Hong Kong’s arts scene grows more vibrant by the day and its fine-art market is now considered one of the best in the world. There are musical ensembles of all persuasions, an assortment of theatre groups, Chinese and modern-dance troupes, and numerous art organisations. The West Kowloon Cultural District is one of Asia's most ambitious cultural projects. Government funds allow organisers to bring in top international performers, and the number of international arts festivals hosted here seems to grow each year.
Hong Kong is one of the three most important art-auction centres in the world, along with New York and London. Theoretically, it can only get stronger, given that China has already surpassed the US as the world’s largest market for art and antiques. Despite some industry concern about the ability of the Chinese market to promote stable, long-term growth, Hong Kong will continue to ride the bull wave nimbly – and with gusto – for as long as the overheated market keeps its lid on. Art Basel, the world's premier art fair, launched a Hong Kong edition in 2013; Hong Kong Art Walk is an annual event that runs alongside it, involving dozens of galleries in town – both now fall under the umbrella of what has been designated Hong Kong Arts Month. There's also the Affordable Art Fair, so that mere mortals can get in on the act without having to drop mega bucks.
Contemporary Hong Kong art tends not to bother too much with grandiose narratives about nationhood and religion, preferring to take an introverted view of the world and expressing visions of Chinese-ness and increasingly Hong Kong–ness outside of the national frame. There are hundreds of small commercial galleries in Hong Kong, particularly in Central, many of them selling very serious works of art.
The opening of the M+, tentatively slated for late 2019 though it has been dogged by delays, will definitely be a highlight of Hong Kong's cultural arena in the not-too-distant future. The M+ is a museum for 20th- and 21st-century visual culture, and is part of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), the city's most ambitious arts development project to date.
The best sources for information on Hong Kong and Asian art are Asian Art News (www.asianartnews.com), the free monthly Art Map (www.artmap.com.hk; Chinese only), the Asia Art Archive (www.aaa.org.hk) and the Hong Kong International Association of Art Critics (www.aicahk.org).
In general, Chinese painters of the past were interested in traditional forms and painting processes – not necessarily composition and colour. Brush strokes and the utensils used to produce them are of vital importance and interest. In traditional Chinese art, change for the sake of change was never the philosophy or the trend; Chinese artists would compare their work with that of the master and judge it accordingly.
The influential Lingnan School of Painting, founded by the watercolourist Chao Shao-an (1905–98) in the 1930s and relocated to Hong Kong in 1948, attempted to move away from this tradition. It combined traditional Chinese, Japanese and western artistic methods to produce a rather decorative style, and dominated the small-art market in Hong Kong for the next two decades.
The most distinct group of painters and sculptors to appear in Hong Kong were the proponents of the New Ink Painting movement who came to prominence in the late 1960s. Most had strong links to China or its cultural heritage. The movement aimed at reconciling Chinese and western ideas by steering traditional Chinese ink painting towards abstract expressionism. Lui Shou-kwan (1919–75), who arrived in Hong Kong in 1948, was the earliest and the best known of the New Ink Painting artists. Lui worked for the Yau Ma Tei ferry as a pier inspector and taught in his spare time. Speaking no English, his only experience of the west was through pictures and books borrowed from the British Council library. Many of the artists who became associated with the movement were his students.
The only major artist to break free of the dominant style of the era was Luis Chan (1905–95). Born in Panama, Chan came to Hong Kong at the age of five, where he learnt to paint from art magazines and a correspondence course. Stylistically, Chan was a loner with no apparent allegiance to any painting tradition. He was also a genius who, particularly in his post-1960s works, transformed Hong Kong into a fantastical realm of dreams and hallucinations. His 1976 painting Ping Chau is a bizarre interpretation of the somnolent outlying island that is at once puzzling and endearing.
The 1980s and '90s saw the coming of age of artists born after WWII, many of whom had received their training abroad. Less burdened by the need to reconcile east and west, they devoted their efforts to defining avant-garde art, often through western mediums. They were also politically engaged. Wong Yan-kwai, a painter educated in France, was arguably the most influential artist of that period and is still one of the most accomplished today. His powerful paintings in vibrant colours are free of any social or historical context. Wong’s mural graces Club 71 in Central.
London-trained Antonio Mak (1951–94) is Hong Kong’s most famous contemporary sculptor and is known for his figurative pieces in cast bronze. He focused on the human figure as well as on animals important in Chinese legend and mythology (eg horses and tigers), and was greatly influenced by Rodin.
Salisbury Gardens, leading to the entrance of the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui, is lined with modern sculptures by contemporary Hong Kong sculptors. Dotted among the greenery of Kowloon Park is Sculpture Walk, with 30 marble, bronze and other weather-resistant works by both local and overseas artists, including a bronze by Mak called Torso and one by Britain’s late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) called Concept of Newton.
Compared to their predecessors, Hong Kong’s young artists – those born in the '70s and '80s – take a more internalised view of the world. They are overwhelmingly unfussed with orthodox Chinese culture and older generations’ attempts to amalgamate east and west. Instead, they’re often looking for – or perhaps, trying to retrieve – something that is uniquely Hong Kong. Nonetheless, their works show eloquence in a host of mediums, from Wilson Shieh’s cheeky urban paintings using Chinese gōngbǐ (fine-brush) techniques to Jaffa Lam’s sculpture installations.
