After the Transition

The three-day graduate seminar “Hong Kong Identity: Lost and Found in Transition” (September 19–21, 2016) was delivered by visiting professor Stephen Yiu-wai Chu, who is the head and the founder of the Hong Kong Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong. The seminar aimed to explore the transformation and the entanglement of Hong Kong identities in times of transition, by analyzing cultural as well as social phenomena in Hong Kong’s colonial period as well as in the postcolonial era.

Helena Wu

Twenty years after the transition of sovereignty of Hong Kong, how is Hong Kong positioned in the presence of China and in the world? Is a new Hong Kong identity on its way to formation (or, is it already there)? After all, how is Hong Kong’s future determined by the newly developed power structure, and how can it be re-imagined? These questions are certainly not easy to deal with (much less to answer). However, it is a situation Hong Kong people are facing at the moment. With these in the background, the seminar provided various entry points and critical perspectives to reflect on these postcolonial inquiries, by offering historical, cultural, social, and political references to the formation of a Hong Kong cultural identity during the colonial era, the ambiguity of identity in face of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, and the negotiations of a post-1997 Hong Kong identity on the local, national and global levels.

“Neither Western nor Chinese”

The Hong Kong identity that emerged locally during the 1960s and the 1980s was characterized by anthropologists like Huge Baker and Gordon Mathews and historians like John Carroll as something that was “neither Western nor Chinese.” With reference to this, Chu explicated with detailed examples and specific texts how the mass media and popular culture in Hong Kong, ranging from television and radio industries to the development of Cantonese pop songs (CantoPop) and Cantonese-speaking cinema, played an important role in building up a sense of belonging among the urban dwellers, and setting up cultural trends that shaped Hong Kong distinctive local culture and identity, thus actualizing Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” in the vibrant cultural landscape in Hong Kong during these times. From the 1990s and onward, growing anxiety spread through the population, for instance, in several migration waves, in face of 1997 where the sovereignty of Hong Kong would be transferred from Britain to the People’s Republic of China. In this regard, Ackbar Abbas has famously named Hong Kong culture before 1997 as “a space of disappearance,” meaning that one—troubled by disturbed psyche and problematized visuality—is no longer able to see what is there in the situated present. [1] An oft-quoted expression from Rey Chow also eloquently describes Hong Kong’s dilemma as an “entrapment between colonizers [Britain and China]” before and after 1997. [2]

Beyond a “Chinese global city”

In the post-1997 scenario, Chu presented an even more contested picture, or what Chu repeatedly emphasized as “predicament.” Postcolonial negotiations and reconfigurations ceaselessly took place in the hope of finding new ways to cope with the local (Hong Kong itself), the national (mainland China) and the global (beyond Asia and also the world). In the first phase, Chu guided us to reflect critically on how Hong Kong was shaped by various means into a “Chinese global city” (e.g. branding Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City”), and how the local components were overlooked when the Hong Kong identity engineered in this narrative was subject to integration only with the national as well as the global. In this regard, understanding Hong Kong only as “Asia’s World City” was critiqued by Chu, as its underlying ideology and identity politics attempted to confine Hong Kong to a generic commercial city without any distinctive, local characteristic. Chu thereby invoked the importance of preserving histories and securing past memories with a critical mind-set, in order to rejuvenate the present and pave way for future trajectories.

In the second phase, Chu guided us to examine a number of events, which could be regarded as the turning point that shaped the local socio-cultural landscape of post-millennial Hong Kong. These events include preservation campaigns, the annual 1st July protests, and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. With reference to the works from scholars such as Agnes Ku, Pun Ngai, Anthony Cheung, and Arif Dirlik, the turn to the local (local affairs, local identity, local voices etc.) actually brought light to the possibility to re-imagine Hong Kong’s future. According to Sebastian Veg’s analysis, a poll published in April 2014 showed that a broad majority (62%) of people in Hong Kong identified with a “pluralistic and international” Hong Kong identity, rather than “China’s historical and cultural identity” (29%) and not to say “China’s identity as rule by the Chinese Communist Party” (3%). When Veg put forward in 2015 that “the core of Hong Kong’s new identity is a civic, rather than a national one,” [3] he had also opened up the third phase of discussion concerning ways to find alternatives and look for new angles in Hong Kong culture, society and Hong Kong studies as an academic field.

A persisting Hong Kong flavour

In examining the “northern expedition” of the auteur of Hong Kong cinema Johnnie To, Chu read To’s insistence of his “Hong Kong flavour” even in films he made for the China market as a form of “cultural untranslatability” in Homi Bhabha’s term. Even though making films in a co-production model with China means accommodating for a market taste (which is different from Hong Kong’s) and being restrained by China’s state censorship (when there is none in Hong Kong), [4] the continual circulation of Hong Kong flavour which is not entirely translatable was proposed by Chu as a way for Hong Kong cinema to “move on in the age of Chinese cinema.” [5] In face of China’s increasing influence and the “deadline” of 2047 (a year when Hong Kong’s “50 years of unchange” will end), Chu joined the voice of Stephen Chiu-kiu Chan, and called for the need to “think, unthink, imagine and unimagine” Hong Kong’s alternative future. [6] A line from Dante Lam’s Unbeatable (2013) that Chu had referenced in his essay might speak to the current situation faced by Hong Kong and its population: “[y]ou’re in the rings. Don’t be afraid. Once you fear, you lose.” [7] Last but not least, as Chan also had it put: “delay no more.” [8]

[1] Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong Culture in a Space of Disappearance. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997.

[2] Chow, Rey “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s.” Diaspora 2 2 (Fall 1992): 151–170.

[3] Veg, Sebastian. “Legalistic and Utopian: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.” New Left Review 92 (March/April 2015), 70–71.

[4] Chu, Yiu-wai. “Johnnie To’s ‘Northern Expedition:’ From Milkyway Image to Drug War.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 2 (2015), 201.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chan, Stephen Ching-kiu. “Delay No More: Struggles to Reimagine Hong Kong (for the Next 30 years).” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 3 (2015), 346.

[7] Chu, 203.

[8] Chan, 346.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 24–25)