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As Years Go By: Hong Kong through the lens of Wong Kar-Wai

In this long read, Chatteris’ own Chris Fitzmaurice takes us on a journey through Hong Kong’s history and landscape.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in films, but not knowledgeable about Hong Kong, would naturally assume after being immersed in its twisting streets, glowing lights and rolling hills that this city is home to mysterious artists and filmmakers. Fortunately, they would be correct. Just as Spain has Pedro Almodovar, so Hong Kong has its very own set of eyes and ears, the filmmaking auteur Wong Kar-Wai (Wong4 Gaa1 Wai6).

Hong Kong, a labyrinth

While watching Wong Kar Wai’s films, we see a glimpse of everyday life in Hong Kong, A shot through a steamed-up window, or a street scene illuminated by flashing neon. These and others exemplify the theme of space and its relationship to people’s interactions. A dense city inevitably leads to extremes in which some people spend a long time alone, and some can never be alone. There is a labyrinthine quality to Hong Kong’s streets. Just as a fractal becomes infinitely more detailed each time you zoom in, Hong Kong’s streets seem to branch off and become more interesting each time one takes an alternative route. It is possible to buy almost anything and yet somehow struggle to find particular items. This friendliness, this diversity and entrepreneurship are at odds with the alienating feeling of the tiny, thin-walled apartments.

Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district | Image by Chris Fitzmaurice

On one late-night adventure, I found myself looking for a colander, a teacup, a towel and coffee. Some of Hong Kong’s stores contain a vast and somewhat strange mixture of miscellaneous items, while others are very specific. First, I located coffee, but as I searched for the other items, I found another shop with even more interesting, and better value coffee. Despite the ever-expanding list of useful items that I was discovering, I could not find a towel, a cup, or a colander. Of course, it should be easy if one has a plan, but if one is easily distracted, one will be distracted. Ultimately, I gave up and was just about to return to my apartment, when I stumbled across a shop selling a vast range of things, including cups, colanders and towels, conveniently placed together.

In the Mood for Love, a lesson in distance and proximity

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung portray two spokes in a vicious wheel of deception and desire. In the Mood For Love displays a turbulent 1960s Hong Kong, rain-drenched and alone, despite the vivacity of the crowded streets and restaurants. The film was released in the year 2000, three years after the formal return of Hong Kong to China. It was a pivotal year of uncertainty and excitement, after the end of the Cold War, but before the swingeing wars and financial crises that represented the next two decades. 2000 was also three years after the movie’s director, Wong Kar Wai, won the Best Director Award at Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together.

1960’s Hong Kong played a profound part in the early life of Wong, as this is where he and his mother fled to as the waves of the Cultural Revolution began lashing at his native Shanghai. The isolation he experienced in his new home was likely drawn from his ability to speak neither Cantonese nor English, leaving him adrift in a sea of unattained adventure and culture. While I lived in Wuxi, close to Shanghai, I discovered the geographical area that I inhabited was known as Jiangnan, south of the river, a famous name for fans of musician JJ Lin. There is a cluster of languages known as Wu in this area, and so it was interesting when I learned about the presence of the Shanghai Wu language in Hong Kong.

A retrospective understanding of the 1960s perhaps plays a large part in Wong’s interest in these times. Working with his mentor, Patrick Tam, he discovered the fragmented narratives of Argentinian novelist Manuel Puig, a novelist who grew up simultaneously amused by and impressed with the vacuousness and glamour of Hollywood movies. Hence, he took his place in the Hong Kong film Second Wave. The New Wave had aimed to subvert the formulaic approach to Hong Kong films caused by the requirement for pre-sales. Wong Kar-Wai plays on tropes and archetypes while shaking up structure and character depth, and that is why he was such a vast part of the emergent Second New Wave.

In In the Mood for Love, the discordance between the steamy romance of the lights and the simultaneous frigid isolation of the streets is beautifully shown through the inability of the two lovers to reconcile their relationship, and they end up further from each other than ever, despite their closeness in relationship and in physical proximity. This tendency is true of many international cities, but the beauty of Hong Kong, which draws us like moths to a lamp, is what makes a range of experience inevitable.

