Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/07/2001.
Strange, looking back, to see that around a quarter of an article about Hong Kong ended up being about my discovery of Japanese pop music on the plane journey there. Although I didn't know it at the time, it'd be a subject I'd return to repeatedly in the years to come. And of the films I saw, the one whose director went on to greater things was the Korean one!
The plan was simple: on my thirtieth birthday, I wanted to be as far away from everybody I knew as humanly possible. So I spent the best part of two and a half weeks schlepping around China and Hong Kong, pausing only to make sure I was wearing a Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine Thirtysomething t-shirt on the day itself. (Well, that dates me, doesn't it?)
Touring China is, of course, a fascinating experience in its own right, but Hong Kong - where my tour started - was an absolute blast. I've always been more of a city holiday person, preferring that sort of environment to sitting on a beach or communing with (yawn) nature. And Hong Kong is the Ubercity: everything looks brighter, sounds louder and smells more. I fell in love with the place from the moment I first walked outside with my camcorder, and the lens instantly misted over with the humidity. I've stayed in love ever since, to the extent that I felt massively let down by New York when I first went there a couple of years ago, because its much-vaunted energy level was nothing compared to that of HK.
I went back in 1997, a month before the event that was potentially going to change Hong Kong completely: the expiry of the British lease on the colony, and its return to mainland Chinese rule. It was an interesting time to be there: outside HK, people were terrified of the prospect of Chinese troops marching in and ransacking the place, while the locals seemed to be quietly accepting whatever was going to happen. It was neatly symbolic to note that in the West, the handover date was always referred to as June 30th, the date when British rule ended: in HK all the talk was of July 1st, when the new regime started.
So four years later, almost to the day, I took a Virgin Atlantic flight back to Hong Kong: to see what changes had taken place since then, and in passing have a look at what's been happening artistically. I started while on the plane by tuning the in-flight radio to the Cantopop channel, but gave up on that fairly quickly. The native pop music of Hong Kong is a hideous bland thing, and always has been. It's all sugary ballads and visually cute singers - easy to see why everyone was gearing up for the first Asian appearance of Westlife that weekend, as there's a similar stench of living death about their music.
The main discovery on my flight (after a quick browse through the other in-flight channels) was how cool Japanese pop music is now, at least compared with its Hong Kong counterpart. The Japanese seem more prepared to take risks, and see nothing wrong in constructing songs entirely out of hooklines, a bit like the mythical plane made entirely out of the material they use for aircraft black boxes. (This sort of imagery comes to mind when you fly Virgin Atlantic, unfortunately.) The HK locals seem to think so too, as every major record shop has whole racks dedicated to the latest J-Pop CDs.
Three acts I heard during my flight were particularly impressive - all widely different, though female lead vocals were a common factor and seem to be a general feature of the music. Judy and Mary specialise in gimmicky guitar-based rock - you've got to love a band whose key songwriting members Yuki and Takuya bill themselves as Tack and Yukky. Morning Musume appears to be an entire football team's worth of young teenage girls, who do spectacularly artificial pop records - one or two songs can sound brilliant, though an album's worth is like eating an entire fridge full of chocolate mousse in one sitting. (Strangely, like any rational human being, I'd like to see all the members of Atomic Kitten sent back in a time machine to 1940s Belsen, but their Japanese equivalent doesn't inspire anything like as strong a reaction.)
Finally, and best of all, Love Psychedelico, a duo whose first album is audaciously entitled The Greatest Hits and yet still manages to live up to that title. Vocalist Kumi's voice is a truly extraordinary thing, impossible to place geographically: she's even got that odd Dido-style Celtic warble thang going on, amid the mid-Atlantic drawl of Japanese lyrics that veer into English every so often (it appears to make the rhymes easier). And Naoki Sato's retro musical stylings complement her beautifully, especially on the song Last Smile, which I think I listened to five times in the space of a twelve hour flight. I ended up buying CDs by all three bands almost as soon as I got off the plane: the first two have kind of a kitsch appeal, but it's Love Psychedelico's record that I've seriously fallen for.
