#80 = Volume 27,
Part 1 = March 2000
Wong Kin Yuen
On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner,
Ghost in the Shell , and Hong Kong's Cityscape
Colonial cities can be viewed as the forerunners of
what the contemporary capitalist world city would eventually
become. For ... in the colonial and paracolonial societies and
especially Asia, Africa and Latin America ... the representatives
and institutions of industrial capitalism first confronted those
of ethnically, racially, and culturally different pre-industrial
and pre-capitalist societies at any significant
scale. -- Anthony King, Global Cities (38)
The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is
transformed into a texturology in which extremes
coincide -- extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal
oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday's
buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today's urban
irruptions that block out its space.... Its present invents
itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its
previous accomplishments and challenging the future. -- Michel
de Certeau, "Walking in the City" (152)
1. It is now widely acknowledged that Ridley Scott's
Blade Runner (1982/ 1992) initiated a whole tradition of cult
movies later grouped under the label "cyberpunk." Blade
Runner's style draws its images from urban spaces all over the
world, including such Asian cities as Tokyo and Hong Kong. Science
fiction film critics are less aware, however, that when anime film
director Mamoru Oshii was looking for a model of the city of the
future in a computerized world, he turned for his primary inspiration
to the cityscape of Hong Kong. Through his art designers, actual
spots in the city of Hong Kong were transformed into the
mise-en-scène of Ghost in the Shell, first
released in the United States in March 1996.
Science fiction has not fared well in Hong Kong (either in terms
of production or consumption), nor is there a cyberpunk culture among
Hong Kong's young computer users. So the question arises: what
elements in Hong Kong provided inspiration for this cinematic
representation of a near-future city characterized by decadence,
anarchy, and fantasy on the one hand, and a mistrusted, high-tech
hyper-reality on the other? Taking up this question, I will first
suggest a reading of a shopping complex in Hong Kong that emphasizes
its fragmentation, disjunctiveness, and ephemerality. Like Blade
Runner's "Ridleyville," this Hong Kong shopping complex
intertwines past and future, memory and desire. Finally, I will
analyze the setting of Ghost in the Shell, especially the
parts that are clearly modeled on Hong Kong street scenes and
architecture. I hope to validate Anthony King's argument that colonial
cities have the best chance of establishing a cityscape of the future
that embraces racial and cultural differences.
Before going any further, let me address the politics of
representation, especially in the visual media of cyberpunk art and
films. Following the success of Blade Runner, such
cyber-thrillers as Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Hackers
(1995), Lawnmower Man 2 (1996), and Strange Days (1995)
have also selectively used motifs of "Asian" design environments,
together with their visual icons, to portray cultural difference and
to create visual pleasure from postmodern pastiche. As in Blade
Runner, the most popular model for artists' and filmmakers' dark
and sprawling cities of the future is an Asian-dominated metropolis.
Cyberpunk novels, including Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and
Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), likewise emphasize Asian culture and
urban style, suggesting (as John Christie has argued) "the
replacement of the hegemonic state apparatus by multinationals, its
cultural pluralism" (173). Whereas Snow Crash's "Mr. Lee's Greater
Hong Kong" is set in cyberspace, Neuromancer's Night City, The
Sprawl, coffin hotel, and Ninsei are based on the Tokyo Bay area. In
his recent novel, Idoru (1996), Gibson even presents organic
buildings in a 21st-century Tokyo. (In this case, there must also be
some connection to Hong Kong as well, since in his acknowledgment to
a Japanese director, Gibson mentions "Kowloon Walled City," which has
"continued to haunt him" [n.pag.] ever since the latter told him
For sf illustrator Barclay Shaw, the merging of cyberspace with
the sleazy, neon-lit visual passion in Neuromancer closely
resembles a chaotic Hong Kong street. Commissioned as cover art for
the 1986 Phantasia Press edition of the novel, the painting chooses
some Chinese characters (presumably taken from Hong Kong shop signs)
for the foreground, highlighting not only a sense of ethnic and
cultural confusion and hybridity but also a continuous process of the
destructions and reconstructions so characteristic of contemporary
cityscapes. This is certainly in line with the cyberpunk convention
of "the run-down inner-city slum-cum-tent settlement, overcrowded,
trashed and graffiti-ridden" (Bonner 194), reminding us at the same
time of Blade Runner's Ridleyville.
We also find visual icons relating to Chinese characters,
obviously within a "Chinatown" setting, in cyberpunk films such as
Strange Days. Set in Los Angeles a few days shy of the
millennium, the film sustains film noir tradition through dark and
explosive scenes of riots and chaos. In between these hybridized
sites and battle zones on the streets, Chinatown's glittering
lanterns (not the authentic kind with real candlelight, of course),
together with the profusion of shops and commercial sign boards
characteristic of a normal busy Hong Kong street, juxtapose visual
alternatives and establish a tone somewhere between eroticism and
dreariness. This kind of design, which marks the unmistakable
miscellaneity of a metropolis, suggests a near future where centers
and peripheries do not hold and where racial conflicts are at the
point of explosion; it also provides an appropriate way to exhibit an
"inverted millennarianism" (Jameson 53). Scenes from a kitchen in a
Chinese restaurant depict violence and intrigues played out among
individuals, while collective racial protests and riots are taking
place in the streets. It is curious that such "Chinese" vignettes
have become a favorite among recent Hollywood filmmakers. Compared to
the front of the restaurant in Strange Days, where decor and
orderliness prevail, the kitchen is filmed as a clandestine negative
space signifying hiddenness and disorder. In the restaurant kitchen,
the flawed character Nero plays out his drama of fighting back
against corporate crimes, providing a contrast with the public
atrocities committed in front of millions of people during the New
Year countdown celebration at the movie's conclusion.
In Strange Days, "Chinese" spaces are represented as hidden
within the context of the future urban setting. Is there any cultural
or ideological significance in this -- beyond the fact that a
Chinese restaurant kitchen is an exotic spot? Does this added element
of Chineseness (contrasted with the exploding warfare among races and
social classes in Strange Days) help to bring out the theme of
the intertwining relations between social space and media space?
