Hong Kong Phooey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am

Certain places conjure up images in the mind's eye. For Rio de Janeiro it's samba and magnificent scenery; Calcutta, poverty; Paris, the Eiffel Tower and romance. These images contain only elements of truth and representations of Hong Kong are much the same.

Long before mass tourism, 'penny dreadful' novellas were the closest most readers ever got to Hong Kong. These cheap books were highly coloured, wildly inaccurate pastiches penned by hacks who had never visited the place. Lurid plots inevitably featured seamy opium dens and innocent women kidnapped by white slavers and sold into a life worse than death along the China coast.

W. Somerset Maugham's 1920s novel The Painted Veil (now a popular film) was partly set in Hong Kong. Some individuals were so accurately portrayed that the colony's name was fictionalised in early editions to avoid possible libel action. In the 1950s, romantic films such as Love is

a Many-Splendored Thing did much to place Hong Kong in the world's popular imagination, and helped fuel that decade's tourist boom.

The image obviously sold; Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong has never been out of print since it was first published in 1957. Over the years, sensationalist titles such as Hong Kong After Dark and Hong Kong Madam have pandered to libertine expectations; in reality a hypocritical combination of prudery and prurience remains the general Hong Kong approach to anything sexual.

Later, popular novels about Hong Kong, such as James Clavell's Tai-Pan and Noble House, became international blockbusters. They were based loosely on real people and events, and thoroughly well-stocked with stereotypes. Hard-headed Scottish merchants build business empires, beautiful Eurasians waft through the storyline and sinister Chinese tycoons exact revenge on someone for something.

Perceptive depictions of Hong Kong, such as Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express or Fruit Chan's Durian Durian, receive little exposure outside the city except in art-house cinemas.

In the post-Joint Declaration years, Hong Kong was seen as a 'city on the edge', its people dreading the return to 'Red China' in 1997. Thousands of column inches fuelled international perceptions of impending apocalypse. But, like it or not, the world lost interest in Hong Kong's generally stable, business-as-usual post-handover reality. Cameras moved on to fresher stories, and in the absence of some Sars-like calamity, few observers pay much attention to Hong Kong any more.