Hong Kong and the “Sinosphere”

Jointly organized by the URPP Asia and Europe and the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies – Chinese Studies at the University of Zurich, the two-day international workshop “Many Different Shores: Hong Kong Connections Across the South-/East Asian Sinosphere” (September 16–17, 2016) explored Hong Kong’s outreach into the “sinosphere” by engaging with the multiple relationships and entanglements between political borders, cultures, languages, ethnicities, affects and experiences against different post-/colonial contexts, trans-/local cultural representations, and socio-political events. The conference’s conveners were Andrea Riemenschnitter, Kiu-wai Chu, Justyna Jaguścik, Brigit Knüsel, and Helena Wu.

Helena Wu

The keynote speech was delivered by Stephen Yiu-wai Chu, Head of the Hong Kong Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong. In his speech, Chu explained how “Hong Kong Studies as Method” can potentially engender a new paradigm for understanding the reconfiguration of Hong Kong culture and society as a postcolonial anomaly, since the sovereignty over Hong Kong was reverted from Great Britain to China in 1997. While the notion of “Sinophone” pioneered by Shu-mei Shih provides an alternative to China-centric discourse, the Sinophone was spelled out by Chu in the context of a series of heterogeneous, localized, and interconnected marginal sites of cultural production. On the cultural and social levels, Hong Kong’s unique history—as a city-state, a British colony and a special administrative region (SAR)—contributes various standpoints to the Sinophone as an analytical category and Sinophone studies in general.

On the theoretical level, Chu responded by putting forward the notion of “Hong Kong Studies as Method” as it relates to the rise of China in the context of Asianization, and it is in this space where Hong Kong studies can build a constructive dialogue with the notion of the Sinophone. In his concluding remarks, Chu revoked the line “to light a lamp” from Wong Kar-wai’s film The Grandmaster (2013) to remind us of the importance of inheritance and transmission in propagating and translating Hong Kong culture beyond the Asian region, and also in reviewing Hong Kong culture and society as an interdisciplinary academic field that is increasingly relevant for the understanding of urban (postcolonial) cultural trends, to be promoted and further developed as Hong Kong studies.

Re-configuring Cold War Hong Kong

With a look back at 1950s- and 1960s-Hong Kong, Xiaojue Wang (Rutgers University) in her presentation drew our attention to radio culture, popular literature, and cinema of the Cold War period. Wang looked at how the radio played an important role in the development of an ever-evolving Hong Kong society that was composed of locals and foreigners, and how listening to the radio constructed an integral part of local daily lives. With this in mind, Wang presented an extensive examination of the radio as a sound medium whose collaboration with other expressive forms such as literature, drama, and film was considered to be conducive to the intersection of different languages, cultures and identities in Hong Kong during this era of movements and uncertainties.

With a similar spotlight shining on Hong Kong in the late 1950s and the 1960s, Brigit Knüsel Adamec (University of Zurich) explored the cultural framework and process within which “liberal values” were discussed and appropriated by scholar Lao Sze-kwang (勞思光 1927–2012) under colonialism. In face of the influx of refugees from China in the 1950s, Hong Kong society was exposed to the threat of communism and responded with a call for humanitarianism in the 1960s. In this special temporality, Lao took part in shaping the narrative of Hong Kong as “free China” in his writings and teachings, with British colonial administration of the city in the backdrop. Apart from translating works from economist Friedrich A. Hayek, wherein contemporary liberalism was promoted, Lao in his writings also provided in-depth discussion on key concepts such as freedom, rationality, and society in connection to liberal ideas. With reference to Lao’s critique of authoritarian values, Knüsel asserted that Lao’s personal diasporic experience as an exile and his scholarly efforts in promoting liberalism in the colony brought about a successful dissemination of liberal ideas and reflected the limitations of Cold War ideology with respect to intellectual debates of his time.

Arriving at the late 1960s, Shuang Sheng (Penn State College) set out to explore the connections between politics and aesthetics in Hong Kong. In order to achieve this, Shuang examined a journal called The Chinese Student Weekly, which was published in Hong Kong between 1952 and 1974, and its Singapore/Malaysia edition. She highlighted particularly the cultural transmission of the works of the two Nobel laureates Boris Pasternak and Jean-Paul Sartre in this journal. With these in the background, Sheng explained how the dissemination of literary values echoed the core values of the metropolitan West, and responded to local histories of student activist movements against the Vietnam War and the colonial British rule in Hong Kong. The struggle between the apolitical, anti-radical stance of the journal and various political aspirations diffused through the journal to its readers, argued Shuang, is a reflection of Hong Kong as a contested site of power play and clashes of forces during the Cold War era.