Chow Chun-fai’s background across a wide spectrum of media has seen him work between different art forms, such as photographs from classical paintings, or paintings from films. Adrian Wong’s playful works involve his family connections to prominent names in the local entertainment industry, and indigenous superstitions. Kacey Wong’s exciting installations can usually move about and invariably involve some kind of Hong Kong theme or common household treasure recast in a jovial light. His Sleepwalker (2011) contraption imbues the bunk bed – an indispensable fixture in Hong Kong’s tight living spaces – with life and speaks to a mass aspiration, or doomed desperation, for a more humane habitat.
Hong Kong is endowed with internationally competitive photographers, and some of their works can be seen in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Blindspot Gallery and during the excellent biennial Hong Kong International Photo Festival.
Working in black and white, documentary photographer Yau Leung (1941–97) captured some of the most stunning and iconic images of 1960s Hong Kong, while art photographer So Hing-keung focuses on the shadows, figurative and literal, of the city in creations known for their psychological depth. Hong Kong–born, London-based visual artist Kurt Tong explores his multi-layered identity, family heritage and memories through thoughtful documentary photography. In Case it Rains in Heaven (2010), his best-known project, is presented like a high-end shopping catalogue of stylised portraits of paper-made objects burnt as offerings for the deceased. The combustible items honoured by Tong run the gamut of modern human desires in Chinese societies.
Street Art & Other Arts
Street graffiti was almost nonexistent or largely unrecognised in Hong Kong until the passing in 2007 of the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kowloon’ (aka Tsang Tsou-choi), who for decades had smothered the city with his trademark rambling, childlike calligraphy that cursed the Queen of England for ‘usurping’ his rightful land. His irrepressible daily reveries and inimitable visual style eventually inspired many artists and designers, and won him exhibitions both at home and abroad.
Street art has noticeably grown in Hong Kong since, perhaps with the King’s benediction. This trend in part stems from a new-found confidence among a younger generation of artists to express their dissatisfaction with the social problems of the day using means that are more open and combative. The website Hong Kong Street Art (http://hkstreetart.com) shows where you can see samples of the genre.
HKWalls (http://hkwalls.org) is an annual street-art festival held around March that showcases the works of local and international artists on the streets of Hong Kong. Unlike much of the graffiti you see in town, the organisers of HKWalls actually seek approval from businesses to use their walls before covering them with art. Events have been held in Wong Chuk Hang and Soho in 2017 and 2018.
After the April 2011 arrest in mainland China of the prominent artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a number of artists in Hong Kong came forth with a dose of creative surprise to raise public awareness of his case and to rally for his release. Most memorably, Ai-inspired graffiti stencils appeared on pavements, overpasses and walls for five nights straight around the city, thanks to a lone operator known only as ‘Tangerine’.
Contemporary ceramics is another field in which Hong Kong artists enjoy an edge beyond the city’s borders. Fiona Wong, one of the city’s best-known ceramic artists, makes life-sized sculptural works of clothing, shoes and other familiar items. A couple of small studios to look out for are Pottery Workshop Gallery in Central and Chiu Kee Porcelain Studio on Peng Chau Island.
Feature: Art Spaces & Galleries
Non-profit exhibition spaces in Hong Kong include Para Site in North Point, one of Asia's most active independent nonprofit art groups, Fotanian Open Studios (www.fotanstudios.org), annual opening day of artists’ lofts in vacated factory buildings set against the rolling hills of Fo Tan; the nine-storey Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC; www.jccac.org.hk), which was converted from an industrial building and houses artists’ studios; and Cattle Depot Artist Village, a one-time slaughterhouse that is home to a colony of local artists. The best time to visit the Fotanian Open Studios and the JCCAC is during their open studios (see their websites for the dates).
Admission is free to almost all commercial galleries in Hong Kong.
Hong Kongers may not be quick to get up and jive when music is played, but they certainly enjoy music – in their homes, the air-conditioned comfort of a concert hall or a casual bar or karaoke lounge. Thanks to the city's mixed heritage, you'll find a decent range of music, from eastern to western, and classical to contemporary.
Western classical music is very popular in Hong Kong. The territory boasts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. Opportunities to see big-name soloists and major orchestras abound throughout the year, especially during the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The Hong Kong International Piano Competition, with its star-studded jury, is held every three years in October/November. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (www.hkapa.edu) has free concerts almost daily.
The best times to experience world-class jazz in the city are during the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Hong Kong also has a small but zealous circle of local musicians, including guitarist Eugene Pao, the first local jazz artist to sign with an international label, and pianist Ted Lo, who has played with Astrud Gilberto and Herbie Hancock.
You won’t hear much traditional Chinese music on the streets of Hong Kong, except perhaps the sound of the doleful di-daa, a clarinet-like instrument played in funeral processions; the hollow-sounding gu (drums) and crashing luo (gongs) and bat (cymbals) at lion dances; the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle favoured by beggars for its plaintive sound; or strains of Cantonese opera wafting from the radio of a minibus driver. You can sample this kind of music, albeit in a form adapted to a symphony-orchestra model, at concerts given by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (www.hkco.org). For more authentic fare, catch a Chinese opera or check out the Temple Street Night Market, where street performers deliver operatic excerpts.
