Crystal Koo‘s short stories have been published widely, including venues such as The Apex Book of World SF 3, Maximum Volume: Best New Filipino Fiction 2014, Abyss & Apex, and Shanghai Steam. Her latest publication will be forthcoming in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9. She recently won in the 2013 Hong Kong Top Story Competition and was a Carlos Palanca awardee in 2007. Crystal was born and raised in Manila and currently works in Hong Kong, where she has been involved in the local music and theatre scenes. She blogs at http://cgskoo.wordpress.com and tweets @CrystalKoo.
by Crystal Koo
A lot of people expect speculative fiction in Hong Kong to be a little hard to distinguish from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That retinue of berobed, be-sworded warriors with noble hearts is the Chinese water chestnut for all things speculative and it’s part of a very old genre called wuxia. Wuxia‘s imagery and principles can be found in popular Hong Kong fantasy films like Clarence Fok’s The Iceman Cometh and Tsui Hark’s steampunk Detective Dee series, both set in Imperial China. This imagery gets repeated time and time again, and for good reason – it’s familiar. It’s easy to do your world-building when people already know the lore, so it’s understandable why the tropes get reused (though sometimes very creatively). Spoiler alert, though: there are a lot more possibilities to Hong Kong speculative fiction than just finding out that the eunuch did it.
People well versed in cyberpunk most likely know how often Hong Kong has been used in creating the canon’s landscape. Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and now even in mainstream sci-fi blockbusters like Batman, Transformers, and Pacific Rim.
It’s not just because of the neon. Hong Kong transformed itself from a cluster of tiny, unassuming fishing villages on a barren rock into an international financial powerhouse in roughly just a hundred and fifty years. That piece of history is already the heart of science fiction: anything is possible, especially transformation. China Miéville wrote about “possibility mining” in The Scar, where a dimensional fracture in the surface of Bas-Lag called the Scar leaked existential possibilities which could then be harvested and made real by possibility machines. The same dynamism exists in Hong Kong, propped up by infrastructure and automation, a booming economy, and a bottomless well of ambition. Go to the computer centers in Wan Chai or Sham Shui Po: piracy’s been in decline (or has been redefined) for the last few years and shops have gone legit but the same atmosphere remains – if they can’t find whatever it is you want to get, they’ll find someone who can. Entrepreneur spaces and networking events swarm along Victoria Harbor and go deep into the heartland of Kowloon. Seemingly abandoned industrial warehouse rooms in Kwai Chung or Fotan light up at night because someone is rehearsing their play, putting together an art installation, or burning the midnight oil for their startup. Money moves like light and you have to keep in step.
Whether you can keep in step, though, or even if it’s worth it, is an entirely different story. This is the other core (if not the more important) aspect of sci-fi: the ramifications of change and multiplicity. In The Scar, the Armada has to turn back when they reach the Scar because they see what happens when limits fall apart, omnipotence becomes autonomous, and nihilism is king. To borrow from Quentin Meillassoux, if every dream can be realized, then so can every nightmare. This movement between the two points of the spectrum has always been the pulse of science fiction. What are the tradeoffs of any endeavor? Risk is a waste product of any attempt – on whose shoulders do the pressures of it fall on? These are the questions that science fiction has been asking, and Hong Kong is a fantastic place for context as a city that was handed over from one pair of geopolitical hands to another while its economy skyrocketed. Competition here is cutthroat; middle-class toddlers go to interview cram sessions so they can get into good kindergarten schools. The pressure to make use of the platform that promised you success as long as you work hard has produced a generation that flinches from slight injustices to the playing field (your high school community will give you passive-aggressive hell for having an unfair advantage if, instead of you paying your way for extra classes at a tutorial center like everyone else, your friend’s mom teaches at a university and is happy to help you out with your homework) or anything resembling uncertainty (the subway train being late for more five minutes made it to a major newspaper). Look at this view of Hong Kong, taken from the world’s second tallest bar. Then imagine how amid this wealth, tens and thousands of people live in “cage homes” and “coffin homes”, tiny spaces carved out of existing apartments and partitioned by metal wire or plywood. This is a city that leapfrogged the slow, steady development normally required for any other society to gain a healthy sense of identity, and the results are fascinating, to say the least.
