The Return of Postcolonialism and the Dead: Postcolonial Gothic Literature and Hong Kong by Calvin Fung
Writing and artwork in the recently published Wasafiri special issue, ‘Writing Hong Kong’, capture the tense political climate that Hong Kong is experiencing. Some of the most notable factors contributing to the tension are the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasing involvement in Hong Kong legislation and politics, unregulated immigration from the PRC to Hong Kong, and local Hong Kong people’s resistance to this. In the past couple of years, the ‘Umbrella Movement’ of 2014, during which Central and other major regions in Hong Kong were peacefully occupied by democrats, and the acts of violence in the ironically-termed ‘Fishball riots’ of 2016 are prime examples of some locals’ efforts to resist what they see as the PRC’s infringement on their rights. One of the major roots of these issues is about identity, or, more appropriately, a lack of identity. I propose, in this article, that postcolonial Gothic writing and literary criticism offers us a way of expressing and examining such issues of identity that, given Hong Kong’s worsening political situation, appears urgent. Before going further into the postcolonial Gothic, it would be necessary to discuss some debates and theoretical frameworks with which to explore Hong Kong’s colonial/postcolonial history and status.
In Ackbar Abbas’s often cited Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, he says of Hong Kong: ‘We are witnessing certainly not the disappearance of culture, but “some original and yet untheorized” form of culture, what I propose to describe as a culture of disappearance’ (7, original italics). Disappearance, he argues, is not equivalent to nonappearance, but it is more accurately defined as a status of misrecognition — not seeing what is there, for instance. In the same way, I contend that Hong Kong’s peculiar history of colonisation has led to a confused Hong Kong identity — what does it mean to be from Hong Kong or a Hong Kong person? Similar to the ‘yet untheorized form of culture’ Abbas mentions, a formalised ‘Hong Kong identity’ has yet to be theorised.
When I say that Hong Kong has a peculiar history of colonisation, I am referring firstly to the fact that Hong Kong has no relevant precolonial history (Abbas 2). The geographical borders of Hong Kong, or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as it is known now, is dependent on the amount of land the British borrowed from the PRC, not by any historical demarcation or definition prior to British rule. Second, Hong Kong acts as a postcolonial anomaly because of its position between two colonisers. This idea was first proposed by Rey Chow in 1992, who asks, about Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, ‘How do we talk about a postcoloniality that is a forced return to a “mother country,” itself as imperialistic as the previous coloniser [the British Empire]?’ (153). Her thesis of Hong Kong as doubly-colonised invites us to see not only the British occupation of Hong Kong from 1843 to 1997 as the result of colonisation, but to recognise Hong Kong’s forced submission back to the PRC as another form of (re)colonisation. It is this unheard of colonial-postcolonial process or status that motivates the development of a rhetoric and theoretical lens with which to understand postcolonial identity in Hong Kong.
There has inevitably been backlash to Chow’s assessment of Hong Kong’s postcolonial status. Iam-Chong Ip criticises Chow for being reductionist, claiming that she has ‘ignored the cultural dynamics between different groups in China and Hong Kong’ (58). He brings into discussion the notion of ‘northbound colonialism’, that Hong Kong is in fact colonising the PRC with its economical and pop-cultural forays northwards. Wing-sang Law in 2000 builds upon this argument, calling Chow’s notion of double colonisation a ‘self-pitying image’, where Others, such as the British and the Chinese are ‘constituted and distorted in the process of building a postcolonial self — but also risks involving them in a kind of “complicit postcolonialism” ’ (208). Law believes that the northbound colonialism has been underplayed because, in part, many Hong Kong small capitalists were not made accountable for their exploitation of the PRC’s lax labour laws. He subsequently refers to a fiction writer, Fung-yee Leung, from Hong Kong, who published many influential novels, which he claims have won ‘acclaim across the social spectrum, from ordinary readers to the established literature bureaus in China’ (213).
Law posits that the works of a single female fiction writer had influence in the PRC, but would that be sufficient to say that Hong Kong was involved in a grand scheme of northbound colonisation akin to the colonisation of Hong Kong by China that Rey Chow describes? And, more importantly, is it that Leung influenced the PRC with her novels or that the PRC allowed Leung’s novels to influence the PRC — given the PRC’s history with censorship, it would seem unlikely that the PRC would allow Leung’s novels to be so widely disseminated and celebrated across the country if they contravened the PRC.