Chungking Express, exploring sense of place

An example of Wong’s weaving narratives can be found in the light-heartedly twisted Chungking Express, a film that pastes the absurd amorous pursuit of a murderous smuggler by a young, naive detective into the strange courting rituals of a beat cop and Central District snack bar waitress. As romantic comedies go, it is probably for the best that the third, more sinister narrative was left for the sequel, Fallen Angels, as Chungking is surreal enough to alienate more traditional-minded viewers by itself. The pair in the latter half of the film have near opposite personalities. Super-star singer Fei Wong on the one-hand stars as a lackadaisical, day-dreaming waitress, while Tony Leung appears as an easy-going, flirtatious patrol officer, rooted in a stable life. The differences are less extreme when compared to the first narrative, but no less comedic in their payoff.

Consistently, themes of ritual, time, space and stability permeate this narrative. All are applicable to Hong Kong life in general. The young naive cop has a ritual relating to the consumption of tinned pineapples. What starts as a grieving process over the break-up of his relationship, becomes an obsessive topic that plays absurdly into his later courting rituals. Stability and flight are also key ideas in Hong Kong. It’s an international city, with many transient visitors, making the concept of home and of community an important one to local people. Finally, time and space play a constant role in the evolution of Wong’s films, as the street level movement of people drives an inherent artistic fascination with the minutiae of people’s lives, and of possible relationships lost and created in the tumult.

A visit to the mansions

Something not immediately apparent about the Chungking Express, without a knowledge of Hong Kong, is the geographical spread of this scintillating narrative. Half of it is set in the winding Chungking Mansions and the other half involves a snack bar in Central, called the Midnight Express. Chungking developed a claustrophobic quality that has eased somewhat since the pandemic began. I recall staying there in 2018. Reading up on its history in bed and hearing my friend’s experience of taking the lift at night, past the screaming stairwell, was enough to stop me from sleeping. However, when I returned in 2021, I felt no anxiety at all. In fact, when I explored it in 2022, it appeared to me to be a larger version of my apartment block. Perhaps the long history of Hong Kong has affected anything that remains from the old days. For those able to overcome their initial assumptions or past experiences, the Chungking Mansions is full of restaurants, shops and, as I was fortunate to discover, reasonably priced hairdressers.

“What are you looking for?” asked the man from the Mirador Mansions, with a wry smile. There had been a leak that had deterred me from walking to the nearby Chungking Mansions, as originally planned.

“I’m just exploring,” I replied truthfully. I had arrived intending to speak to someone who worked or lived in this area, and thus, I had dressed in a suit jacket.

“I have a shop. You’ve seen it?”

“The tailor?”

“Yes, come on.” Reluctantly, I followed him, having only just bought some shirts elsewhere. I immediately asked for the price, knowing the rough range of prices in the area.

“We have many prices. My friend will be here shortly, please sit and look.” There was an awkward silence as I decided to leave. Fortunately, he introduced me to a more talkative friend from the Mirador Mansions themselves. I had always been curious to visit these, knowing less of their history. Although I had come intending to ask him questions, he immediately began asking me questions. Naturally, we got into a back and forth:

“You’re from London, and we too try to bring the European influence to Hong Kong, as we rely on an international client base. It is repeat business, this is what makes for success.”

“I see, so you bring your materials from Europe?”

“Yes, we try to. That’s why there is some price variation. You know the mainland, business is split between budget and expensive, we try to find a balance.”

“Right, how long have you been here?”

“40 years, I arrived in July 1980. The 1980s and 1990s were the best years. The industry began to expand across the world in the ’60s and ’70s and then the Mainland had its reforms, so business was great.”

“You arrived as an apprentice?”

“Yes, I studied materials for about 7 years, but it took me more than 10 years before I moved into business.”

“And the rules have all changed over that time, I suppose?”

“Yes, things change, things change. My friend here was a tailor on the Mainland for 10 years.” His friend shakes his head.

“22 years? Wow, you see. It can be very complicated to move once you’ve been settled. Chungking is a very international place. It used to be big for wholesale, for international businesses, very favourable taxes. Now everything has changed again and it is different. The internet changed it a lot. In all, I hope that Hong Kong can remain an international city. It is an interesting city, especially for film production.”

