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  1. As Hong Kong's anti-climactic 1997 decolonization came and went, the British (post)colony experienced a tumultuous decade--it was discovered by the international media, by Hollywood, and finally by the post-modernists. Maybe the question put by a contemporary academic Sepulveda to a latter-day Bartholomew de Las Casas should be: "Are they True post-modernists?" or "Are they True post-colonialists?" If there is any doubt that the project of Enlightenment, or secular Rationalism, is still very much with us, the burgeoning publications of postmodern studies of developing countries and "Third-World" cultures testifies to the universalizing Western intellect's mandate to name and classify. As we enter the new century, the knowledge-power regimes in which Hong Kong and China seem already to be enmeshed are apparently as inescapable and indispensable as the cyberculture.
  2. The modernist zeitgeist, according to Jurgen Habermas, is marked by the passage of utopian thought into historical consciousness. Since the French Revolution, Western utopian thinking is no longer mere pie-in-the-sky, but is armed with methodology and aligned with history. "Utopia" has become "a legitimate medium for depicting alternative life possibilities that are seen as inherent in the historical process.... [A] utopian perspective is inscribed within politically active historical consciousness itself" (Habermas 50). In a succinct formulation, Immanuel Wallerstein described the Enlightenment as "constitut[ing] a belief in the identity of the modernity of technology and the modernity of liberation" (129).
  3. We can see how Enlightenment beliefs, through the imperialist expansion of the West, get translated into the parlance of the May Fourth Movement that erupted in China in 1919. Apparently the pursuit of the first generation of Chinese intellectuals in the last century is still haunting China at the beginning of the present one. The May Fourth crowd was looking for guidance from Mr. D (democracy--the modernity of liberation) 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 class quickly noticed that Mr. D and Mr. S don't really share an agenda. Those who embraced Mr. S were often appalled by Mr. D and had the means to restrain him. The inevitably mixed results of this venture as regards Chinese civilizations can be charted today in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Singapore.
  4. Whatever merits a theory of postmodernism may have, to declare the total bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project, of which the idea of universal human emancipation is a key component, seems a bit of a joke for Hong Kong and China. We have seen powerful arguments developed by the Frankfurt School and then by Foucault that unmask the unfreedom of men in the post-Enlightenment West. We can certainly appreciate the inadequacy of formal freedom when economic inequalities and other tricky micropolitics are built into the everyday life of civil society. However, Hong Kong is a place where the promise of democracy has been deferred again and again--from its colonial era to the post-colonial present, where the persistent official myth is that Hongkongers are simply moneymaking machines who are antipathetic to politics. Yet, in May of 1989, a quarter of its 6.5 million-person population took to the streets in support of the demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square; and in May of 1998, about the same number of people showed up at the first post-colonial polls to cast their votes for the window-dressing seats (twenty out of sixty) that are open to direct elections. It is hard not to agree with Habermas that modernity--as a set of emancipatory premises--remains an unfinished project here!
  5. The past decade also witnessed a periodic bruising battle over the US renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation status. Undoubtedly there are racist undertones in the American Right's pounding of the human rights situation in China, given their silence on, say, Israel. Still it would be easier for the two-thousand-plus prisoners of conscience in China to accept US foreign policy as pragmatic and calculating than to swallow the theory that universal human rights are a mere Western prejudice. An unwitting intellectual irony has been spawned by the existential-structuralist debate since the rhetoric of cultural relativism--of respect for "differences" as expounded by Levi-Strauss--has been co-opted by Third World authoritarian governments themselves. The lobby for American business in China has begun attacking the imposition of alien values on this country out of supposed respect for its specific customs and traditions.
  6. Meanwhile, Confucianism, which was once furiously condemned as an impediment to China's modernization, has recaptured some of its lost lustre. It has been articulated, along with the growth of the Far East dragons, into the narrative of capitalist development under the rubrics of "Asian Values" (Dirlik 341). A chief advocate of this concept is none other than Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew, an acknowledged idol of decolonized Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed executive chief Tung Chee-hwa. In my recent documentary film, Journey to Beijing, Hong Kong's democratic leader Martin Lee and political commentator Philip Bowring both call the bluff of "Asian Values," a convenient new Confucianism in which political apathy and submissiveness are urged upon the populace as the means to economic success. Lately the downside of Asian Values--nepotism and corruption--is supposed to be at the heart of the region's economic crisis. What this setback will mean to the neo-Confucian revival remains to be seen.
  7. Production still from 'Journey to 
    Figure 1. Production still from Journey to Beijing