Reminded of Benita Parry’s advocacy for ‘a return to a politics grounded in the material, social, and existential’ (77) in postcolonial studies, it should be noted that fixating on the few capitalists in Hong Kong who had enough capital to venture into the PRC disregards the social and personal level of the situation preceding and after the 1997 handover. Prior to the handover, in 1987, a survey showed that ‘45% of the 1,359 respondents said that they would want to leave by 1997 if they had the chance’ (Wong 918). A riot instigated by the anti-British, pro-communist that broke out in Hong Kong in 1967 sparked an increase in emigration (921), and events such as the 1989 Tiananmen incident motivated people to leave Hong Kong (919). Ip’s and Law’s northbound colonialism theory seem to rely on the experiences of those from a wealthier background and higher social stratum, but, looking at this issue from a more intersectional point of view, many were also concerned about their own safety rather than exploiting or influencing the PRC. In fact, Hong Kong workers saw potential immigrants from the north as a ‘socioeconomic threat’ because of their perceived willingness to work more for less (Ku 348).
In light of recent events, such as the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers (who sold books banned by the PRC) and the legal interpretation of Hong Kong’s law by the PRC’s National People’s Congress, both of which took place in 2016, it seems less appropriate to state that the colonialism occurring is northbound. On the other hand, while there are undeniably many colonialisms going on, the reason the notion of double colonisation is still significant, since Rey Chow’s essay three decades ago, is that from a more social standpoint, the British (West) versus PRC (East) conflict, between which Hong Kong lies, remains evident. In David Clarke’s photography series, ‘Street Protest in Hong Kong since the Handover’, there is a photo of protests against the said abduction of booksellers, where a protestor is wrapped in a British Hong Kong flag, waving a ‘China = ISIS’ sign (60). In spite of the fact that British rule (and the British Empire) ended two decades ago when Hong Kong was returned to the PRC, there is the expressed desire to return to British Hong Kong. The choice of the colonial Hong Kong flag as a sign of resistance demonstrates the yet alive perceived antithetical relationship between the British and the Chinese in the minds of locals, even if the actual impact of the United Kingdom on Hong Kong now is negligible and a return to the British is a commonly agreed upon impossibility.
The British Empire and British influence over Hong Kong, while supposedly dead, have come alive as ghosts to haunt the PRC — though dramatic, this is an image of what postcolonial Gothic writing and criticism investigate.
Postcolonial Gothic literature and literary criticism have focused upon postcolonial sites such as New Zealand, the Caribbean, Canada, and Australia. Hong Kong has yet to be examined through this lens. Though this may be because there is little Hong Kong Anglophone literature to begin with, let alone Gothic Anglophone literature, a ‘Hong Kong identity’ can be conceived of as inherently postcolonial Gothic if we consider what has been said about Anglo-Indian identity. Alzena MacDonald-D’Costa looks at how the Anglo-Indian community is Gothic in its uncanny position in between independent India and a history of colonial servitude. ‘As a result of this difference and contention’, she contends, ‘Anglo-Indians have become regarded as the nation’s uncanny: something familiar but whose presence creates anxiety’ (340). Anglo-Indians’ identifiable retainment of the European colonialist past symbolises a breakage in the order of a fully Indian identity, and ‘the Gothic is a rethinking of this order and rationality, and provides a space for a return of the repressed’ (344). Similar to an Anglo-Indian person, a Hong Kong person has an identity that is too foreign or Westernised to be recognised as Chinese and too non-British to be accepted as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Hong Kong identity and belonging leading up to the handover, Agnes Ku writes, was a ‘by product of the exclusionary immigration and citizenship policy of the British government’ in the 1960s (346). Rey Chow, similarly, has commented on the difficulty of the Chinese’s acceptance of Hong Kong, which was colonised by the British, occupied by the Japanese in the Second World War, and has become ‘westernised and commercial’ (163).
In a special issue of Gothic Studies, William Hughes and Andrew Smith articulate the utility of the postcolonial Gothic, and in effect why it is an appropriate analytical lens for Hong Kong writing:
There is a sense, though, in which the Gothic is … post-colonial, and this where, in the Gothic text … the colonial encounter – or the encounter which may be read or interpreted through the colonial filter – proves a catalyst to corrupt, to confuse or to redefine the boundaries of power, knowledge and ownership. (1, original italics)
The combination of a postcolonial mode of thought with the Gothic, a genre of writing that capitalises on excess and transgression, in Hong Kong’s case, reveals the slippage of power and influence between differing political and cultural groups. The notion of a predetermined and stable colonial force over Hong Kong is questioned as the local population is fractured into camps and other imperialistic regimes come into play. To represent the tension between the sparring factions and those who are caught in the middle, the postcolonial Gothic often introduces supernatural beings.
