Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.33.3: THE UNWALLED CITY, by Xu Xi, 2001

V033-03_unwalled-bricksThe 1997 “handover” (actually repatriation) of the erstwhile British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China was an event that, in addition to its many political and economic implications, fostered considerable introspection among it population of some seven million Hong Kong yan .   All but a few percent are Hong Kong yan , the local Chinese; the rest are sometimes referred to as “hongkongers,” the westerners who are often referred to by theyan , unaffectionately, as gweilos, or “white ghosts.”   Most Hong Kong yan were caught in some “limbo” of citizenship, with passports for an entity that soon would no longer exist in a political system with a fifty-year countdown presumably to communism, and an uncertain economic status.


Both Hong Kong yan and hongkongers variously affected attitudes of flight (to Canada and other points west), fight (the formation of pro-democracy movements), or a party-like posture that said make money while the sun shines, for tomorrow we may have to send our money abroad.   Others seized upon its dramatic tensions and wrote about it.    In the run up to the handover academics and novelists wrote books, [1] filmmakers cranked their cameras.


Xu’s tale is of the love lives of Hong Kong’s 20-40-year-old yuppies, a cohort that is not only affected with pre-handover syndrome, but also the more international angst that afflicts that age cohort that has forsaken long-serving traditions and social norms for the freewheeling world of people with self-determination and money.   They can’t seem to find happiness because they can’t seem to define it.  


None of the dramatis personae of UC seems to be “into” or care about much more of anything than themselves.   Either divorced or having affairs, they all assuage this apparent lack of direction with a roundelay of bed-hopping and comparing the body-types and techniques of their kaleidescope of partners.   Vince, a twice-divorced American photographer plays thegweilo stud who seems to get to bang the most of the local lovelies.   That includes the Chinese-speaking American nympho-trophy-wife of Kwok Po, one of the local wannabe tai pans.   Adanna, a Chinese model who wants to be a canto-pop singer gets it on with her boyfriend’s roommate whom she otherwise despises, and Clio, a divorced mother lives in fear that she might be over the hill as far as men are concerned.   Take away the sprinkles of Cantonese and Mandarin and the east meets west stuff and you would probably run into these people—if you hung out in whatever is the local Lan Kwai Fong —of any cosmopolitan city just about anywhere these days.  


  Since Hong Kong is a bit of a village they are all loosely related by blood or professional association, which allows for a good deal of competition and comparison, and some cattiness.   If this were one’s only window on Hong Kong it might seem to be an Oriental version ofDesperate Housewives .   As expected there is a local money-bags guy around to remind us that this town of traders—one in which it is not uncommon to see local Chinese women, plastic shopping bags in hand, gathered around a commodity price screen in the window of one of the banks that are on nearly every corner—money is what makes the world go round.   Hong Kong people may not always get the value of things right, but they always know its price.


Xu Xi’s tale seems drawn from life.   An Indonesian-Chinese, raised mostly in Hong Kong, a former international business woman with multiple fluencies who frequents the US, Europe and down-under, she knows the place and personalities quite well and writes their internal voices (the females at least, the men are more mono-dimensional) with assurance and depth, though perhaps with a little too much “ Ayeeeah , I screwed him ‘til his eyes watered and he hasn’t called in three weeks!”  


Xu Xi comes along at a time when Hong Kong film has attempted to break out of its almost sui generis mode and audience.   For decades Hong Kong cinema has been localized, and only recently—and perhaps helped by the attention Hong Kong received in the dramatic pre-handover days—produced some films that have been able to cross-over to western audiences.[2] She has been described as perhaps the “foremost English language writer to capture contemporary Hong Kong in fiction.”   Therein lies a bit of a dilemma, however.   Writing about a social set that transcends Hong Kong, that is increasingly placeless because it exists everywhere, gives us a Cantonese flavor on a dish that is ubiquitously served up, increasingly in Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, Singapore, and wherever wealth is being created by and for the growing money-ed cosmopolitan class.   They are a class that doesn’t look back (because there’s little relevance for them there), but doesn’t see forward very well either.   Perhaps this is why they seem mostly interested in the next quarterly report and who they are going the screw this weekend.   They do need to be the subject of fiction, and Xu Xi does it well and with a truth, because they are the cohort that will (some of them) rise to be the tai pans of the global economy and we ought to get to know them and their values.   Perhaps that is the reason for her choice of title.   The city has become unwalled; the transcendent world that is called “globalism” these days has flooded in and settled in the streets of the Midlevels, Discovery Bay, and Central in Hong Kong.


I appreciated The Unwalled City because it is about a social set for which I   have neither the entry qualifications nor sustained interest.   I encounter them only in passing when I am in their (our?) city.   For me, the indigenous Hong Kong exists in the interstices of their city, in the places I call “Cantoville,” the down and dirty (and diminishing) areas where the “real” Hong Kongyan live, work, love and die.   It’s where little old ladies waddle on bowed legs from their stained Chinese-style blocks of flats with dripping air conditioners to the Man Mo temple, of the Tung Wah hospital, sell fruit and vegetables from wet markets, run little electrical appliance shops or laundries, and dried fish establishments, where little Haaka ladies that look like question marks ply the streets for cardboard boxes.   They ride the lower deck of the Star Ferry.   Theirs is a different story, with different values, passions and problems.   It’s waiting for a Xu Xi to write it.


The dramatis personae of Unwalled City are not stereotypical in the way that the cast of a Clavell novel might be.   They are cut quite realistically, to the point of banality, at times.   And, in spite of this being a “handover” novel they seem quite unconcerned, as does the author, given all the local and international discussion of it.   The event itself occupies a few pages at the end, an anti-climax that befits the anti-climax of the lives of her characters.   Perhaps that is best.   Life did go on in Hong Kong, a protean city with no sense of nostalgia, but a long history of fitting itself to the local winds and currents of money and political power.   A Hong Kong friend told me over lunch at the Hong Kong Club in the Spring of 1997 that “Hong Kong people (he meant the Chinese) are traders , not investors; they’re in for the short turnover not the long run, like gamblers.”   Maybe that’s the way you have to be in an “unwalled city,” with your money always close to hand.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.11.2006)

[1] Paul Theroux showed up to write Kowloon Tong.   Last Year in Hong Kong, by Robert Elegant, and Asian Values, by Nury Vittachi, among others.

[2] Directors Wayne Wang, Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai have managed to attract interest and/or financing from the west.   Films such as Chinese Box, Chunking Express, In the Mood for Loveand Crouching Tiger-Hidden Dragon have brought Hong Kong or Hong Kong actors, directors and cinematographers to the attention of western filmgoers.   And, Jackie Chan and the late Bruce Lee brought have successfully exported traditional Hong Kong martial arts genre