Finally, since Chinatown settings are spaces famous for being
inhabited by illegal immigrants, we will need to follow Homi Bhabha's
critique of the "metropolitan histories" of the west, "the anomalous
and discriminatory legal and cultural status assigned to migrant,
diasporic, and refugee populations" who "find themselves on the
frontiers between cultures and nations, often on the other side of
the law" (Bhabha 175).
2. We must be careful, however, in interpreting the ways
the Hong Kong cityscape is appropriated by cyberpunk literature and
films; we must remember that Hollywood has had a long history of
misrepresenting Hong Kong, from white-male fantasies about oriental
girls (The World of Suzy Wong ) to exploitative
soft-core pornographic eroticism (the Emmanuelle films). More
recently, a quick shot in the low-budget Lawnmower Man 2 shows
a yellow rickshaw pulled by a Chinese man on the street of yet
another Los Angeles of the future. An offensive example of
"non-equivalent sites of representation" (Bhabha 176), this rickshaw
scene exemplifies a brutal seizure of a cultural sign by the west, a
way of "evoking ... savage colonial antecedents" for the sake of
presumed "ideals of civility" (Bhabha 175).1 Whether cyberpunk film
directors are themselves free from this mire of distortion in their
renderings of Hong Kong's urban images is of course an important
question to ask here.
Blade Runner's cultural references are indirect, yet I
propose to compare the design of the film's city setting with an
actual spot in Hong Kong that may provide a paradigm for future
global cities. The incredibly detailed Los Angeles of 2019 in
Blade Runner creates a futuristic noir atmosphere by heavily
borrowing from Asian motifs, albeit vague and general ones, in its
design of city icons and social spaces. With the artful
"retro-fitting" and "layering" of the Japanese sushi bar, the
gigantic media screen of the geisha girl ad, and a Chinese
bio-engineer who "only does eyes," the city, critics are quick to
point out, looks like "Chinatown in Tomorrowland" (Hunter 225); the
sleazy cinematography results in a hybrid and fractal combination of
"Hong Kong, New York, [and] Tokyo's Ginza district" (Sammon 101). I
would argue that considering Hong Kong as among the cinematic models
for the future city may inspire not only a further look at Hong Kong
at this present moment of political transition but also its potential
for developing into a "forerunner of what the contemporary capitalist
world city will eventually become" (King 38).
Perhaps because of its recent reabsorption by China, Hong Kong has
drawn enormous interest from urban scholars and social critics.
Struggling historically between traditional Chinese culture and
British imperialism, and at this moment adjusting its full-fledged
capitalism in order to be embraced by socialism, Hong Kong's
postmodern identity has been singled out as a unique case in the
world, characterized by "disappearance" and "hyphenation" (Abbas
1994; 1996) or dealt with in terms of "discourses in collision under
the volcano" (Cuthbert 1995).
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I am particularly fascinated
by the dazzling visuals of Blade Runner's Ridleyville, its
seamless weaving together of the futuristic and the traditional, as
well as its paradoxical delighting of the eye through an emphasis on
urban squalor. Other aspects -- hybrid architectural spaces,
crowdedness, the polyglot or mishmash city-speak, the chaotic
proliferation of neon billboards above futuristic shopping arcades,
the rain-soaked streets and dragon signs -- invite me to conclude
that this Los Angeles of 2019 can indeed be read as "Hong Kong on a
bad day" (Salisbury 96; Doel and Clarke 163).
The questions remain to
be asked: what illumination does Blade Runner offer us for
envisioning the 21st century cityscape, and what role will Hong Kong
play in shaping our expectations of the city of the future? This
film's "radical eclecticism or ad hoc-ism" (Bruno 66) catches my eye
and inspires me to think about the evolving scenes of my own city,
freeing me from clichés (Hong Kong is a dynamic and
international city with post-industrial and postmodernist
characteristics, etc.). Let me go right to a specific Hong Kong space
for a detailed description, to demonstrate the value of placing
Ridleyville and Hong Kong together.
The place is located at the juncture of Happy Valley and Causeway
Bay around Russell Street and Sharp East Street, one of the most
densely populated areas of Hong Kong. Perhaps no other place can
demonstrate so well the strange mix of global and local in truly
cosmopolitan downtown development. The space occupies half a square
mile of streets, shops, flyovers, and the recent addition of a mall,
"Times Square." It is certainly an "urban secret located at the
intersection of postmodern and science fiction" (Bukatman 12).
Apparently no parody was intended by naming the place after New
York's Times Square, but the name does reflect and even reaffirm its
own historicity and timeliness -- albeit the kind of
schizophrenic temporality that Fredric Jameson uses in his famous
reading of the Bonaventure Hotel (80-85). The complex itself, built
on top of a busy metro station, stretches from several levels
underground to skyscraper height, looking down on the adjacent, much
older buildings, "indifferent to its surrounding" (Abbas 1996, 221).
For city-planners, especially visitors, the awkward and abrupt sense
of discrepancies on all levels is impossible to miss. The complex was
built on a former tram-depot skirted by an old-style street market
and the quarters for lower echelon tram-company employees. Thus an
area once inhabited by comparatively low-income locals has been
transformed by commercialism into a high-tech wonder, a bewildering
collage of signs and patterns with enough anarchic elements remaining
(a small part of the market and old style shops) to create a sense of
pastiche. Yet nothing unusual or uncanny is felt by the people who
live there; and in general the logic of capitalism, in which
"shopping is an aesthetic experience" (Webster 212), works
beautifully, since the spot has become (with its advantages of
proximity and diversity, its availability and variety of consumer
goods) one of the busiest and most prosperous places in Hong Kong.
