Chinese Face/off: The Transnational Popular Culture of Hong Kong

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Table of Contents

Introduction : the Chineseness of Hong Kong's transnational culture in today's world 1
1 Much ado about the ordinary in newspaper-column and book culture 25
2 Leftovers of film and television subtitles in a transnational context 46
3 Hong Kong muscles and sublime Chinese subjectivity 79
4 Transnationalization of the local in a circular structure 106
5 Charlie Chan reborn as Jackie Chan in Hollywood-Hong Kong representations 127
6 Racial passing and face swapping in the wild, wild west 147
7 Tigers crouch and dragons hide in the new trans-Chinese cinema 177
8 Giant panda, Mickey Mouse, and other transnational objects of fantasy in theme park Hong Kong 199
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First Chapter

Chinese Face/Off



Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02978-X


The Chineseness of Hong Kong's Transnational Culture in Today's World

"HONG KONG SHOULD BECOME the Switzerland of Asia," said Wang Zhan, director of the Shanghai Municipal Government Development Research Center, an influential government think tank, when a Hong Kong journalist asked him to comment on the future of postcolonial Hong Kong (Lu and Lu 2002, 49). Could the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, returned to the People's Republic of China (PRC) after 150 years of British colonial rule, manage to transform itself into an entity as internationalized as Switzerland? There is no lack of advice as to what post-1997 Hong Kong should do to redefine and rejuvenate itself. Some believe that the best future for the city involves improved integration with China; that is to say, further sinicization would be the path to tread. Others insist that the very strength and uniqueness of Hong Kong depend on its autonomy and rule of law, which keep China at a safe distance. People from many different fields hope to see Hong Kong transform itself into a regional center, dominating the areas of high technology, logistics, tourism, and academic researchand maintaining its key position as a bridge between China and the West. Advice from Shanghai, Hong Kong's greatest potential competitor in the twenty-first century, could have a questionable motivation. "If Hong Kong becomes increasingly sinicized, it will only face more competition from other mainland cities and may even become another Shanghai," Wang Zhan elaborated in the interview (50). Wang may have strong reasons to encourage Hong Kong not to imitate and compete with Shanghai but to shape its postcolonial future as the Switzerland of Asia.

Switzerland is a small nation-state sandwiched among its powerful neighbors. But when the great European countries do business, Switzerland is able to serve as an intermediary for their dialogue. As an Asian economic tiger, Hong Kong has striven to be a leading international financial hub and a commercial center for Asia and the Pacific Rim. The prolonged economic downturn triggered in 1997 by Asian financial turmoil was a terrible blow to the people of Hong Kong. The postcolonial city has been struggling with a domestic crisis of confidence. The capability and leadership of the SAR government to guide Hong Kong into the twenty-first century have been questioned. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Hong Kong media trumpeted Wang's words. Nowadays an insecure Hong Kong is receptive to advice as to how it should readjust its own position. It may be too early to tell whether Hong Kong can become the Switzerland of Asia. Perhaps it is simply wrong to urge Hong Kong to do so, since the city has been playing such a role for quite some time. Does it make sense to say one should become what one already is? In any case, the mention of the Swiss experience by a mainland Chinese scholar may reveal, or even underscore, Hong Kong's relationship to its neighboring powers, not only economically but also culturally.

Swiss culture is renowned for its international flavor and its simultaneous assimilation of the adjacent German, French, and Italian cultures and distinction from them. Like Switzerland, which is in Europe but not the European Union, Hong Kong is both inside and outside of China. Its porous borders (to capital, information, and travelers) and special status (once a British colonial outpost and now a Chinese SAR) historically have enabled Hong Kong to achieve a mission impossible elsewhere. Exposed to many foreign influences, Hong Kong also promotes the flourishing of a modern Chinese popular culture that has been in virtual hibernation in mainland China. For decades, this colonial city, once second only to the United States in film export, has been a prolific production center of Chinese diaspora culture and one of the most important platforms for Chinese-Western cultural mediation. Precisely because Hong Kong has played a major role in the representation of modern popular Chinese culture throughout the world, I would argue that the contemporary meanings of being Chinese are revealed by studying the city's culture, which would provide a new understanding of Chineseness and its interplay with today's world.