Once in Hong Kong, it was inevitable that seeing movies would be a major priority. As has been well documented, most of the biggest names in HK cinema did a runner prior to the Chinese takeover: hence the sudden Hollywood stardom of John Woo, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat and so on. For the people who were left behind, things haven't been looking too bright, and it's generally assumed that Hong Kong movies, like Punch, aren't as good as they used to be.
There's always been a hefty proportion of their output that was never intended for foreign consumption: the sort of films that'll play for a fortnight in HK cinemas and then vanish again, with possibly a brief afterlife on VCD if they're lucky. Cop Shop Babes is probably a prime example of this sort of thing: I was lured in merely by the title and a poster featuring seven women in bikinis brandishing automatic weapons. Truth be told, it's the usual mess put together for the domestic market: a broad comedy with the occasional bit of kung fu and gunplay, some weak gags (the male cops chasing the Babes are called Beer and Satay) and some downright dodgy ones (the bad guys have a comedy argument about which order they should rape the Babes in). A major plot point involves a male baddie from the pre-credits sequence spending most of the rest of the movie disguised as a woman and living with four of the Babes, and they never suspect anything. There's a silly cameo from Wong Jing (legendary HK hack director) as a Hannibal Lecter-alike, who wanders in and out of the loony bin to defuse bombs and eat the odd person who's no longer relevant to the plot. Big dumb stuff with a shelf life of precisely two weeks: your chances of seeing it by now are probably nil.
Born Wild is a more traditional genre piece. Two brothers have been estranged for several years: at the opening of the film one of them has just turned up dead as a result of his career in underground boxing. The remaining brother tries to find out what happened, and inevitably seeks Righteous Vengeance. It's nicely done: some subtle switches between the past and present plots, some wild stylisation of the fights themselves, and a winning performance from Patrick Tam as sidekick Ah Mann, who gets over an early unsympathetic scene (answering a mobile phone while he's kicking the shit out of a girl with 'I'm beating her up! Call back later!') to become an enjoyable character. (But that's HK's relationship to the mobile phone these days. Four years ago, talking on one during a film was a regular annoyance here: today it seems to be compulsory, and I was convinced I'd be ejected from at least one cinema for not using one.) The film goes a wee bit too far in the climactic scrap, but is still very enjoyable.
Visible Secret was getting all the hype when I arrived, and opened during my week in HK to record box-office. Ann Hui's ghost story concerns June (Shu Qi), a girl who's been able to see ghosts ever since she watched a bloke being decapitated by a tram as a child. Eason Chan is Peter, who befriends her at a club and falls in love, only to find himself at the centre of an ever-increasingly spooky web of events resulting from his girlfriend's gift. Stylishly shot and edited (and if that doesn't emphasise the scare moments, the screaming young girls sat behind me would do it for you): but it's a typical HK horror in that it can't make up its mind if it's playing for laughs or shocks, and ends up achieving neither. Sadly, the image that sold this film for me in the poster and trailer - a ghostly figure riding the MTR, the HK underground railway - has been the centre of some controversy. The MTR authority claimed that they didn't approve the footage that was shot there, and are not only banning adverts for it from stations but also had the offending footage removed from the movie, which is a shame. In the end, there's just one plot twist too many for credibility.
Films from the rest of Asia also get a look-in at cinemas here. Takeshi Kitano's Japanese hit Brother had just opened to critical acclaim (and in a usually reliable sign of success, VCD bootlegs were already on sale in the streets, which is why there's currently a $5000 fine for anyone who brings a camcorder into a place of public entertainment). Another foreign hit was South Korean film The Isle, which has a prohibitive Category III censorship rating, and with good reason. Kim Ki-Duk's movie has a surreally beautiful setting: a huge fishing lake run by young woman Hee-jin (Seoh Jung) who runs between the floating fishing huts selling bait, supplies and the occasional shag. Hyun-shik (Kim Yu-Seok) is a new arrival at the lake, and the film is basically the story of their developing relationship, generally quirky but with frequent touches of sheer nastiness. Lots of cruelty to animals (mainly fish, some birds and dogs, all apparently unsimulated), some dodgy sexual violence, a spectacular shot featuring a man crapping directly into the camera, and a gruesome fixation on the idea of human mutilation with fishhooks, all of which will probably reduce its chances of ever appearing in the UK uncut. There's a bit halfway through which I thought at the time was the single most disgusting thing I'd ever seen depicted on film, but that was only because I hadn't seen the ending yet. As they said about Iain Banks around the time of The Wasp Factory, there's a real talent here once it's been wormed: the sure sense of narrative in a largely dialogue-free film, the lovely visuals and some neat unexpected black humour make the director someone to watch out for.