  8. Despite postmodernism's growing currency, one can still find wholesale dismissal of its conceptualization. Ellen Meiksins Wood recently described the condition of postmodernity as "not so much a historical condition corresponding to a period of capitalism but as a psychological condition corresponding to a period in the biography of the Western 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 explanatory concept but considers it a prescient "annunciatory doctrine." "For we are indeed 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 "in the field of production of [Third World cinema] with a certain chronological simultaneity in full post-war modernization" because Third World films emerge from "traditions in which neither modernist nor postmodern impulses are internally generated" (Geopolitical 151). I think Jameson's observation can be extended to the realms of culture and politics in much of the Third World in general. One can sense the wound caused by the incompleteness of the utopian Modernist project while the post-modern present seems inalienably here--if by postmodern, we refer to the meshing of high and low cultures as well as to the multicultural character of lived experience in the contemporary metropolis.
  10. Recently, I took an Italian TV producer up the Central Escalator (reputedly the longest escalator in the world) on Hong Kong island in order to show him the dizzying mix of HK's urban semiotics--a Chinese temple next to a blues club, a mosque at a stone's throw from the Jewish Community Center. We find Nepalese, Vietnamese, Scandinavian and Portuguese restaurants on a street where Indian immigrants and Tibetan monks saunter past a cluster of Chinese paper offerings to be burnt for the imminent Ghost Festival. That moment is, well, postmodern, as distinctive and recognizable as the (modernist) experience at a passport control point that Auden described as "Kafkaesque."
  11. This Baudrillardean eclecticism may just be an icing on the drab cake of a Chinese city. The escalator area has been considered a mere hangout for the elites of international expatriates and Hong Kong yuppies. Incidentally, Jameson has no qualm in dubbing yuppies the agents of postmodernism (Cultural Turn 45). It makes sense. Who is more perfectly and compliticitiously with the cultural ideology of transnational capitalism than the urban boomers and Gen-X professionals? While one can still polemicize endlessly against postmodernism, Jameson seems right when he argues that "ideological judgment on postmodernism today necessarily implies... a judgment on ourselves..." (Postmodernism 62). Or in our context, what manner of judgment can the Hong Kong intellectual pass on postmodern Hong Kong?
  12. An apartment right by the Central Escalator is, as a matter of fact, one of the main sets for Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, Hong Kong's breakthrough movie in the international art houses. One can't overlook Chungking's postmodern pastiche stylistics, which are part MTV affectation and part retro fantasy. Quite a number of people I know dismiss the first half of the movie as little more 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 indicative and symptomatic of Hong Kong's visibility!
  13. In a new essay, Gina Marchetti describes Lin's outlandish imaging in Chungking: "blond tresses framing an Asian face, dark glasses and raincoat... 'disguised' as a Marilyn Monroe 'look alike,' this drug dealer... forms the visual foundation for the film's bricolage of American pop culture, British colonialism, and Asian commerce." For Marchetti and other critics, the Chinese gun moll is fighting--150 years later--an opium war of her own.
  14. Whatever the categorical significance of the story--in my opinion, the 1997 subtext in most Hong Kong films is more often an afterthought than an integral part of the creative intent--the Chungking gun moll arrives in intrepid playfulness and self-assurance. She proclaims the moment of Asian/Chinese/Hong Kong ascendancy. The re-presentation of a white pop icon is no longer an exclusive white prerogative--Brigitte Lin has as much a right to vampirize the Monroe image as Madonna. The semiotic significance of Lin in Chungking Express, to my mind, forges a powerful link to that of Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, made by Quentin Tarantino, Chungking's hip sponsor in America.
  15. In Chungking, Lin finally guns down her enemies, who include a Caucasian heroin supplier and an array of brown-skinned South Asian runners. In Pulp Fiction, Willis saves a black gangster boss from being raped and murdered by wielding a Japanese sword--a stylish weapon of choice among seemingly more deadly gear--against the boss's sicko attackers. The axis formed by Lin (the white Asian woman) and Willis (the Asianized straight white male) may signal a new, and not exactly innocent, alliance in this postmodern hour of global (image) politics.
  16. So Hong Kong films--an awkward subset within Chinese-language films--have arrived! And my pairing of Lin/Willis may have pointed to an unconscious Orientalist logic, i.e., feminizing the ethnic Other, still at work in this stage of cultural encounters. I am struck by the high percentage of works with a homosexual theme among the notable award-winning Chinese-language films of the past decade: Farewell My Concubine (China), The Wedding Banquet (Taiwan), The River (Taiwan), and Happy Together (Hong Kong). And the first historic documentary about Chinese cinema with any international visibility is by another Hong Kong auteur--Stanley Kwan's Yin + Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema, the Chinese entry in a series commissioned by the British Film Institute to celebrate the centennial of cinema. While extremely interesting, Yin + Yang favors a gay reading of Chinese cinema that tends to edge out other equally valid interpretations. For example, the famous butterfly lovers legend, which tells of a Chinese Yentl who cross-dresses as a man to attend school and falls in love with a schoolmate, is viewed exclusively as a repressed gay romance, at the expense of its profoundly feminist implications.
  17. Hence, to some extent Hong Kong/Taiwan/Chinese cinema gains respectability through the back door of postmodern culture's sexuality agenda. While Eagleton's complaint about sophisticates who know "little about the bourgeoisie but a good deal about buggery" seems cantankerous and homophobic, his observation isn't entirely off-base (Eagleton 4). The advancement of the sexuality agenda in our times may be a result of the postmodern triumphalist pleasure principle backed by a maturing market of gay consumers as well as by urbanites fascinated with playfulness, artificiality, and alternative lifestyles. The point is not to deny the urgency of the politics of gay rights, but to recognize that the need for a workable class politics, which remains as great as ever, has seemed to get short shrift since the rise of the new social movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
  18. The gay minority is not the only group that postmodernism promotes. Its celebration of popular culture in a multi-racial context has 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 and festival programmers who embraced these movies in the mid-Eighties weren't the ones who created the current hot market for them in rep houses and videostores. The fans did that, by passing muddy bootleg tapes from hand to hand, by launching 'zines and web sites devoted to the new religion.... And embracing the high-octane Hong Kong films of the mid-Eighties as purveyors of pure sensation did give us a way to respond to them unselfconsciously. No mediating cultural analysis was required to enjoy them, at least on this superficial level. (85)