One example of this in popular Hong Kong culture would be the geong-si (or jiangshi). This is a living corpse from Chinese mythology and its name means, literally, ‘stiff corpse’. The monster is portrayed as a lifeless body who moves only by hopping and wears the uniform of a Qing-dynasty official. Stephanie Lam offers some analyses of the significance of this monster in twentieth-century popular culture. She first introduces her argument by quoting film scholar Stephen Teo. He says that Chinese influence in Hong Kong in the 1980s
began to manifest itself as an identification with China as the source of one’s culture and language, a kind of abstract nationalism that while registering it, bypassed fear and loathing for the communist regime as well as for aspects of the colonial, laissez-faire capitalism which ruled Hong Kong and Taiwan. (207)
Lam proceeds, then, to her examination of ‘Mr Vampire’, a critically acclaimed comedy horror film released in Hong Kong in 1985 featuring a geong-si. Her conclusion is this:
Guns and Western rationality in these films are equated with cowardliness, coded as ineffective tools and frameworks for taming the [geong-si’s] unruliness. The film depicts colonial sympathizers as paradoxically repressive and effeminate, suggesting that the real site of patriarchal power and right lies with the Chinese traditionalists. In insisting upon the importance of ritual and myth, the film symbolically refuses British colonial rule in favor of a Chinese authority and heritage (48)
What is first ignored in this interpretation is that the geong-si is as Chinese as the methods or traditional rituals used to combat it. The geong-si in this film is arguably one of the most ‘Chinese’ characters of them all, given its distinct, traditional Qing-dynasty attire; the other traditional Chinese outfits, Taoist monks’ robes, are worn by the monks who overcome the monster. Further, considering Stephen Teo’s contention that Hong Kong people identified with Chinese culture and thus bypassed the fear of and hatred for the communist party, is a more fruitful analysis not that Hong Kong’s popularised depiction of a Chinese monster being defeated by Chinese means is a reflection of Hong Kong’s paradoxical inward struggle between registering Chinese heritage and fearing and despising the PRC?
Exploring ‘Mr Vampire’ through a postcolonial Gothic lens, the triumph over the monster is not simply a refutation of British rule or the adoption of Chinese beliefs. Beyond this, the geong-si is an ancient Chinese force that, once thought to be dead or repressed, has come to being again. Far from being wholly alien, this monster is too familiar — it demonstrates, by its Qing-dynasty uniform, a shared cultural heritage and shares bloodlines with its intended victims. Yet, with its sustained rigor mortis, thirst for the destruction of its prey, and resistance to conventional weapons, it has become unfamiliar — uncanny, one of the defining features of Gothic literature. Failure of Western technology indicates not simply the general fall of British colonialism but signals also an imminent inability to protect the innocent, those at the mercy of the monster or ancient rituals that can destroy it. In the end, the victory over the monster of Chinese legend requires submission to an equally Chinese power.
Deviating slightly from the geong-si, I came across an even more ancient, albeit purely fictitious and not mythologically-based, monster called ‘Temutma’ in Rebecca Bradley and Stewart Sloan’s postcolonial Gothic novel by the same name published in 1998. In Temutma, the monster, while portrayed on the cover as wearing a Japanese Second World War uniform, is ancient to the extent that its origins are known by none of the characters — even the ‘Keeper’ who is supposed to keep it under control does not know. The novel is set in Hong Kong in around 1990 when Kowloon Walled City was being prepared for destruction. Strange deaths lead to investigations by the Hong Kong British police force. The protagonist, a white female who was born in Hong Kong, has her family slaughtered by the monster. On a quest for vengeance, she teams up with the police and the ancient ‘Keeper of Temutma’ to put the monster to rest. By the end of the novel, it lies buried underneath the location of the now demolished Kowloon Walled City.
Elaine Ho offers two readings of what the monster Temutma is. On one level, she writes, it is a ‘projection of anxiety about China’s takeover of Hong Kong. But it is also universalised as some kind of metaphysical evil that becomes present in times of war and bloodshed.’ (para 2). I disagree with any argument that Temutma is Chinese as Bradley and Sloan have been fastidious in their concealment of the origins of the monster with deliberate references to its appearance across countless ancient cultures. Instead, the return of Temutma, a few years before Hong Kong’s return to China, signals change and unrest. In fact, the monster is woken up by workers tasked with planning the demolition of Kowloon Walled City (which took place in 1991-1992) — a task motivated by the upcoming 1997 handover. Here, evoked are the sentiments of a fin-de-siècle Gothic (literally ‘turn-of-century Gothic’), a subgenre of Gothic fiction towards the end of the nineteenth century that expressed anxieties, such as about a corruption of morality, that modernisation or changes the imminent future was to bring about.