Hong Kong’s home-grown popular-music scene is dominated by ‘Canto-pop’ – compositions that often blend western rock, pop and R&B with Chinese melodies and lyrics. Rarely radical, the songs invariably deal with such teenage concerns as unrequited love and loneliness; to many they sound like the American pop songs of the 1950s. The music is slick and eminently singable – thus the explosion of karaoke bars throughout the territory. Attending a Canto-pop concert is to see the city at its sweetest and most over the top, with screaming, silly dancing, day-glo wigs and enough floral tributes to set up a flower market.
Canto-pop scaled new heights from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and turned singers such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, Priscilla Chan and Danny Chan into household names in Hong Kong and among Chinese communities around the world. The peak of this Canto-pop golden age came with the advent of the so-called Four Kings: thespian/singer Andy Lau, Mr Nice Guy Jacky Cheung, dancer-turned-crooner Aaron Kwok and teen heart-throb Leon Lai.
It never quite reached that altitude again. Subsequent arrivals such as Běijīng waif Faye Wong, Sammi Cheung, Kelly Chen and proto-hunk Nicholas Tse took their turns on the throne for a time. But today most stars are a packaged phenomenon. Singers from the mainland and Taiwan – singer/songwriter Jay Chou is one example – are competing with local stars and gaining new fans here, and the strongest influences on local music are now coming from Japan and Korea. There are also acts making their marks from the edge of the mainstream, such as Ellen Lo and Eman Lam, two ‘urban folk’ singer-songwriters, and My Little Airport, a dapper act whose irreverent multilingual lyrics are often speckled with cute Chinglish.
Much, though not all, theatre in Hong Kong is western in form, if not content. Traditional Chinese theatre can still be experienced, but western theatre has been very influential. Most productions are staged in Cantonese, and a large number are new plays by Hong Kong writers. The fully professional Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (www.hkrep.com) and Chung Ying Theatre Company (www.chungying.com) put on Cantonese productions, very often with English titles. Theatre du Pif (www.thtdupif.com), formed by a professional Scottish-Chinese couple, puts on innovative works incorporating text, movement and visuals, in English and/or Cantonese. Hong Kong Players (www.hongkongplayers.com), consisting of expatriate amateurs, mounts classical and modern productions in English, while Zuni Icosahedron (www.zuni.org.hk) creates conceptual multimedia works known for their experimental format.
Among the more popular venues are the Fringe Club theatres in Central. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, Hong Kong City Hall and the Hong Kong Arts Centre all host foreign productions, ranging from large-scale western musicals to minimalist Japanese theatre.
Chinese opera (hei kuk), one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world, is a colourful, cacophonous spectacle featuring music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting. Admittedly, it can take some getting used to. Female characters, whether played by men or women, sing in falsetto. The instrumental accompaniment often takes the form of drumming, gonging and other unmelodious punctuation. And the whole affair can last four to six hours. But the costumes are splendid and the plots are adapted from legends and historical tales with universal themes. If you happen to attend a performance by a leading Cantonese opera troupe such as Chor Fung Ming, you’ll experience some of the best moments of Chinese opera.
Cantonese opera (yuet-kek) is a regional variety of Chinese opera that flourished in Hong Kong, particularly in the 1950s when opera virtuosi fleeing China composed and performed a spate of original works in the territory. But eventually the limelight shifted to the sleek, leather-clad kid on the block – cinema – and things have been going downhill for Cantonese opera ever since. It is still very popular with retirees, but younger fans are few and far between.
A shortage of performance venues has been a problem in the past, but theatre options are improving. Sunbeam Theatre in North Point and the restored Yau Ma Tei Theatre in Kowloon both promote Chinese opera, but more recently the Ko Shan Theatre in Hung Hom, Kowloon, has become a champion of local opera culture. Its new wing, opened in 2014, includes a 600-seater auditorium and busy weekly performances, and it's also home to a new Cantonese Opera Education & Information Centre, with a small exhibition, videos and costumes.
The best way to experience Cantonese opera is by attending a ‘performance for the gods’ (sun kung hei) in a temporary theatre. During major Chinese festivals, such as the Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and Tin Hau Festival, rural communities invite troupes to perform. The performances usually take place on a makeshift stage set up in a temple or a bamboo shed, and it is a jovial, laid-back event for the whole family that lasts several days. For a more formal experience, try the Hong Kong Arts Festival. At other times, you might stumble upon a performance at the Temple Street Night Market nearby. You can also check out the enlightening Cantonese-opera display at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
Other varieties of Chinese opera being performed in Hong Kong by local and/or visiting troupes include Peking opera, a highly refined form that uses almost no scenery but different kinds of traditional props; and Kun opera, the oldest form and one designated a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.
A Xiqu Centre, a top-notch venue for the performance, production, education and research of Chinese traditional theatre was due to open in the West Kowloon Cultural District at the time of press.
Hong Kong has long suffered from the misconception that it does not have a literature of its own, but, in fact, the city has seen a thriving microclimate in the vast landscape of Chinese literature, where the same sun shining on other parts of China has spawned distinct smells, textures and voices.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Hong Kong was a haven for Chinese writers on the run. These émigrés continued their writing here, their influence lasting until the 1970s when the first generation of writers born and/or raised locally came into their own. The relative creative freedom offered by the city has spawned works in a variety of genres and subjects, from prose poems to experimental novels, from swordplay romance to life as a make-up artist for the dead.