    Chute's description is a telling indication of the gut-level appeal of Hong Kong cinema to Western in-the-know postmod audiences. For much of the past two decades, the Hong Kong film industry, never encumbered by a high modernist tradition, has borrowed right and left from Hollywood movies to keep up its frenzied output. In that respect, the postmodern pastiche aesthetic was practised from the very beginning. However, an Eastern visual sensibility and martial arts-fed action pyrotechnics have given Hong Kong cinema its unique edge. Movies that have achieved cult status in the West include Naked Killer, a copycat Basic 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 feature of postmodernism highlighted by Jameson (Cultural Turn 7), arrived in Hong Kong cinema in the form of mostly postmodern farces. Hong Kong cinema discovered its own tradition--by plagiarizing and satirizing it. A film like 92: The Legendary La Rose Noir, putatively remaking an old movie about a Cat-woman Robin Hood, is a freewheeling spoof of Cantonese genre films from the 60s. At the lower end of this aesthetics, we find Stephen Chiau, the biggest-grossing star of the 90s, cranking out dumb-and-dumber comedies that can, in the case of From Beijing with Love, spoof Cantonese melodramas, Bond movies, and Barton Fink at one stroke. At the higher end we encounter Stanley Kwan's Rouge, juxtaposing Hong Kong's past and present sexual mores; and Wong Kar-wai, who freely borrows the Chinese titles of Rebel without a Cause and Blow Up for his Days of Being Wild and Happy Together, respectively.
  20. In accordance with a familiar logic of consumption, Hong Kong cinema's exciting burst onto the international film scene, fueled by its grass routes enthusiasts, is already starting to fizzle like a shooting star. Almost before one has made a wish, the moment is gone. I still remember how in the late 80s, Hong Kong was celebrated by some Western film cognoscenti as a model of ethnic cinematic culture that stood its ground against the onslaught of Hollywood, the very motor of our postmod cultural industry. Maybe HK cinema has flown too close to its burning sun. Ellen Wood took the postmodernists to task for their retreat from examining the logic of the EuroAmerican capitalist system which finally became "mature," viz globalized, from the 70s on. Postmodernism does signal the maturing of the capitalist logic--its relentless ability to absorb different native cultures. The film products of HK, from the epochal Bruce Lee onward, have bequeathed Hollywood with a tremendous file of software: remake possibilities like Stephen Chiau's The God of Cookery, which 20th-Century Fox is planning to turn into a Jim Carrey vehicle after the success of The Truman Show.
  21. Hong Kong, known as the Hollywood of the East, does seem in some ways to be ready for this transplantation. (Interestingly enough, HK cinema's final fireworks were kindled by Brigitte Lin's stunning portrayal of The Invincible East--a postmod sex-changed villain 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 Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat can travel far. However, the Orientalist scheme doesn't bode well for them--a case in point is Stephen Chiau being asked to direct but not to star in the Hollywood remake of The God of Cookery--and maybe it'll bode well for Michelle Yeoh, the postmodern Bond-girl-cum-ethnic-Charlie's-Angel.
  22. The postmodern concomitant phenomenon of the privatization of culture has favored blockbusters like Titanic and Jurassic Park, which are big enough to draw tons of teenagers and adults from their home-cocooning. Hollywood films are less and less dependent on the US markets. (A Titanic ticket costs US$4.00 in China--an exorbitant sum considering the wage level there!) The East Asian markets beckon. The twin faces of postmodernity--art in the age of digital reproduction known as piracy, and a penalizing, Hollywoodized global setup of sourcing, financing, producing and marketing--are the primary forces that deliver the coup de grace to ethnic film industries, including Hong Kong's. Already three Christmases ago, the Disney cartoon, Mulan, based on a Chinese folk tale, was opening in traditional Cantonese cinema chains in Hong Kong. The decline of the HK film industry has been stupendous--from a few hundred made every year during its heyday to just dozens being made now. And the industry may decline further. In the past, the Chinese New Year slot in HK was reserved for high-profile local productions with big stars to fight it out at the box office. The Chinese New Year of 1998 saw two post-local stars in their Hollywood debut vying at the box office: Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, the former in Replacement Killers, and the latter in Tomorrow Never Dies. Hong Kong pastiche is no match for its upscale Hollywood version. And the star-snatching, mind-tapping, bone-crunching digestion of the HK film industry by Hollywood could be the biggest real-life sci-fi horror co-production of the decade.
  23. Hong Kong's postmodern visibility, while a confluence of several narratives, was catalysed by the 1997 colonization cutoff date as if by a magic wand. But today Hong Kong looks like the Cinderella that never made it. After midnight of June 30, 1997, a ferocious economic downturn--symbolized by the debacle of the world's most expensive airport construction project--transformed the Rolls Royces back into pumpkins. Repressive censorship measures of the British colonial rule were resurrected by the Special Autonomous Regional administration, at least on the books. And the Hong Kong film industry was cannibalized by Hollywood. Probably the very fact that the British handover of Hong Kong to China now seems so anti-climactic should be viewed through the postmod grid of global capitalism. The doomsday scenario--heavy-handed intervention by China--hasn't really happened. China's more or less hands-off approach should probably be interpreted as an index of its entrenchment in the forward march of developmentalism, to which a threat to Hong Kong might be too serious a disruption to contemplate, yet. And after all the pomp and circumstance, 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 new visibility, since this has not prevented it from remaining in crucial ways as invisible as ever. Rarely is Hong Kong seen as a social-political entity with any semblance of a collective will. Always trapped between the vise of superpower politics or macro-cultural discourse, Hong Kong is perpetually a character in somebody else's movie. At times, even with sympathetic commentators, Hong Kong itself is still curiously absent from discussions 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 is in the main a very useful analysis of the dynamic behind US-British political discourse, as well as the Western media's coverage of the Handover. Castigating the double standard of the US and the UK when both countries fail to meet the democratic ideals that they applied to China themselves, Chow said:

    All the [Anglo-American] criticisms of the P.R.C. are made from the vantage point of an inherited, well-seasoned, condescending perspective that exempts itself from judgment and which, moreover, refuses to acknowledge China's sovereignty even when it has been officially reestablished over Chinese soil. Instead, sovereignty... continues to be imagined and handled as exclusively Western. Sovereignty and proprietorship here are not only about the ownership of land or rule but also about ideological self-ownership, that is, about the legitimating terms that allow a people to be. (98)

    Make no mistake about the "people" that Chow is referring to. She means the people of China, not the people of Hong Kong. In a sweeping formulation, she declares that "[For] Chinese people all over the world... regardless of differences in political loyalties... the symbolic closure of the historic British aggression against China... accounted for the unprecedentedly overwhelming expression of jubilation... at the lowering of the British flag in Hong Kong" (97). As she describes it, Chinese response to the Handover was like Muslim response to Iran's victory over the US in the '98 World Cup: the event provided a perfect rallying point. The problem, though, is that Chow overlooks the reaction of Hong Kong itself. If Hong Kong was born out of the ignominious Opium Wars, its post-war growth has been fueled by an immigrant population fleeing the communist regime. The Handover itself, exacerbated by the '89 Tiananmen horror, has triggered some of the most astounding waves of Chinese diaspora of recent times. Presently, close to half of Hong Kong's population have foreign residence--what the locals call their "fire exit"--a fact that should be taken into account when one talks about "the overwhelming expression of jubilation throughout the Chinese-speaking world."
  25. In a polemical spirit, Chow draws a parallel between democracy, as pushed by Britain and America on China, and the opium trade of the last century, "with implications that recall... Westerners' demands for trading rights, missionary privileges, and extraterritoriality" (101). Few would mistake Britain's 11th-hour endeavour to introduce democracy in Hong Kong as anything more than a face-saving, hypocritical and cynical measure. However, Chow sees it as part of a consistent British decolonizing strategy intended to destabilize the decolonized state. After bashing Western-imposed democracy and speaking up for China, Chow suddenly finds herself "in anguish," because after all she is "whole-heartedly supportive" of the Chinese democratic movement in Hong Kong (101). What about China's "ideological... ownership," "the legitimating terms that allow a people to be" that Chow is so convinced of? Doesn't she consider China's ideological hostility toward democracy part of those "legitimating terms"? Apparently, Chow's reading of Chinese history is selective and reactive. The search for Mr. D(emocracy) began long before the Communist takeover and wasn't planted by colonizers. What is the source of Chow's anguish, if not "the wound caused by the incompleteness of the utopian Modernist project" I mentioned earlier? It is a lot easier to hate gunboat 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's discursive space, it is a kind of embarrassing inconvenience in Wayne Wang's The Chinese Box, which purports to be a mainstream epic film about the 1997 changeover. Wang, like Chow, is an American of Hong 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 from the shadow of the Tiananmen Massacre. The Anglo-American prejudice at which Chow lashes out is palpable in The Chinese Box, which represents the transition itself not only by the descent of the British flag, but by the ominous-looking stationing of the People's Liberation Army in Hong Kong--an entirely legal move on the part of the Chinese government that appears here as an "armed occupation" of its own territory.
  28. The film has two fictional scenes of student suicide in protest of the imminent Chinese rule. One shoots himself in front of a roomful of merry '97 New Year's Eve party-goers; another sets himself on fire, presented as a TV news item in the movie. Because of the film's use of authentic news footage and docu-dramatic trappings, the two suicide scenes are problematic, if not outright exploitive, because nothing remotely resembling them ever took place. (The real altercation occurring at the Handover night was more tragicomic: protesters were ushered into a corner far removed from the ceremonial venue, their cries for democracy and the release of Chinese dissidents drowned out by the police's amplified broadcast of Beethoven's Fifth in the rain-drenched streets.) And China, instead of being King Kong-like, takes the form of another familiar Hollywood phantom: a Chinese whore, a latter-day Suzie Wong (played by the fabulous Gong Li of Raise the Red Lantern) who wants to become the respectable housewife of a boring Chinese businessman. She is finally saved, at least psychologically, by the love of a white man (Jeremy Irons). He is a British journalist with a heart of gold, a huge designer's wardrobe, and a terminal illness; and he also dies on July 1 or shortly after that, in the true fashion of Empire.
