The Identity-Producing Spaces of Hong Kong:
Reflections on Ackbar Abbas’s City of Disappearance

Susan Ingram and Markus Reisenleitner


Postcolonial Hong Kong – city and special administrative region, home to regional migrant workers and global souls, southeast Asia’s entertainment and financial center and the Pacific Rim’s traffic and communications hub – presents glimpses of the future of urbanity under the conditions of intensifying and accelerating global flows of traffic, people, and communication. Hong Kong has been described as the “international Home Page of a city.”[1] It is “Asia’s world city” according to its own advertising, a city “on fire” according to film critics,[2] a paradigmatic “generic” city in Rem Koolhas’s understanding, a city that political, economic and social transformations have rendered so thoroughly malleable that it resists and reasserts temporality and locality in unique ways. Yet it is precisely this malleability that generates complex spaces that are in themselves unique, and therefore profoundly local. Hong Kong’s specific ability to defy homogenizing descriptions, characterizations and explanations breathlessly conjuring up visions and paradigms of the future of cities and the experience of global urbanity has motivated this essay on our diverse and often difficult-to-reconcile visions of Hong Kong – visions that draw their power to impress and produce place, meaning and memory from the constant juxtapositions of seemingly irreconcilable vantage points separated by spatial, physical and symbolic barriers. In this piece of life-writing, we reflect on the experience of no longer living there. During our five years in Hong Kong, we got to see the city from a myriad of vantage points: from air-conditioned shuttle trains and the crowded streets of the “new towns” (planned satellite cities, mostly in the New Territories), from superhighways connecting shopping complexes and the pedestrian overpasses that guide the flows of crowds, from hermetically sealed-off hotel and apartment rooms that command dieu-voyeur vistas of Hong Kong’s landmark skyline and from the green and white ferries that for decades have been used to steer through the bustling harbor traffic. Our reflections take their cues from Michel de Certeau’s work on heteronomous second geographies and focus on the unstable, interstitial, marginal spaces of Hong Kong’s urbanity between global visual ambiguity and the persistence of place in local visions, between the suspension of physicality in non-places and the topographies created by bodies firmly grounded in the heat, smells and pollution of the sometimes obscured but never quite disappearing material city.[3] Just as de Certeau attends to indigenous voices,[4] we pay attention here to Hong Kong’s indigenized spaces and how they have informed, deformed, fed and weaned the incursions of global space since 9/11 – years no longer characterized by the cultural turmoil of the heady handover period, but also years that have seen their own share of commotion, from SARS to demonstrations against mainland encroachments on political rights and the WTO. While these memorable political events deserve their own analysis, our focus here is on the secondary: the discontinuities between Hong Kong’s inexorable march towards global urbanity and the contingencies of daily negotiations that give meaning to the moving through, and making a home in, a space that remains, literally, local in several dimensions.


One invariably arrives in Hong Kong in a daze. Whether it be the millions of bleary-eyed international travelers who land every year at Chek Lap Kok (cf. statistics), with its airy 1930s airport-hanger design by Norman Foster, which opened in 1998 replacing the dive-bomber approach between the rickety Kowloon skyscrapers at the old Kai Tak, the plans for whose refurbishment currently include a cruise terminal, a multi-purpose stadium, a metropolitan park and several housing units, or whether it be the millions of eager mainlander visitors (13.4 million in 2005, almost twice the size of Hong Kong’s population,, who swarm every year through the rather worse-for-wear checkpoint at Lo Wu: arrival in Hong Kong is discombobulating, distended. One never really arrives but rather is whisked onwards, funneled through spaces of dislocation into the bright, shiny compartment of an airport express or light-rail transit (KCR/MTR), remaining in a state of suspension, looking down on the rabbit warren of streets or up at the bamboo-like beehives of housing estates, endless container terminals, and the hulking rusted carcasses of factories. One looks in vain for landmarks of orientation outside. Too similar are the endless rows of high-rise housing estates and office buildings, only distinguished by a state of relative dereliction that indicates, in a climate less kind to man-made than human facades, an age of more than five years; few other traces of the city’s history and grown structures survive. In this ultra-new city, orientation happens virtually out of necessity, on futuristic LCD screens within the air-conditioned spaces of movement that trace one’s progress and announce, in three languages (English, Cantonese, and Putonghua), the next stop.

