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  • Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema
  • Evans Chan

As Hong Kong’s anti-climactic 1997 decolonization came and went, the British (post)colony experienced a tumultuous decade—it was discovered by the international media, by Hollywood, and finally by the post-modernists. Maybe the question put by a contemporary academic Sepulveda to a latter-day Bartholomew de Las Casas should be: “Are they True post-modernists?” or “Are they True post-colonialists?” If there is any doubt that the project of Enlightenment, or secular Rationalism, is still very much with us, the burgeoning publications of postmodern studies of developing countries and “Third-World” cultures testifies to the universalizing Western intellect’s mandate to name and classify. As we enter the new century, the knowledge-power regimes in which Hong Kong and China seem already to be enmeshed are apparently as inescapable and indispensable as the cyberculture.

The modernist zeitgeist, according to Jurgen Habermas, is marked by the passage of utopian thought into historical consciousness. Since the French Revolution, Western utopian thinking is no longer mere pie-in-the-sky, but is armed with methodology and aligned with history. “Utopia” has become “a legitimate medium for depicting alternative life possibilities that are seen as inherent in the historical process.... [A] utopian perspective is inscribed within politically active historical consciousness itself” (Habermas 50). In a succinct formulation, Immanuel Wallerstein described the Enlightenment as “constitut[ing] a belief in the identity of the modernity of technology and the modernity of liberation” (129).

We can see how Enlightenment beliefs, through the imperialist expansion of the West, get translated into the parlance of the May Fourth Movement that erupted in China in 1919. Apparently the pursuit of the first generation of Chinese intellectuals in the last century is still haunting China at the beginning of the present one. The May Fourth crowd was looking for guidance from Mr. D (democracy—the modernity of liberation) and Mr. S (science—the modernity of technology). However, even at the time of the French Revolution, the parting of ways between Mr. D and Mr. S became inevitable in terms of realpolitik. The ruling class quickly noticed that Mr. D and Mr. S don’t really share an agenda. Those who embraced Mr. S were often appalled by Mr. D and had the means to restrain him. The inevitably mixed results of this venture as regards Chinese civilizations can be charted today in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Singapore.

Whatever merits a theory of postmodernism may have, to declare the total bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project, of which the idea of universal human emancipation is a key component, seems a bit of a joke for Hong Kong and China. We have seen powerful arguments developed by the Frankfurt School and then by Foucault that unmask the unfreedom of men in the post-Enlightenment West. We can certainly appreciate the inadequacy of formal freedom when economic inequalities and other tricky micropolitics are built into the everyday life of civil society. However, Hong Kong is a place where the promise of democracy has been deferred again and again—from its colonial era to the post-colonial present, where the persistent official myth is that Hongkongers are simply moneymaking machines who are antipathetic to politics. Yet, in May of 1989, a quarter of its 6.5 million-person population took to the streets in support of the demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square; and in May of 1998, about the same number of people showed up at the first post-colonial polls to cast their votes for the window-dressing seats (twenty out of sixty) that are open to direct elections. It is hard not to agree with Habermas that modernity—as a set of emancipatory premises—remains an unfinished project here!

The past decade also witnessed a periodic bruising battle over the US renewal of China’s Most Favoured Nation status. Undoubtedly there are racist undertones in the American Right’s pounding of the human rights situation in China, given their silence on, say, Israel. Still it would be easier for the two-thousand-plus prisoners of conscience in China to accept US foreign policy as pragmatic and calculating than to swallow the theory...

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