A young, vital girl is dancing her heart out, caught in motion in a black-and-white photograph. Wearing a striped turtleneck and matching leggings, she has her thumbs and left knee up as her glossy, shoulder-length black hair bounces in the air.
At a quick glance, the image could be mistaken for a still shot from a French New Wave film. But taking a closer look, the viewer might be surprised to discover that the girl in the picture is Maggie Li Lin-lin, a household name in the Cantonese-speaking world and an actress who grew up with Hong Kong cinema and television from the 1960s to 1990s. Her moment of spontaneity is frozen and preserved for eternity thanks to the photograph by Yau Leung.
Titled A Go-Go Girl, Maggie Li Lin-lin (1965), Yau’s photo embodies the optimism and sense of hopefulness in Hong Kong contemporary to Li’s rise to stardom. This was during what many consider the golden era of the city, when it was still a British colony, and a period of time that arouses nostalgia today.
“The past is never where you think you left it,” wrote Katherine Anne Porter, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Very often, the past does not stay in the past. This is particularly true for Hong Kong, where attempts to move forward have consistently brought back memories of the past, even an imagined one.
Whether it is the sight of the red sailed junk floating in Victoria Harbor, ladies in colorful cheongsam strutting down old streets portrayed in Wong Kar-wai’s classic film "In the Mood for Love," or photographs of Hong Kong by the likes of Fan Ho, Yau and Lee Ka-sing, such images of a long-vanished city are embraced not only by those who lived through that period, but also by a younger generation. These depictions are not only a remembrance of history. They are a reimagined past that provides an emotional safe haven from the uncertainties of the present.
“Nostalgia is more than just memory; it is memory with the pain taken away. It involves a bittersweet longing for an idealised past which no longer exists.”
This romanticism of the “good old days” is not necessarily fact-based or linear. Memories of the past are frequently constructed, or sometimes imagined, as a psychological shield against a present that seems ever transient, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Not limited to Hong Kong, this is actually a universally observed behavior that allows people to find solace from the anxieties of modern life.
Sean Gammon, a specialist in the studies of heritage and sport tourism, describes the lure of the past as a “return to those golden days, where dreams were vivid and almost attainable; to a time and place which never really existed.” This nostalgia is not exclusive to the middle-aged, but also “now practised by those a lot younger, who yearn for the good old days of the 1970s and 1980s,” writes Gammon.
Nostalgia answers a specific cultural need, according Dai Jinhua, a Chinese scholar who has observed the emergence of imagined nostalgia in China.
In Hong Kong’s case, this cultural need arises from its unique history as well as the political and cultural tensions with mainland China that have dominated headlines. Moreover, this yearning for the past may stem from the ongoing search for identity in the post-handover Hong Kong.
Since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, anxiety over the handover of sovereignty never ceased, even as the city began its phase of greatest economic prosperity. It was a time when people seized their chance to profit. It was also a time where Hong Kong’s most iconic cultural products were created and exported, including dazzling Canto-pop, John Woo’s action films, and TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s martial arts novels. Back then, Hong Kong was governed by a British system undergirded by a Western set of values and belief in individual freedoms, but at the same time remained essentially a Chinese society, in which traditions and the old language of Cantonese were untouched by the Cultural Revolution.
But on July 1, 1997, the former colony lost this sense of unique identity. “Are we British or Chinese?” many asked on a collective as well as a personal level. Hong Kong’s Rey Chow, internationally renowned cultural studies scholar, said in 1998 of the futile quest for a Chinese identity: “the more Hong Kong tries, the more it reveals its ‘lack’ of ‘Chineseness.’… The past would follow Hong Kong like an unshakable curse of inferiority.”
Nevertheless, the cultural and political uniqueness of Hong Kong enters another metamorphosis more than two decades since the handover, changing from a source of crisis to a reconciliation and embrace of the past: this colonial history is not a curse of inferiority, but it is what makes Hong Kong special and sets it apart from any other city in the world.
Hence, works of art that hearken back to Hong Kong’s unique historical and cultural roots are in demand, especially today. They are not reminders of what had been lost, but a recovery of what the city had—an intrinsic part of its cultural identity. Some would argue that such imagined nostalgia is merely a fantasy of missing something that never existed. But these works of art trigger emotional memories in the DNA of all who call Hong Kong home. Just looking at Lee’s photograph Hong Kong, Someday in 1997, is proof of this fact. The black-and-white image might be blurry, but the glory of Victoria Harbor did exist. It was not a fantasy. It was real.
Vivienne Chow is a journalist and cultural critic based between Hong Kong and Berlin. She is the founder of the non-profit educational initiative Cultural Journalism Campus.
The works by Yau Leung and Lee Ka-sing are featured in the latest Sotheby’s Hong Kong S|2 Gallery exhibition Vision of Hong Kong From Two Generations.