Hong Kong Collage: Contemporary Stories and Writing (ed Martha PY Cheung; 1998) is an important collection of fiction and essays by 15 local writers. To Pierce the Material Screen: an Anthology of Twentieth Century Hong Kong Literature (ed Eva Hung; 2008) is a two-volume anthology featuring established figures, younger names and emerging voices, and spans 75 years. In From the Bluest Part of the Harbour: Poems from Hong Kong (ed Andrew Parkin; 1996), 12 poets reveal the emotions of Hong Kong people in the run-up to 1997. For critical articles on Hong Kong literature, check out the special Hong Kong issue (winter 2008) of the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese (Lingnan University of Hong Kong).
The major literary festival in the city is the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Cha (www.asiancha.com), Hong Kong's home-grown literary journal, features poetry, prose and photography about Asia.
Translated Hong Kong Fiction
The Cockroach and Other Stories (1995) by Liu Yichang Liu Yichang (1918–2018), Hong Kong’s most respected senior writer, is believed to have written the first stream-of-consciousness novel in Chinese literature. ‘The Cockroach’ is a Kafkaesque exploration of psychology and philosophy. In ‘Indecision’, a woman is torn between staying in Hong Kong and returning to her mad husband in Shànghǎi.
Islands and Continents: Short Stories (2007) by Leung Ping-kwan Anti-heroes enter the limelight against the background of Hong Kong history. In ‘Postcolonial Affairs of Food and the Heart’, a man devours the culinary and erotic delights of other cultures in a bid to find his identity. Leung has also published the bilingual Travelling with a Bitter Melon: Selected Poems (1973–98).
Love in a Fallen City: And Other Stories by Eileen Chang Chang (1920–95) is considered by some to be the best modern Chinese writer. In the title story set during WWII, a divorcée pursues a liaison with a playboy from Shànghǎi to Hong Kong. Director Ann Hui made it into a film starring Chow Yun-fat. Chang also wrote Lust, Caution, a tale of love and espionage, which was adapted for film by Ang Lee.
My City: A Hong Kong Story (1993) by Xi Xi This novel offers a personal vision of Hong Kong in the '60s and '70s through the lives of a telephone repairman, his family, friends and, come to think of it, pineapples and stationery. Asia Weekly ranked it one of the top 100 works of 20th-century Chinese fiction.
Renditions Nos 47 & 48: Hong Kong Nineties (1997) Two writers that stand out in this collection of 1990s Hong Kong fiction are Wong Bik-wan (b 1961) and Dung Kai-cheung (b 1969). Wong, a flamenco dancer, writes with a violent passion. ‘Plenty and Sorrow’ is a tale about Shànghǎi, with a chunk of cannibalism thrown in. Dung recreates the legend of the Father of Chinese Agriculture in ‘The Young Shen Nong’.
Sidebar: Top Museums for Hong Kong Art
- Hong Kong Museum of Art (Tsim Sha Tsui)
- JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun (Soho)
- Hong Kong Arts Centre (Wan Chai)
- Asia Society Hong Kong (Admiralty)
Hollywood Rd in Central is a hotspot for street art. Start at the intersection with Graham St and work your way west, finishing around Tai Ping Shan St, and you'll pass an ever-changing open-air gallery. Or even an artist in the process of creating a new piece.
Liu Yichang (1918–2018), Hong Kong’s most respected senior writer, was the author of the stream-of-consciousness novella Tête-bêche which inspired Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
Renditions journal (www.cuhk.edu.hk/rct/renditions/index.html) has excellent info on Chinese literature published in English. Hong Kong University Press (www.hkupress.org) also publishes works by local Chinese writers.
Antonio Mak’s work employs much visual ‘punning’. In his Bible from Happy Valley (1992), a racehorse is portrayed with a wing-like book made of lead across its back. The word ‘book’ in Cantonese has the same sound as ‘to lose (at gambling)’.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department (www.lcsd.gov.hk) regularly stages free arts and entertainment shows at its venues throughout the territory.
Only a handful of King of Kowloon's works are left on Hong Kong’s streets and there was public outcry in 2017 when one of them was painted over in a playground closed for renovations. See the concrete pillar that bears his imperial treatise at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Once known as the ‘Hollywood of the Far East’, Hong Kong was for decades the third-largest motion-picture industry in the world (after Mumbai and Hollywood) and the second-largest exporter. Now it produces a few dozen films each year, down from well over 200 in the early 1990s. Yet Hong Kong film continues to play an important role on the world cinema stage as it searches for a new identity in the Greater China market.
Hong Kong cinema became known to the west when a former child actor appeared as a sinewy hero in a kung fu film. But before Bruce Lee (1940–73) unleashed his high-pitched war cry in The Big Boss (1971), the kung fu genre was alive and kicking. The Wong Fei-hung series, featuring the adventures of a folk hero, has been named by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running cinema serial dedicated to one man, with roughly a hundred episodes made from 1949 to 1970 alone. The works of the signature directors of the period – Chang Cheh, whose macho aesthetics seduced Quentin Tarantino, and King Hu, who favoured a more refined style of combat – continue to influence films today.