  29. Squeezed uncomfortably between the marquee value of the British leading man and the superstar from PRC is Maggie Cheung, a remarkable Hong Kong actress who delivers a truly captivating performance in a thankless role in an otherwise undistinguished film. That she has to play a scarface with an unrequited love for a Briton who doesn't even remember her is the best joke that Wang plays on Hong Kong, or on his own film. Hong Kong, a mutilated presence, glimpsed only through a subplot, appears to Wang as an extremely inconvenient political subject, to be surmounted by sensationalistic melodrama, paranoiac agitprop, and British and Chinese star power. (Wang's token Hong Kong actress totally disappears in the film's poster shot, which has Irons wrapping her in an intimate embrace.) Hong Kong, traditionally known as a "borrowed place" living on "borrowed time," finally slipped briefly through the radar screen of international media on the "borrowed fame" of 1997. Such is Hong Kong's dubious visibility.
  30. Hong Kong as a distinct place and history has not passed entirely unnoticed. Its 1997 (borrowed) fame has suddenly triggered a growing scholarship about its predicament, past and future. In some mechanical readings, Hong Kong identity has its origin in the 1984 Joint Sino-British Declaration that inaugurated the decolonization schema, or was precipitated by the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. But in more recent studies, the kind of urban, cosmopolitan Hong Kong identity that one encounters today has been more convincingly traced back to the riots of 1967, during which labor disputes and colonial repression resulted in the arrest of more than 1,300 unionists, strikers, and protesters, and in police killings of seven civilians. With the Cultural Revolution raging in China, red guards assaulted the British Embassy in Beijing in retaliation, and enraged Chinese soldiers marched across the border to kill five HK cops. But the defining moment of the '67 experience occurred when pro-China leftists murdered a popular pro-Kuomingtang radio personality in a terrorist ambush, against the backdrop of Hong Kong streets lined with their random homemade bombs. This traumatic phase nurtured strong anti-Communist/China sentiments, as well as more sharply separatist lines of identity formation, among Hongkongers. The post-1967 city of Hong Kong marched forward, with governmental campaigns like the Hong Kong Festival to create "a sense of belonging" for the local populace. Industrialization kicked in, and the colonial rulers responded by implementing basic, but still benign, public education, housing, and health-care policies--in its way, the HK health care system can be considered one of the most generous in 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 colonial government instituted in the 70s has become the envy of mainland Chinese. It is the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), with which the HK government was able to clean up the police force and the social body by using a crucial provision--discrepancy between personal wealth and income--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 Joyce Chan, who wrote the scripts for Ann Hui's first two films. This hugely successful soap opera tells of the afterquake of a bigamous patriarch's flight from Hong Kong following an ICAC indictment. His family business is to be taken over either by the dandyish gay son of his first wife--the rightful heir--or the enterprising daughter of the second wife/mistress. The daughter's bold attempt to step into her father's shoes and her search for professional and romantic fulfillment riveted the whole community. Half of Hong Kong stayed home to follow one episode after another for weeks. A tremendous chord had been struck--probably by the story's feminist outlook and its affirming message of the birth of meritocracy out of Hong Kong's corrupt, patriarchal past. Almost a decade later, when I was traveling through the Chinese mainland in the spring of 1989, completely unaware of the catastrophe to come, many of the Chinese citizens I encountered named two things outside of China that they were most impressed by: Watergate and ICAC. To them, both stood for a rule of law impossible in China, where capitalist reform had meant deepening corruption within the party.
