which 20th-Century Fox is planning to turn into a JimCarrey vehicle after the success of The Truman Show.
  21. Hong Kong, known as the Hollywood of the East, does seemin some ways to be ready for this transplantation. (Interestingly enough,HK cinema's final fireworks were kindled by Brigitte Lin's stunningportrayal of The Invincible East--a postmod sex-changedvillain in a series of martial art films by Tsui Hark.) The"takeover/merger" finally happened, with HK directors, led by John Woo,trooping to L.A. I sincerely hope that Hong Kong screen idols like JackieChan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat can travel far. However, the Orientalistscheme doesn't bode well for them--a case in point is Stephen Chiau beingasked to direct but not to star in the Hollywood remake of The Godof Cookery--and maybe it'll bode well for Michelle Yeoh, thepostmodern Bond-girl-cum-ethnic-Charlie's-Angel.
  22. The postmodern concomitant phenomenon of theprivatization of culture has favored blockbusters likeTitanic and Jurassic Park, which are big enoughto draw tons of teenagers and adults from their home-cocooning. Hollywoodfilms are less and less dependent on the US markets. (A Titanic ticket costs US$4.00 in China--an exorbitant sumconsidering the wage level there!) The East Asian markets beckon. Thetwin faces of postmodernity--art in the age of digital reproduction knownas piracy, and a penalizing, Hollywoodized global setup ofsourcing, financing, producing and marketing--are the primary forces thatdeliver the coup de grace to ethnic film industries, includingHong Kong's. Already three Christmases ago, the Disney cartoon,Mulan, based on a Chinese folk tale, was opening in traditionalCantonese cinema chains in Hong Kong. The decline of the HK film industryhas been stupendous--from a few hundred made every year during its heyday tojust dozens being made now. And the industry may decline further. In thepast, the Chinese New Year slot in HK was reserved for high-profile localproductions with big stars to fight it out at the box office. The ChineseNew Year of 1998 saw two post-local stars in their Hollywood debut vyingat the box office: Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, the former inReplacement Killers, and the latter in Tomorrow NeverDies. Hong Kong pastiche is no match for its upscale Hollywoodversion. And the star-snatching, mind-tapping, bone-crunchingdigestion of the HK film industry by Hollywood could be the biggest real-lifesci-fi horror co-production of the decade.
  23. Hong Kong's postmodern visibility, while a confluence ofseveral narratives, was catalysed by the 1997 colonization cutoff date asif by a magic wand. But today Hong Kong looks like the Cinderella thatnever made it. After midnight of June 30, 1997, a ferocious economicdownturn--symbolized by the debacle of the world's most expensive airportconstruction project--transformed the Rolls Royces back into pumpkins. Repressive censorship measures of the British colonial rule wereresurrected by the Special Autonomous Regional administration, at least onthe books. And the Hong Kong film industry was cannibalized by Hollywood. Probably the very fact that the British handover of Hong Kong to China nowseems so anti-climactic should be viewed through the postmod grid ofglobal capitalism. The doomsday scenario--heavy-handed intervention byChina--hasn't really happened. China's more or less hands-off approachshould probably be interpreted as an index of its entrenchment in theforward march of developmentalism, to which a threat to Hong Kong might betoo serious a disruption to contemplate, yet. And after all the pomp andcircumstance, one wakes up to the revelation that the age of imperialism ended long ago. Hong Kong's colonial status was a distracting anomaly in a world arranged according to the logic of globalism.
  24. There is a paradox in talking about Hong Kong's newvisibility, since this has not prevented it from remaining in crucial waysas invisible as ever. Rarely is Hong Kong seen as a social-politicalentity with any semblance of a collective will. Always trapped betweenthe vise of superpower politics or macro-cultural discourse, Hong Kong isperpetually a character in somebody else's movie. At times, even withsympathetic commentators, Hong Kong itself is still curiously absent fromdiscussions supposed to be about it. Take a look at Rey Chow's paper"King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the 'Handover' from the U.S.A.," which isin the main a very useful analysis of the dynamic behind US-Britishpolitical discourse, as well as the Western media's coverage of theHandover. Castigating the double standard of the US and the UK when bothcountries fail to meet the democratic ideals that they applied to Chinathemselves, Chow said:

    All the [Anglo-American] criticisms of the P.R.C. are made from thevantage point of an inherited, well-seasoned, condescending perspectivethat exempts itself from judgment and which, moreover, refuses toacknowledge China's sovereignty even when it has been officiallyreestablished over Chinese soil. Instead, sovereignty... continues to beimagined and handled as exclusively Western. Sovereignty andproprietorship here are not only about the ownership of land or rule butalso about ideological self-ownership, that is, about the legitimatingterms that allow a people to be. (98)

    Make no mistake about the "people" that Chow is referring to. She meansthe people of China, not the people of Hong Kong. In a sweepingformulation, she declares that "[For] Chinese people all over the world...regardless of differences in political loyalties... the symbolic closureof the historic British aggression against China... accounted for theunprecedentedly overwhelming expression of jubilation... at the loweringof the British flag in Hong Kong" (97). As she describes it, Chineseresponse to the Handover was like Muslim response to Iran's victory overthe US in the '98 World Cup: the event provided a perfect rallyingpoint. The problem, though, is that Chow overlooks the reaction of HongKong itself. If Hong Kong was born out of the ignominious Opium Wars, itspost-war growth has been fueled by an immigrant population fleeing thecommunist regime. The Handover itself, exacerbated by the '89 Tiananmenhorror, has triggered some of the most astounding waves of Chinesediaspora of recent times. Presently, close to half of Hong Kong'spopulation have foreign residence--what the locals call their "fireexit"--a fact that should be taken into account when one talks about "theoverwhelming expression of jubilation throughout the Chinese-speakingworld."
  25. In a polemical spirit, Chow draws a parallel betweendemocracy, as pushed by Britain and America on China, and the opium tradeof the last century, "with implications that recall... Westerners' demandsfor trading rights, missionary privileges, and extraterritoriality" (101).Few would mistake Britain's 11th-hour endeavour to introduce democracy inHong Kong as anything more than a face-saving, hypocritical and cynicalmeasure. However, Chow sees it as part of a consistent Britishdecolonizing strategy intended to destabilize the decolonized state. Afterbashing Western-imposed democracy and speaking up for China, Chow suddenlyfinds herself "in anguish," because after all she is "whole-heartedlysupportive" of the Chinese democratic movement in Hong Kong (101). Whatabout China's "ideological... ownership," "the legitimating terms that allowa people to be" that Chow is so convinced of? Doesn't she considerChina's ideological hostility toward democracy part of those "legitimatingterms"? Apparently, Chow's reading of Chinese history is selective andreactive. The search for Mr. D(emocracy) began long before the Communisttakeover and wasn't planted by colonizers. What is the source of Chow'sanguish, if not "the wound caused by the incompleteness of the utopianModernist project" I mentioned earlier? It is a lot easier to hategunboat diplomacy than the ideals of the Enlightenment.
  26. Chow can never come comfortably to terms with Hong Kong because Hong Kong has no real place in her discursive scheme, no active role in her narrative about the contest of nations and the struggles for cultural hegemony. The irony is that, though she studiously elides China's authoritarianism and repressiveness, rejecting the standard Western representation of China as King Kong--"the spectacularly primitive monster" (94)--she ends up casting it in the role of "hysteric," an irrational figure of "autocratic reaction" toward the West (101). This corrective, such as it is, will not likely persuade any of the overseas Chinese who share Chow's jubilation at the Handover that China is a place they might wish to return to and live in as ordinary citizens.
  27. If Hong Kong is at best a ghostly presence in Rey Chow'sdiscursive space, it is a kind of embarrassing inconvenience in WayneWang's The Chinese Box, which purports to be a mainstreamepic film about the 1997 changeover. Wang, like Chow, is an American ofHong Kong origin. With its corny plot device and heavy-handed symbolism,The Chinese Box is a far cry from Life is Cheap,Wang's smart, macabre film about the colony struggling to re-emerge fromthe shadow of the Tiananmen Massacre. The Anglo-American prejudice atwhich Chow lashes out is palpable in The Chinese Box, whichrepresents the transition itself not only by the descent of the Britishflag, but by the ominous-looking stationing of the People's LiberationArmy in Hong Kong--an entirely legal move on the part of the Chinesegovernment that appears here as an "armed occupation" of its own territory.