Jackie Chan & Jet Li
The decade after Bruce Lee’s death saw the leap to stardom of two martial artists: Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Chan’s blend of slapstick and action, as seen in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), a collaboration with action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (who choreographed the action on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix), became an instant hit. He later added stunts to the formula, resulting in the hits Police Story and the Rush Hour series. Li garnered international acclaim when he teamed up with director Tsui Hark in Once Upon a Time in China (1991). Despite his reputation for tampering with a print just hours before its premiere, Tsui introduced sophisticated visuals and rhythmic editing into the martial-arts genre, most notably in Hong Kong’s first special-effects extravaganza, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). As a producer, he helped to create John Woo’s gangster classic A Better Tomorrow (1986).
Contemporary Martial-Arts Films
Fast forward to the 21st century, when a Bruce Lee craze briefly returned on the 35th anniversary of his death with the release of Ip Man (2008), a fawning semi-speculative biopic of Lee’s mentor. A sequel, Ip Man 2 (2011), was more chop socky and less solemn, though the nationalist-hero treatment still applied, with a Sinophobic British pugilist in postwar Hong Kong replacing Japanese soldiers as the enemy. Also cashing in on Lee’s revived legend is Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010), a coming-of-age comedy based on a published recollection of childhood memories that the master’s siblings shared of their famous brother. Similarly nostalgic is Gallants (2010), a retro comedy in which various kung fu stars of yesteryear pay a feisty homage to an old genre. The low-budget film won Best Picture at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards. Ashes of Time Redux (2008) is a shorter cut of Wong Kar-wai’s haunting ‘non-action action movie’ of the same name from 1994.
Tsui Hark belonged to the New Wave, a group of filmmakers of the late 1970s and '80s who grew up in Hong Kong, and were trained at film schools overseas as well as in local TV. Their works had a more contemporary sensibility, unlike those of their émigré predecessors, and were more artistically adventurous.
Ann Hui, Asia’s top female director, is a New Waver who has won awards both locally and overseas. Song of the Exile (1990), a tale about the marriage between a Japanese woman and a Chinese man just after the Sino-Japanese War, won Best Film at both the Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Rimini Film Festival in Italy.
The 1990s saw Hong Kong gaining unprecedented respect on the global film-festival circuit. Besides Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai received Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together in 1997. Auteur of the cult favourite Chungking Express (1994), Wong is famous almost as much for his elliptical mood pieces as for his disregard of shooting deadlines. In the same year, Fruit Chan bagged the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival with Made in Hong Kong, an edgy number shot on film stock Chan had scraped together while working on other projects.
Tough Times & New Direction
Due to changes in the market, in the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry sank into a gloom from which it has not recovered. The return to China also presented problems related to censorship and self-censorship. But there have been sunny patches, too. Infernal Affairs (2002), directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, made such an impact on its release that it was heralded as a box-office miracle, though it suffered some loss in translation in Martin Scorsese’s remake, The Departed. Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006), by master of Hong Kong noir Johnnie To, also enjoyed immense critical and box-office success.
Echoes of the Rainbow (2010), a rather maudlin tale about the battling spirit of Hong Kong people in the turbulent 1960s, won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Meanwhile, veteran thespian Deanie Ip won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her role as a traditional housemaid in Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (2011), an elegant drama about ageing and loneliness.
The past decade has also seen a string of big-budget Hong Kong–China collaborations, most notably the Ip Man series and Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), a story of anti-Qing intrigue set in 1905 Hong Kong. The trend of growing cooperation with the wealthy – and lucrative – Chinese market looks set to take hold as local filmmakers seek new ways to finance their celluloid (or digital) fantasies.
That said, despite budgetary constraints, local films by new directors, like Wong Ka-yan (2015) and Weeds on Fire (2016), and Trivisa (2016) managed to garner critical acclaim, signalling a brighter future for Hong Kong cinema. The low-budget directorial debut by Wong Chun, Mad World (2016), followed a man whose mental illness is exacerbated by Hong Kong's cramped living conditions. It won a slew of awards, including international acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was put up for Oscar consideration.
In 2016, Financial Secretary John Tsang also announced that an extra HK$20 million would be injected into the Film Development Fund to subsidise distribution and promotion of locally made Cantonese films.
Ten Years (2015), a dystopian indie film offering a vision of Hong Kong in 10 years' time with freedoms diminishing as the mainland authorities exert increasing influence, was voted Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards. As the film is banned on the mainland, it is believed that the triumph was due less to the film's artistic merit than to it being a statement that Hong Kong cinema will not bow to fear.
Film Festivals & Awards
The Hong Kong International Film Festival (www.hkiff.org.hk), now in its third decade, is the best in Asia and boasts a laudable if precarious balance of art-house choices and titles offering red-carpet opportunities. The Hong Kong Film Awards is also among the most respected in this part of the world. The Hong Kong Film Archive is a treasure trove of Hong Kong films and resources on them.
Hong Kong in Film
Hong Kong has been the setting of many western-made films, including: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), starring William Holden, and Jennifer Jones as his Eurasian doctor paramour, with great shots on and from Victoria Peak; The World of Suzie Wong (1960), with Holden again, and Nancy Kwan as the pouting bar girl from Wan Chai; and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), with Roger Moore as James Bond, filmed partly in a Tsim Sha Tsui topless bar.