  32. The '89 Tiananmen crackdown was, of course, a shattering experience. It meant for Hong Kong a nightmarish chronicle of bloody disaster foretold. I, for one, was driven to filmmaking after that watershed event--when Hong Kong, which I had taken for granted for years while living both there and abroad, seemed mortally threatened. However, I remember my excitement as a film critic to witness the birth of the short-lived Hong Kong New Wave cinema in the early 80s. A whole generation of HK-born, -raised, and in some cases foreign-educated, filmmakers like Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, and Yim Ho were tackling the various facets of Hong Kong reality--from anarchistic fury at the colonial past in Tsui's Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind to either cheeky celebration or pessimistic rumination on a (Chinese) tradition-bound society in Hui's The Spooky Bunch and The Secret. I think Hong Kong woke to itself then, as a distinct place with its hopes, dreams, and memories. That happened before the 1984 Joint Declaration, and unquestionably the June 4th bloodbath of '89 made Hong Kong take stock of its achievement as a "successful" colony more intensely than ever.
  33. I said earlier that "the 1997 subtext in most Hong Kong films is more often an afterthought than an integral part of their creative intent." Wong Kar Wai, for example, titled his 1997 film about a tormented gay romance Happy Together, suggesting obliquely and not very convincingly that his romance narrative had something to say about the mood of Hong Kong after its return to the fold of China. (Such relationship-based symbolism seems a favorite sport among Chinese directors. Ang Lee proclaimed that a gay Taiwan man bedding, even impregnating, a girl from mainland China in The Wedding Banquet symbolizes that acts of communication between the two political entities are achievable overseas, i.e., in America.) But the tenuousness of such political allegories doesn't mean that 1997 cast little shadow across pre-Handover Hong Kong cinema. Snippets of current events inevitably found their way into many movies. Even a shoddy film like Underground Express is about the gangster conduit to help dissidents out of China in the aftermath of the '89 clampdown. But direct emotional experiences are often couched in coded signals. I remember a scene from John Woo's break-out movie A Better Tomorrow (1986), in which Mark, a Hong Kong folk hero role that propelled Chow Yun-fat to superstardom, stands on a hilltop to survey the glittering shards of Hong Kong's nighttime neons. He exclaims: "How beautiful! And we're going to lose all that. How unfair!" No doubt 1997, as much as Hollywood's summoning, finally pulled John Woo out of Hong Kong. But Woo's exit path is still a bumpy ride for Tsui Hark, the producer 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 his movies. At the end of his early romantic period comedy Shanghai Blues, made in 1984 but before the Joint Declaration, we see the protagonist trying to catch a train to Hong Kong--obviously the new land of opportunity, the rightful successor to Shanghai as the next modern Chinese metropolis. When Tsui directed A Better Tomorrow III in 1989, again the protagonist flees to Hong Kong, but from the last days of the South Vietnamese regime. The allegorical foreshadowing of Hong Kong's worst-case scenario makes this film yet another prequel to the disappearing colony. As a postmodern pop auteur, a hyperkinetic producer-director, and a Vietnamese Chinese who spent some time in the US before hitting his stride in Hong Kong, Tsui seems desperately conscious of, and probably grateful for, his unexpected luck, hence his sense of urgency to race against time--in Dragon Inn (1992), a pair of warrior lovers ponder the life-and-death impasse lying ahead of them. As a sci-fi film, a postquel about a decolonized Hong Kong being invaded by half human demons, The Wicked City (1992) features a gigantic clock (Time) furiously chasing the hero.
  35. Critic Stephen Teo described Tsui's celebrated series Once 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 the potential strength of which remains curbed by tradition and the refusal of talented individuals to come to terms with a new world" (169). I would say that this series presents Tsui's imaginative fashioning of a "mythical Hongkonger" in the person of Huang Fei Hung (played by Jet Li). Assisted by his disciples and a savvy Westernized girlfriend in Victorian frilly dress, Huang is a wise, open-minded healer-cum-warrior who smartly negotiates his way to save the community from both rapacious white adventurers and obnoxious officials of China's ancien regime. This Cantonese-speaking Southern corner of a "mythical China" is essentially an idealized Hong Kong, a de facto city-state with "extraordinary powers and self sufficiency," which could revitalize China if the mother country would adopt it as a model of success.