  28. The film has two fictional scenes of student suicide inprotest of the imminent Chinese rule. One shoots himself in front of aroomful of merry '97 New Year's Eve party-goers; another sets himself onfire, presented as a TV news item in the movie. Because of the film's useof authentic news footage and docu-dramatic trappings, the two suicidescenes are problematic, if not outright exploitive, because nothingremotely resembling them ever took place. (The real altercation occurringat the Handover night was more tragicomic: protesters were ushered intoa corner far removed from the ceremonial venue, their cries for democracyand the release of Chinese dissidents drowned out by the police'samplified broadcast of Beethoven's Fifth in the rain-drenched streets.)And China, instead of being King Kong-like, takes the form of anotherfamiliar Hollywood phantom: a Chinese whore, a latter-day Suzie Wong(played by the fabulous Gong Li of Raise the Red Lantern) whowants to become the respectable housewife of a boring Chinese businessman.She is finally saved, at least psychologically, by the love of a whiteman (Jeremy Irons). He is a British journalist with a heart ofgold, a huge designer's wardrobe, and a terminal illness; and he also dieson July 1 or shortly after that, in the true fashion of Empire.
  29. Squeezed uncomfortably between the marquee value of theBritish leading man and the superstar from PRC is Maggie Cheung, aremarkable Hong Kong actress who delivers a truly captivating performancein a thankless role in an otherwise undistinguished film. That she has toplay a scarface with an unrequited love for a Briton who doesn't evenremember her is the best joke that Wang plays on Hong Kong, or on his ownfilm. Hong Kong, a mutilated presence, glimpsed only through a subplot,appears to Wang as an extremely inconvenient political subject, to besurmounted by sensationalistic melodrama, paranoiac agitprop, and Britishand Chinese star power. (Wang's token Hong Kong actress totallydisappears in the film's poster shot, which has Irons wrapping her in anintimate embrace.) Hong Kong, traditionally known as a "borrowed place"living on "borrowed time," finally slipped briefly through the radarscreen of international media on the "borrowed fame" of 1997. Such isHong Kong's dubious visibility.
  30. Hong Kong as a distinct place and history has not passedentirely unnoticed. Its 1997 (borrowed) fame has suddenly triggered agrowing scholarship about its predicament, past and future. In somemechanical readings, Hong Kong identity has its origin in the 1984 JointSino-British Declaration that inaugurated the decolonization schema, orwas precipitated by the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. But in more recentstudies, the kind of urban, cosmopolitan Hong Kong identity that oneencounters today has been more convincingly traced back to the riots of1967, during which labor disputes and colonial repression resulted in thearrest of more than 1,300 unionists, strikers, and protesters, and inpolice killings of seven civilians. With the Cultural Revolution raging inChina, red guards assaulted the British Embassy in Beijing in retaliation,and enraged Chinese soldiers marched across the border to kill five HKcops. But the defining moment of the '67 experience occurred whenpro-China leftists murdered a popular pro-Kuomingtang radio personality ina terrorist ambush, against the backdrop of Hong Kong streets lined withtheir random homemade bombs. This traumatic phase nurtured stronganti-Communist/China sentiments, as well as more sharply separatist linesof identity formation, among Hongkongers. The post-1967 city of Hong Kongmarched forward, with governmental campaigns like the Hong Kong Festivalto create "a sense of belonging" for the local populace. Industrializationkicked in, and the colonial rulers responded by implementing basic, butstill benign, public education, housing, and health-care policies--in itsway, the HK health care system can be considered one of the most generousin the world--which paved the way for Hong Kong's advancement in the tracks of global capitalism.[1]
  31. One important law-enforcement office that the colonialgovernment instituted in the 70s has become the envy of mainland Chinese. It is the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), with which theHK government was able to clean up the police force and the social body byusing a crucial provision--discrepancy between personal wealth andincome--as a basis for investigation. The legend of the ICAC survives,for example, in a pioneering TV mini-series in the late 70s, Family:A Metamorphosis, penned by the gifted TV and screenwriter JoyceChan, who wrote the scripts for Ann Hui's first two films. This hugelysuccessful soap opera tells of the afterquake of a bigamous patriarch'sflight from Hong Kong following an ICAC indictment. His family businessis to be taken over either by the dandyish gay son of his first wife--therightful heir--or the enterprising daughter of the second wife/mistress. The daughter's bold attempt to step into her father's shoes and her searchfor professional and romantic fulfillment riveted the whole community. Half of Hong Kong stayed home to follow one episode after another forweeks. A tremendous chord had been struck--probably by the story'sfeminist outlook and its affirming message of the birth of meritocracy outof Hong Kong's corrupt, patriarchal past. Almost a decade later, when Iwas traveling through the Chinese mainland in the spring of 1989,completely unaware of the catastrophe to come, many of the Chinesecitizens I encountered named two things outside of China that they weremost impressed by: Watergate and ICAC. To them, both stood for a rule oflaw impossible in China, where capitalist reform had meant deepeningcorruption within the party.