Transgressing the borders

Not content with seeing Hong Kong only from a human-centered perspective, the workshop also offered a new perspective to break through the boundaries between human, nonhuman and different species. With reference to Leung Ping-kwan’s poems that focus on plants, Andrea Riemenschnitter (University of Zurich) invited us to revisit Leung’s take on traditional flower spirits, religiously invested lotus leaves and a widely admired flame tree that constitute a kind of vegetal discourse that lingers—albeit usually unnoticed—in the urban landscape of the hustling-bustling city. Riemenschnitter argued that these plants and their literary legacies came to claim a voice of their own as well as agency, thus insisting on the continuity of primordial human-non-human points of connection as rekindled, and reworked, by the lyrical dialogues in Leung’s creative works. Riemenschnitter demonstrated how the non-verbal interaction between human and nonhuman in Leung’s poems captured eloquently what was rendered visible and turned invisible in modernity. With an eye to these plants and the natural, spiritual, emotional and sensual landscapes they inhabited, Riemenschnitter suggested to redistribute attention to the presence and the agency of the nonhuman as an important part of both the urban environment and its representation in the arts.

Moving beyond the scope of literary poetry to the visual poetics generated in cinema, Andrea Bachner (Cornell University) brought us to the topic of cannibalism in Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (2004), with the aim of engaging in a critical reflection on globalized biopolitics and the discourse on immunity. Regarding the cannibalistic horror visualized in the film, Bachner aptly read it as a constellation of involution, stagnation, and self-destruction. On a national level, the reference made to modern Chinese representations of anthropophagy could be regarded as critique of Sinophone cultures. On a global level, the film opened up a transnational scenario that presented the fluid mobility of capital, human, goods, and others. With an eye to all these, Bachner concluded that Hong Kong in the film was both China’s other and its double, where the acts of border crossing were precisely delineating a regional mirror image and microcosm of globalized capitalism.

When Bachner’s study of Fruit Chan’s film drew on the primal desire of modern humans in pursuit of eternal youth through cannibalism, Chu Kiu-wai (University of Zurich) chose to look at a landscape filled with interspecies beings and connections. With a focus on Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (1993) and Stephen Chiau’s Mermaid (2016), he probed the expression of eco-consciousness in the fantastical worlds fabricated by the two films where multi-species coexistence was highlighted. Chu argued that the films served as political allegories where, for instance, the fictional green gulf in the Mermaid can be read as a symbolic space of postcolonial Hong Kong under transformation.

A postcolonial anomaly

Entering the post-1997 era, Thomas Hahn (Cornell University) guided us to (re)visit the defunct Kai Tak Airport, a legendary airport surrounded by high-density buildings situated in downtown Hong Kong, with an aim to examine the different forces at work behind the development plan of the former Kai Tak area, now an asset estimated to be worth several billion Hong Kong dollars. Through design sketches and project plans devised at different stages, Hahn uncovered how the Kai Tak project was rendered into a “fantasy,” which could be translated into visions of the Hong Kong SAR government and the Chinese government towards Hong Kong in the future. Hahn, however, also reminded us solemnly at the end of his presentation that the general public was not invited to take part in this spatial imaginary even under the post-colonial setting of the city.

Social and political movements

Moving away from the urban topography and arriving at the cultural landscape, Carolyn Cartier (University of Technology, Sydney) innovatively studied the changing governance policies between Hong Kong and Mainland China from perspectives offered by alternative art events and exhibits in Hong Kong. In particular, Cartier drew our attention to the Central Star Ferry Preservation Campaign in 2006 and the Umbrella Movement in 2014, where creativity—channeled out in form of aesthetic representations and artistic responses—was proven to have played an important role in driving community-based social and political movements forward in postcolonial Hong Kong. Cartier showed how the realization of different forms of community, where citizenship and democracy could be redefined through public engagement, was spurred through generating heterogeneous objects for perception, artistic practice and expression, as well as how these serve as a new mode of subjectivization, where critiques directed to the establishment are “locally understood and nationally conscientious.” To encourage reflection on the issues, Cartier ended her presentation with a video (as another artistic response) where the actual “one country two systems” policy governing the Hong Kong-China relationship was sarcastically and anxiously interpreted as an act of frying two eggs on the same pan (in a way that everyone could imagine the consequences).

With a similar concern with the post-1997 scenario of Hong Kong, Helena Wu (University of Zurich) explored how Hong Kong localness was conceived and perceived contrastingly in Hong Kong with reference to the film Ten Years (2015), and how its supportive and unsupportive spectatorships were generated respectively. On the one hand, the film—as a dystopic depiction of a “mainlandized” Hong Kong in the year 2025—stirred up resonances in the Hong Kong society and was recognized by the supporters as a voice speaking up for their anxieties towards the frustrating reality and the uncertain future of Hong Kong. On the other hand, the outspoken film was condemned by China and the pro-establishment camp in Hong Kong, especially after it was crowned the Best Film in the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards Ceremony. By analyzing the transmission and the translation of localness, Wu uncovered a web of diversified and sometimes contradicting post/colonial experiences, emotions such as anxieties and insecurities towards disappearance as a cultural and social phenomenon that have been accumulated since the colonial era, and are continuously produced in the postcolonial, or rather the neocolonial, age of Hong Kong in the postmillennial era.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 22–24)