Hong Kong is small. You can go from the central financial district to a hiking trail in ten minutes by cab. And Hong Kong is cramped. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world – in 2013, density was measured at 6,650 people per square kilometer. That’s two people per square foot. Hong Kong is a place where people have to learn to get along and where religious freedom is a clear and present necessity, not just a lofty ideal.
This crowdedness informs my story in The Apex Book of World SF 3, “Waiting with Mortals.” Most people would see it as a fantasy story for obvious reasons (ghosts!), and it is, but I have to admit I wasn’t thinking that when I wrote it. At that time, I was more focused on putting the supernatural and the mundane side by side, doing business and sharing seats on the bus in full but banal acknowledgement of each other, at a time and place without the dividing line of Platform Nine and Three Quarters. It’s the coexistence of different realities, a major characteristic of magic realism, that I wanted to explore.
One of the best examples in Hong Kong of a literal manifestation of this coexistence is Chungking Mansions, a ramshackle building of guesthouses and cut-rate businesses only a block away from the Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong’s oldest and one of its fanciest hotels, in the middle of a luxury tourist district. Gordon Mathews, in his book Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong (2011), calls Chungking Mansions “perhaps the most globalized building in the world” and describes the insides of the building best:
It is an extraordinary array of people: Africans in bright robes or hip-hop fashions or ill-fitting suits; pious Pakistani men wearing skullcaps; Indonesian women with jilbab, Islamic head coverings; old white men with beer bellies in Bermuda shorts; hippies looking like refugees from an earlier era; Nigerians arguing confidently and very loudly; young Indians joking and teasing with their arms around one another; and mainland Chinese looking self-contained or stunned. You are likely to find South Asians carting three or four huge boxes on their trolleys with “Lagos” or “Nairobi” scrawled on the boxes’ sides, Africans leaving the building with overstuffed suitcases packed with mobile phones, and shopkeepers selling everything on earth, from samosas to phone cards to haircuts to whiskey to real estate to electrical plugs to dildos to shoes. You will also see a long line of people of every different skin color waiting at the elevator, bound for a hundred different guesthouses.
You may wonder, upon seeing all of this, “What on earth is going on here? What has brought all these different people to Chungking Mansions? How do they live? Why does this place exist?”
You may find the same variety of people in the streets of New York or Paris but Chungking Mansions is only one building and not a very big one at that. It’s only seventeen storeys high but houses 4,000 people on any given night, according to Mathews. What makes the experience even more surreal is that the moment you step out of Chungking Mansions, you run smack back into the constant stream of Chinese that make up the majority of Hong Kong. With a mix of people like that in the same small location, questions about how they relate with each other and negotiate their differences become hard to ignore.
This post certainly isn’t meant to be exhaustive; there are a lot of subgenres of speculative fiction I haven’t touched on. And there’s still a lot to write about in Hong Kong: the old pirate dens in the Outlying Islands, the colonial history and the Walled City, the administration’s current conflicts and renegotiations with the Beijing government, the atmosphere of transience for the many people who stay here as a halfway home to elsewhere, and the exciting potential of Golden Forum, a local online community recently gaining cultural and political influence. There are offerings here and there but locally-written speculative fiction generally isn’t very big in Hong Kong, in either Chinese or English. I won’t step on the landmine that is trying to explain why just yet, but it’s a pity considering there’s a mother lode of material here.
In the fishing village of Tai O, houses stand on stilts atop tidal flats against a backdrop of the Lantau hills. The houses are interconnected with each other, the makeshift verandahs lined with lanterns and flower pots, and dinghies trawl the waters for fish and tourists. Shrimp and duck egg yolks dry in the sun in woven baskets, as they always have since the original Tanka fisherfolk left their sampans to build Tai O. A plot there already, like a fire sprite hidden in the ferry from Mui Wo, and if that isn’t enough, a geometry of fire over water is going to make for some really amazing imagery.