A Transgression Inherent in the Meaning of Chineseness

My study, unlike many previous scholarly works, does not intend to assert the uniqueness of Hong Kong culture, which is actually an untenable position. I am far more interested in the ways in which that culture could be used to actualize its potential Chineseness within the symbolic structure. Presumably, it is the culture, rather than simply ethnicity, that figures prominently in defining Chineseness. Such a unified culture, in terms of beliefs, rituals, behaviors, worldviews, written script, socioeconomic institutions, and practices, shared by the Han Chinese with a common ancestry, is said to have successfully assimilated the small proportion of non-Han racial groups within the homogeneous nation. The myth goes so far that the tremendous modernization of social and economic life in various Chinese societies, ranging from the mainland to diasporic communities all over the world, would even enhance rather than weaken such unique cultural characteristics.

To many foreign visitors, Hong Kong already appears to be a very "Chinese" city. It was used to exhibit Chineseness when the "real" China could not be accessed. In fact, the returned Hong Kong may serve as an exemplar of Chineseness not because the colonial city disassociated from Chinese culture in order to produce a Hong Kong identity, but because it has been producing and reshaping Chineseness since the early colonial era. For decades, Hong Kong's popular culture has succeeded in creating and perpetuating an abstract kind of Chinese nationalism and identity for a global audience. The Chinese nationalism expressed through Hong Kong kung fu films exported to the Chinese diaspora, however, carries no political substance. At various times, Hong Kong popular culture has even gone so far as to disavow and negate its Chineseness in order to make itself less parochial and more modern-that is to say, westernized. But, in other historical moments, film and other carriers of culture produced in the colonial city have manifested strong patriotic feelings and nostalgic sentiments for China.

Hong Kong's position toward Chineseness has often shifted. Sometimes Hong Kong provides a safe haven for sinicist ideology; many exiles and émigrés from the mainland expressed in their Hong Kong works nationalistic and melancholic imaginations, especially prior to the 1970s (Tan 2001). At other times Hong Kong appropriates Chineseness as a means to realize its own identity formation. For example, in the 1940s some Hong Kong filmmakers used Chinese nationalism to conjure a hybrid local identity (Fu 2000a). Sometimes the sinicist ideology enables the Chinese culture to realize its full potential. And very often Hong Kong ruthlessly exploits Chineseness for commercial purposes. These shifts comprise an all-encompassing space in which sociopolitical tensions between different Chinese societies might be obliterated and in which members of various communities might somehow relate and recognize themselves as Chinese. In this sense, Hong Kong's Chineseness offers the broadest representativeness, not because it typifies the majority of the Chinese population, nor because it occupies a premier place in the Chinese cultural hierarchy, but because it has no proper place within that hierarchy and thus constitutes a site of conflicting determinations of the contemporary meaning of Chineseness.

Elizabeth Sinn, a Hong Kong historian, has claimed, "Hong Kong is a window to the world for China, as well as one for the world to look into China. In Hong Kong, the Chinese, the foreign, the new, the old, the orthodox, and the unorthodox are mixed in a melting pot, with various contradictions acting as a catalyst, out of which arises a pluralistic, fluid, exuberant cultural uniqueness" (Sinn 1995, iv). Hong Kong's Chineseness is a site of performative contradictions. It is like a crack in the edifice of Chineseness. Its existence is simply a living and contingent contradiction, in the sense that the city's culture both exaggerates and negates Chineseness in the vicissitudes of its sociopolitical milieux. However, this contradiction actually embodies the fundamental imbalance and inconsistency of the cultural totality of contemporary China. Hong Kong culture may appear to be an obstacle to the full actualization of the Chinese subject. What should not be overlooked is that the contradiction or "defect" constitutive of Hong Kong's Chineseness is effectively the Chinese subject itself in the contemporary world.