But who are these inhabitants? They are shoppers, blue- and
white-collar workers, tourists of all nationalities, and an
ever-changing population of new immigrants (some of them illegal),
working mostly in the old shops. The people of "Times Square" are
both rich and poor, young and old. More than Disneyland, this
phoenix in the rubble is patronized by practically all walks of life;
and this absolute accessibility to the fairyland of diversity and
display accounts for its success. This is of course the exact
opposite of the kind of cityscape deliberately designed "to wall off
the differences between people, assuming that these differences are
more likely to be mutually threatening than mutually stimulating"
(Sennet xii). To walk in this area is to float with, through, and
against the crowd, always on one's way to somewhere else. This may
well be an indication of a degree of pedestrian movement and flow
unique to Hong Kong. Arjun Appadurai's comments on the landscape of
people (as constituting this shifting world of ours) is particularly
pertinent to description of Hong Kong's Times Square:
[T]ourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers and
other moving groups and persons constitute an essential feature of
the world and appear to affect the politics of (and between)
nations to a hitherto unprecedented degree. This is not to say
that there are no relatively stable communities and networks, of
kinship, of friendship, of work and of leisure, as well as of
birth, residence and other filiative forms. But it is to say that
the warp of these stabilities is everywhere shot through with the
woof of human motion, as more persons and groups deal with the
realities of having to move or the fantasies of wanting to move.
This postmodern architectural environment in Asian
cities may have been the source of their fascination for
cyberpunk film designers. I doubt that Ridley Scott knew
of the existence of the Hong Kong Times Square when he
was conjuring up his Los Angeles set in Blade Runner, but
I would like to juxtapose an early sketch of his with a
couple of photos for comparison. What first catches the
eye, besides striking resemblances in the busy streets,
the futuristic shopping arcades, the neon-lit billboards,
the garbage, the drunkards, and so on, is the huge 9 x 6
meter video screen acting almost as the backdrop, an
immense icon of power. This gigantic screen hanging above
busy streets in future cities has been a common and
almost indispensable motif among cyberpunk films. From
Running Man (1987) to Johnny Mnemonic and Hackers to
Strange Days, this screen has become the hallmark
of postmodern cities, a mirror of information networks,
an entrance into cyberspace. Scott's screen is later
changed into an even bigger one showing a close-up of an
alluring Japanese geisha who is always trying to sell
something, set in contrast with a flying blimp beaming
with flashing lights to advertise off-world immigration.
At Hong Kong's Times Square, however, the screen shows
more than animated advertisements: since it is also
connected to the cable TV channels, it broadcasts local
and international news to passers-by. Indeed, for several
months the cable TV channels have presented a live talk
show on the square below the screen: hyperreality in its
extreme comes into reality.
Much has been said about the relationship between cyberpunk
culture and our so-called post-information age. Theoretical studies
such as Debord's Society of the Spectacle and Bukatman's Terminal
Identity have illuminated the significance of such a gigantic screen
as an alternative space of the visual. Starting from the Lacanian
concept of subject-formation through the image in a mirror, critics
have noticed that with the advent of optical technology, this mirror
is turned into, say, the video camera, which does the work of at once
creating, reflecting, and distorting the image of the self. All city
dwellers, especially regular shoppers in modern malls, have had the
experience of walking by a camera shop, leisurely looking, and then
suddenly seeing their own image also walking by and looking on but
from the opposite direction and angle. They then realize that this is
the video camera set to automatic and placed behind the shop window,
Edward Soja has explained how some critics provide insights "on
how fragmentation, ruptures, deviation, displacements, and
discontinuities can be politically transformed from liability and
weakness to a potential source of opportunity and strength." He
describes how the feminist critic Anne Friedberg, during her "window
shopping" in Paris, focuses on those "machines of virtual transport"
that "break us out of our constraining spatio-temporal containers,
starting with the panorama and the diorama and ending with the
'virtual tourism' provided by cinema and its extensions, most notably
the television and the VCR" (Soja 117). In this context, the
activities surrounding the screen on the square can be considered an
extreme enlargement of the automatic video camera experience just
Incidentally, there is at least one camera shop on one of the
levels in the Times Square complex that does film the passers-by. I
would suggest, following Baudrillard's assertion, that we are the
first generation who actually live in science fiction: such
experiences have become sf experiences, or even cyberpunk
3. At this point, a more careful reading of the differences in the
architectural layout of Blade Runner and Times Square in Hong
Kong is called for. Unlike Scott's near-future Los Angeles, Hong Kong
is not disintegrating or in ruins. Yes, there is a lot of garbage on
the streets; but it is not technological waste or post-industrial
decay, at least not the "height of exhibition and recycling" (Bruno
64). In addition, whereas the postmodern, hybridized, mismatched
architectural styles in Blade Runner convey banality by an
uneasy combination of pastiche quotations (Chinese-dragon characters
and Egyptian decor in a Mayan pyramid), in Hong Kong's Times Square,
the extravaganza of hybridity only reflects a grotesque piecing
together of disparate times and styles -- the temporality of
architectural efforts. Instead of Sebastian's and Deckard's nearly
empty 97th-floor apartments overlooking the deserted city, what we
can see, through the glass-encased escalator from the mall, are
shattered flats occupied by poor people. Yet although these are
run-down buildings, they are not deserted and soon they will be
pulled down to make space for new ones.
