Hong Kong: The Archaeology of a Modernist City

By Dr. Emily Ridge, NUI Galway

In the latest of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Emily Ridge explores Hong Kong’s architecture and literature, and the traces of modernism within a postmodern “heterotopia”.

To me, Hong Kong has always more immediately evoked a postmodern rather than a modernist aesthetic. When, in 1997 (the year of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China), Dung Kai-cheung published his luminous work of fictional cartography, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, his key literary reference points in re-imagining the boundaries, landmarks and infrastructure of Hong Kong were Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes, and Italo Calvino. Most particularly, he invokes – and the book itself has been compared to – Calvino’s Invisible Cities, his Preface emphasising the ‘dialectic between the visible and invisible’ in rendering an archaeology of Hong Kong ‘for the future’; his Hong Kong is a prismatic conception of factual and fabricated elements.[1] On a cinematic level, Hong Kong most prominently inspired what Evans Chan has described as the ‘postmodern pastiche stylistics’ of Wong Kar Wai’s Chunking Express, amongst his other films, as well as the dystopic cyberpunk vision of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.[2] Scott was drawn to Hong Kong’s distinctive and dramatic skyline in creating the visual backdrop to his narrative. On a more specific level, the unique architectural marvel that was Kowloon Walled City – once the most densely populated urban enclave in the world, demolished in 1993 – lives on in the cultural memory as a kind of postmodern ‘heterotopia’ writ large.[3]

However, the existing urban architecture and visual features of Hong Kong owe as much to modernist as to postmodern styles and developments. As Prudence Lau has documented through extensive archival research, colonial property developers of the 1920s and 1930s – most importantly, the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (CFEO), originating in Belgium – set out to alter the urban landscape in Hong Kong for residential purposes in ways that drew on avant-garde Western techniques as well as Chinese influences: ‘Among their main strategies was the introduction of modernist exteriors characterised by Art Deco forms and experimenting with new architectural typologies adapted from the Chinese locality’.[4] Lau, along with Ophios Chow, has paid special attention elsewhere to the distinctly modernist qualities of more public-facing and recognisable structures of the post-war period (more precisely, the 1950s), such as the Star Ferry pier, the Queen’s Pier (now dismantled) and North Point’s State Theatre.[5]

Victoria Harbour in 1938 [Source]

As these examples might already suggest, modernist experimentation, on an architectural level, was bound up with Hong Kong’s colonial condition in the early-to-mid twentieth century. While focusing her discussion on other cities such as Singapore, Bombay and Dublin, Caitlin Vandertop nevertheless posits Hong Kong as one example of a ‘metrocolony’ in her 2020 monograph on the subject. Metrocolonial environments, according to Vandertop, presented a certain type of urban aesthetic and produced experiences marked by the city’s peripheral status in relation to the British imperial centre. She argues that the ‘stylistic importations of colonial planners’, not unlike those recorded by Lau, can be found to engender ‘striking and visible contradictions, contradictions which […] became important to the critical and aesthetic innovations associated with modernism.’[6] Such contradictions further informed – one might say they continue to inform[7] – the literary works of Hong Kong writers during this period. In her study, also published in 2020, C.T. Au delineates the contours of a Hong Kong Modernism, primarily through the writings of Leung Ping-Kwan, and she uses the term ‘altermodernism’ (adopted from Nicolas Bourriaud via Peter Brooker) to stress the necessity of a synthesised postcolonial/modernist theoretical approach in capturing the peculiarities of a colonial Hong Kong modernity and the complicated and multivalent discourse that emerged from it.[8]

Star Ferry Pier in the 1950s [Source]

British imperialism and its implications aside, representations of Hong Kong as a manifestly modernist place are also shaped by the imposing presence of mainland China. For Au, Hong Kong modernist writing, on a stylistic level, is as much indebted to Chinese literary traditions as to imported Western forms of modernist experimentalism. These modes are not always shown to be in sync. In the work of Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), the intersections between and conflicting interests of Chinese tradition and colonial Hong Kong modernity are rendered topographically. In her well-known 1943 story ‘Love in a Fallen City’, for example, Hong Kong is initially figured as a place of cosmopolitan possibility and reinvention for the female protagonist Liusu, a deliberate counterpoint to the staid and old-fashioned culture she leaves behind in Shanghai. Liusu, a divorcée who has come to Hong Kong to try to win the favour of a notorious playboy with a view to achieving long-term marital security, is comparable to the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels in her precarious negotiation of the line between middle-class respectability and social ostracism. In relocating to the city, she ismaking herself new, away from the social strictures and judgements of the old world. The description of Hong Kong, on her arrival, indeed suggests a place of extreme novelty, in terms both of natural and more commodified forms of sensation:

Not until the ship had finally reached the shore did she have a chance to go up on deck and gaze out at the sea. It was a fiery afternoon, and the most striking part of the view was the parade of giant billboards along the dock, their reds, oranges, and pinks mirrored in the lush green water. Below the surface of the water, bars and blots of clashing color plunged in murderous confusion. Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places.[9]

As this passage implies, the excitement of hyperbolic novelty conceals something more painful and unsettling, pre-empting the story’s conclusion in which a clichéd narrative of romantic adventure is unexpectedly derailed by the ‘murderous confusion’ wrought by the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. Beyond the parameters of the story itself and with a nod to Hong Kong’s fraught history from World War II to the present day, I would argue that this passage articulates something more enduring and characteristically modernist about Hong Kong as a place: the ‘clashing’ sociocultural influences that have given the city its hyperbolic intensity and vitality have also repeatedly resulted in injuries, fractures and contradictions that, to paraphrase Chang, hurt more than they would ‘in other places’.


Emily Ridge is a Lecturer at NUI Galway, having previously taught at City University of Hong Kong and the Education University of Hong Kong. She works on modernist and post-war literature. Her first monograph, entitled Portable Modernisms: The Art of Travelling Light, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2017 and she is co-editor (with Jeffrey Clapp) of Security and Hospitality in Literature and Culture: Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2016). Her further work has appeared in journals such as Novel: A Forum on FictionModernism/Modernity and Textual Practice.


[1] Dung Kai-Cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, trans. Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) xii, xi.

[2] Evans Chan, ‘Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema’, Postmodern Culture: Journal of Interdisciplinary Thought and Contemporary Culture 10.3 (2000). <http://www.pomoculture.org/2013/09/19/postmodernism-and-hong-kong-cinema/> Accessed 20/08/2021.

[3] See Matthew Hung’s ‘Kowloon Walled City: Heterotopia in a Space of Disappearance’, MAS Context, 19 (Fall 2013) <https://www.mascontext.com/tag/matthew-hung/&gt; Accessed 20/08/2021.

[4] Leung Kwok Prudence Lau, ‘Building a Modern City: Legacies of Residential Development and Architectural Adaptation in Colonial Hong Kong’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28.2 (2018) 353.

[5] Leung Kwok Prudence Lau and Pak Yin Ophios Chow, ‘The Right to Landscape: Social Sustainability and the Conservation of the State Theatre, Hong Kong’, Sustainability 11.15, 4033 (2019) 1-16.

[6] Caitlin Vandertop, Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) 2.

[7] For an overview of some more recent Hong Kong Chinese literary texts that reflect the ‘city’s complex cultural character’ (62), see Tong King Lee, ‘Hong Kong Literature: Colonialism, Cosmopolitanism, Consumption’, Journal of Modern Literature 44.2 (2021) 62-75.

[8] C.T. Au, The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-Kwan (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2020) 3-4.

[9] Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, trans. Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang (London: Penguin, 2007) 131.

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