  32. The '89 Tiananmen crackdown was, of course, a shatteringexperience. It meant for Hong Kong a nightmarish chronicle of bloodydisaster foretold. I, for one, was driven to filmmaking after thatwatershed event--when Hong Kong, which I had taken for granted for yearswhile living both there and abroad, seemed mortally threatened. However, Iremember my excitement as a film critic to witness the birth of theshort-lived Hong Kong New Wave cinema in the early 80s. A wholegeneration of HK-born, -raised, and in some cases foreign-educated,filmmakers like Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, and Yim Ho were tackling the variousfacets of Hong Kong reality--from anarchistic fury at the colonial past inTsui's Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind to either cheekycelebration or pessimistic rumination on a (Chinese) tradition-boundsociety in Hui's The Spooky Bunch and TheSecret. I think Hong Kong woke to itself then, as a distinct placewith its hopes, dreams, and memories. That happened before the 1984 JointDeclaration, and unquestionably the June 4th bloodbath of '89 made HongKong take stock of its achievement as a "successful" colony more intenselythan ever.
  33. I said earlier that "the 1997 subtext in most Hong Kongfilms is more often an afterthought than an integral part of theircreative intent." Wong Kar Wai, for example, titled his 1997 film about atormented gay romance Happy Together, suggesting obliquelyand not very convincingly that his romance narrative had something to sayabout the mood of Hong Kong after its return to the fold of China. (Suchrelationship-based symbolism seems a favorite sport among Chinesedirectors. Ang Lee proclaimed that a gay Taiwan man bedding, evenimpregnating, a girl from mainland China in The WeddingBanquet symbolizes that acts of communication between the twopolitical entities are achievable overseas, i.e., in America.) But thetenuousness of such political allegories doesn't mean that 1997 castlittle shadow across pre-Handover Hong Kong cinema. Snippets of currentevents inevitably found their way into many movies. Even a shoddyfilm like Underground Express is about the gangster conduitto help dissidents out of China in the aftermath of the '89 clampdown. But direct emotional experiences are often couched in coded signals. Iremember a scene from John Woo's break-out movie A BetterTomorrow (1986), in which Mark, a Hong Kong folk hero role thatpropelled Chow Yun-fat to superstardom, stands on a hilltop to survey theglittering shards of Hong Kong's nighttime neons. He exclaims: "Howbeautiful! And we're going to lose all that. How unfair!" No doubt1997, as much as Hollywood's summoning, finally pulled John Woo out ofHong Kong. But Woo's exit path is still a bumpy ride for Tsui Hark, theproducer of A Better Tomorrow. Though regarded as less "serious" than such artsy colleagues as Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, and Wong Kar Wai, Tsui is probably the Hong Kong filmmaker who has most effectively woven the 1997 angst into his movies.
  34. If Tsui is known mainly as a filmmaker of high camp,genre action flicks, Hong Kong is always the hidden Signified in hismovies. At the end of his early romantic period comedy ShanghaiBlues, made in 1984 but before the Joint Declaration, we see theprotagonist trying to catch a train to Hong Kong--obviously the new landof opportunity, the rightful successor to Shanghai as the next modernChinese metropolis. When Tsui directed A Better Tomorrow IIIin 1989, again the protagonist flees to Hong Kong, but from the last daysof the South Vietnamese regime. The allegorical foreshadowing of HongKong's worst-case scenario makes this film yet another prequel to thedisappearing colony. As a postmodern pop auteur, a hyperkineticproducer-director, and a Vietnamese Chinese who spent some time in the USbefore hitting his stride in Hong Kong, Tsui seems desperately consciousof, and probably grateful for, his unexpected luck, hence his sense ofurgency to race against time--in Dragon Inn (1992), a pair ofwarrior lovers ponder the life-and-death impasse lying ahead of them. Asa sci-fi film, a postquel about a decolonized Hong Kong being invaded byhalf human demons, The Wicked City (1992) features a giganticclock (Time) furiously chasing the hero.
  35. Critic Stephen Teo described Tsui's celebrated seriesOnce Upon a Time in China as his "vision of a mythical China,where heroic citizens possess extraordinary powers and self sufficiency. [It] is based on the realisation that it is a country thepotential strength of which remains curbed by tradition and the refusal oftalented individuals to come to terms with a new world" (169). I wouldsay that this series presents Tsui's imaginative fashioning of a "mythicalHongkonger" in the person of Huang Fei Hung (played by Jet Li). Assistedby his disciples and a savvy Westernized girlfriend in Victorian frillydress, Huang is a wise, open-minded healer-cum-warrior who smartlynegotiates his way to save the community from both rapacious whiteadventurers and obnoxious officials of China's ancien regime. ThisCantonese-speaking Southern corner of a "mythical China" is essentially anidealized Hong Kong, a de facto city-state with "extraordinarypowers and self sufficiency," which could revitalize China if the mothercountry would adopt it as a model of success.