Besides, Blade Runner emphasizes the likely explosion of
the Asian population of Los Angeles in the 21st century. Such
domination by Asian elements contributes to the film's emphasis on an
"explosion of urbanization, melting the futuristic high-tech look
into an intercultural scenario, recreat[ing] the third world inside
the first" (Bruno 66). How can this Los Angeles-becoming-Chinatown be
put alongside the transformation of Hong Kong's urban spaces? While
these discrepancies may discourage our attempt to juxtapose Blade
Runner's future Los Angeles and Hong Kong's evolving urban
topography, I would still like to argue that the "fragmented
temporality" or the Jamesonian "perpetual present" as seen in the
mixing of the old and the new for an effect of future noir in
Blade Runner can be used to interpret postmodern Hong Kong,
especially at this historical moment. Although most recent changes in
architectural layout are expressions of the logic of commercialism,
it is also true that major construction projects such as the new
airport and the surge in real-estate values are tinged with political
intentions and discourses. By inspiring us to think through the
future of urban development in terms of social space, Blade
Runner reminds us to turn our attention to the importance of both
spatializing history and historicizing geography, as suggested by
Perhaps Hong Kong's citizens are replicants in a sense, lacking a
history of identity. Maybe through art, film, and architecture, we
can become more equipped to take a closer look at our environment and
our relation to it. Is our historical space, our evolving hybridity
and urbanism, just an index of our looking for a genuine history of
our own? In my subsequent use of Soja's theory of the "thirdspace," I
will work towards defining the radical possibilities inherent in Hong
Kong's evolving cityscape.
Edward Soja, who started out as a geographer, has been an
important advocate of critical studies of social space. He is an
appropriate figure to be enlisted in our "tale of two cities," for he
has been writing about the postmodernization of Los Angeles for
fifteen years. After his Postmodern Geographies (1989), he continued
his research on cities and power in a major work entitled Thirdspace
(1996). Expanding on Henri Lefebvre's concept of the "trialectics" of
spatiality in The Production of Space (i.e., perceived, conceived,
and lived space), Soja works out a similar "trialectics of Being, of
spatiality, historicality and sociality" (71) to delineate a way of
interpreting urban space and its social significance beyond the
traditional dualism (the same and "other") in spatial thinking. By
focusing on an act of "thirding-as-othering," Soja is able to
introduce into analysis of urban studies an emphasis on "radical
openness" or a "multiplicity of space that difference makes" that
joins forces with "a polyvocal postmodernism that maintains a
political commitment to radical change" (93). As "spaces in the
margins of hegemonic discourses" (111), they can then be
reconceptualized to embrace Foucault's ideas of "heterotopias,"
feminist geography, and such post-colonial critiques as Homi Bhabha's
Politics of Location. Soja's theory of the spatiality of human life
emphasizes the creative and artistic side of spatial discourse,
especially when he describes the kind of thirdspace that is linked to
the "underground side of social life." He also draws our attention to
what feminists have done to create artful space in the city:
[T]he alternative spaces of the visual, kinetic, and aesthetic
imagination -- in films, photography, advertising, fashion,
museum exhibitions, murals, poems, novels, but also in shopping malls
and beaches, factories and streets, motels and theme parks -- are
being creatively evoked by other spatial feminists as ways of seeing,
hearing, feeling, interpreting, and changing the city. (115)
For Vivian Sobchack, however, who traces the historical
development of urban sf films, in the 1980s "the idealized and lofty
city of SF is imagined as completely decentered and marginalized"
(13). She thinks that, seen from this "new urban exorcism, the Los
Angeles of Blade Runner unifies its outmoded and vastly
disparate material signifiers into new retrofitted and eroticized
architectural forms"(16). But this is as far as this imaginary city
can go, since for her the film "is not really capable of envisioning
its future." By celebrating visual heterogeneity, these cities:
function as virtual ghettos -- or wishing upon the same
bourgeois star, effectively effac[ing] those differences that do make
a difference ... that is, gender, race, class. Positing, on the one
hand, a new and liberating model of the city and, on the other,
buying back into its failed model by merely reversing (rather than
altering) its terms and values, the imaginary and postmodernist city
of the American SF film is truly a city on the edge of time. (17)
Sobchack seems to be arguing that in emphasizing the pleasure of
viewing through an "erotics of commodification and consumerism," the
merely scenic is emphasized at the expense of history, since "the
pastiche of new and old and recycled material objects, aesthetic
styles, and even the narrative itself in Blade Runner
constituted Los Angeles's temporal mode as neither past nor future
but as literal and increasingly collective present" (16). If we look
hard for possible "thirdspace" elements in the city design of Blade
Runner, however, there are suggestions of historicity in the decaying
cosmopolitan urban spaces, no matter how gloomily the picture is
painted on screen. If nothing else, Blade Runner at least "posits
questions of identity, identification, and history in post-modernism"
To be sure, historical allusions in Blade Runner are
eclectic, but "pastiche is ultimately a redemption of history, which
implies the transformation and reinterpretation in tension between
loss and desire" (Bruno 74). This tension is expressed through the
positing of so-called "prosthetic memory," which seeks "to rewrite
history by means of architectural pastiched recycling" (Bruno 74). In
the artistic rendering of a dystopic future in Blade Runner, a
point is made about the thirdspace of "the ramble city" (Bruno,
Doel). We can also say that all the architectural motifs of hybridity
and geographical displacement have been designed to provide an
existential context for the plight of the replicants in the film. The
cinematography, with its celebrated dominance of visual
representations, functions to bring out "fragmentary temporality" and
"schizophrenic vertigo" -- the setting in which the replicants
are destined to seek in vain for the meaning of their lives. Even
Deckard is seen running for his life on the rooftop of a
hundred-story building, a place where one's being is lifted up from
the firm ground and exposed to the destructive power of the machine.
As a blade runner,2 Deckard is supposed to be someone who "runs on
the knife's edge between humanity and inhumanity," "someone who
scampers along the thin edge of life" (Sammon 379). Blade Runner,
especially in the 1992 director's cut, ambiguously suggests that
Deckard himself is a replicant who has dreams of the unicorn as
symbol of purity. Through such "knife's edge" images and hints, a
radical space is opened up for the sort of counter-site Soja speaks
of, a space created for "oppositional practices," for "critical
exchange," and for "new and radical happenings" (Soja 129).
