Hong Kong Dreaming: Thoughts on Chungking Express

Watching Chungking Express now is like time travel. ...this bedragoned city sheds its skin every few years. Leave it for a couple of years, and not only have your carefully mapped buildings and your favourite alley, skywalk, escalator routes through the city all been demolished, the actual topography has changed.

Hong Kong Dreaming: Thoughts on Chungking Express (1994)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Starring: Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro


"Can a dream be catching? I didn't know there were some dreams you don't wake up from." -- Faye Wong


by Luisetta Mudie


Watching Chungking Express now is like time travel. Kai Tak airport, certain bars and restaurants, even corridors and escalators exist now only in the memories of those who once used them. Make a movie in Hong Kong, and it's like making it in someone's hometown. Imagine a small town of, say, 35,000 people, with only a handful of public places to shoot in. Then grow that town vertically, stand several thousand Guangdong villages on end, and you've got seven million people packed into the same public space, seven million memories of the blue-tiled walls of the Admiralty MTR station, the street with Bottoms Up bar and Swindon's Books in it, those filthy dusty corridors in crumbling 'mansion' buildings through which you thread your way after work to a friend and a cheap Nepalese curry. The result is a movie industry that is always filming just down the road from your branch of the 7-Eleven.


The only trouble is, this bedragoned city sheds its skin every few years. Leave it for a couple of years, and not only have your carefully mapped buildings and your favourite alley, skywalk, escalator routes through the city all been demolished, the actual topography has changed. The coast isn't where it used to be. I can't help wondering if this fluidity of matter, of actual concrete, lends itself to a tendency to deliteralise, and take imaginary flight. That the relationship between the lasting and the ephemeral seems to have switched places in this town.



Otherwise, how can you place your shrine to the earth god outside your flat door on the 27th floor, on eyeballing terms with the ubiquitous black-feathered kites? That's why government departments can employ feng shui masters (geomancers) and we are all terribly addicted to movies with flying kung fu stars. When the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) was being built, feng shui masters and priests were employed to placate the earth gods disturbed by the works. Middle aged housewives use Chinese magical almanacs to play the stockmarket, and the brokers themselves issue feng shui forecasts of where shares are headed. Most of what lasts in Hong Kong does so in memory and cultural imagination, not in matter.


So what better icon of the erotic imagination than an air-hostess? (There are two in this movie.) The supposed epitome of transient and available sex, at least in a mostly male fantasy. Strangely, they also emerged as a political force in the year before Wong Kar-wai made this movie, when Cathay Pacific cabin crew went on strike for several weeks, grounding virtually all the airline's flights, and losing it millions of dollars. Aeroplanes are connected with masturbation in Cantonese (da fei gei: to hit the aeroplane). Perhaps because the fantasies can take off by themselves, with their own fuel tank.


Tony Leung lands model aeroplanes on the naked back of his cabin attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow), who does a half-stripped parody of the pre-flight safety demonstration before rolling into bed with him. At the end of Chungking Express, the waitress-turned-cabin-attendant comes off an actual flight to give a quickly scribbled 'boarding pass' to the man she wants. He's to be allowed to join her flights of imagination, begun as a solitary and furtive affair in his apartment. He has packed up his memories of the lost lover in a cardboard box and stowed them in the overhead locker space atop his wardrobe (Hong Kongers, for people who live in tiny spaces, are great hoarders. Old ladies, refugees from the Cultural Revolution, hoard vouchers for Maxim's Cake Shop in case of hard times, or an unexpected celebration. Perhaps because the rest of the city, even its famous harbour, is so expendable.) "Where do you want to go?" Wong asks him. "Wherever you want to take me," is the closing line of the film.


I've just noticed the we in that sentence about the kung fu movies. I think that once Hong Kong has really entered your imagination, or you have entered its, you are in each other's keeping for that period of the city's history. Other large cities last longer than Hong Kong does, with monuments that dwarf the human imagination, outlast many generations. I still miss being able to get all the way from the Landmark to Worldwide House without putting my foot on the ground. (All those kung fu lessons were worth it, then). There was an overhead walkway via Swire House, now demolished, where the Cathay cabin crew used to gather to shout slogans, and then that funny seedy smell as you lined up for your pork and pickled vegetable with rice. If you learned enough Cantonese to order, you might get tips from your colleagues about what was good to eat. They might show you little tented noodle stalls with the best beef brisket noodles in town, where many other dedicated lunchers were queuing. Knowing where to go to eat, the supreme satisfaction of a working day.


As a correspondent for Reuters, I was told I had to make Hong Kong intelligible to a milkman in Kansas City. This imaginary and somewhat unlikely presence was to stand at my shoulder and vet all my writing for the next two years. "Remember," I was told. "Most Americans think Hong Kong is in Japan." Well Hong Kong is in Japan, and China, and San Francisco and London, and all those are in Hong Kong, at least in the Hong Kong dreamed up by Wong Kar-wai in this film, and dreamed on by me and countless others. It's comforting to know that others are dreaming with the same sort of images as me, even if those images have already lost their equivalents in the material world.


I suppose Hong Kong is, for all the same reasons of fluidity and constant concrete change, something of a haunted city. The Cantonese brought their ghosts with them, still fear them, make stories and movies about people who fight them, descend to hell, live with them in their houses. The fox-tailed sex ghost who sucks a man's vitality—and his money—is alive and well and living in Wanchai. Foreigners are ghost chaps because of their white skin, reddish hair and outlandishly blue eyes. The streets are hazy with fires burning hell-money in autumn, when the hungry ghosts need feeding. There's not much space for burial, and even living things move on too fast, are not properly mourned. Not many Hong Kong movies deal with mourning—a great many of them deal with ghosts—but Chungking Express does. Policeman No.633's apartment gets flooded and he imagines it is still crying for his lost air-hostess. Meanwhile, the girl from the snack bar is making imperceptible changes to his apartment over a period of months, filmed in a building which could well no longer exist now, as the demolition of Kai Tak airport has lifted height restrictions on the Kowloon Peninsula above 10 floors. Another heartbroken cop goes jogging to lose body fluids so they can't emerge as tears. The monsoon rain buckets down on the window of the California Restaurant, as the waitress listens to California Dreaming in a snack bar called Midnight Express. Behind her is a sign saying "Sweet Lassi". There are lots of references to chef's salad—a culinary icon of the early 90s. (The best one was to be had back then was in the lobby of the Kowloon Shangri-La, halfway between the hover-ferry pier and the KCR terminus, and that subway system to the Coliseum used in Tsui Hark's movie, Time and Tide.) Everything in Hong Kong derives from something else. Its soul is still up in the air, no time to get off the plane, come down from the escalator. Everyone wants to be on the Peak, and most of them would settle for Mid-Levels. In a city where land costs the earth, no-one can afford to be grounded for too long.


Copyright 2004 Luisetta Mudie.