Steve Erickson | Oct 4, 2018 | 0
Love You for 10,000 Years: A Travel Tour Through Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong
If you were expecting a simple tour, you’re going to be disappointed. Wong Kar Wai’s body of work has never been known for straight answers (I mean, who hasn’t watched In the Mood for Love and felt frustrated with the mixed signals?).
In his international breakthrough, Chungking Express, Wong Kar Wai distilled Hong Kong three years before it would relinquish its title as a British colony and rejoin mainland China. In the time since the 1997 handover, it has been recognized as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, with its own currency and police force, and with little influence from the central government.
1993 had been off to a tragic start in Hong Kong: Within the first minutes of the new year, a stampede broke out during a street party and killed 21 people (mostly teenagers) in the Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood, one of the primary locations in Chungking Express. 1994 saw a number of Governor Chris Patten’s political reforms established for a younger generation, resulting in the voting age being lowered to 18 and the largest electorate the region had ever seen, all within the twilight of Hong Kong’s time under colonial rule.
Like a rickety fairground ride, Chungking Express jitters with joy, but also with a sense of uncertain peril, especially in the first sequence, where anyone could be packing a firearm in a crowd, your lover may have it out for you, and your smuggling associates might easily take your money (and drugs) and run. And if there’s still any doubt about uncertainty over the future, just look to the not-so-subtle visual metaphors Wong Kar Wai uses. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) collects cans of pineapple with a looming expiration date. Brigitte Lin stalks around in an Old Hollywood-inspired garb of trench coat and sunglasses because “who knows when it will rain, or when it will turn out sunny.”
Wong takes all of the time’s contemporary upheavals and further disorients us with the use of step-printing, a blaring soundtrack, and a changeover of narratives so nuanced that it’s easy to miss (full disclosure: I definitely did the first few times). The result is like a Polaroid: a snapshot of a moment that visually and romantically reminds us of a bygone era.
In her Criterion Collection essay about Chungking Express, Amy Taubin calls the film the Masculin, Féminin of the 1990s, “a pop art movie about cool twentysomethings looking for love in the city that has replaced Paris as the center of the world-cinema imagination.” Indeed, much like Jean-Luc Godard, Wong’s style depends on kinetic cinematography, incisor-sharp dialogue, but most importantly, the film’s success depends on setting, both political and geographical. Masculin, Féminin’s jukebox scenes of the “children of Marx and Coca Cola” couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Paris in the ‘60s; the same goes for Chungking Express in early-‘90s Hong Kong.
So we’ve established these films as period pieces, which makes me wonder, well, where are we now? I got the chance to explore this question while walking around Hong Kong on a recent trip. I saw a city that had changed from the scenes filmed 25 years ago, but I felt the bustling, hopeful, and exciting atmosphere of Chungking Express. In fact, it only prompted another question, one I always have when I travel.
“Does a movie look like the city, or does the city look like a movie?”
During this trip to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (my first time), I plotted out a tour of the locations Wong chose to use specifically in Chungking Express. Some of the locations have become tourist destinations (the movie’s popular impact no doubt contributed) and others have been replaced with the emblems of a changing city. I took Polaroid-style photographs at each stop. Cities are constantly in flux, and much like a period piece, photographs from a travel experience can be a document of a fleeting experience, especially in this context.
Midnight Express Restaurant
It might disappoint you that the centerpiece location of Chungking Express, a late-night takeaway restaurant, is ironically now a 7-Eleven. But despite its past being paved over, there’s still a sense of place at play in the square surrounding this location (and maybe the sex shop sign overhead is a wink at the past). Around the corner from the convenience shop on D’Aguilar Street, you can find a few grab-and-go restaurants that serve a similar style of food seen in the movie (and yes, there are salads on the menu similar to the ones Cop 223 and 663 like in the film).
I stayed at an Airbnb a few steps from the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators, a central plot device in the second (and arguably less gritty) half of the film. Cop 663’s apartment windows peek out on the escalators, which were novel at the time. As he muses on the end of his relationship with his flight attendant lover (played by Valerie Chow), one of his last fleeting memories is of her ascending on the escalator in uniform, off to travel elsewhere and eventually, as Cop 663 despairingly puts it to the owner of Midnight Express, “to try new dishes.”
The Central-Mid-Levels Escalators are the longest outdoor covered escalators in the world, starting at the Mid-Levels and working towards Central Market. Over 800 meters of track stretch up the hilly Hong Kong Island and serve as a practical way to commute during their workday running hours. They’re invaluable when transporting luggage (wheeled bags don’t do well on steep sidewalks).
Five blocks. Seventeen floors. Eye sore. Creative hub. Food paradise. Sex den. The paradoxical Chungking Mansions loom over a commerce center of Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), a district north of Hong Kong Island, as one of the district’s most well-known and maligned buildings. Wong Kar Wai described the crowded and hazardously plugged-in tower as a building that “could catch fire easily,” and its marred beauty and sense of chaos hasn’t changed from when it played a part in the noir-influenced first half of Chungking Express.
Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, 40 years old at the time of the film’s release (and to note, in one of her last roles), treats the Mansions as a criminal playground, with illustrious tasks like drug smuggling, forgery, and in one surprisingly funny moment, a kidnapping. While there are still long corridors and some clandestine spots (including a number of secret restaurants), you can have a pretty law-abiding afternoon here.
One of the most beautiful things I observed in Hong Kong was the collision of old with new. Right across the street from a contemporary expat-frequented restaurant is a cha chaan teng that feels like a capsule to a time way before 1994. There’s beauty in chaos and collision, and to borrow Officer 223’s phrasing, I hope that it never expires.