More recently, in The Dark Knight (2008), Christian Bale’s Batman performed one of his trademark escapes from Two International Finance Centre (although a planned scene in which the superhero would drop from a plane into the harbour was axed after the film’s producers found the water quality could pose a potential health danger). The Hong Kong skyline made a perfect backdrop for streetscape scenes from the future in Ghost in the Shell (2017), and Lara Croft's adventures in Tomb Raider (2018) take off in Aberdeen's harbour.
The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), directed by Chang Cheh, was one of the first of a new style of martial-arts films featuring male heroes and serious bloodletting.
The 1970s saw the start of another trend spearheaded by actor-director-screenwriter Michael Hui, who produced comedies satirising the realities and dreams of Hong Kong people. Games Gamblers Play (1974) was the highest grossing film of its time, even surpassing the movies of Bruce Lee.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991) is the first of Tsui Hark’s five-part epic that follows folk hero Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) as he battles government officials, gangsters and foreign entrepreneurs to protect his martial-arts school in 19th-century China.
The Warlords (2007), directed by Peter Chan, is a period war film about sworn brothers forced to betray one another by the realities of war – showing it’s possible to please both Hong Kong and mainland audiences.
Days of Being Wild (1990), set in the 1960s, is a star-studded piece directed by Wong Kar-wai and steered along by the characters’ accounts of seemingly mundane events.
Welcome to the most dazzling skyline in the world. We defy you not to be awed as you stand for the first time at the harbour’s edge in Tsim Sha Tsui and see Hong Kong Island’s majestic panorama of skyscrapers march up those steep, jungle-clad hills. This spectacle arises from the rapidity of construction in Hong Kong, where buildings are knocked down and replaced with taller, shinier versions almost while your back is turned. The scarcity of land, the strains of a growing population and the rapacity of developers – as well as the opportunism of the common speculator – drive this relentless cycle of destruction and construction.
The government’s lack of interest in preserving architecturally important buildings went almost entirely unregretted by most through the 20th century. The destruction of the iconic Star Ferry Terminal in Central marked a surprising reversal in public apathy. Heartfelt protests greeted the wrecking balls in late 2006, but to no avail.
However, in the wake of the protests, the government announced that the Streamline Moderne–style Wan Chai Market would be partially preserved (though a luxury apartment tower has risen over it).
Meanwhile the nearby Pawn, a flashy drinking hole converted from four old tenements and a century-old pawn shop, is a running sore with heritage activists who argue that the Urban Renewal Authority has short-changed the public by refusing to list the building’s rooftop terrace as an unrestricted public space. Similarly, the former Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, now yet another hotel-cum-shopping centre, has disappointed many after the original landscape was razed.
Now attention has turned to the Central Market, a modernist style icon whose reinvigoration has been on the table for so long it's become a source of escalating public indignation. After delays of nearly 12 years, work on the site finally started in mid-2017. The Urban Renewal Authority has been tasked with redeveloping the site for affordable culture and retail, with a completion date of 2021/22 – locals are waiting with bated breath to find out what that realistically means.
There have been some bright spots, however, most notably when the government stopped the demolition of the magnificent King Yin Lei (1937), a private, Chinese Renaissance–style mansion on Stubbs Rd over Happy Valley. Even more significantly, the government launched in 2008 a scheme for the ‘revitalisation’ of historic monuments, which allows NGOs to pitch for the use of these buildings. The program has seen the restoration of the Old Tai O Police Station and the distinctive pre-WWII shophouse Lui Seng Chun.
PMQ in Sheung Wan, the Blue House cluster in Wan Chai and, most recently, Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Station complex, are three examples of visionary community-minded revitalisation projects that received major funding and are proving hugely successful. Then there's the Murray – a reimagining of 1960s government offices on Cotton Tree Drive as a luxury hotel, which opened to much fanfare in 2018 and has been hailed as an example of best practice in enhancing heritage buildings for the 21st century.
Despite these positive examples of heritage preservation, the reality remains that the imperatives of the property market, in the name of urban redevelopment, continue to dictate the city’s future and its connection with the past. The deep, protracted uncertainty over the fate of the West Wing of the former Government Secretariat in Central – a fine model of understated elegance and a vital place of contact between the former colonial administration and the people – shows that no building in Hong Kong, no matter how valued its architectural and historical heritage, is truly safe from the bulldozers.
Traditional Chinese Architecture
About the only examples of 19th-century Chinese architecture left in urban Hong Kong are the popular Tin Hau temples, including those at Tin Hau near Causeway Bay, Aberdeen, Stanley and Yau Ma Tei. Museums in Chai Wan and Tsuen Wan have preserved a few 18th-century Hakka village structures. More substantial physical reminders of the past lie in the New Territories and the Outlying Islands, where walled villages, fortresses and even a 15th-century pagoda can still be seen.
Largely the preserve of the wealthy and the religious, fusion architecture has appeared in Hong Kong since the 1920s.
The abandoned Shek Lo Mansion in Fanling (1925) resembles a Kāipíng diāolóu (a fortified tower that blends Chinese and western architectural elements) across the border in Guǎngdōng. The Anglican St Mary’s Church is a somewhat comical Orientalist exercise from 1937 while a Tao Fung Shan Christian centre features Buddhist-inspired buildings designed by a Dane.
Tai Hang’s Lin Fa Kung is a small Kwun Yam temple with a unique octagonal design and side entrances reminiscent of a medieval Catholic chapel.