One of my housemates is from Calcutta, in West Bengal, where you might hear Hindi, Bengal, English and Nepali. Once, while we were stepping out to find some food, he explained the vast complexity and variety of food, music and language spread across the subcontinent. West Bengal itself touches a range of different regions. Calcutta is said to be the artistic capital of India, and indeed, was the official capital until 1911.

A bright neon sign lights up a street in Yau Ma Tei | Image by Chris Fitzmaurice

Returning to Hong Kong, if you head in the direction of Shanghai Street, you will find an old charming Bombay restaurant that serves a lunch set until 3 PM. Further across, and you will reach Chulo, a Nepali shop that sells fried rice, large samosas and a fragrant, sweet tea. Back in Chungking, a similar tea is available from a shop that has a variety of influences from across the subcontinent , but here the tea is a little sweeter. Just around the corner at Chungking, and you can find a new script lining the names of restaurants. This is Tamil, from Southern India, and here you can find fish curry with a beautiful flat bread called a paratha. From the little supermarket, tucked away at the back are Punjabi cookies, further up you’ll see the Sher (lion) of Punjab from Western India.

Seamlessly, the languages and religions blend.

In the Nepali place, you will find a Buddha, my housemate is Hindu, and a vast range of religions and languages can be discovered in a small geographical area, representing the full span of the subcontinent. Some Hindus eat no meat, sometimes for religious reasons and sometimes for lifestyle reasons, while others follow a Pranic approach, reducing the consumption of meats deemed genetically proximate to humans. As you wander through the Chungking Mansions, you will also hear different styles of music, from great Bollywood pop stars, to Punjabi Pastoral music, to Southern virtuosos with their synthesised string instruments.

As Tears Go By, crossing spatial and social boundaries

If we take a trip back in time to Wong’s earlier career, we will find a prototype of his romantic duels. This was probably influenced by his work with mentor Patrick Tam, Director of Hong Kong gangster film Final Victory, for whom Wong wrote the screenplay, setting him up for his introduction to Hong Kong gangster films, and a recurring set of actors with As Tears Go By. Opening with the slightly ominous sign of a face-mask on the distant cousin and love interest, As Tears Go By explores the darker side of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld. In this structure, a heroine tames the tough gangster and his aggression becomes a force for loyalty, if not for virtue. This is demonstrated by his relative fidelity, through loyalty to his “little brother”, his girlfriends, and even his “godfather”. Most of the other Triads, members of secretive organized crime societies, are depicted as incompetent, sadistic or impetuous, making the protagonist redeemable by comparison.

Early in its style, this film is still relatively traditional in its structure and has acting that is a little bit over the top, but has a good sense of humour and a knotty series of subplots. It is at once, the fight in the heroine’s mind between the stable doctor and the dangerous gangster, the decline and fall of a Triad group, and the hopeless attempt of a loveable tough guy to both escape the gang and save his impetuous “little brother.” These twists of fate are replicated across Hong Kong in general, as people decide between stability and adventure, and as organisations and institutions are born and reborn on the streets and in the tower blocks.

Much of the drama in As Tears Go By revolves around the distance between Kowloon, where the protagonist lives, and Lantau Island, where his love interest stays. Bizarrely, far more of the film focuses on the stupidity of his sidekick’s unnecessary quarrels with other gangsters than on the protagonist and his love interest, making the structure of the film unpredictable and tragic, in Wong Kar Wai’s trademark style.

One can see the development of Wong’s intense dramatic style and dark humour in this film, but it has not yet matured into something we will see in Chungking Express, for example. As Tears Go By contains, however, visual beauty and a depth of characterisation that would be a tell-tale sign for anyone initially unaware of the director’s identity. The subtle use of body language between Maggie Cheung’s character and Andy Lau’s character is reminiscent of his later thoughtful works, while shots such as the opening one introduce his reflective style.

Wong’s gallows humour and aesthetically-driven action scenes immerse us in the experience, “You don’t get the death penalty for shooting someone in a police station! But, if I let you quit, your friends will kill you. What are you afraid of?” is the essence of what the godfather says to the unlucky assassin chosen by drawing straws. Much of the action in As Tears Go By is caused by damage to reputation or to status. While the reactions are extreme, this is an exaggeration of the fear that nags at people in industries and in big cities.