  36. But even this mythical haven is not immune to the 1997 angst. In the series's sixth installment, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997), Huang Fei Hung becomes a nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant in Texas, allying himself with native Indians to fight white scum. A year after the film's release, Jet Li landed a role in Lethal Weapon 4 and kicked off his Hollywood career. Tsui's angst-ridden take on Hong Kong may be right after all, though for the wrong reason. His momentous output was possible only in that golden era of pre-Handover cinema before it got ruined not by mainland politics but by Hollywood as well as by an irrepressible mainland-manufactured-Hong Kong-distributed piracy system. His first Hollywood film, Double Team, was both a critical and commercial flop and his second outing, Knock Off, beside being a box office kangaroo, has generated an avalanche of stinky reviews. So far, Tsui's path to Hollywood seems both checkered and extremely uncertain.
  37. At the end of Hong Kong Cinema, Stephen Teo reaches the conclusion that "Hong Kong cinema... is now set to return to the fold of the industry in the Mainland and perhaps be brought back to the cradle of Shanghai, the original Hollywood of the East" (254). Some vague political alarmism underlies this observation. It would be very good news if Shanghai could rebuild itself to counteract Hollywood. But the difficulty one has in envisioning that possibility may indicate the paralyzing, homogenizing effect of global capitalism. What seems shocking is the fact that Teo's doomsday speech appears in the first comprehensive treatment of the subject in the English language. Indeed, while trying to decipher the cryptic codes of some Tsui Hark films, I already have the feeling that I'm an archaeologist going through the fractured mosaics of a lost 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 who was able to keep her job as the top civil servant through the changeover) said in a speech while visiting Washington that "the real transition is about identity and not sovereignty." Then she described how touched she had 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 have provoked much joking, cynicism, and disdain in the ex-colony. Understandably, identity remains a touchy, tickly issue in Hong Kong. And I must say a unitary, totalized identity doesn't interest me as a filmmaker. I was a bit taken aback by some of the criticisms of To Liv(e), which appeared to be based in idealizations of a fixed Hong Kong identity. One critic said the imaginary letters in the film--sent by Rubie, the film's protagonist, to Liv Ullmann--shouldn't be in English because Hong Kong is a Chinese city--despite the presence of high-profile English media and the fact that speeches in the pre-1997 legislative chambers were routinely made in English by Chinese law-makers. Another critic decided that it's Okay for the post-colonial subject to speak English, but Rubie has to speak with an accent to prove her Hongkongness.
  39. In the flux of life and history, one naturally looks for constants and certainties. However, unexamined certainties of and about the self, subjectivity, and identity often create a hotbed for smugness and intolerance. It is true that the Hong Kong subject(s) of my three films are fairly mobile, if not wholly diasporic. They are either poised for flight (To Liv(e)), in New York already (Crossings), or journeying through China (Journey to Beijing). In Crossings, my second feature, a Hong Kong woman 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 the range of possible identities at her disposal: Hongkonger, Chinese, British colonial subject, and American new immigrant, this woman sadly realizes that none of them offer her any solace or security. In Journey, my documentary about the Handover, I followed a group of philanthropic walkers from Hong Kong to Beijing on the eve of the historic transition. Their four-month walk passed through a number of meaning-heavy locales: Yellow River (supposedly the cradle of Chinese civilization), Mao's birthplace, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall. By juxtaposing the walkers' perspective with mini-essays about Hong Kong's dilemma, one of my aims was to acknowledge, reflect on, and question the pull of (Chinese) identity for the people of Hong Kong, whose lives have been such a cultural and political hybrid.
  40. Production still from 'Journey to 
    Figure 2. Production still from Journey to Beijing

