The snake beneath Hong Kong's skin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 4:25am

Many know the expression "Return of the Dragon", which was adopted as the title of Bruce Lee's 1972 film. But few are aware of its literary sequel, loosely translated, "Strike of the Snake".

Placed fifth in the Chinese zodiac of a 12-year cycle, the Year of the Snake gives the least propitious impression of the zodiacal animals. With its "creepy" look and noxious nature, the serpent conveys poisonous, deceitful, deadly qualities.

A parallel impression is found in Western culture - for example, the Garden of Eden, Medusa, and Cleopatra.

But on the positive side, the Chinese would probably be the first to come forward to defend the reptile. A bowl of snake soup is said to warm the body in the chill of winter. And a snake gall bladder, swallowed fresh or dipped in wine, is believed to be a great source of energy. After all, Nüwa, a mythological Chinese goddess who created man and repaired Heaven, was halfhuman and half-snake.

But to local cultural critics, the snake could mean much more.

"With its versatility and adaptability, Hong Kong is like a snake," said critic Perry Lam Pui-li.

"If the snake in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which gave knowledge to differentiate between right and wrong, then Hong Kong is the snake," the radio host said.

Since 1997, he said, Hong Kong has acted like a snake by tempting mainland visitors to "sin" by tasting the forbidden fruit of knowledge.

"As a snake sheds its skin every year, Hong Kong needs to re-invent itself to remain competitive," he said.

Leung Man-tao, TV host and critic, said there was no need to "tempt" mainlanders, who were ably informed about the world. He pointed to the snake's neighbour in the zodiac - the dragon - as a more meaningful reference.

"Chinese call themselves the dragon's descendants but deem the snake to be a vicious creature. But to me those are two faces of a coin," he said, adding that the dragon was mythological while the snake was real.

Shum Yat-fei, a veteran cultural critic, said the snake enjoyed higher esteem in the past than it did now.

"It is an embodiment of quick wit and even made it to be the main character of the classic A Tale of White Snake, so it's not all that bad," he said. Although the snake in the fairy tale does play a key part on the plot, it isn't given the most flattering portrayal.

"But there are different kinds of snakes - some poisonous and some not. The late Mao Zedong, born in 1893, a snake year, belongs to the poisonous kind."

Chu Hai College professor Ma Kwai-min said the movement of the snake, which has inspired Chinese military strategy for centuries, can act as an inspiration for Hong Kong.

"A snake moves with its head and tail in perfect co-ordination in accordance with the situation it faces. That is the way we Hongkongers need to perform in challenging times to come," he said.