Most of the colonial architecture left in the city is on Hong Kong Island, especially in Central, such as the Old Supreme Court Building (1912) and Government House, residence of all British governors from 1855 to 1997. In Sheung Wan there is Western Market (1906), and in the Mid-Levels the Edwardian-style Old Pathological Institute, now the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences (1905). The Old Stanley Police Station (1859) and nearby Murray House (1848) are important colonial structures on the southern part of Hong Kong Island.
The interesting Hong Kong Antiquities & Monuments Office, located in a British schoolhouse that dates from 1902, has information and exhibits on current preservation efforts.
Hong Kong’s verticality was born out of necessity – the scarcity of land and the sloping terrain have always put property at a premium in this densely populated place. Some buildings, such as Central Plaza and International Commercial Centre, have seized height at all costs; a privileged few, such as the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre and the windowless Hong Kong Cultural Centre, have pulled off audacious moves to go horizontal.
Internationally celebrated modern architecture in the city includes the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation building in Central and the Hong Kong International Airport in Chep Lap Kok (opened in 1998) – both by English architect Norman Foster, in Late-Modern high-tech style – as well as IM Pei’s soaring symphony of triangular geometry that is the Bank of China Tower.
Hong Kong Architecture 1945-2015: From Colonial to Global (2016), by Charlie Xue Qiuli, charts the city's reinvention as a vertical modern metropolis.
Distinctively Urban Vistas
For thrill-seekers, a seemingly ordinary tram ride across the northern shore of Hong Kong Island often feels more like an impossible hurtle through an endless canyon of high-rises. Indeed, similar psycho-geography can be experienced in much of urban Hong Kong. While the bulk of the buildings here may be uninspired office and apartment blocks sprouting cheek by jowl throughout the territory, there are perverse spectacles to be found as various forms of the built environment routinely challenge conventional notions of scale and proportion to achieve their purpose.
A classic example is the tumbledown Oceanic Mansion (1010–30 King’s Rd), a forbidding cliff of pulverised dwellings that soars above a tight, sloping bend in the shadows of a country park in Quarry Bay. Near the western end of the tramline in Kennedy Town, Hill Rd Flyover is a towering urban racetrack that lures traffic from the rarefied heights of Pok Fu Lam to the siren call of Central, Blade Runner–like; underneath it there's a miniscule urban public space with benches harbouring weary retirees.
The same sense of space or freedom can rarely be manufactured by the many luxury real-estate projects you will see in Hong Kong, however, even if they’ve been romantically given names such as Sorrento, Leguna Verde or Cullinan. Tiny living spaces remain the norm in this city.
Those interested in the future of the city’s urban landscape can visit the City Gallery.
Sidebar: Pre-colonial Buildings
- Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda (Yuen Long)
- Tang Ancestral Hall (Yuen Long)
- Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall (Yuen Long)
- Sam Tung Uk Museum (Tsuen Wan)
Sidebar: Revitalised Heritage
- Tai Kwun (Soho)
- PMQ (Sheung Wan)
- Blue Mansion (Wan Chai)
- Lui Seng Chun (Sham Shui Po)
- Béthanie (Pok Fu Lam)
- Explosives Magazine (Admiralty)
- Mei Ho House Youth Hostel (Sham Shui Po)
Sidebar: Victorian & Edwardian Buildings
- Tai Kwun (Soho)
- Nam Koo Terrace (Wan Chai)
- Kam Tong Hall (Mid-Levels)
- Western Market (Sheung Wan)
Sidebar: Neo-Classical Buildings
- Old Supreme Court Building (Central)
- Hung Hing Ying Building, University of Hong Kong (Mid-Levels)
- Bank of China Buildings (Central)
- Lippo Centre (Admiralty)
- International Finance Centre (Central)
- Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Building (Central)
- Hong Kong International Airport (Lantau)
Religion & Belief
Hong Kong is arguably the only city in China where religious freedom is both provided for by the law and respected in practise. Almost everyone here is brought up on certain spiritual beliefs, even though these may not always add up to the profession of a religion. And most of the time, they don’t – Hong Kongers are not a particularly religious bunch.
The city’s early inhabitants were fishers and farmers who worshipped a mixed bag of deities – some folk, some Taoist, notably the Kitchen God, the Earth God, and the Goddess of the Sea (Tin Hau). Many sought divine protection by symbolically offering their children to deities for adoption. All villages have ancestral shrines. Traditional practices are alive in Hong Kong today, often colourfully intertwined with those of imported religions including Buddhism and Christianity.
For 2000 years the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BC) and the subsequent school of thought called Confucianism informed the familial system and all human relationships in imperial China. Yet in the revolutionary fervour of the 20th century, the philosophy that was the bedrock of Chinese civilisation was blamed for a host of evils from feudal oppression and misogyny to all-round backwardness.
Traditionally, Confucian doctrines helped Chinese rulers to maintain domestic order. Emperors led by a ‘mandate of heaven’; government positions were filled by top-scoring candidates on exams in the Confucian classics. For historical reasons, Confucianism in this institutionalised form never existed in Hong Kong. Yet Confucian values are at the core of familial and social relationships in the former British colony. Two pillars of Confucian thought are respect for knowledge and filial piety. Hong Kong parents attach huge importance to academic performance; youngsters are trained to work hard as well as to treat parents and teachers with courtesy. Many adults live with their folks (though this is related to the city’s exorbitant rent); almost everyone is expected to provide for their parents, though whether they do or not is another matter.