Dreaming/constructing an identity while perched on a rooftop
establishes one's past through memory, even if that memory be
prosthetic. Refuting both Jameson's and Baudrillard's positing the
existence of the "real" as a result of "a nostalgia for a
prelapsarian moment," Alison Landsberg goes straight to the ability
of cinema (mass media and photography included) to "provide
individuals with the collective opportunity of having an experiential
relationship to a collective cultural past they either did or did not
experience" (Landsberg 178). True, implanted memories could be used
as a means of surveillance and control, as is demonstrated in
Blade Runner by Tyrell, who explains to Deckard that "If we
give them a past we create a cushion for their emotions and
consequently we can control them better." But in Deckard's
incredulous response -- "memories, you're talking about
memories" -- we glimpse the kind of significance the film
attaches to this memory motif and its power to produce identity.
To support her argument for the "portability of cinematic images,"
Landsberg draws our attention to the scene in Blade Runner in which
Rachel, after playing a few notes on the piano, says "I don't know if
it's me or Tyrell's niece, but I remember lessons." When Deckard
responds by saying "you play beautifully," Landsberg notes that at
this point Deckard, in effect, rejects the distinction between "real"
and prosthetic memories. "Her memory of lessons allows her to play
beautifully, so it means little whether she lived through the lessons
or not" (185). With all this, and especially with Batty's "tears in
the rain" dying moment, viewers of the film are asked to identify
themselves with the "primary object of our spectatorial investment
and engagement" (183) -- in a word, with the replicants, Rachel
and Deckard and all, who are, like Donna Haraway's cyborgs, subjects
living at the edge of time.
The rooftop chase, the Bradbury ledge where the showdown between
Batty and Deckard takes place, and the jump between the edges of
buildings, all are examples in the film of what Lefebvre calls spaces
of representation or lived space. They are, as Soja explains, "linked
to the 'clandestine or underground' [high, high up above the ground
in Blade Runner] side of social life" (Soja 67). In this light, one
might argue that the city dwellers of Hong Kong are all Blade
Runners (notwithstanding that this is not a perfect analogy,
since they're not required to retire any replicants), living not only
on the edge of time but also on the edge of empires. Moreover, one
might see, in the architectural pastiche in Blade Runner, that
the Hong Kong Times Square demonstrates the very postmodern condition
that denotes both a crisis of identity and, at the same time, an
attempt to accommodate alterity.
Regarding the sort of future Hong Kong's people are facing, Abbas
writes that "The 'end of Hong Kong' is therefore in another sense its
beginning, the beginning of an intense interest in its historical and
cultural specificity, a change from the hitherto almost exclusive
fascination with its economic success" ("Building" 444). But this
mixing of the old and the new within the shocking rate of changes,
this putting aside the sense of historical and cultural
sequentiality, may well give Hong Kong's people the potential to
develop a new sense of identity. For Abbas, Hong Kong's space is
"both autonomous and dependent at the same time, both separate from
and connected to other space" ("Hyphenation" 215). Maybe, just maybe,
this particular urban site, so unique in its social and economic
hybridity and accessibility, could function as a global symbol (or
model) for diaspora in post-colonial narratives. As with all big
cities, "ordinary shopping districts frequented by ordinary people,"
Sharon Zukin believes, "are important sites for negotiating the
street-level practice of urban public culture" (191). In the midst of
settlements and political flux, such complex issues as the "brain
drain" of the 1980s, the "right of abode" in the early 1990s, and the
present problem of displaced and repatriated families, Hong Kong's
citizens may be able to transform themselves to become
"world-travelers" par excellence, positioning themselves flexibly "on
the edge of empires."3
The big screen at Hong Kong's Times Square suggests the close
relation between social space and identity; it illustrates how the
place (as a postmodern city of information and hence with the
profusion and confusion of images and icons that we mentioned
earlier) also provides a public space for the construction of
identity. As mentioned before, the most unique characteristic of this
square is that, unlike anywhere else in Hong Kong, it is accessible
to all. It is a work place, a festive space, a real location and a
hyperreal site for information-exchange -- all at once. We can of
course look at the place as part of Paul Virillo's "overexposed
city," where "the city has become a space of simultaneous dispersion,
as public space loses it relevance" (quoted in Bukatman 132); and we
can consider the screen as similar to those in Blade Runner,
which become "the proliferation of walls" or sites of projection and
terminal inscription (Bukatman 132). On the other hand, the screen on
the wall of Hong Kong's Times Square can also be made to realize its
potential as a possible "countersite" of a radical cityscape. In
fact, the live TV talk-show can be viewed as a social forum where all
political and cultural issues are brought up for open argument.4 In a
commercial depicting a gathering of 40,000 people on screen with lit
candles in hand, a voice-over announces: "On June 4 tens of thousands
of people will gather at Victoria Park. They are students,
businessmen, workers, housewives. They will come to remember the
victims of the Tienanmen massacre as they have done for the past
eight years, and cable TV will be there."5 A more radical side of the
public sphere may possibly be opened up by an alternative practice of
spatiality in Hong Kong.
4. I now turn to Ghost in the Shell to expand on my
discussion of the relation between urban space, high-tech
information, and cyberpunk films. Mamoru Oshii's full-length animated
feature is based on Masamune Shirow's popular manga series; it
employed artists and designers who had great success in Akira (1987).
The year is 2029 and the world is a vast net of electronic
information data in which computer wars are fought. During the hot
pursuit of a phantom criminal nicknamed the Puppet Master, our hero
Major Kusanagi, a female cybernetic organism, discovers that she has
been targeted by the Puppet Master, who wishes to merge with her as a
unified life form "on a higher consciousness." Released in theaters
worldwide late in 1995 and 1996, Ghost in the Shell soon became the
topic of critical controversy. Some criticized the plot as too
complicated and murky, or for its tendency to over-philosophize;
others saw it as borrowing too much from Blade Runner and
William Gibson. But in general, Ghost in the Shell has been
welcomed by most fans as the most "soulful" anime to date, with great
visuals and a central moral that asks what it is for a female cyborg
to be human in the age of machines. As for myself, I am impressed
with the seriousness of production, the hyperrealistic rendering, the
soulful mood, and above all the uniquely dreamlike quality. But what
actually riveted my eyes to the screen during my first viewing of the
film was the Hong Kong cityscape featured as the setting.