This may be why I do not argue for the existence of "Hong Kong-ness," although works that attempt to affirm the uniqueness of Hong Kong continue to appear. If there is such a thing, it operates according to the logic of a fantasy that affirms the ideological power of what it means to be Chinese, rather than any determinate local position. The subject of Hong Kong emerges only at the moment that it fails to be "subjectivized" (in both senses-that is, to be its own agent as well as to be a member of the Chinese state) within the traditional Chinese symbolic order. Perhaps Hong Kong should willingly assume its own "nonexistence." It would no longer be so easy to declare its so-called uniqueness to be in opposition to the Chineseness of (mainland) China. My study of Hong Kong is not exactly a search for a unique Hong Kong subjectivity. Instead, I consider how Hong Kong culture operates as an articulation of "transitional Chineseness." Rather than consciously aiming at a construction of a particular local identity, the popular culture in and of Hong Kong moves toward or away from Chineseness at different historical moments in order to accommodate the changing needs of different ideological groups. The Chineseness of Hong Kong culture itself is by no means fixed. It is instead a process of becoming, generated by various national forces and interests rather than by a single origin. It is especially true that after being colonized by the British, Hong Kong would never relate to Chinese sovereignty as simply another version of the colonial narrative. The new horizon confronted by the postcolonial city is instead the possibility of redefining its own position in relation to nationalism. The complex connection between Hong Kong's historical development with that of China in a way denies the facile kind of postmodern arguments that designate the city a site of timelessness and placelessness. The process of becoming, on the other hand, entails a mutual transformation of the two parties involved: Hong Kong and Chineseness. Hong Kong cannot become Chinese without the Chinese changing into something else. The post-1997 subjectivization of the Hong Kong people as Chinese nationals demonstrates that a different notion of Chineseness can always gratify new demands and that the return of the colony to its motherland might present a challenging perspective from which to examine the supposedly incontestable status of national identity.

However, the Chineseness with which Hong Kong has been grappling does not necessarily coincide with the multiple and hybrid kinds of Chineseness described and promoted by critics who defy the notion of a monolithic Chinese identity. Tu Wei-ming, a neo-Confucian scholar, argues, in his overarching tripartite division of "cultural China," that, while Chinese culture is disintegrating at the center, which consists of mainland China and other societies populated predominantly by ethnic Chinese, it will be the periphery, composed of diasporic Chinese communities throughout the world and individuals who try to understand China intellectually, that will set the economic and cultural agendas in the twenty-first century (Tu 1994). But Rey Chow has already pointedly questioned the validity of such promotion of the pluralization of Chinese identity: "[S]hould we from now on simply speak of Chineseness in the plural-as so many kinds of Chinesenesses, so many Chinese identities? Should Chineseness from now on be understood no longer as a traceable origin but in terms of an ongoing history of dispersal, its reality always already displaced from what are imaginary, fantastic roots? As is evident in other intellectual movements, the course of progressivist antiessentialism comprises many surprising twists and turns, and the problem of Chineseness is, one suspects, not likely to be resolved simply by way of the act of pluralizing" (Chow 2000, 18). In my view, it is not exactly pluralization that allows Chineseness to become an open signifier, able to anchor all kinds of meaning. In fact, a multi- or trans-Chinese vision generated from such multiplicity may only help to make the cultural and national ideology of Chineseness more powerful, oppressive, and dominating. Precisely by emphasizing that "it is living and changeable" and that it is a "product of a shared experience whose record has continually influenced its growth," as Wang Gungwu did in "The Chineseness of China," Chineseness always "would be distinctively and recognizably Chinese and that may be all that matters" (Wang Gungwu 1991b, 31, 34).

In this sense, a postmodern politics of plural or multiple identities or subjectivities, or a reversal of center-periphery hierarchy will never be political enough since it collaborates with more than subverts the domination mechanism. There have been-and likely will continue to be-many attempts by local and foreign scholars to describe the specificity of Hong Kong in terms of the development of its culture, identity, and local consciousness. These scholars agree that the specificity of Hong Kong culture is complex and difficult to describe in any coherent and unitary form. So for some cultural and literary critics, the amorphous, elusive, hybrid, slippery, and inconsistent nature of Hong Kong culture becomes its only consistent, identifiable characteristic. The very elusiveness and ambiguity of Hong Kong's specificity might not contribute to the formation of its own unique identity. Instead, it paradoxically smoothens the process of Hong Kong's reintegration with China and facilitates its convergence with the global economy in such a way that its cultural specificity as an indefinably multiple entity would easily give way to any kind of larger system.

My understanding of Hong Kong's Chineseness tells a different story about the openness of Chineseness. Chineseness, as examined through Hong Kong culture, is the master signifier of the Chinese nation-nothing but an empty sign standing for an impossible fullness of meaning, insofar as there is no way for its content to be positivized.


Excerpted from Chinese Face/Off by KWAI-CHEUNG LO Copyright © 2005 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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