  36. But even this mythical haven is not immune to the 1997angst. In the series's sixth installment, Once Upon a Time in Chinaand America (1997), Huang Fei Hung becomes a nineteenth-centuryChinese immigrant in Texas, allying himself with native Indians to fightwhite scum. A year after the film's release, Jet Li landed a role inLethal Weapon 4 and kicked off his Hollywood career. Tsui'sangst-ridden take on Hong Kong may be right after all, though for thewrong reason. His momentous output was possible only in that golden eraof pre-Handover cinema before it got ruined not by mainland politics butby Hollywood as well as by an irrepressible mainland-manufactured-HongKong-distributed piracy system. His first Hollywood film, DoubleTeam, was both a critical and commercial flop and his secondouting, Knock Off, beside being a box office kangaroo, hasgenerated an avalanche of stinky reviews. So far, Tsui's path toHollywood seems both checkered and extremely uncertain.
  37. At the end of Hong Kong Cinema, Stephen Teoreaches the conclusion that "Hong Kong cinema... is now set to return tothe fold of the industry in the Mainland and perhaps be brought back tothe cradle of Shanghai, the original Hollywood of the East" (254). Somevague political alarmism underlies this observation. It would be verygood news if Shanghai could rebuild itself to counteract Hollywood. Butthe difficulty one has in envisioning that possibility may indicate theparalyzing, homogenizing effect of global capitalism. What seems shockingis the fact that Teo's doomsday speech appears in the first comprehensivetreatment of the subject in the English language. Indeed, while trying todecipher the cryptic codes of some Tsui Hark films, I already have thefeeling that I'm an archaeologist going through the fractured mosaics of alost monumental edifice. Once upon a time in pre-Handover Hong Kong....
  38. Around the time of the first anniversary of the Handover,Chief Secretary of Hong Kong Anson Chan (a colonial-groomed bureaucrat whowas able to keep her job as the top civil servant through the changeover)said in a speech while visiting Washington that "the real transition isabout identity and not sovereignty." Then she described how touched shehad been by the hoisting of the PRC red flag for the first national day(October 1) celebration in Hong Kong (qtd. in Richburg). Her remarks haveprovoked much joking, cynicism, and disdain in the ex-colony. Understandably, identity remains a touchy, tickly issue in Hong Kong. AndI must say a unitary, totalized identity doesn't interest me as afilmmaker. I was a bit taken aback by some of the criticisms of ToLiv(e), which appeared to be based in idealizations of a fixed HongKong identity. One critic said the imaginary letters in the film--sent byRubie, the film's protagonist, to Liv Ullmann--shouldn't be in Englishbecause Hong Kong is a Chinese city--despite the presence of high-profileEnglish media and the fact that speeches in the pre-1997 legislativechambers were routinely made in English by Chinese law-makers. Anothercritic decided that it's Okay for the post-colonial subject to speakEnglish, but Rubie has to speak with an accent to prove her Hongkongness.
  39. In the flux of life and history, one naturally looks forconstants and certainties. However, unexamined certainties of and aboutthe self, subjectivity, and identity often create a hotbed for smugnessand intolerance. It is true that the Hong Kong subject(s) of my threefilms are fairly mobile, if not wholly diasporic. They are either poisedfor flight (To Liv(e)), in New York already(Crossings), or journeying through China (Journey toBeijing). In Crossings, my second feature, a Hong Kongwoman is threatened in the New York subway first by a deranged white man,then by a black man who insists that she's Japanese. And looking at therange of possible identities at her disposal: Hongkonger, Chinese, Britishcolonial subject, and American new immigrant, this woman sadly realizesthat none of them offer her any solace or security. InJourney, my documentary about the Handover, I followed agroup of philanthropic walkers from Hong Kong to Beijing on the eve of thehistoric transition. Their four-month walk passed through a number ofmeaning-heavy locales: Yellow River (supposedly the cradle of Chinesecivilization), Mao's birthplace, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall. Byjuxtaposing the walkers' perspective with mini-essays about Hong Kong'sdilemma, one of my aims was to acknowledge, reflect on, and question thepull of (Chinese) identity for the people of Hong Kong, whose lives havebeen such a cultural and political hybrid.
  40. Chan, Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema (2)
    Figure 2. Production still from Journey to Beijing
  41. On the global level, identity politics appears to be adisconcerting outcome of postmodernity, as Terry Eagleton so eloquentlysummarized:

    As the capitalist system evolves, however--as it colonizes new peoples,imports new ethnic groups into its labour markets, spurs on the division oflabour, finds itself constrained to extend its freedoms to newconstituencies--it begins inevitably to undermine its own universalistrationality. For it is hard not to recognize that there are now a wholerange of competing cultures, idioms and ways of doing things, which thehybridizing, transgressive, promiscuous nature of capitalism has itselfhelped to bring into being.... The system is accordingly confronted with achoice: either to continue insisting on the universal nature of itsrationality, in the teeth of the mounting evidence, or to throw in the toweland go relativist.... If the former strategy is increasingly implausible,the latter is certainly perilous.... (39)

    No wonder ethnic strife has become one of the predominant features ofpost-Cold War existence. Our era is probably akin to that of LateAntiquity in the Western world. After Alexander the Great's victory inthe Persian Wars and the Roman conquest, Hellenism dissolved bordersbetween the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, and the Persians. Competing cultures collided in a stretch of polyglot world, and as aresult "Late Antiquity was generally characterized by religious doubts,cultural dissolution, and pessimism. It was said that 'the world hasgrown old'" (Gaarder 100).
  42. Well, moving from the old century into the new one,postmodernism seems still fairly young and post-colonial Hong Kong is amere infant. But this age does induce profound pessimism. Thoughts,politics, and history are all being commodified and processed by theall-embracing media in the periodic artificial excitement of fashion andconsumerism. Jameson, the leading theorist of postmodernism, announcedthat "there has never been a moment in the history of capitalism when thislast enjoyed greater elbow-room and space for manoeuvre: all thethreatening forces it generated against itself in the past--labormovements and insurgencies, mass socialist parties, even socialist statesthemselves--seem today in full disarray when not in one way or anothereffectively neutralized" (Cultural 48).
  43. Probably, that's why identity politics is the onlyconcrete, manageable politics available at the moment. In that sense, Ithink Eagleton has belittled the gains of postmodernism, which have firmlyplaced the issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity on the map ofcultural discourse. He labels such identity "nothing more than asubstitute for more classical forms of radical politics, which dealt inclass, state, ideology, revolution, material modes of production" (22). Itwill be a substitute only if it is allowed to be so. After the stunningcollapse of the Second World, time--we don't know how much--is neededfor new strategies to emerge and new political consciousness to push backthe dominion of the numbing force of transnational capital.
  44. Had Hong Kong been given a choice, it would probably havechosen independence. Racial and cultural affiliation are not sufficientground for territorial annexation, or else we might see Quebec and Austriapart of France and Germany today. Taiwan is a case in point. The rhetoric of reunification with China (recovery of the mainland) hasessentially been drained of its content. If there hadn't been threats ofmilitary invasion from PRC, Taiwan's nativist government might havedeclared independence already. With independence a lost dream, will HongKong--now a rectified accident of history--survive its marginalizationand absorption into China under the "one country, two systems" arrangementon the one hand, and the ruthless class domination intensified by globalcapital with the acquiescence of the Chinese Communist bureaucracy on theother? An important fact has emerged since the Handover: No matter howmuch Beijing had watered down the first post-1997 legislative election,the Hong Kong democrats formed the first legalized minority opposition onChina's political soil. This piece of seemingly "good" news has to beweighed against the deflanking of the ICAC and the gangsterization of HongKong public life. An outspoken radio broadcaster was seriously woundedby two assailants wielding carving knives in August 1998, bringing backugly memories of the leftist convulsion of 1967. Hong Kong's future isnow completely tied up with China's, their mutual influences too subtle and dialectical to be summarized in broad strokes.
  45. I've made three movies about Hong Kong and its people. They're considered somewhat political, even interventionist, but neithermainstreamist nor quite avant-gardish, straddled between Hong Kong andsome vague Western cultural space, and not quite relevant to either. As anindependent filmmaker fluctuating between Hong Kong and New York, I wouldhope, at the risk of sounding pretentious here, that the horizon of myfilms touches upon what Foucault called, "the process ofsubjectification." One should try, beyond the rules of border, knowledge,and power, to become the subject of one's own invention, rather than aconforming item in a collective, pre-scripted identity--whether it isHong Kong, Chinese, post-colonial Hong Kong Chinese, or transnationalChinese. We're talking about a unique, at times unbearable, kind offreedom that is available to postmodern men and women who have becomedwellers in a virtual global village, or a veritable Cybertower of Babelwhere consumption seems to be the only form of communication. TerryEagleton has remarked, in a burst of irritation, that this is the sort of"freedom" enjoyed by "particle[s] of dust dancing in the sunlight" (42). For some of us, it is a troubling but genuine freedom.
  46. Chan, Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema (3)
    Figure 3. Production still from Journey to Beijing

