"Global Trespassing and Boundary Maintenance: on Comrades, Almost a Love Story"

Discussant for two papers (Dr. Joseph Chan's paper on Disney's Mulan and Dr. Michael Curtin's on UFO's Comrades, Almost a Love Story) at the international conference titled "In Search of Boundaries: Communication, Nation-States and Cultural Identities" organized by the Department of Journalism and Communication and New Asia College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The ultimate concern of this paper is how to make sense of a (single) screen text in the context of transnational textual exchange.  Against the current dominant discourse of globalism, I would like to engage myself more in the question of meanings, especially local meaning appropriation.

Comrades has as its manifest content two Chinese Mainlanders crossing the border to HK to turn themselves into HK persons.  On the basis that the film in many ways addresses itself to the local HK people as its basic, ideal audience albeit entertaining a much broader global audience, I would like to make three assertions as a local person:(1)
First, that the film is basically about HK people and not the Mainlanders (despite its manifest content of two Mainlanders coming to HK), about our hybrid origins and hybrid popular culture (sourcing from that of Taiwan, local as well as the West) -- thus the aggregate identity of the HK person.
Second, that the film is not about collapsing or crossing boundaries or the erasure of difference, but about boundary maintenance of the HK collective social identities; and
Third, that the film is a tale of global trespassing of the HK subject who finally resolves to the perennial quest of "where's home for me" and defies any fixed sovereign affiliation.

(1) on HK people and their aggregate identity
Comrades is full of mythologies, of the HK person and HK as a place (esp. HK's multicultural character and its exotic colors, which marks Comradesand many other UFO productions).  It is also full of stock discourses about the collective experience of the local people, some of which are historically grounded while others are drawn from the imaginations of the local popular culture.  All main characters are recognizable caricatures in the popular discourse of the representative HK persons.  There is the Mainlander from the Guangdong province (Maggie Cheung character) who is the majority of the new population in HK in the `50s (and among them many of our parents).  There is the so-called Northerner (Leon Lai character) that reminds us of those non-Cantonese immigrants from Shanghai and the lower Yang-tze areas and further north, who are easily recognized by their accents and nonetheless manage to integrate into society of HK (and that's my neighbors for many years).  And whether the Northerner or the Southerner, their "naturalization" process completes as they finally learn to channel their enthusiasm toward consumer pleasure and economic activities.  There is also, in the film, a sub-narrative of the miraculous (overnight) success of the ordinary person turned legendary hero and vise versa (Maggie Cheung's character).  The Suzie Wong character (Leon Lai's Aunt Rosie) reminds us of the stereotypical Oriental woman desiring the White man (William Horden) in the `50s; and Westerners making their way through the lower local sector (as in Chris Doyle's character) are plentiful around us even today. Together they form the aggregate identity of the HK person.  There are many other stock narratives in the film that together conjure up the aggregate experience of the HK person: in addition to the miraculous success (HK being a place full of possibilities) just mentioned, we also have the typical association with figures from the clandestine world (a cultural marker of HK movies and the most popular imagination of local life).  Perhaps the most significant adaptation is in the pop singer Teresa Tang.  To those local people born around the late `50s and early `60s, Tang was the one darling idol of ours who occupied the TV screen almost five evenings per week in the famous variety show EYT in the early `70s -- before she was "handed over" to the Mainland.  Peter Chan's selective modeling of Tang as a cultural markers is obvious.  But selectivity of this sorts applies to most other details of the film.  That is to say, the film is not just about HK identity in history; and the so-called HK person is hybrid in nature, is not only a social/cultural category, but a highly discursive object.  None of the portrayal of the HK person is essential, but subject to a highly selective and discursive process, with mixed sources from popular memory.

The two protagonists and their experience represented in Comradesis far from living mythology of universal immigration experience, but highly specific of a internally cultivated self-representation borrowing from a diverse range of materials in HK’s own popular memory and pop-cultural history.(2)  Each character itself carries a unique discourse of a certain component aspect of the "HK person" as a discursive subject, present or obsolete.

The time span of the story covers the mid-`80s to the present.  But the film has a kind of "timeless" quality to it: "timeless" characters and their "timeless" local experience specific of a popular discourse about HK's quest for a collective identity covering a 50-year post-war period.

