Is Hong Kong free?

I’ve had many conversations with different people about how Hong Kong has changed since becoming a territory of China in 1997. There are a lot of different camps: Some say the changes have been subtle but significant, others that the changes have actually been surprisingly minimal. Some decry what they see as a cultural shift in the island territory, a dulling of what used to be a vibrant civil society. Many applaud the opportunities being part of China have afforded them, financially and otherwise. Here are points of view in some interesting reports:

Freedom House takes on the question in an appraisal of the media. In their annual report (PDF) on press freedom, released today, they downgraded Hong Kong’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free” for 2008. Here’s how they explain it:

In terms of status changes, Hong Kong’s status declined to Partly Free to reflect the growing influence of Beijing over media and free expression in the territory. Of particular concern were the appointment of 10 owners of Hong Kong media outlets to a mainland Chinese political advisory body, increased restrictions on film releases in the period surrounding the Olympics, and reports that critics of Beijing encountered growing difficulty in gaining access to Hong Kong media platforms.

At the same time, the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal gave Hong Kong its top rank in their annual Index of Economic Freedom which was released in January. They explain:

Hong Kong has an impressive record of openness to global trade and investment. Despite a lack of natural resources, the economy’s institutional strengths have allowed it to achieve high levels of prosperity reinforced by vibrant entrepreneurial activity. The small island is one of the world’s leading financial centers, and regulation of banking and financial services is transparent and efficient. Income and corporate tax rates are very competitive, and overall taxation is relatively small as a percentage of GDP. Business regulation is straightforward, and the labor market is flexible. Property rights are well protected by an independent and corruption-free judiciary.

Anthony Y.H. Fung and Chin-Chuan Lee predicted 15 years ago that integration with China would prove to be a dilemma for Hong Kong’s traditionally free and vibrant press. They introduce a 1994 paper (PDF) in the International Communication Gazette this way:

Hong Kong’s media are undergoing an unprecedented rate of ownership change as the British colony sails toward the transfer of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. The fate of Hong Kong was decided by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Since then, China has attempted to coopt the Hong Kong media and journalists by conferring prestige, legitimacy, interests, and information upon them. This strategy has reaped unusual success despite temporary setbacks in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In this final phase of the transition, however, foreign corporations have started to raid on Hong Kong’s media, with which they hope to capitalize on a growing market in China. Equally important, China seems intent on managing political effect of the transition through media acquisition by pro-China or China-affiliated capitalists. All these new owners must cope with the dilemma of ingratiating themselves with China without impeding media legitimacy in Hong Kong’s market environment.

legislative building

Hong Kong’s landscape is changing as well. The coastline used to come right up to the edge of the Legislative Council Building (formerly the Supreme Court). 

queuing for movies

They all said the Pusan International Film Festival is the premiere festival in Asia. I’m no Asia film scholar, but it certainly is a big deal here. I’ve never seen teenagers wake up so early to get movie tickets before.

On the third day of the festival, we also woke up early to get tickets to some shows we wanted to watch. My friend Brian Hu is fully accredited and can get tickets one day ahead of time. I, as an Asia Pacific Arts photographer, am not.

Last night I attempted to reserve tickets for shows today. The interesting thing about this festival is that it really is designed for Koreans here to see Korean films and international films with Korean subtitles that they would ordinarily never have access to. If you are a Korean resident you can buy tickets online, at ATM machines and in banks. It’s wonderful to see all the excitement – the festival is visible in one way or another all over the city.

sell_out_thumbail147x200.gifA foreigner, however, needs to queue up. They sell tickets in person only on the day the movie is showing, and the tickets sell out fast. I got in line just after 9 a.m. and by the time I reached the counter at 10:45, more than half the films showing today were sold out. I did manage to get a ticket to the Malaysian film Sell Out! by Yeo Joon Han, which I am really looking forward to. Considering I was tasked with teaching students in Singapore to be creative (no joke), it will be interesting to see Yeo’s lampooning of how corporate interests wreak havoc on creative industries.

I also picked up a ticket to 63 Years On, a documentary by Kim Dong-won about Korean comfort women (sex slaves in World War II) and how their lives are now. I’ve crossed paths with this topic so many times before that the film caught my eye and I thought I’d take a look.

In the coming days, I’m hoping to catch a few more documentaries, and some films from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Tan Chee Wee, head of the Signapore Film Commission, gave brief opening statements at the beginning of an event adjacent to the festival, Asia Policy Plus, a two-day conference about film policies in the region. He speaks again tomorrow, so I’ll learn more about how films in Singapore are funded. Today, Tan talked about a bit about a funding scheme for new directors to make their first feature-length films. It seems that the Commission will take a large role in “nurturing” these films — and I hope to clarify exactly what that means. Brian is focusing on Taiwan and Hong Kong films and we’ll both be writing some short reviews for Asia Pacific Arts.

Two Guangzhou Neighborhoods

In the last days of the Olympics, neighbors in Sanyuanli and residents of the Clifford Estates left their televisions on so that the final matches and last medal ceremonies set the backdrops of their daily lives.

The neighborhoods are similar in many ways. They both sit on the edges of the megacity of Guangzhou. The people who live in Sanyuanli and the Clifford Estates seem to enjoy their ways of life, and exhibit pride in the place where they live. They point browsing visitors to their most cherished monuments — for Sanyuanli, a monument to their victory over the British in an 1841 battle of the Opium War, and for Clifford Estate, the multimillion dollar condominiums that line a beautiful lakeside walk. Which, of course, hints at the two neighborhood’s obvious differences.

Sanyuanli is an upward-growing urban slum, where small businesses line small alleyways and families crowd the upper levels of precarious housing. It’s called a “shake hands village,” where the buildings are so close together that neighbors can shake hands just by reaching out their windows. Clifford Estate is a sprawling and modern development, a gated community for retirees from Hong Kong and upwardly mobile families in China. It’s home to Clifford markets and Clifford restaurants and its own internal shuttle service system.

Here are these neighborhoods in pictures.

Thanks to my little bridge to China, Jacky Peng, and my road tripping companion, Anka Lee, for giving me entree into these neighborhoods.

Orientalism or chinoiserie?

Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.


It’s been one long month — it’s great traveling and I love to see new things. But it nice to take stock.

I spent an excellent two weeks in Turkey in March. Istanbul is a fantastic city — I particularly like Turkish tea, backgammon and grilled cheese. And fresh tomatoes. It’s a vibrant place with so many surprising paradoxes (see this and this). I also recommend sleeping in caves. There’s something about it — maybe the minerals in the air or the way it gets very dark — that gives you a really deep sleep. Turkey also offers some really amazing, really ancient things.

I got my first taste of Hong Kong, as well, and let me tell you, it was delicious. (Don’t go overboard on the street food, by the way. I learned that the hard way.)

Here’s a new friend I made in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia boy