    (My special thanks for the support, comments, and encouragement ofJohn Charles, Arif Dirlik, Russell Freedman, Marina Heung, Linda Lai, LawKwai-Cheung, Eva Man, Gina Marchetti, Pang Lai-Kwan, Tony Rayns, andHector Rodriguez. This essay will appear in a somewhat different form inArif Dirlik and Zhang Xudong, eds., Postmodernism and China,forthcoming from Duke University Press.)

    Talk Back




    1. See various papers in WhoseCity: Civic Culture and Political Discourse in Post-war Hong Kong.Ed. Lo Wing-sang. Hong Kong: Oxford UP (China) 1997. The 1967 data iscompiled by Hung Ho Fung in his paper "Discourse on 1967," included inthe volume.

    Works Cited

    Chow, Rey. "King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the 'Handover' from theU.S.A." Social Text 55 (Summer 1998): 93-108.

    Chute, David. Rev. of Silver Light: A Pictorial History of Hong Kong Cinema, 1920-1970, by Paul Fonoroff, and of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, by Stephen Teo. Film Comment 34.3 (May-June 1998): 85-88.

    Dirlik, Arif. "The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in theAge of Global Capitalism." Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter1994): 328-356.

    Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

    Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie's World. Trans. Paulette Moller. London: Phoenix House, 1995.

    Habermas, Jurgen. The New Conservatism. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989.

    Jameson, Frederic. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on thePostmodern. New York: Verso, 1998.

    ---. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the WorldSystem. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

    ---. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of LateCapitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

    Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Reporton Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: The U of Minnesota P, 1984.

    Marchetti, Gina. "Buying America, Consuming Hong Kong: CulturalCommerce, Fantasies of Identity, and the Cinema." Unpublished paper. Presented at the Asian Cinema Studies Society, April 1998.

    Richburg, Keith B. "Residents of Hong Kong Searching for Identity." The Washington Post. 30 June 1998: A12.

    Teo, Stephen. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions.London: British Film Institute, 1997.

    Wallerstein, Immanuel. After Liberalism. New York: The New Press, 1995.

    Wood, Ellen Meiksins. "Modernity, Postmodernity or Capitalism?" inRobert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, eds.,Capitalism and the Information Age. New York: Monthly ReviewPress, 1998. 27-49.

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