Xiaojun waits for Liqiao despondently in the rain.
Xiaojun arrives by train.
In The World of Suzie Wong Robert Lomax [William Holden] explores exotic Hong Kong.
Still exotic after all these years…
The glamour of the Golden Arches for the mainland migrant
Rosie’s stolen items from the Peninsula
Blue skies on Robert Lomax’s arrival at the Star Ferry
Xiaojun in Hong Kong wearing three layers of clothing
Romance, Hong Kong-style, involves visits to the ATM.
The store name that says it all about Hong Kong.
Business is poor at Liqiao’s Teresa Teng stall.
Cabbage and Jeremy – the modern version of Robert Lomax and Suzie Wong
A mainland couple quarrel in the heat of a summer night.
Liking Teresa Teng – signifier of mainland identity
The mainland in Hong Kong
Passers-by and characters differ in terms of how warmly clad the protagonists are.
Liqiao unwittingly confesses to her mainland origins.
Seduction in cold weather
Xiaojun joins the ranks of the Hong Kong middle-classes by owning a beeper.
Liqiao as a businesswoman is several rungs ahead of Xiaojun.
Sheltered from the elements in Liqiao’s car
The sighting of Teresa Teng rekindles their romance.
Exposed to the elements once more
A grey Hong Kong devoid of family and friends
After Hong Kong, comes the next big city – New York.
At one point in Comrades: Almost a Love Story we see Leon Lai’s character, Xiaojun, standing forlornly with his umbrella in the rain waiting for his lover, Liqiao (played by Maggie Cheung), to return. She was to break the news to her triad boss husband, Brother Pao, that she was leaving him but seeing him in a crisis, her loyalty to her husband is renewed and she leaves Hong Kong with him, abandoning Xiaojun instead. Her decision is never explicitly shown but on seeing the rain pour down relentlessly on Xiaojun, we know that he has been jilted. The rain here functions to emphasize his emotional despair and hopelessness, a convention so familiar that is almost a cliché.
The same could be said for most representations of weather in films. Bad weather, be it rain, typhoon, flood or blizzard, signals emotional or social turmoil; good weather indicates optimism and pleasure. The conventions are so firmly in place that filmic weather has become completely banal and unworthy of notice. As the audience we often fail to perceive weather in film consciously and if we do, it is for a brief moment before its conventional representations enable us to forget it again. Yet representations of weather are worthy of further notice. Weather is an important signifying (though undoubtedly conventional) system that immediately fixes and telegraphs identities of places — Russia for example is unfailingly imagined as wintry, India and Hong Kong hot and tropical. Visual representations of weather suggest a habit, a frame of thinking about the world and its locations, that smoothes over innumerable realities on the ground. What happens when closer attention is paid to the subtleties of local weather in representations of places? Do we find new ways of imagining a place’s relation to other places and the world, ways that rewrite the conventional?
In this section, I wish to explore what happens when Hong Kong weather on film turns cold. The dominant tradition has been to represent Hong Kong on film as a hot, tropical city despite the reality of Hong Kong’s varied sub-tropical climate that encompasses heat and humidity as well as short but sharp cold spells. Hollywood films from the 60s such as Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong portray Hong Kong as almost perennially sunny and idyllic, hot yet never hot enough to cause excessive perspiration! Even most Hong Kong film directors tend to subscribe to this dominant imaginary of a hot Hong Kong. For example, Wong Kar Wai’s films from Days of Being Wild to Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love usually evoke a sultry, steamy heat to match his tales of romantic longing and loss. Fruit Chan in his social realist Durian Durian chooses to represent dense, urban Hong Kong in the height of summer, a marked contrast to the depictions and the narrative flow when the film turns to the northern, wintry spaces of Mudanjiang on the mainland. Often these portrayals of hot weather, as in Durian Durian, position Hong Kong as part of a binary pair, revealing the varied ways Hong Kong is imagined.