If it's the performing arts you're interested in, the Fringe Club is the place to be: a cool boho hangout, a bit like the ICA is in London. I came here during my 1997 visit to see an improvised comedy show, which turned out to be a rather poor copy of the London Comedy Store Players performed by expats. This time I attended a performance by Glen Valez demonstrating a variety of frame drums. He obviously knows his stuff and can play them, but the enthusiasm didn't really come across, and it all got a bit samey and dull by the end. I nodded off once or twice, but that may have just been the jetlag, although the twenty minute Indian improvisation with pre-recorded drone didn't help.
The Fringe Club obviously attracts a regular clientele: lots of people at the Glen Valez show seemed to know each other, and I was very conscious that after the show they all stayed behind to chat to the artist and I was the only one who left. I drifted into the Fringe Club's gallery to catch the exhibition A Tribute To Local Loonies, a patchy celebration of the eccentricity of Hong Kong by a collection of artists. The best bits were the Jean-François Huchet photos of HK characters and situations (liked a shot of various traffic signs pointing in all directions and contradicting each other), and Kee Yung's jokey cartoons, such as the one shown above. (It's hard for a Westerner to appreciate the sheer horror that the Bye Bye Kitty cartoon engenders in an Oriental culture that worships Hello Kitty like a god. For a Western artist to be iconoclastic to the same degree, they'd have to lower an effigy of Jesus Christ head first into a mincing machine.)
More mainstream visual arts were on offer at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It's a lovely new building (though by HK standards, 1991 is positively ancient) with fabulous harbour views. Cleverly, they're partially obscured by Tse Ming-Chong's transparancies of the same view, shot one a day for the whole of 1994 and then hung directly in front of the windows. It's only $10HK to get in normally, but like a cheapskate I waited until Wednesday when they let people in for nowt, and found three billion ten year old kids jostling each other in front of the Picassos that formed a large part of the main exhibition on display. The Golden Section (part of the month-long multi-media French festival Le French May) recreated the major exhibition that kick-started Cubism in 1912. I appreciate what the Cubists were doing, but their work's never really done much for me intellectually or emotionally, so I'm afraid I wasn't that impressed.
Still, I'd be interested to find out what the locals made of Cubism: particularly in the light of the other major exhibition, Hong Kong Artists' Vision. In this one, local painters provided almost aggressively representational views of the local landscape (with one or two notable exceptions, particularly Sze Kit-Ling's surreal photos). It was nice to see depictions of some places I'd visited as recently as the day before, such as the Yuen Yuen Institute and the Fringe Club. The paintings didn't just show different artists' perceptions of HK, but also how the physical landscape has changed over the last century through building work and land reclamation. Upstairs, the historical gallery does the same for the early days of the colony, including some lovely nature paintings by Tingqua. A pretty gallery of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy rounds the museum off. Unthinkably there's no cafe, but there is a well-stocked shop where I picked up a framed monkey print by Huang Yong Yu for just over a tenner.
So has Hong Kong changed all that much after four years of Chinese rule? Not really. I tried desperately to get some pictures of Chinese soldiers on the streets, but even during a guided tour that went past their barracks I hardly saw a single one. If there is a difference to be noted, it's in the mindset of the locals. I felt more like a tourist over there than I did last time: not that there's any real negative change in attitude, just a little more sense of national pride and an increased desire to sell fake Rolexes. I was incredibly pleased during my 1997 trip when someone stopped me in the street and asked me for directions, mistaking me for a local resident. Back then, it was possible for a Brit to walk around the streets like we owned the place because, dammit, we did: but it's their country again now, and you couldn't possibly begrudge them that.
