Lost in Transition:
Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China

By Yui-Wai Chu

Reviewed by David Desser
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2014)

Book cover for Lost in Transition

Yui-Wai Chu.
Lost in Transition: Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013. 228 pp.
ISBN13: 978-1-4384-4645-5 (cloth); ISBN: 978-1438446462 (paper)

Don’t let this title’s allusion to Sofia Coppola’s twee Lost in Translation (2003) give you the impression that Yiu-Wai Chu (Zhu Yaowei)’s Lost in Transition is some sort of precious po-mo poseur. Instead, it is a heartfelt, even white-hot examination of Hong Kong culture since the territory’s handover to the Mainland in 1997. For Chu, a Professor at the University of Hong Kong and Director of the Hong Kong Studies Program, the vaunted “One Country, Two Systems,” about which many were skeptical, was indeed implemented. But his fear—and this is the subject of this very fine and important study—is that “One Country, Two Systems” comes with no guarantee of “One Country, Two Cultures” (93).

The most influential reading of Hong Kong’s culture has surely been Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance(1997) and its provocative, if perhaps also preciously po-mo, notion of the deja disparu. Perhaps more influential than fully understood, Abbas defined it as “the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of clichés, or a cluster of memories of what has never been” (Abbas 1997: 25). More directly to the point, Abbas made the observation that the intense interest evinced in Hong Kong culture in the wake of the 1984 handover agreement and the impending “doom” of 1997 marked a shift away from a more exclusive concern with economics; that Hong Kong culture “is very precisely a culture of disappearance because it is a culture whose appearance is accompanied by a sense of the imminence of its disappearance, and the cause of its emergence—1997—may also be the cause of its demise” (in Chu 2).

Having visited Hong Kong a handful of times before the handover, I also lived there for well over a year after it, and it seemed to me at the time that the changes in Hong Kong were palpable. Yet in casual conversations I also made the (somewhat facetious, but ultimately hopeful) statement that Hong Kong was just as likely to change Mainland culture as vice versa. It turns out I was right, but in my own off-the-cuff comment I failed to address an important question: if the Mainland is becoming more like Hong Kong, what is the point of Hong Kong for the Mainland? Hong Kong, which previously had been an important entrepot, a major manufacturing and financial center, was also a gateway to China, an intermediary between the lumbering Communist giant and the dynamic capitalist West. But when the giant awoke, not just to the twentieth century but to the twenty-first, when Shanghai became as important a financial center as Hong Kong, when Guangdong the factory to the world, and as Beijing began to understand the concept of soft power, what good was Hong Kong, what was Hong Kong going to be now? The fear of many was that it would become just another Chinese city. Chu discusses these issues in his second chapter, “The Rise of China and Its Soft Power,” especially from the point of view of economics. There is a generally Marxist superstructure, so to speak, in Chu’s understanding of cultural shifts and disappearances that runs throughout the book.

Chu’s main concern—and this is crucial to understanding his wide-ranging critique of post-1997 Hong Kong—is with Hong Kong culture, with Hong Kong as seen from the ground up. He is less concerned with Hong Kong seen from the outside, less concerned, that is, with Hong Kong as a global entity. This explains his angriest denunciations of the Hong Kong government and what he sees in chapter 3, “Central District Values,” as its misguided endeavor in, for instance, tearing down the Central Star Ferry Pier in December, 2006, and the Queen’s Pier in 2008; and, in chapter 4, “Brand Hong Kong: Asia’s World City as Method?” efforts to brand Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City.” This branding, officially known as BrandHK, instituted the Flying Dragon as its logo and attempted some modifications over the years. The Flying Dragon was supposed to represent a kind of essence of China along with a melding of east and west. One might say that this is Hong Kong in a single image—which was the idea, of course, but one detrimental to the preservation of a specifically local identity. The inability of the government to understand the true significance of local identity is called by Chu, “Central District Values,” in reference to the district on Hong Kong island where government offices and many financial institutions are to be found.

The struggles over Hong Kong identity, visible in the protests over the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Pier, for instance, are perhaps best seen across the range of the Hong Kong mediascape, but especially in those areas where many outside of Hong Kong first felt the territory’s unique pull: movies and music. For Chu, Hong Kong’s

highly original and vigorous popular culture, which was once widely consumed across Chinese communities, is generally agreed to have been in decline since 1997. When Hong Kong celebrated the tenth anniversary of its return to China, it also in a sense waved goodbye to its special role as the center of Chinese popular culture. (93)

Chu’s analysis of post-1997 Hong Kong cinema in Chapter 5, “One Country, Two Cultures? Hong Kong Cinema and/as Chinese Cinema,” is certainly right on target. I have myself written[ 1 ] about the Mainland’s turn to martial arts movies as a kind of Brand China and the centrality of Hong Kong talent in this post-millennial branding: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in Hero; Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Curse of the Golden Flower; or Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Hong Kong director Peter Ho-sun Chan’s The Warlord; or other directors like John Woo and Tony Ching Siu-tung making the kind of big-budget historical dramas that Hong Kong can no longer afford, but that participate in the Mainland’s reclaiming the martial arts genre for China as well as making films with at best ambiguous political messages about the legitimacy of strong, centralized government. Yet it is worth noting that the Mainland was always a part of Hong Kong cinema; that without the Mainland there would likely have been nothing other than a local industry always targeted to Cantonese-speaking audiences. Let us not forget that it was the Shaw Brothers and MP&GI which made Hong Kong cinema the envy of East Asia beginning in the late 1950s, and that this cinema was founded on the artistry of émigrés from the Mainland and made in Mandarin. Of course, these directors and actors and producers were refugees when they came to Hong Kong, fleeing the Communist Revolution. Now it is the reverse, with Hong Kong talent high-tailing it for the budgets and the market of the Mainland.