For the old Hollywood romances, Hong Kong’s warm weather fixes it as an exotic locale in contrast to temperate, mainstream United States. Hong Kong thus functions as a space of escapism, a land of the Other which will reinforce the construction of the American self. In Fruit Chan’s films, however, Hong Kong is placed in opposition to the mainland, with Hong Kong’s hot weather marking out its distinct identity as a Southern Chinese locale and also its ambiguous place within the People’s Republic of China. Transforming Hong Kong from hot to cold is thus a feat of re-imagination that has repercussions on how viewers may perceive Hong Kong’s positioning with regards to the West and also to the mainland. Comrades, released in 1996 at a critical juncture in Hong Kong’s history, is a cold-weather Hong Kong film that negotiates with both East and West. Its presentation of a predominantly cold Hong Kong re-writes Hollywood and colonial romance narratives, refusing Hong Kong’s designation as a place of romantic plenitude, while also re-thinking Hong Kong’s relation to the mainland particularly in the face of 1997.
The William Holden connection: rewriting Western narratives of Hong Kong
Watching The World of Suzie Wong and Comrades back-to-back, I was struck by the similarities of their opening sequences. Both films begin with a man new to Hong Kong arriving in modes of transport appropriate to his times — Robert Lomax by ship, Xiaojun by train — and finding lodgings unwittingly in a brothel. Both films also take pleasure in showing the two protagonists exploring everyday Hong Kong. As Robert Lomax walks to Wanchai through the colorful street markets, The World of Suzie Wong presents the environment to us from his point of view, the images offering a travelogue of Hong Kong street-life from exotic-looking food to the ordinariness of activities on the street such as men playing cards and a mother bathing her child. Similarly in Comrades we see Xiaojun exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds of Hong Kong. However, here it is the modern and cosmopolitan curiosities of urban life that capture his attention: video game arcades, a hare krishna sect dancing in the streets, the density of human and vehicular traffic and the glamour of McDonald's.
The connection between the two films is further strengthened when we learn in Comrades of Xiaojun’s aunt Rosie’s obsession with the Hollywood actor William Holden, associated with Hong Kong through his playing of Robert Lomax and also the protagonist Mark Elliot in the other key Hollywood film set in Hong Kong, Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Aunt Rosie has his photograph on her wall and treasures a jacket that she claims was given to her by William Holden. Xiaojun’s aunt, here an ex-prostitute fixated on Holden, lends to Comrades a strange echo of Suzie Wong. Like Suzie in the film, Rosie in her youth met Holden during his shoot in Hong Kong and was brought by him to the Peninsula Hotel for a meal, a moment she treasures greatly and has commemorated with stolen items from the Peninsula restaurant. Comrades as a film thus very knowingly invokes Hong Kong’s past as a filmic city of romance in Hollywood narratives and works to subvert this tradition.
Apart from the obvious period and racial differences of the heroes of Comrades and The World of Suzie Wong, what distinguishes the two films here is also the difference, curiously enough, in the way they depict Hong Kong’s weather. The opening of The World of Suzie Wong establishes Hong Kong as warm and sunny with brilliant blue skies. Despite Robert’s trench coat and the occasional glimpse of a warmly clad body amidst the crowd during location shots, The World of Suzie Wong presents Hong Kong’s weather as suitably mild, neither too cold nor oppressively hot. A later snippet of dinner-table conversation where Robert learns that he will not need a heavy coat and that Hong Kong’s winter climate is mild enough for swimming reinforces this impression of an idyllic and comfortable environment. In contrast, the Hong Kong of Comrades is coded as a cool place. The cool black and white tones of the opening arrival scene help establish this as well as the costuming which consistently dresses Xiaojun in a sweater and a Chinese-style cotton padded jacket. If the warmth of Hong Kong weather signaled that it was a place conducive to romance in The World of Suzie Wong, the coolness of Hong Kong weather in Comrades suggests that this myth of a romantic Hong Kong will be rewritten in favor of a more localized myth: Hong Kong as commercial and anti-romantic.
Romance is not absent in Comrades for the script plainly depicts the central relationship between Xiaojun and Liqiao but it also consistently sidelines that romance in favor of the Hong Kong grand narrative of material and economic progress. This local narrative focuses on the Hong Kong story of
The rituals of Xiaojun’s and Liaqiao’s friendship revolve round money — the visits to the ATM to check bank balances, walking past the Opportunity Furniture store, and being paid to queue on behalf of someone else to purchase a flat. Romance is not privileged in this city; and when it does emerge, it does so only in an environment of financial failure, underscored by mood-dampening, hardly romantic cold rain. [open notes in new window] When Liqiao and Xiaojun do finally sleep together, it is after a dispiriting and cold night at the Chinese New Year Eve market where Liqiao’s Teresa Teng tapes fail to sell. Is this romance blossoming or an opportunistic grab for comfort and consolation on a cold and windy night, as Liqiao explains it, a mere accident of the weather? Romance is refused primacy of place, sublimated into a pursuit of wealth and able to emerge only when the latter falters momentarily.