  41. On the global level, identity politics appears to be a disconcerting outcome of postmodernity, as Terry Eagleton so eloquently summarized:

    As the capitalist system evolves, however--as it colonizes new peoples, imports new ethnic groups into its labour markets, spurs on the division of labour, finds itself constrained to extend its freedoms to new constituencies--it begins inevitably to undermine its own universalist rationality. For it is hard not to recognize that there are now a whole range of competing cultures, idioms and ways of doing things, which the hybridizing, transgressive, promiscuous nature of capitalism has itself helped to bring into being.... The system is accordingly confronted with a choice: either to continue insisting on the universal nature of its rationality, in the teeth of the mounting evidence, or to throw in the towel and 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 of post-Cold War existence. Our era is probably akin to that of Late Antiquity in the Western world. After Alexander the Great's victory in the Persian Wars and the Roman conquest, Hellenism dissolved borders between the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, and the Persians. Competing cultures collided in a stretch of polyglot world, and as a result "Late Antiquity was generally characterized by religious doubts, cultural dissolution, and pessimism. It was said that 'the world has grown 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 a mere infant. But this age does induce profound pessimism. Thoughts, politics, and history are all being commodified and processed by the all-embracing media in the periodic artificial excitement of fashion and consumerism. Jameson, the leading theorist of postmodernism, announced that "there has never been a moment in the history of capitalism when this last enjoyed greater elbow-room and space for manoeuvre: all the threatening forces it generated against itself in the past--labor movements and insurgencies, mass socialist parties, even socialist states themselves--seem today in full disarray when not in one way or another effectively neutralized" (Cultural 48).
  43. Probably, that's why identity politics is the only concrete, manageable politics available at the moment. In that sense, I think Eagleton has belittled the gains of postmodernism, which have firmly placed the issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity on the map of cultural discourse. He labels such identity "nothing more than a substitute for more classical forms of radical politics, which dealt in class, state, ideology, revolution, material modes of production" (22). It will be a substitute only if it is allowed to be so. After the stunning collapse of the Second World, time--we don't know how much--is needed for new strategies to emerge and new political consciousness to push back the dominion of the numbing force of transnational capital.
  44. Had Hong Kong been given a choice, it would probably have chosen independence. Racial and cultural affiliation are not sufficient ground for territorial annexation, or else we might see Quebec and Austria part of France and Germany today. Taiwan is a case in point. The rhetoric of reunification with China (recovery of the mainland) has essentially been drained of its content. If there hadn't been threats of military invasion from PRC, Taiwan's nativist government might have declared independence already. With independence a lost dream, will Hong Kong--now a rectified accident of history--survive its marginalization and absorption into China under the "one country, two systems" arrangement on the one hand, and the ruthless class domination intensified by global capital with the acquiescence of the Chinese Communist bureaucracy on the other? An important fact has emerged since the Handover: No matter how much Beijing had watered down the first post-1997 legislative election, the Hong Kong democrats formed the first legalized minority opposition on China's political soil. This piece of seemingly "good" news has to be weighed against the deflanking of the ICAC and the gangsterization of Hong Kong public life. An outspoken radio broadcaster was seriously wounded by two assailants wielding carving knives in August 1998, bringing back ugly memories of the leftist convulsion of 1967. Hong Kong's future is now 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 neither mainstreamist nor quite avant-gardish, straddled between Hong Kong and some vague Western cultural space, and not quite relevant to either. As an independent filmmaker fluctuating between Hong Kong and New York, I would hope, at the risk of sounding pretentious here, that the horizon of my films touches upon what Foucault called, "the process of subjectification." One should try, beyond the rules of border, knowledge, and power, to become the subject of one's own invention, rather than a conforming item in a collective, pre-scripted identity--whether it is Hong Kong, Chinese, post-colonial Hong Kong Chinese, or transnational Chinese. We're talking about a unique, at times unbearable, kind of freedom that is available to postmodern men and women who have become dwellers in a virtual global village, or a veritable Cybertower of Babel where consumption seems to be the only form of communication. Terry Eagleton 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. Production still from 'Journey to 
    Figure 3. Production still from Journey to Beijing

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

    Talk Back




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

    Works Cited

    Chow, Rey. "King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the 'Handover' from the U.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 the Age of Global Capitalism." Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter 1994): 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 the Postmodern. New York: Verso, 1998.

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

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

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

    Marchetti, Gina. "Buying America, Consuming Hong Kong: Cultural Commerce, 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?" in Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, eds., Capitalism and the Information Age. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. 27-49.

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