So we are back to our initial question: what is so unique about
Hong Kong's urban landscape that it has aroused the interest of
cyberpunk filmmakers? In The Analysis of Ghost in the Shell, a
beautiful Japanese picture book covering the film, the director,
Mamoru Oshii, and his art designer, Takeuchi Atsushi, explain why the
Hong Kong cityscape is significant in the film.6 Note what the
director has to say:
As a model for the setting of Ghost, it is because Hong Kong, just
like Singapore, is a unique city. It will, as it moves towards the
21st century, become a center of world development and the model for
cities in Asia. My prediction is that all the energies possessed by
Asia will continue in the next century. When I was in search of an
image of the future, the first thing that came to my mind was an
Asian city. At first I did not think it was possible to create a
perfect cityscape for the future; and what was done in the past
seems unconvincing to me now.... The only way, if one is to be true
to the methodology of animation, is to use real streets as models, so
I thought of Hong Kong. It is like the Los Angeles of Blade
Runner; what has been achieved in that city set will be of use to
later films. (Nozaki n.pag.)
The designer Atsushi adds:
Ghost in the Shell
does not have a definite chosen set,
but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious
that Hong Kong is the model. Such a choice has, of course, something
to do with the theme: on the streets there flows an excess or a flood
of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The
modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols....
As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets
will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded.... There is a
sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers
are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different,
are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is
the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called
modernization! It's a situation in which two entities are kept in a
strange neighboring relationship. Perhaps it is what the future is.
Water imagery is used in Ghost in the Shell as a symbol for
the flood or sea of data, its massive communication system in a new
urban topography, with its complex electronically-controlled
switchboard and fluorescent 3-D scanner images of road maps or grids.
This, of course, seems to be an accurate projection of the political
uniqueness of Hong Kong's mediascape, "complicated in particular by
the growing diaspora (both voluntary and involuntary) of Hong Kong
intellectuals who continuously inject new meaning-streams into the
discourse of democracy in different parts of the world" (Appadurai
11). This figuration of the city reminds us of Bukatman's "fractal
geography" interpretation of Blade Runner: a sense of
aesthetic order can be drawn out from the de-centered and dispersed
space that is seemingly confusing and even chaotic at first glance.
Noting the play with scale and density by designers Syd Mead and
Lawrence Paull, Bukatman adds together such elements as wall-like
screens, "multiple layers of traveling matter" (132), and "a chaos of
intersecting lines" from a high-angle view, concluding that fractal
geometry may have been at the core of the visual aesthetics of
The Analysis emphasizes that Ghost in the Shell 's artists
made meticulous sketches on location before actual shooting, sketches
that emphasized chaotic crowdedness and a mad profusion of signs and
icons. Hong Kong seems to be the only city in the world with such a
degree of confusion -- with gigantic signs and neon lights
protruding into the space on and above the street and fighting for
limited and precious visual space. The artist remarks on this
In the midst of the profusion of signs and the heat of the messy
urban space, the streets are remarkably chaotic. Passers-by, shouts,
cars, all kinds of mechanical noises and human "sound pollution," all
merging into one, forcing itself into humans' central nervous systems
through their ears. But why do people succumb to this "destructive"
environment? Now that the artificial has replaced the natural, humans
are like animals in the past, deprived of the characteristics of
being human as a whole. Pulled directly into the whirlpool of
information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses,
their feelings are henceforth numbed. On the other hand, countless
mutually interfering and uncertain data pass through cables at light
speed. This is the way informatics continues to expand its domain.
Are people then like tiny insects caught in an enormous spider web?
No, it cannot be. Humans are not tiny insects trying to escape from
the web. It's not like that. In fact humans have willy-nilly become
part and parcel of the spider web. Humans now have no idea of what
their destination might be; they are like one of the silky-threads of
the spider web. (Nozaki n.pag.)
An imploded iconography as an aesthetics of scale can also be
detected in the architectural design both within the Hong Kong Times
Square and the surrounding streets outside. The traumas of
de-territorialization that Hong Kong's people are facing, as
presented through their lived experience of the "other spaces," will
have to be dealt with by a general theory of global cultural
processes. For Arjun Appadurai, chaos theory is the answer, since he
considers "the configuration of cultural forms in today's world as
fundamentally fractal." In order to "compare fractally shaped
cultural forms which are also polythetically overlapping in their
coverage of terrestrial space ... we will need to ask how these
complex, overlapping, fractal shapes constitute not a simple, stable
(even if large-scale) system, but to ask what its dynamics are." In
other words, Appadurai proposes that "in a world of disjunctive
global flows, it is perhaps important to start asking ... [questions]
in a way that relies on images of flow and uncertainty ... 'chaos,'
rather than an older images of order, stability and systemacity"
But it is not just on this large scale of global cultural flows
(particularly of technoscape, mediascape, and ideoscape) that fractal
aesthetics are relevant to Ghost in the Shell. On a smaller
level -- namely, that of the body -- the idea of the
fractured body of the humanoid hybrid has been popular in cyborg
films; and it receives rather interesting if not controversial
treatment in this Japanese anime. Corporeality, as we remember, is
one of the four Cs listed by Frances Bonner to delineate a general
pattern of plotting in cyberpunk films, which emphasize the wetware
of mutable bodies. For Baudrillard, the body is now an infinite set
of surfaces -- a fractal subject -- an object among objects
(Baudrillard 40). In cyberpunk's hyper-techno culture, "the
centrality of body" is paradoxically represented by "the
fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids and 'bodily state,'"
and "fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the
constitution of cultural identities" (Balsamo 216). The cyborg woman
warrior in Ghost in the Shell, following in this tradition,
speaks also to the "emergence of cyborg identities" that is
predicated on "the fractured, plural, decentered condition of
contemporary subjectivity" (Robins 8). Yet because Major Kusanagi is
presented in a "perfect" female body (often sans clothes), she can be
criticized, especially by feminist critics who interpret her as a
commercial object for the male gaze. Indeed, if one looks through the
original comic strip by Masamune Shirow, one will find more occasions