Hong Kong is thus presented as a place inimical to romance. The interracial romance between Jeremy, the English teacher, and Cabbage, the Thai prostitute, appears at first an unproblematic re-working of the central relationship in Suzie Wong, but by the end of the film, the shadow of AIDS hangs over the couple. Aunt Rosie, the real-life Suzie Wong who had no Robert Lomax to rescue her, dies alone in her dingy flat with a dog as her only companion. Even at the height of summer, the heat is not a balmy one suitable for lovers but intense and debilitating, provoking an irritable mainland couple waiting in the same buying queue for a flat as Liqiao and Xiaojun to an open quarrel. For emphasis, the film even cuts away from Liqiao and Xiaojun to record the acrimonious pair, an image that undercuts our protagonists' chemistry and acts as a reminder that though they may banter and act like a couple, they are not. Liqiao has her financial ambitions and Xiaojun his sweetheart in the mainland. This is a Hong Kong self-defined as a down-to-earth locale for material accumulation and, not as in the Hollywood films, a fantasy location for romance.
The Chinese connection:
While the reframing of Hong Kong as cold rewrites Hong Kong in relation to Hollywood perceptions of it, the cold is also a means to rethink Hong Kong’s relation to the mainland. The cold thus also functions as a mark of the mainland within Hong Kong. Bundled with other everyday signifiers such as Xiaojun’s bicycle, dumplings and Teresa Teng, the cold weather establishes Hong Kong’s connection with the mainland through the continuity of everyday life and weather. Take for example the iconic but anachronistic bicycle scene in Comrades. The bicycle is prominently established as retrograde, a remnant of mainland China. As Liqiao points out to Xiaojun, when people in Hong Kong say they can give you a lift, they mean a car and not as they do in the mainland, a bicycle. As Xiaojun, with Liqiao as passenger, cycles through Tsim Sha Tsui, they both begin to sing Tian Mimi, a song by Teresa Teng, a songstress who acts as marker of mainland identity. Knowledge of her song thus betrays both Xiaojun’s and Liqiao’s mainland roots.
The scene is a throwback to a different kind of life, a mainland one, and interestingly, it is presented as occurring in cold weather. Both characters are warmly clad with high-necked sweaters and jackets, in marked contrast to the passers-by on the street. The disjuncture in the costuming of the actors and the clothes of the passers-by reveal that a deliberate choice was made to present this bicycle scene as taking place in a cooler setting, in keeping with the reminders of mainland life contained within the scene. The mainland is thus imagined as cold, and by bringing cold weather into Hong Kong, the film works to acknowledge its shared space with the mainland. Xiaojun’s letters to Xiaoting, his sweetheart in the mainland, mention cold Hong Kong winters and in a phone call to her during Chinese New Year he also thanks her for her gift of a sweater, claiming to be wearing it as he speaks. These small details continually reinforce a sense of sameness climate-wise between Hong Kong and the mainland.
A sense of sameness is also achieved through the complicated romance between Xiaojun and Liqiao with cold weather playing an essential role in bringing them together. As representatives of Northern and Southern China respectively, the film recognizes the linguistic and cultural fissures within the mainland as well as between Hong Kong and the mainland through the characterizations of Xiaojun and Liqiao. Liqiao as a Southern Chinese, Guangzhou native speaks Cantonese instead of Mandarin, watches Hong Kong television and drinks Vitasoy, a soy milk produced in Hong Kong. She is shrewd and quick to catch on in a capitalist economy unlike the more innocent, Mandarin-speaking Xiaojun, who hails from Northern China. Liqiao as an aspiring Hong Konger also represents the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of the mainland. Despite her refusal to see herself as similar to Xiaojun, the film undermines her insistence on difference and underscores this similarity with the presence of cold weather. On a cold and rainy Chinese New Year’s Eve Liqiao finally makes her confession that she too is from the mainland, and on the same night Xiaojun and Liqiao become lovers. In fact, the cold is the catalyst for their romance. As Liqiao prepares to leave and Xiaojun insists on a second jacket on account of the cold weather, even helping her to button it on, his tenderness prompts them to fall in each other’s arms. If the cold is a reminder of the mainland in Hong Kong, it has also helped to bridge the fissures within the mainland.
