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24 Jun 2021

Cyberpunk: How Hong Kong Defined a Genre

Moving to Hong Kong can feel like stepping into a sci-fi movie. Chatteris’s own Luke Athow explains how in a sense, it really is…

A street in Kowloon, bright with neon lights | Image by Luke Athow

What even is cyberpunk?

Streaming neon lights, gigantic, illuminated billboards, and streets blended with the smell, look, and feel of what can only be described as a certain type of chaos. These elements defined Hong Kong as it exploded onto the world stage in the late 20th century, and at the same time, the unique nature of the region helped give birth to a whole new genre – cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, defining itself by depicting a bleak and dystopian future, rooted in corruption, rapid technological change, and invasive modification of the human form, both mentally and physically. Cyberpunk first took up prominence in the late 70s, however, it was thrust into the mainstream by the release of the cult classic Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s genre-defining book, Neuromancer, both of which reference Hong Kong.

The rise of cyberpunk as a genre coincided with the continued rise of Hong Kong as a global economic and cultural force. Stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan rising to stardom in the 70s and 80s, and the construction of the iconic HSBC building being completed in 1985, are just two instances of Hong Kong showcasing its influence during this time.

What is the link between cyberpunk and Hong Kong?

It is impossible to talk about the cyberpunk genre without acknowledging the obvious “Eastern” and Hong Kong influence; the feel and look of the fictional worlds built in the genre are not a distant reality for those who live in Eastern metropolises, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Beneath the neon signs and colossal skyscrapers, people are engulfed by the magnetic roar of the streets: car horns blaring, people shouting, K-pop blasting from shop fronts hoping to garner the attention of passers-by, and a strange audible soup of mechanical noises and human ‘noise pollution’ filling the streets. All of these sounds merge and force themselves into the central nervous system of anyone fortunate enough to be caught in the midst of this anarchic symphony. Such confusion is only amplified by the fight for limited and precious space, on the ground and in the sky. This is not a scene too dissimilar to those found in the movies Blade Runner (1982), Ghost in the Shell (2017), and Ready Player One (2018); yet it is an everyday occurrence for residents of Sham Shui Po.

Hong Kong has been influential in the formation of cyberpunk by not only providing a general atmosphere for the genre, but by also influencing plot points and locations. The most prominent example of this is how the Kowloon Walled City has been adapted in a variety of stories within the genre. The now-demolished Kowloon Walled City was a disorganised hyper-urbanized blend of culture and anarchy, thanks to the 6.4 acres being ungoverned. The city has notably been the influence for “cyberspace” in cyberpunk stories, whereby AI and “netrunners”, cyberpunk terminology for hackers, run rampant, causing havoc, and playing by their own rules. A central theme of the book Idoru is the “Walled City”, a virtual community for hackers, which not so subtly takes inspiration from the Kowloon Walled City.

A usual cyberpunk trope is that of mega corporations filling every sight with advertisements. This is usually done in increasingly imaginative ways, such as gigantic holograms or blimps with a monumental screen advertising a popular drink. If you pop down to Times Square in Causeway Bay you can see a version of this in reality. All-day, every day, advertisements are displayed on huge screens to catch the eyes of shoppers and passers-by. There is something about corporations fighting to garner people’s senses in any which way they can increasingly more intrusive and calculated that is ostensibly dystopian or cyberpunk.

The recent addition of the K11 Musea mall to the Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront only pushes the cyberpunk narrative into a modern take, that of increasing societal contradictions. The K11 Musea can be seen as a green oasis in a concrete jungle. As you enter it hits you with fresh, fragrant smells and natural colours, enticing you with a stark contradiction to what is seen and smelt outside the mahogany doors. This blatant extravagance and contradiction, a lush and green oasis surrounded by dull, grey, buildings, would only be seen by the ultra-rich in cyberpunk fiction until now.

How is Hong Kong used in cyberpunk media?

A recent exhibition in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon showcased Hong Kong’s relationship with cyberpunk | Image by Luke Athow

These realities of Hong Kong did not go unnoticed by Hollywood and media around the globe. Among other cyberpunk movies, Hong Kong has inspired and provided filming locations for Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell which have both seen global acclaim as well as cultivating cult-like followings.

Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner, stated that he wanted Blade Runner’s aesthetic to be “Hong Kong on a bad day” (LA Times, 1992). The world of Blade Runner without a doubt feels so raw and captivating thanks to having Hong Kong as a visual pool to draw upon. Ghost in the Shell also succeeds visually due to the same reasons, with some scenes of the 2017 live-action take on the 1995 classic being filmed in Sham Shui Po and across Hong Kong. Most recently, Cyberpunk 2077 has brought the genre once again to video gaming. The game showcases similar sights and themes to that of previous cyberpunk showings such as skyscrapers beaming lights into the night sky (not too unlike the Hong Kong Light Show), a heavy East Asian influence, and reference to a virtual hacking community.

The influence Hong Kong has had on the cyberpunk genre has not gone unnoticed here in Hong Kong. Heart of Cyberpunk showcased an “immersive fashion experience” in the heart of Kowloon, Sham Shui Po. The event delved deep into the theme of cyberpunk, showing off dystopian landscapes, an amalgamation of technology, flesh, and a dreary, yet hypnotic glimpse into the future.

Do you want to find inspiration in this futuristic metropolis like Luke? Apply now to become a Chatteris Tutor.

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