[19 June 2008]
How does a city define itself? The question is especially complicated for Hong Kong, a sparsely populated harbor that was fashioned into a city state and colonial outpost by the British Empire in the 19th century, developed into a capitalist center of Southeast Asia in the 20th, and then transferred over to China in 1997 as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR). Uncertainty and transience is part of its character and in City Between Worlds Leo Ou-fan Lee uses a variety of techniques—travelogue, revisionist history, cultural deconstruction, and personal essay – to pin down what he calls this “confusion and contradiction” while uncovering the deep communal roots that often go unnoticed by outside commentators.
If a city is defined by its contradictions, then perhaps the most obvious one for Hong Kong is the eternal question of what it means to be “East” and “West”. Lee, a professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University and of humanities at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, was born in China and educated in Taiwan, but makes a concerted effort to give his history an indigenous perspective. He uses the “nostalgia craze” prompted by the handover to provoke a deeper reckoning of the city’s character. “Hong Kong’s past has required a double denial: Hong Kong is my home, and neither England nor China is my country. The underlying anguish and anxiety caused by this diasporic mentality under colonialism has seldom been fully understood, much less appreciated, by outsiders.”
The majority of the book is structured around walking tours given in a colloquial yet learned voice, in the style of Pete Hamill’s My Downtown and Phillip Lopate’s Waterfront, that provoke digressions on the city’s history and culture. Starting with Victoria City and the finance-oriented Central District, Lee recounts how the British founded the city on Hong Kong Island as a military and trading post to China and Southeast Asia. He winds his way up to Victoria Peak, following how the elite colonists removed themselves from the city’s life as it flourished to their benefit. He then moves north, across Victoria Harbor and Kowloon Bay to Kowloon Island and the New Territories, where few Westerners have settled and ties to Chinese culture and traditions remain stronger.
Throughout, Lee is careful not to break this history down too easily into partisan elements. It is too simplistic to state that what is “British” about Hong Kong might only constitute a small portion of the region and that what will endure and what is left is only “Chinese”. He recognizes that cities are defined by cultural shifting, that what makes cities is the flow of money and as a part of that there is a flow of people, a constantly divergent trade, interaction, and exchange—from the legacy of the Sikh soldiers brought in by the British to police the streets, Parsee financiers, Arab merchants, ancient Chinese clans, and the international pirates that lurked on the smaller islands.
In telling this history, Lee seems frustrated with what he sees as a reluctance of the citizens of Hong Kong to act out against occupation, what he calls the “passivity of colonial subjects”, and that it doesn’t define them the way it has other long occupied countries such as Ireland and the Czech Republic.
One of the prominent ways he sees society playing these tensions out is through mainstream culture, especially its movies from the Shaw Brothers to John Woo, Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow, and Wong Kar-wai. His detailed and insightful examinations of them contain some of the book’s richest analysis of concepts of the city’s identity. He charts “a feeling of uncertainty about the future” in the ‘80s blockbuster, which gave way to “the mood of chaos and fear” in the ‘90s as the handover approached. (I was disappointed that Johnny To was not mentioned at all in this discussion.) He traces Wong Kar-wai’s romanticism to the nostalgia of the Shanghai refugees of the North Point area where he was raised, how it is visible in the character’s accents and clothes. He also analyzes Western books and movies set in Hong Kong, prominently Paramount Picture’s The World of Suzie Wong and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, that are critical without being dismissive.
More significantly, he points to the issue of landmark preservation as an area where the residents of Hong Kong seem to be asserting their identity. The tension between history and modernity is an issue in all cities, but is particularly acute in Hong Kong.
Lee signals protests revolving around the Star Ferry terminals, which connects Kowloon and Hong Kong islands, as key signifiers in Hong Kong residents rallying to preserve a landmark of their cultural and historical self. He cites hunger strikes in 1966 to protest a fare hike as “an event that some local historians hailed as a milestone in Hong Kong’s social movement.” Of the massive protests in 2006 to relocate and destroy a terminal he says, “it brought the entire issue of preservation vs. development to the forefront of people’s thinking.”
Against these optimistic instances of collective solidarity, Lee sees darker, more persistent forces. He repeatedly brings up Rem Koolhaus’ idea of the “generic city”, where “history is meaningless” and the people exist in a state of perpetual modernity of hotels and shopping malls. He worries that Hong Kong, a city of relentless redevelopment, population density, and hard driving capitalism, might be the gold standard for this zombie metropolis.
Lee is bewildered and anxious at the development of this strange brand of modern life, where residents live in high rise buildings that are connected to shopping malls that are connected to mass transit so that one never steps outside and is always surrounded by consumer temptations. Of his time living in the Royal Park Hotel he remembers “Late at night, I saw old residents from nearby housing compounds taking leisurely walks in the mall as though they were strolling down Main Street in smalltown U.S.A.”
Yet he always finds pockets of reassuring humanity: an art collective in a storefront and Filipino maids gathering at the HSBC building on Sundays to socialize. These are the people who “help to keep alive a collective memory which, however fragile, will shape Hong Kong’s destiny.” It is here, as in the Naguib Mahfouz quote that opens the book, that Lee finds that “Fundamentally and basically, its roots connect with life as a whole”.
The very writing of this book is another way Lee gives voice and creation to “his” Hong Kong. City Between Worlds balances probing intellectual analysis, fierce criticism, and gentle warmth, all imbued with the frustrated love any city dweller will immediately recognize as the elusive grasp to define where one lives.