We also see the shadowy Hong Kong underworld from within. There are many scenes in which the general public observe the interactions of the protagonist and his rivals with relative curiosity, and mundane points, like waiting for someone at a ferry terminal, become moments of drama as people are drawn into the action voluntarily and involuntarily. This reflects the mystery that surrounds great cities, as we often wonder what is happening beneath the bonnet, and Wong gives an exciting glimpse of his imagined account of the Hong Kong underworld.

2046, asking “what’s next?”

A towering residential building in Tseung Kwan O | Image by Chris Fitzmaurice

Many of Wong Kar Wai’s famous films depict Hong Kong’s golden age, but some look forwards to the future. 2046, the sequel to In the Mood for Love, is based around the protagonist’s futuristic science fiction novel. It also imagines how the world and indeed Hong Kong will be around the middle of the century. This is also close to the theoretical end date for the city’s ‘One Country-Two Systems’ solution. In this narrative, the main character remains at heart a love-struck writer but throws some of his former cautions to the wind in embracing a hedonistic lifestyle. Just as the society and characters in the film begin to embrace rapid change, so did Hong Kong around the film’s production and release in 2003/2004. With advancements in computer technology, the advent of the post 9/11 era, the first SARS outbreak; the futuristic, isolated train compartments of 2046 may not seem so absurd.

Another theme is that of robotics and rigidity. This is most likely a metaphor for people’s lives, harking back to the isolation and deception embodied in his earlier characters. Just as technology and urban developments can free us, they can also imprison people in a different kind of isolation. It is a prison of our own making, and one related to technology outpacing our evolution and social structures.

Once again, as with the Chungking Express, ritual and symbolism become a central element of survival, no matter how impractical or intangible. The provision of a sacrament, of secrecy, especially concerning nature or old culture, becomes a hedge against the march of progress, or of homogeneity, depending on one’s perspective. Hong Kong’s architecture contains the best of Modernism, with sleek, exotic designs melded and designed together to form aesthetic pleasure, avoiding the postmodernist rejection of form and structure that one may see in Europe. There is an elegance that seems organic, but this has been achieved through careful geometric discipline as opposed to Darwinian natural selection, making it all the more awesome. Further out in the 1980’s new towns, such as Tseung Kwan O, you can see Hong Kong straining against its boundaries, where housing towers jut fortress-like between the mountains and the sea. This variety adds to existing endless detail, such as the islands, to be explored on days off.

A generation of dissonance

I am in the first or second year of Generation Z, ironically named ‘Zoomers’. We were the first generation to reach adolescence in the presence of the internet and portable smart devices. There are other examples of generational change. By 2047, the first of us will be turning 50. At that point, there will be a generation who experienced the Global Financial Crisis and generations who hopefully did not, a generation who experienced a deadly pandemic, and hopefully those who did not. Even within Gen Z, there are those of us fortunate to experience the stressors of school and university without the shadow of disease and the impending fear of economic crisis.

Likewise, geography will matter. There will be members of a generation who were struck by war, for example in the Middle East, and those who were not. As war returns to Europe, it’s not hard to feel the wheels of history turning around us. It is in a city like Hong Kong, in which all of these ideas and experiences come together, that Wong Kar Wai can induce the feeling of separation and togetherness in his films. I returned to the tailor from the Mirador Mansions, after a few months. He remained in high spirits, but the restrictions following the Omicron covid-19 surge had affected everyone with an internationally facing business.

Ghosts of the New Wave

The District of Wan Chai and areas beyond it, hold many histories and futures. During the war, it was the location of many deaths, so it has had an eerie ghostliness ever since. As the mist stirs over the Wan Chai Gap and drifts down over the temples and the symbolic banyan trees, it’s easy to understand why. This District epitomises the strange changes that Hong Kong has undergone over the years. The New Wave broke the boundaries of commercial cinema and washed the different eras and peoples of Hong together, into twisting, sometimes surreal narratives. As the wheels of history once again grind over the mountains and through the streets, who knows where he will take us next?

Keen to explore Hong Kong’s history and culture first hand, like Chris? Apply now to become a Chatteris Tutor.

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