By Shu Xian Wui

The 1984 Sino-British Agreement, which stipulated the handover of Hong Kong to China, was executed in 1997, ending 156 years of British colonial rule. Hong Kong faced a predicament in terms of striving to retain its local identity and having to resist political, social and cultural hegemony by a much more powerful entity – China.

This paper aims to explore the impact of the handover on the social and cultural scene in Hong Kong, through the discussion of metaphorical interpretations of the characters and themes in Wong Kar Wai’s “Days of Being Wild”, via a postcolonial perspective and by illustrating with relevant examples of works by Hong Kong artists.

“Days of Being Wild” was filmed in 1991, by acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. Wong belongs to the mid-1980s Second New Wave of Hong Kong filmmakers who are concerned with depicting contemporary social and political issues of Hong Kong in their films, inspired by French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard.

“Days of Being Wild” is a story about York, the film’s protagonist – a philandering drifter who is unable to settle down and have a fulfilling relationship with any woman. Abandoned by his biological mother and brought up by his foster mother, a wealthy alcoholic former courtesan, York’s life is constantly plagued with the question of self-identity as he seeks to discover his origins. When he finally looks up his biological mother in the Philippines, she refuses to acknowledge him, and he departs, dejected and disillusioned.

One of the main themes of the film is about searching for one’s self-identity, which is evident in York’s character. Metaphorically, York’s character symbolizes Hong Kong, who is rejected by his biological mother, which represents mainland China, and is later deserted by his foster mother, a personification of Britain, who leaves for the States with her foreign lover. The film is commenting on the fact that Hong Kong is unable to formulate an autonomous identity while it is being handed over from one sovereign power to another and is questioning China’s policy of “one country, two systems”.
Identity politics are deeply entrenched into Hong Kong society as the people struggle to establish themselves as an individual entity. According to Brah, the concept of home is “centrally about our political and personal struggles over the social regulation of ‘belonging’” . What constitutes as a ‘home’ to Hong Kong is being able to carve out a democratic and autonomous space for themselves, retaining their own culture and identity.

Hong Kong artists have been preoccupied with the notion of creating a distinctive local identity for themselves. A common method of establishing this was to make use of the local Cantonese dialect to differentiate against Putonghua – the official national spoken language of China. An example of a work by a Hong Kong artist that evokes this mentality is “Guong Guen” by Kith Tsang in 1998. In his sculptural work, Tsang made use of found objects to illustrate a colloquial idiom specific to Cantonese.  Since non-Cantonese speakers will find both the Chinese and the romanized title of the work opaque, word play serves to give a consciously local meaning to the work.

Another closely related theme of the film is the fear of cultural hegemony. This can be seen in the constant referral to the metaphor of the “bird without legs”, reiterated by York’s character. He speaks of it being unable to land, and the only time which it lands is when it dies. A contextual interpretation of it would be that the bird is symbolic of Hong Kong, which is unable to find a place whereby it can feel grounded, as it is constantly being overshadowed by larger powers – Britain and China – which eventually leads to its demise.

This imbalance in power is articulated by Brah’s theory of binaries: how there is a general assumption of “a single dominant Other whose overarching omnipresence circumscribe constructions of the ‘we’”, and how these opposing “signifiers slide into one another in the articulation of power” . It is inevitable that the stronger power will influence and shape the lesser power and it is precisely this unbalanced relation of authority that worries Hong Kong – that its already fragile identity would fade into oblivion under the significant stronghold of Chinese culture.

One particular work that embodies this anxiety would be another work by Kith Tsang, titled “Hello! Hong Kong-Part 7”, done in 1997. In this installation piece, Tsang expresses the worry about the possible threat to pre-existing patterns of Hong Kong life following the post-handover political regime. He includes an inscription on the wall reading, ‘Store in a cool dry place, away from sunlight.’, which can be read as pertaining to Mao Zedong, given the common association between him and the sun as propaganda during the Cultural Revolution era. The bamboo screen’s exclusion of daylight from the installation space comes to be read as a protective gesture.

Another integral theme of “Days of Being Wild” is nostalgia – more specifically, a constructed pastiche of the past. The film was set in 1960, which significantly was during the childhood era of Wong, and according to him, a historical milestone as it was the year of both the John F. Kennedy and the Apollo space mission. This can be seen as his interpretation of the 1997 handover as being as momentous to Hong Kong as the above mentioned events were to America. This sentimental portrayal of the past could also be indicative of a longing to return to the way things were.

This nostalgic overtone of Wong’s films can be understood through Gopinath’s theory of the “backward-looking glance of diaspora”, “where the experience of displacement gives rise to a certain imaginary plenitude, recreating the endless desire to return to ‘lost origins’, to be one again with the mother, to go back to the beginning”.  The romanticizing of the past could be read as a form of memory, the capturing of a sense of loss.

A photographic work relevant to the theme of memory and loss is “Ice Skating, Lai Yuen Amusement Park”, by Wong Wobik, produced in 1997. The photography shows the iconic amusement park at Lai Chi Kok, a symbol of local cultural identity under threat of erasure. The choice of medium is significant here, as photography is well-suited for the task of remembrance due its established role as a documentary and truthful witness of events and places. Photography also helps to convey the anxiety of loss through its capturing of a moment which has already passed by the time of viewing.

The setting for “Days of Being Wild” is a fusion of the East and the West, epitomizing the culture of Hong Kong. While the characters speak in the local dialects of Cantonese and Shanghainese, the mise-en-scène is very much reminiscent of the era of James Dean, especially the film “Rebel Without a Cause”. There is a constant reference to Western cultural symbols such as Coca Cola, cafes, westernized fashion, and even Western names like Mimi and Lulu. This is reflective of the western influences that pervaded Hong Kong during its years of colonial rule and alludes strongly to the popular culture of the 1960s.
This cultural hybridity shows how Hong Kong relates to both Western modernism and Chinese traditionalism, creating a third, localized identity. As Gopinath explains, the British legacy is “imaginatively contested and transformed”  in the age of post colonialism and this is unique to Hong Kong’s heritage and history.

As a consequence of embracing both its colonial past and its cultural heritage, Hong Kong art is often of a hybrid nature, as mutually contradictory and irreconcilable as the two may seem. One such artwork would be “H.M. Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee”, done by Luis Chan in1977. In this painting, the monarch’s head appears on Hong Kong-issued stamps as a collage item attached to the painting’s surface, and the British Union Jack, is now in black and red, instead of red, blue and white. What might at first appear as a sign of homage in fact turns out to be a gently subversive statement about the colony’s ruler.

In conclusion, the themes of the film – the search for self-identity, fear of cultural hegemony, nostalgic construction of a pastiche past and cultural hybridity – are woven together to form a composite narration of Hong Kong’s hopes, fears and concerns for its future. The characters of the film can be read as abstractions of the political and cultural situation in Hong Kong and transcend the realm of film and enter into reality.

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