As a pre-1997 film, Comrades is surprisingly un-paranoid about the mainland. It reveals mainlanders deeply embedded in Hong Kong and shows how mainland everyday rituals can easily transfer across the border. Even the cold weather portrayed in the film marks Hong Kong as a continuous space with the mainland. Yet even as Comrades attempts to imagine the mainland as already within Hong Kong, the film cannot sustain this vision. As the film progresses, Hong Kong’s difference from the mainland, specifically in terms of class and its position as a springboard to the world, begins to reassert itself. Also, at this point the weather in the film gradually breaks its associations with the mainland and becomes a means to imagine a distinctly middle-class and dislocated Hong Kong.
Becoming middle-class for a mainland national is a specifically Hong Kong experience. With opportunities for wealth accumulation and social mobility limited in 80s China, middle-classness becomes a status achievable only in the freedom of Hong Kong. As Xiaojun and Liqiao become more and more middle-class, they lose the markers that identify them as mainland immigrants. This is a result of how middle-class status transforms their everyday life. Xiaojun now has his own beeper, and with greater earning power as a cook, he has moved out of his small makeshift room at his aunt’s to a small apartment, which offers both he and Xiaoting much valued and much appreciated privacy. Liqiao’s life is even more dramatically transformed. She owns a car and several businesses and lives in a large, comfortable flat. The characters' middle-classness also alters their relationship to the weather and the outside environment.
Notice that after their acquaintance is renewed at Xiaojun’s wedding dinner, most scenes involving Xiaojun and Liqiao are now indoor ones, in contrast to the numerous outdoor scenes that marked their first years in Hong Kong and helped cement their relationship. Any outdoor scenes taking place at this point in time take place within Liqiao’s car, insulating its occupants from the weather outside. With their newfound middle-class status, Xiaojun and Liqiao are now better protected from the elements but also dislocated from the everyday ordinariness of their past. Cut off from old mainland lifestyles — the bicycle, eating dumplings, and exposure to the vagaries of the weather, Xiaojun and Liqiao are insular, less engaged with their past and with their environment. It is only through a chance sighting of Teresa Teng on the streets of Hong Kong that they are recalled to their past and their romance is rekindled, marked by a return to their old motel room, largely unchanged despite a make-over, and exposure to the elements once more — they walk to Liqiao’s apartment in windy, cool conditions instead of driving there.
Liqiao’s failure to break with her husband destroys that momentary re-identification with the past. Her flight from Hong Kong, as well as Xiaojun’s mentor’s migration to New York, reveals another way the everyday is transformed. Faced with the 1997 deadline, Hong Kong’s transience as a transit stop to some other "better" place dislocates how everyday life is lived. As Xiaojun’s lover and then friends leave Hong Kong one by one, life in Hong Kong grows empty for him. With his marriage over and his aunt dead, there is little to keep Xiaojun in Hong Kong. The cool grey tones of Hong Kong thus no longer signify a connection climate-wise with the mainland. Instead the depiction of the weather articulates a disconnectedness intrinsic to becoming a middle-class Hong Konger and a diasporic one at that, as Hong Kong becomes a mere stepping stone to the next location and economic adventure.
Not surprisingly for a film dealing with multiple forms of diaspora and exile, the world in Comrades is thus imagined as possessing different centers with complicated relations between the local and its several others. The film's representation of transnational flows of people and culture reveals identities created in flux. While signifiers such as Teresa Teng or Xiaojun’s bicycle or the weather act as occasional anchors to hold steady a sense of Chineseness in diasporic existence, the film nonetheless depicts a "state of perpetual diaspora and displacement" ("Filming Diaspora and Identity," 278). The world of Comrades is one of swirling transnational flows with no dominant center capable of remaining dominant for long. After Hong Kong, comes New York and after New York, China re-emerges as the new focus of capitalist potential — as the mainland tourists Liqiao shepherds in New York remind her. In contrast, while aware of the currents of the transnational running through the very local space of Mongkok, the film One Nite in Mongkok reveals not so much the transnational flows that loosen peoples and identities from fixed locations but the fixing and maintaining of differences and identities.