Another visit? Sure, why the hell not. It's still my favourite city in the world. Just give me a chance to plough through the obvious collection of souvenirs I picked up: a dozen or so Hong Kong movie DVDs. New stuff from Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark that hasn't made it to the west yet: old Sammo Hung classics that were going for less than four quid: and a kiddie cartoon called Origins Of The Chinese Zodiac, featuring cutesied-up animated tales of the twelve animals involved. Unfortunately, it would appear that the latter film is entirely in Cantonese and Mandarin with no English subs or dialogue. But never mind, even without that I'm sure to enjoy at least 8.3333% of it. Being a Monkey, and all.
Virgin Atlantic flew me out there, and did it in a reasonably competent fashion. Though I'm not convinced by the way they have six different colours of seats in the economy cabin. They presumably think it looks cool and funky: I think it looks like the plane's been assembled from the remains of half a dozen recently crashed ones. Maybe it's just me.
The Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay was where I stayed when I wasn't doing all the stuff listed above. Very nice too. That picture at the top of the page was the view from my bedroom window.
The South China Morning Post is Hong Kong's premier English language newspaper, and has a suitably impressive web presence (though free registration is required if you want to dig into the archives). Particularly useful is its arts and entertainment section, Totally HK [dead link].
Judy and Mary, Morning Musume and Love Psychedelico all have official homepages for you to look at: although as they're J-Pop bands, a lot of the content's inevitably in Japanese. So hooray for fans like Megchan who put together English language pages about the biggest bands on the circuit. Meg includes Romanized transcriptions of their songs as well as English translations: allowing you, for example, to sing along to Morning Musume's Ren'ai Revolution 21, or read its lyrics and ponder on whether it's some sort of Naomi Klein-style anti-capitalist treatise. (Clue: no.)
Live365.com is the portal to a galaxy of web-based radio stations, playing music from all over the world. So if you'd like to experience the delights of oriental pop for yourself, try Dudechat.com's selection of Cantopop [dead link], or the aforementioned Megchan's J-Pop [dead link] station. Alternatively, buy the albums by Judy & Mary, Love Psychedelico and Morning Musume from Amazon.com at terrifyingly cranked-up import prices. [See below for Amazon.co.jp's prices.]
The Hong Kong Movie Database is (as the name implies) a HK equivalent of the IMDB, with fully cross-referenced cast and crew details for shedloads of Hong Kong movies. If you want to know what's in HK cinemas right now, check out the Broadway Circuit's website.
DDD House is a rather good HK based online retailer of Oriental DVDs and Video CDs. Alternatively, AsianXpress [dead link] will import them into the US for you if you're a bit paranoid about ordering from so far away. Brits can use the tackily named but highly informative Bullets 'N' Babes DVD [dead link] site to find out what Asian videos are being released in the UK.
The Isle [dead link], Visible Secret [dead link] and Born Wild [dead link] - three of the four movies I saw while over in HK - all have official sites where you can find out more. Curiously, Cop Shop Babes doesn't... but there's a page of stills [dead link] available, and this synopsis [dead link] should tell you everything you could possibly want to know.
The Fringe Club has a functional and informative web site, although curiously it's not at the address where they say it is in their hard copy programmes. The makers of the Tribute To Local Loonies exhibition have a separate site you may want to check out as well.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art site has details of their permanent collection as well as their various temporary exhibitions. The Hong Kong Artists' Vision [dead link] exhibit mentioned above continues until September 2nd 2001.
AltaVista has had a web page translation capability on their site for some time now, but recently Babelfish was upgraded to allow it to translate Chinese and Japanese web pages into English, and vice versa: use it to translate those links above which include content in those languages. The results frequently come out sounding like demented Zen koans, but it's better than nothing.