positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 131-159
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Re-Advertising Hong Kong:
Nostalgia Industry and Popular History
Eric Kit-Wai Ma
This article tries to map the nostalgic practices in Hong Kong at a key moment of political transition. It explores the discursive energies that activate and articulate social desire through the production and consumption of a sixty-second nostalgic TV commercial for a major bank in Hong Kong. Recent media studies have moved away from textual determinism and have increasingly been privileging the moments of textual reception. The new emphasis on the popular culture “from below” fosters a notion of idiosyncratic cultural consumption which, at times, leads to populist claims that media consumers can find their way out of the hegemonic control “from above.” Taking a revisionist approach, this essay articulates textual ideologies to both the production and consumption ends. It tries to give a big picture of how self-claimed “authentic” coding and encoding of popular meanings can be, in Anthony Giddens's term, structurated within the ideological formation of the political economy at large. And within these signifying processes, [End Page 131] there are gaps from which individuals can find nostalgic pleasure through their idiosyncratic reading of ideological texts. Moving beyond the binary of seeing popular texts as sites of control or resistance, this case study will show the interlocking connections of ideological discipline and interpretative pleasure in a politically unofficial popular history and an ideologically “official” narrative of transnational capitalism.
Despite their idiosyncrasy, the particular nostalgic practices of Hong Kong people are deeply embedded in the sociohistorical context of sovereignty reversion. Within restrictive discursive spaces, the history retold in the TV commercial under discussion is shaped by the advertiser, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (Hong Kong Bank), which was a quasi-central bank privileged by the colonial government and is still one of the dominant players in the Hong Kong capitalistic economy. Although the history of Hong Kong represented in the commercial is highly selective, the text is produced and consumed with a strong commitment to modernist ideas of progress and factual historicity. On a microlevel, these nostalgic practices of textual production and consumption are also regulated by the strong social desire for continuity at a time of extraordinary change. Combining analyses of contextual control from above and reading from below, this article tries to attend to the political economy of nostalgia as well as to the fine-grained negotiations of cultural politics.
I will begin with the questions of how historical meanings are orchestrated in the televisual text, how nostalgia is produced and consumed, and how these nostalgic practices are embedded in and complicated by the political economy of capitalistic culture. By posing these questions through the particular case of a Hong Kong TV commercial, I want to touch on issues of general theoretical concern. The first set of questions is about historicity in an age of image processing. Recent scholarship has significantly problematized the past, deconstructing all of its forms into discursive imprints of the present.1 This project could easily slide into yet another attempt to problematize memory and history and repeat the cliché of “history as invention.” The case at hand could not sustain a full-blown epistemological reexamination of various forms of history. Instead, I will explore the discursive effects of the persistent belief in modernist historicism. My questions are How does a belief in historicity render the consumption of historical realism [End Page 132] so gratifying? How does a covert commitment to factual history heighten the academic pleasure of cultural elites in deconstructing popular history? How can modernist historicism be related to industrial capitalism?
The second set of questions concerns the nexus of social anxiety and nostalgic desire under a weak nationalism and a strong globalized capitalistic economy. Hong Kong is located at the political periphery and lacks a strong and distinct nationalism.2 Not until very recently has there been a powerful discourse on historical origins and cultural heritage after the sovereignty change in 1997.3 If there is no strong nationalism to...