Confucian ideals are not carved in stone and Hong Kongers are known for their remarkable ability to adapt different traditions for their convenience. Parents and schools increasingly value independent thinking though vocalising one’s opinion through speaking to an elder like an equal is still frowned upon. Dining with the family is a must in the Lunar New Year but the meal may take place in a restaurant.
Perhaps the Confucian precept most unwittingly embraced by Hong Kongers is the right to remonstrate. Mencius (372–289 BC), a celebrated Confucian philosopher, proposed the concept of a ‘divine right of rebellion’. This is enacted daily by protesters and activists in Hong Kong.
Buddhism is Hong Kong’s dominant religion. It was first introduced here in about the 5th century, when the monk Pui To set up a hermitage in the western New Territories. The area, a stop on the ancient route linking Persia, Arabia and India to Guǎngzhōu, is regarded as the birthplace of Buddhism in the territory.
Although a tiny fraction of the population is purely and devoutly Buddhist, about a million practise some form of the religion, and use its funeral and exorcism rites. Generally speaking, the ritual of taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Darma, Sangha) is regarded as the Buddhist initiation rite. Some followers abstain from meat on certain days of the month, others for longer periods. Very few are strict vegetarians.
Buddhist organisations here do not play an active political role, unlike some of their counterparts in Southeast Asia. They focus instead on providing palliative care and spiritual services. Every year on Remembrance Day (11 November), they hold a ceremony for the souls of the victims of the two World Wars and the Japanese invasion. Buddhist funerals are dignified affairs that can be quite elaborate, with some ceremonies lasting 49 days – the time it purportedly takes an average soul to find the conditions for its rebirth. Prayers are chanted every seven days to help the soul find rebirth in a higher realm (‘happy human’ versus ‘cockroach’, for instance). On the seventh day, souls are believed to revisit their homes. Everyone in the family stays in their room to avoid crossing paths with the loved one.
In 1997 the government made the eighth day of the fourth lunar month (May or June) a public holiday to mark the birthday of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, replacing the British Queen’s Birthday. Followers gather at temples where they douse statues of the Buddha with water, an act that signifies purification of one’s soul. They also eat green cookies made with the bitter Indian pluchea herb, as eating them represents passing through prickles to better pastures.
Taoism is an indigenous Chinese religion more than 2000 years old. Though never declared a national faith, its presence is ubiquitous in most aspects of Chinese life. Unlike evangelical religions stressing crusading and personal conversion, Taoism simply offers its services, whether it’s treatment for illness or protection from evil spirits, to everyone within its locale.
The Hong Kong horseracing season, and all construction and filming projects, are preceded by Taoist rituals to appease the nature deities and ensure good feng shui. Necromancy, which strives for harmony between humanity and nature, is a practise influenced by Taoism. During the first two weeks of the Lunar New Year, millions of all creeds and faiths pay their respects at Taoist temples. Taoist priests preside over the majority of funeral rites in Hong Kong.
Tao & Folk
Due to its intimate ties with mundane life, Taoist temples tend to be colourful. There are about 150 in Hong Kong and another one to two hundred that worship a combination of Taoist and folk deities. Taoism and folk religion have always been willing bedfellows as both prescribe a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature, respect for the environment, and the belief that everything has a spirit. In some instances they are so well integrated that it’s hard to tell them apart. Taiping Qingzhao, celebrated in Cheung Chau as the Bun Festival, features a Taoist priest performing the main ceremony, Buddhist monks leading the worship of local gods, with a little bit of Confucianism and even a few tourism gimmicks thrown in for good measure.
Hong Kong’s Christian community has more than 800,000 followers, with Protestants outnumbering Roman Catholics and having more young believers. About a third of the Catholics are Filipina domestic helpers. Most churches offer services in Cantonese and English, and some also in Tagalog.
Christianity has been in Hong Kong since the mid-19th century. In the early days, the Hong Kong Catholic Church provided support to the missionaries travelling to and from China, and served the Catholics in the British Army as well as Portuguese merchants and their families from Macau. In the ensuing decades, both Catholics and Protestants began working for the local community, founding schools, hospitals and welfare organsations. These services were, as they are now, open to followers and non-followers alike.
Some 80% of funeral rites in Hong Kong are presided over by Taoist priests. These are noisy affairs with cymbals and suona (a Chinese reed instrument). Some have elaborate rituals featuring props from coins to flaming swords that are meant to ensure the soul lets go of its worldly relationships.
A small Parsee community migrated to Hong Kong from Mumbai in the early colonial period. Despite their small number, the Parsees' influence has been great. At one time, three of the 13 board members of HSBC were Parsee. It was also a Parsee who founded the Star Ferry.
There are about 300,000 Muslims of various nationalities in Hong Kong. The city's earliest Muslims were seamen who settled in the area around Lower Lascar Row (Cat St) in Central; the word 'Lascar' means Indian sailor. You can tour the beautiful mint-green Jamia Mosque in the Mid-Levels to learn more.
Sidebar: Books on Faith
- Changing Church and State Relations in Hong Kong 1950–2000, Beatrice Leung and Chan Shun-hing (2003)
- The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction, Louis Komjathy (2013)