for such an objection. Moreover, by simply noting the bifurcation of
the title, we may assume that the so-called "theme" of the film
remains confined to a Cartesian duality-of-body-and-mind paradigm,
and by extension, the binarisms surrounding gender issues. As one of
the reviewers notes, corporate work in Japan nowadays is "so
exhausting and dehumanizing that many men (who form the largest part
of the animation audience) project both freedom and power onto women,
and identify with them as fictional characters" (Ebert). Whereas I
have no quarrel with such an argument, the fact remains that a tough
woman protagonist in sf action movies, especially in the Hollywood
tradition, will stir up some kind of emotion marking masculine
Cinematic images of women who wield guns, and who take control of
cars, computers and the other technologies that have symbolized both
power and freedom within Hollywood's world, mobilize a symbolically
transgressive iconography. (Tasker 132)
The problem here is that despite its mode of presenting a perfect
female body in the nude, the film as a whole is strangely de-gendered
in the sense that sexuality is minimized. Through images that "speak
of both bodily invincibility and vulnerability," the so-called Angst
of the protagonist revolves around what it means to her, as a 90%
cybernetic organism, to be a free human consciousness. One can of
course complain in the vein of cyberfeminism, as Nicola Nixon has
done, that we are here faced with a strong cyborg who is "effectively
depoliticized and sapped of any revolutionary energy" (Nixon 222, see
also Silvio). But Major Kusanagi, for all her bravado, is not an
avenger in the style of Gibson's Molly Millions in "Johnny Mnemonic"
(1981) and Sarah in Walter Jon William's Hardwired (1981). By
representing her as a perfect female body, the film, in a peculiar
way, avoids the complex problem of the "masculinisation of the female
body," (139) as Yvonne Tasker observes of Hollywood films.
The only scene in Ghost that dramatizes the Major's bodily
transformation into a muscular hulk soon exposes her mechanical
interior with wires and steel, so that the issue of gender is pushed
aside in favor of a militaristic/cyborg iconography. And throughout
the film, from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a
feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid,
to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the
monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked
first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine
interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with
the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape. Instead of dwelling
on the gender politics of the body, the poetic rendering of the birth
scene, which highlights both the hardness of the mechanical and the
softness of cybernetics, gears itself towards a process of merging
the born and the made in becoming one soft machine, as Kevin Kelly
predicts (qtd. in Dry 20).
The monstrous, mutilated and deviant body, shattered by violence,
comes close to Donna Haraway's notion of "regeneration after injury"
for salamanders, though the "regrown limb can be monstrous,
duplicated, potent" (Haraway 100). This production of horror,
according to Judith Halberstam in her study of the gothic and the
technology of monsters, makes strange "the categories of beauty,
humanity, and identity that we still cling to" (Halberstam 6). In a
sense, the final scene of horror of mutation and the attempt by the
"Ghost" of Puppet Master to merge with the "Shell" of our heroine is
symbolic of the entanglement of "self and other within monstrosity
and the parasitical relationship between the two" (Halberstam 20).
As for the image of the shell, the great phenomenologist of space,
Gaston Bachelard, meditated about the dream-like effect produced by
its infinite spiral surfaces that form both house and body:
A creature that comes out of its shell suggests day dreams of a
mixed creature that is not only "half fish, half flesh," but also
half dead, half alive, and in extreme cases, half stone, half man.
Moreover, a "creature that hides and 'withdraws into its shell,'
is preparing a 'way out' ... by staying in the motionlessness of its
shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosion, not to say
whirlwinds of being" (Bachelard 111). Bachelard's poetics of this
particular space of the shell suggests another interpretation of
Ghost in the Shell: when the heroine spends her spare time diving
into the "ocean" (the ocean of information which Hong Kong urban
space comes to symbolize), she tells us that "I feel fear, cold,
alone, sometimes down there I even feel hope." Her philosophic
probing into her very being as an individual seems congruent with
Bachelard's ruminations on the poetics of the house:
And I feel sorry for myself. So there you are, unhappy
philosopher, caught up again by the storm, by the storms of life! I
dream an abstract-concrete daydream. My bed is a small boat lost at
sea; that sudden whistling is the wind in the sails. (28)
For Mazzoleni, the body is a basic cultural imaginary beyond
language, and the city is its shell-like extension outside itself.
For her, the postmodern cosmopolis is like a "grotesque body":
In the metropolis there is something rather more similar to a
shell: the spiral pattern. Absence of symmetries and segmentations,
because there are no (for the moment, or forever?) results,
conclusions of the growth processes. The metropolis reactivates
modalities of organization vital at a level deeper than what we call
"life": it is a structure of structures&emdash;but this even at the
limits between organic and inorganic: it resembles, in its spiral
nature, features such as gorges, galaxies and whirlwinds. (297)
Such a spiral pattern of the shell can well be placed alongside
the idea of fractal geometry used earlier to describe the sense of
order in the disorder of urban space as well as the hybrid form of
the cyborg body. One artistic achievement of Ghost in the
Shell is a deliberate juxtaposition of shots of electronic road
maps on the computer and idle people wandering as we see these actual
"walkers" (in the sense de Certeau presents them): these
Wandersmänner roam the city in "the chorus of idle footsteps"
The spiral of Ridleyville in Blade Runner may be decaying,
but the poetic negotiation of such a space belongs to the "social
practice" that exposes the fact that it is rather "the concept-city"
which "is decaying" (de Certeau 156). By concept-city, de Certeau
refers to the collective administrative side of city planning, as
opposed to the lived space, the everyday practice of "the disquieting
familiarity of the city" (157). This dialectics of transparency and
opacity can also be seen as parallel to the Enlightenment in its
rational mapping of cities on the one side, and the Baudelairean
flâneur wandering in labyrinthine urbanity on the other. For
Walter Benjamin, especially in his Passagen-Werk, the "new urban
phantasmagoria" is a dream world of dazzling, crowd-pleasing total
environments (Buck-Morss 6):7 these oneiric figurations are best
represented by the cinema with its ingenious special effects. These
urban dream images in the "irredeemable opacity of the social"
become, according to James Donald, "particularly evident in the
anti-documentary representation of urban space that runs from
Metropolis (1927) and King Kong (1933) to Blade Runner, Brazil
(1985), Batman Returns (1992) and the manga animation to Akira
(1988)" (Donald 90). Had Donald seen Ghost in the Shell
before writing his article, no doubt he would have included it.