Peter Chan:
"To me, the film is an interesting journey of self-discovery.  I realize that the main characters in the films are not that different from the rest of us who are Hong Kong natives.  They may be different in terms of language, culture and attitude, but the rootlessness they feel are shared by us all. ..."  (from an interview with Peter Chan in the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 1997)

(2) Boundaries maintenance
Having established that Comradesis is about the aggregate HK collective identity, I also want to suggest that the film is a subtle statement to maintain the difference between a Hong Kong person and everything that is not.  What matters is not where a person comes from, but who manages to prove oneself a "Hong Kong person."
To state the obvious, Comradesis produces a paradigm of "who is HK & who is not," or "who is more HK and who's less," and subsequently models of proper conduct as well as life decision-making.  For the sake of cross reference, I want to point out that the film presents pictures of ethnic solidarity and ethnic boundaries that resemble those of F. Barth, Goffman and Mead.  The main thrust common to their writings is that identity is not a product of stable social structure, but fluid/flexible, always in the process of becoming, and has to do with boundary maintenance. (See Richard Jenkins' discussion in his book Social Identity, chapter 10.)

According to F. Barth, boundaries denotes social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete social categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories.  Boundaries persist despite a flow of personnel across them.  How that happens is a matter of situational flexibilities, as well as means-ends voluntarism of ethnic identity, which very much forms the narrative of the Maggie Cheung & Leon Lai characters' struggle of entrance into HK.  The film highlights identity as a matter of individual decision-making and a matter of negotiation that involves both affirming one's identity and demanding the recognition of others, recalling Mead's discussion.  Throughout the film, the two protagonists are confronted with practical life crises, and we see the narrative weaving a series of modification of their presentation of self in various everyday life settings, recalling Goffman's picture of selfhood.

So far, I seem to have gone into thick thematic analysis.  But my intention here is really to delineate the film as a paradigm of proper conduct, role-playing and decision-making that carries pedagogic implications for the DEM consumer that Toby Miller talked about yesterday morning.  As Michael Curtin asserts, Comradesis is not a film about the quotidian struggles of the Mainlanders' assimilating the HK mainstream.(3)  My analysis shows that the film is highly conscious of a specific paradigm of conduct and norms that governs the presentation of the individual and endows on it the proper social identity, all of which are rehearsed via the framework of “a hyper-conventional romance.”

Another point to emphasize here once again is that social/cultural collectivities are NOT stable systems, but fluid, osmotic in character -- and indeed the kind of HK-ness involved in the negotiation process in the film is specific of the time around HK's hand-over.   To be a HK person in the 1990s, or 1950s, 1930s etc. means different things.  To be a HK person in a specific moment in 1997 would involves emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain things that would not be emphasized in, say, the 1950s (phrasing after Jenkins, p. 93 bottom of page). 
["Emphasis" at other times:
*late 19thC: shock of a new multi-racial milieu;
*first half of 20thC: Cantonese Diaspora; about being a proper colonial subject Vs a patriotic Chinese with nationalist sentiments;  *before and after WWII: Northerner-Southerner distinction;
*`50s-60s: struggle to shed the refugee mentality;
*`80s: differentiation from the Mainlander "Ah Chan" and source of threats of law & order;
*`90s: HK'gers and Mainlanders learning to adjust to mutual presence (e.g. Two of a Kind/ 1992/ CCDC/cast: Tony Leung & Wong Tzi-wah, is a film about the two reconciling with a note of fraternity, and in fact with the Mainlander improving -- redeeming the conscience of -- the disoriented, irresponsible, care-for-nothing young HK protagonist).  ]
What do we emphasize of the "HK person" at a time immediately before and after the hand-over?  My answer, among other possibilities:  the HK person who's trespassing, who knows of ethnic boundaries and social/cultural differences and quietly maintains them against the top-down forces of  official "unification."

(3)  a tale of global trespassing
Comradesis has as its manifest content what I would call a tale of global trespassing (in which the main characters move from the Mainland to HK to New York uninvited), a journey through the forceful stream of global changes. 

Peter Chan:
"The characters in the film leave home to look for a better life.  They come to HK.  ...But HK is never a home.  So they move to New York.  Yet ironically, China is going through an economic boom in the mid-nineties.  So the first thing they do when they reach New York is to get a green card so that they can go home.  But then it is not exactly a home they are going back to.  It is just a place where they can find a better life. ...  This is what a lot of native HK people are going through."  (from HKIFF Hong Kong Panorama 1997 proceedings)

Of course there's the question of in what sense Comradesis is exemplifying HK's popular culture forging a new post-colonial subjectivity that eschews established binarism, and what it means to single out Comrades is as that one example.  This may lead us into a very different type of discussion of the film Comradesis -- perhaps possibly and helpfully as a specific "interpretive arena" in the way that Hector Rodriguez makes sense of the term in the Wong Fei-hong essay?  We may also raise the Q of what kind of institutional forces and factors are playing behind, and the Q of how to make sense of an individual screen text in the larger context of textual consumption and global screen text transaction -- and once again this also cautions us against falling back on to hasty reflectionism.  The issues are more than I can resolve here and I should leave it to the audience for discussion. 