Temutma is a force of chaotic evil, guided only by its desire to debauch and to destroy. Surrounding it are the conventionally East-versus-West forces: the residents of the Kowloon Walled City, a group of people notorious for their resistance to British rule and allegiance to the PRC (Harter 92), and the Hong Kong British police force. At the centre, though, is the young, white female protagonist who fits in with neither side of the divide. Elaine Ho contends that for this group of cultural identities, ‘the ground of solidarity, or a “Hong Kong” identity, is not race, nationality, age, gender, or class, but rather long-term residency’ (para 3). Expanding upon this, it could be argued that, unlike conventional postcolonial discourse that favours terms such as ‘native’, ‘settler’, ‘colonised’, and ‘coloniser’, Temutma draws attention to the importance of ‘residency’. Certainly, when a young female of British descent with no ties to the patriarchal Chinese culture is the willing saviour of Hong Kong and the heroine who will continue to protect the city from Temutma, long after Hong Kong becomes part of the PRC, length of residency becomes an overriding factor in determining the legitimacy of her claim to a Hong Kong identity.
Unlike the geong-si, Temutma is never truly destructible — it can only be put to sleep. Then, if the awakening of Temutma is a response to the upcoming unrest or anxiety about the 1997 handover, the possibility of Temutma’s re-awakening can be read as yet another reminder that change is to come. (In Hong Kong’s case, the year 2047, the year when the Sino-British Joint Declaration officially comes to an end, comes to mind.) It is the Gothic undying persistence of danger and insecurity that Temutma represents that frames the spirit of postcolonial Gothic Hong Kong writing. Its presence signalises chaos and an environment where cultural and political identities are unstable, where boundaries of power are constantly redefined.
- As a second-generation Australian immigrant from Hong Kong, my parents and grandparents are an example of those who fled Hong Kong prior to 1997 in fear of the communist takeover.
Margaret Oliphant’s A Beleaguered City (published in 1880) is an underappreciated and brilliant example of this.
Abbas, M. A. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Chow, Rey. “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 1992, pp. 151–70. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/dsp.1992.0011.
Clarke, David. “Street Protest in Hong Kong since the Handover.” Wasafiri, vol. 32, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 51–60. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/02690055.2017.1322317.
Harter, Seth. “Hong Kong’s Dirty Little Secret: Clearing the Walled City of Kowloon.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 27, no. 1, Nov. 2000, pp. 92–113. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/009614420002700106.
Ho, Elaine. “Bradley and Sloan 1998.” Hong Kong English Literature Database, 2010, http://www.hongkong-english-lit.net/Bradley%20and%20Sloan%201998.htm.
Ip, Iam-Chong. “The Specters of Marginality and Hybridity.” Chinese Sociology & Anthropology, vol. 30, no. 3, Apr. 1998, pp. 45–64. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.2753/CSA0009-4625300345.
Ku, Agnes S. “Immigration Policies, Discourses, and the Politics of Local Belonging in Hong Kong (1950-1980).” Modern China, vol. 30, no. 3, July 2004, pp. 326–60. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0097700404264506.
Lam, Stephanie. “Hop on Pop: Jiangshi Films in a Transnational Context.” CineAction, no. 78, Dec. 2009, p. 46.
Law, Wing-sang. “Northbound Colonialism: A Politics of Post-PC Hong Kong.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, vol. 8, no. 1, Mar. 2000, pp. 201–33.
MacDonald-D’Costa, Alzena. “India’s Uncanny: Anglo-Indians as (Post)Colonial Gothic.” Continuum, vol. 23, no. 3, June 2009, pp. 335–49. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/10304310902903165.
Parry, Benita. “Resistance Theory / Theorising Resistance or Two Cheers for Nativism.” Colonial Discourse, Postcolonial Theory, edited by Francis Barker, Paperback ed, Manchester Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 172–96.
Teo, Stephen. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. Reprinted, British Film Inst, 2002.
Wong, Siu-lun. “Emigration and Stability in Hong Kong.” Asian Survey, vol. 32, no. 10, 1992, pp. 918–33.