The voluptuous pleasure afforded by both city walking and cinema
can finally be bought to bear on our discussion of both Blade
Runner and the Hong Kong cityscape. For in the dream of Deckard,
the ultimate replicant in Blade Runner, and the walkers who
find Hong Kong a habitable space, a thirdspace of unassimilated
otherness is created. Governed by "another spatiality," Hong Kong
citizens follow what de Certeau calls "ways of going out and coming
back in" on the edge of empires. In their "travelings," which again
in de Certeau's perambulatory rhetorics represent "a substitute for
the legends that used to open up space to something different" (de
Certeau, 160), Hong Kong's city dwellers are crossing between worlds
as they traverse their cityscape. As a postmodern city par
excellence, a mega-pastiche, Hong Kong has the potential to transform
itself into an international culture based not on the exoticism of
multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on "the
inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity." Instead of
being dissolved "in a universal melting pot or a pluralist jumble of
equals" (Soja 141) in the name of the international city, Homi Bhabha
teaches that we should take it upon ourselves to choose "the
'inter' -- the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the
in-between space." (Bhabha 39)
Hong Kong's citizens might create narratives that reflect their
"subject's self-positioning and social agency in a cosmopolitan
context" (Ong 755); they might make Hong Kong a model for the global
megalopolis of the future. I think that it is Hong Kong's urbanity in
embracing racial and cultural differences on the edge of empire that
has caught the eye of cyberpunk writers and filmmakers. It may be
true that everyone in Hong Kong lives, as it were, on a boat: they
have been repeatedly warned against rocking it. But for Foucault a
boat is the "heterotopia par excellence, given over to the infinity
of the sea." It will float "as far as the colonies in search of the
most precious treasure they conceal in their gardens." "In
civilizations without boats," Foucault concludes in his "Of Other
Spaces," "dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and
police take the place of pirates" (Foucault 27).
1. In Hong Kong the "rickshaw" phenomenon has been vigorously
preserved until very recently, perhaps for the sake of tourism. In
delineating a theory that Hong Kong is a "space of disappearance,"
Ackbar Abbas points to another long-enduring representation, "a
Chinese junk in Victoria Harbour against a backdrop of tall
modernistic buildings," and notes that "a stylized red junk is also
the logo of the Hong Kong Tourist Association." According to him, the
issue at stake is "how an image of Hong Kong's architecture and urban
space supports a narrative that implicitly attributes the colony's
success to the smooth combination of British administration and
Chinese entrepreneurship." He calls this discourse "decadent," since
"it manages to make complex space disappear into a one-dimensional
image, structured on a facile binarism" ("Building" 445).
2. In an interview with Paul Sammon in 1995, Ridley Scott said
that when he and his designers "began to create the architecture of
the film" he thought it was not futuristic enough to call Deckard a
"detective"; the term "blade runner" was taken from William
Burroughs's short novel (Sammon 379).
3. In "On the Edge of Empires: Flexible Citizenship among Chinese
in Diaspora," Aihwa Ong argues that, "as postcolonial transnational
subjects," Hong Kong's Chinese can turn their experience of having
been "caught between British disciplinary racism and Chinese
opportunistic filial claims, between declining capitalism in Britain
and surging capitalism in Asia" into an advantageously "flexible
position among the myriad possibilities (and problems) found in the
global sphere" (752). Ong cites Los Angeles as a case in point,
arguing for the existence of "self-orientalizing discourses" by
Asian-Americans who have "created an explosion of cultural codes" or
a "new hybrid role for Asian Americans." Ong then uses Michael Woo,
the first Asian mayor of Los Angeles, to illustrate the
self-narratives of what Woo calls "bridge-builders," a metaphor of
"corporate Chinese as they shift through multinational sites of
4. This hyperrealistic blending of screens and social space can be
considered as an everyday practice of what Mark Poster calls the
second media age. In his book of this title, Poster arrives at the
as the second media age unfolds and permeates everyday practice,
one political issue will be the construction of new combinations of
technology with multiple genders and ethnicities. These
technocultures will hopefully be no return to an origin, no new
foundationalism or essentialism, but coming to terms with the process
of identity constitution and doing so in ways that struggle against
restrictions of systematic inequalities, hierarchies and asymmetries. (42)
5. This is impressive since other TV channels seem to have started
a self-censorship process by toning down the incident. It should be
mentioned here that despite the plea made by Tung Chee-hwa, the Chief
Executive-designate, that Hong Kong people should put the "baggage"
of June 4 behind them, and in the midst of fears that this might be
the last candlelight vigil allowed in the territory, over 70,000
(compared to the 50,000 last year) came to mark the tenth anniversary
of China's pro-democracy movement. Yet it remains to be seen whether
the "Pillar of Shame" sculpture by Dane Jans Gakchiot, which
symbolizes suffering from oppression (already refused by the
municipal councils of some urban parks), will itself find a "place"
in Hong Kong.
6. Since I don't read Japanese, I would like to thank Ms. Doo Suen
for her translation of the relevant parts of the commentaries. Please
also note that my quotations from this book are general and rough and
should not be considered as the official translation of the original.
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