Chu understands, and others have mentioned, if less insistently, that Hong Kong films must assert a Hong Kong identity in the face of the overwhelming presence of China: “In order to develop an autonomous imaginary free from the domination of the China factor, the Hong Kong imaginary tends to place heavy emphasis on a particular past—a time and space in which Hong Kong seemed to be outside the influence of 1997 and global capitalism” (98). (One flaw of the book is revealed when, on p. 118, Chu repeats this last phrase word-for-word, as he does most of the next few sentences—this probably reflects the fact that portions of each chapter appeared previously.) To be sure, this is a well-remarked phenomenon found, for instance, in analyses of the Hong Kong nostalgia film, which also imagines a more pure Hong Kong space not only through invocations of an earlier time, but also through intertextual references to earlier Hong Kong cinema itself, such as Jeff Lau’s 92 Legendary La Rose Noire (1992), Those Were the Days (精裝難兄難弟, 1997), and most famously A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986). Though these films are not mentioned by Chu, post-1997 examples would include 72 Tenants of Prosperity (2010, which Chu does mention), a tribute to the 1973 hit House of 72 Tenants. Not mentioned by Chu is that the original 1973 hit is usually credited as helping to inaugurate the return to Cantonese-language cinema after its virtual disappearance amidst the juggernaut of Mandarin movies.

The nostalgia film returns, with variations, on the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Co-productions like Hooked on You and Mr. Cinema “negotiate the tensions between local and mainland Chinese identities against the backdrop of Hong Kong history” (118). This new nostalgia cinema, however, as seen in other films such as Gallants and Merry-Go-Round, remind that the good old days have passed; that Hong Kong identity does not reside in the past, but instead in a future which garners strength and power inherited from the past (ibid). The success of films like Echoes of the RainbowGallants, and A Simple Life can help woo Hong Kong audiences back to Hong Kong theatres with their direct invocations of Hong Kong life. From a perspective outside of Hong Kong, we may note that only A Simple Life had any significant play outside the region. If Hong Kong films require a delicate balancing act to negotiate the tensions between the local and mainland China, they also need to find the right balance between the local and the global, something at which they have been far less successful in recent years.

In chapter 6, “Who Sings Hong Kong? Remapping Cantopop in the Global Era,” Chu brings his economic and cultural analyses to bear on a particularly piquant aspect Hong Kong society. While Cantopop never had anything like the following of Hong Kong cinema in a global context, in the region it was for many years the dominant musical form. Of course many stars in the Cantopop genre were also film stars, such as Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, and so many films stars crossed over into Cantopop that it is now difficult to claim a number of them, such as Jacky Cheung or Aaron Kwok, as either/or. The hey-day of Cantopop was in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the late 1990s it was in decline. Always a hybridized musical form (Chu uses “hybridity” frequently and usefully), Cantopop reached out to Taiwan, the Mainland (via piracy), South Korea and Japan. But by the late 1990s the Cantopop industry had to compete with what became known as J-pop and K-pop, as well as, less felicitously, Mandapop (a.k.a., Mandopop). The forces of globalization had enabled Cantopop to reach out far afield; but those same forces, as, for instance, MTV, brought things full circle, pitting Cantopop against numerous competitors.

This competition did not merely lead to a loss in market share for the local music industry; Cantopop was more than the dominant form of music in the territory: Cantopop songs had come to represent Hong Kong identity. It was through Cantopop that Hong Kong people articulated their identity in a bottom-up manner; through Cantopop, they could find their sense of belonging (133). In the past, Chu claims, economic and political concerns could be inscribed in Cantopop in exciting ways. But in recent years, the economic and political concerns have become “the operational logic of cultural industries” that are now heavily slanted toward the national (133-134). As such, the local can no longer absorb the global to generate a vibrant, hybrized glocal:

After 1997, unfortunately, while Hong Kong was torn between the national and the global, Hong Kong popular culture lost its vigor as a form of emergent culture. As Hong Kong tries to be “global” on the one hand (Brand Hong Kong) and Chinese on the other (the rise of China and its soft power), Cantopop has been taken over by Mandapop as the trendsetter of pan-Chinese popular culture. (134)

Indeed, though not mentioned by Chu, it is apparent that when Cantopop superstars produce albums in Mandarin (a trend led, I think, by Karen Mok, who released her first album in Mandarin in 1997, and who has released only one CD in Cantonese since then), Cantopop is on the wane.

The real question for Yiu-Wai Chu is: Is Hong Kong culture also on the wane?

David Desser
Chapman University


[ 1 ] David Desser, “Reclaiming a Legacy: The New-style Martial Arts Saga and Globalized Entertainment.” In Kinnia Shuk-ting Yau, ed., East Asian Cinema and Cultural Heritage From China, Hong Kong, Taiwan to Japan and South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 1-26.