A note on "Chinese-ness"
One important contribution of Prof Curtin's essay is his attempt to map out the scholarly debates regarding the boundaries of the Chinese identity as well as, though to a lesser degree, the local representational history of the interplay between Chinese and HK identities.  Here I have a Q on how to make sense of this elaborate narrative that Prof. Curtin maps out.  To me as a local person, this narrative (sections "Hand-over Identities" and "Historical Identities") is extremely significant because such an apparently "historical" account of the quest for a Chinese identity is precisely that one single grand narrative of Chinese-ness that has burdened the people of HK at different phases of our history.  In such an account, HK's entrance into this grand narrative is postponed until the 19th century when HK was born into a multi-racial merchant culture as an entreport with vibrant cross-cultural trading relations.  "Multi-racialism" (Helen Siu) may really be the everyday reality of the early colonial subjects of HK (but we're not sure because early colonial HK was also known for its strict ethnic/class segregation and the adoption of martial law to limit ethnic Chinese's freedom of movement in the evening), and yet to the contemporary HK people, the idea is more obviously a perpetuated myth.  The very fact that HK population has gone through a few stages of disruptive re-structuring, which defies any reading of continual gradual growth, makes the ideological forces of such grand narrative more irrefutable.  And here I would like to add on to the lengthy account one extra number to make this grand narrative complete: it is the discourse of Mainland intellectuals and literary writers' criticism of HK as the disloyal son who becomes enslaved to colonial rule. (See Choi Po-kin's essay "From Enslavement..." and Renditions issue on early Mainland intellectuals' impression on HK in early 20th C.)  It is in the light of this grand narrative that I find Comradesis ' freeing itself from the burden of negotiating with HK's new national identity an interesting move.  In brief, I find that situating the discussion of Comrades against the backdrop of the grand narrative as "facts" a bit problematic.  All those scholars should be subject to evaluation of their discursive effects.

A brief response to the point on Chinese immigrants in Singapore:
Historically, Chinese and HK identity or any variant of such are not simply an object of negotiation, or a title to win or a status to possess, but a function of survival.  As far as overseas Chinese in Asia are concerned, the "asserted and sustained" Chinese-ness is a function of ideology (the ideology of cultural superiority) often made necessary in order to legitimize ethnic Chinese people's immigrant presence and to enhance their economic supremacy/domination. Similarly, Chinese-ness of the HK people has to be understood in the right discursive space (context).  Chinese-ness is certainly a form of desirable political-cultural capital in the discourse of post-colonialism….

There're obvious methodological limitations and problems in deriving the meanings of collectivities from a single film text.  Depending on what our actual concern is, to pursue the social/cultural identity of the HK person, I would also suggest situating the discussion in the context of the evolvement of the city culture of HK, which will focus more on the everyday and the material micro-structures of HK as a city or urban space, rather than constantly situating and de-situating the HK person from the larger discourse of the Chinese person.
I do realize that the trend of discussion of identities has very much departed from nation, culture and ethnicity as basis, and is rapidly moving onto the reshaping of collective transnational identities in the new media environment.  But in the case of HK, there's yet a lot unexplored even in the more conventional terms, and the discursive meanderings and location of HK identities grounded in the physical locale of HK is definitely one not to dismiss.

To briefly address the Q I've raised in the beginning:
Comrades is an instance of "Chinese-ness" -- or rather "Hongkong-ness" -- as capitalization commodity, turned into multi-faceted labels toyed for monetary values in the international screen market by a local HK director who is in the process of internationalizing, or Hollywoodizing, himself.

1. I have developed this idea by coining the term "enigmatization" in an essay published soon in a U. of Minnesota anthology; the term is also used in an earlier and much shorter version of the essay in the IFF proceedings.  In a sense, Comrades is a typical example of that one type of HK films in the 10-year run-down to the 1997 that I argue "enigmatizes" and exhibits commemorative moments of the territory's popular memory.  And perhapsComradesis the last example in line to count.

2.Darrell Davies

3. Michael Curtin, “Sweet Comrades: Historical Identities and Popular Culture,” … (p. 15)