For a long time, Hong Kong did not develop the kind of cosmopolitan culture that Shanghai exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s, a cosmopolitanism that emerged from the anomalous space of extraterritoriality. Dependency meant that for most of its history, Hong Kong, culturally speaking, was caught in the double bind of divided loyalties. It was politically ambivalent about both Britain and China; ambivalent about what language, English or Chinese, it should master; and confident only about capital. The one moment when it began to rival the cultural vibrancy of Shanghai in the 1930s was during the 1980s and 1990s, after the Joint Declaration announcing the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997: that is, at precisely the moment when Hong Kong felt most vulnerable and dependent. This was the period when more and more people discovered, invented, and rallied behind what they called “Hong Kong culture.” This Hong Kong culture was a hothouse plant that appeared at the moment when something was disappearing: a case of love at last sight, a culture of disappearance.[5]

Hong Kong poses enormous challenges to, and rewards for, any sense of orientation one might have. Hapless newcomers, who have to rely on their own urban survival skills to get outfitted for their multi-matchbox-sized apartments in gated communities recommended and paid for by employers, have several means at their disposal for reaching the necessary destinations that provide for staples and daily needs, destinations found mostly in secluded local shopping centres which house post offices, clothing and shoe chains, modest department stores like Jusco, competent appliance and electronic stores like Fortress and Broadway, Watson’s pharmacy, which sells an impressive array of skin-whitening products and over-the-counter birth-control pills, the delectable Wellcome grocery chain, the welcoming Deli France coffee-shops, and conveyor-belt Genki Sushi places, in front of which there invariably seem to be queues. Tucked away beneath or inside housing estates, these maze-like mall-complexes teem with clumps of dawdlers driven from the closeness of the quarters above so that those on determined missions for pillows and bed-sheets have more to navigate than cacophonies, smells, and perpetually changing construction sites. Local or not, one never quite masters the blueprint, the overview of those mazes; rather, one accustoms oneself to following routes through them. There is little possibility of, or reward for, flaneuring in the malls of the New Towns. What reward there is is in the smoothness of movement that knowing a locale affords, and the community this makes you part of. In the New Towns, there is no serendipity effect of just finding things randomly; flows are regulated, not by architectural design, but by local knowledge, the stuff conversations are made of, and not being part of them makes you a stranger on shakier footing than most.

This sense of disappearance as the experience of living through the best and the worst of times was the seminal theme of the New Hong Kong Cinema. If filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, Stanley Kwan, Ann Hui, and Tsui Hark managed to convey in their films a cosmopolitan sensibility, it was partly by focusing on local issues and settings, but in such a way that the local was dislocated: through the construction of innovative film images and narratives and, above all, through the introduction of the disappearing city as a major protagonist in their films. Hong Kong cosmopolitanism was stimulated then not so much by a space of multivalence – which was the case in 1930s Shanghai – as by a space of disappearance, one effect of which was the transformation of the local into the translocal as a result of historical exigencies.[6]

Unlike the local malls, which service the housing estates that sprout up from peripheral metro stations and other transportation hubs and tax the senses of the uninitiated, the shopping centres at the top of the hierarchy, which radiate from the swish Landmark in Central (the central part of Hong Kong Island where, according to local advertising, “people move faster” – presumably because they know their way), offer the decorous comfort of luxury liners. Book-ended by the elegant Pacific Place at Admiralty and the swimming-pool-like Times Square in Causeway Bay, with the stately, QEII’ish Harbour Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui and the latest addition, the phallic IFC, staring each other down across Victoria Harbor, and Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong with its indoor skating rink, multiplex, restaurants and university providing added value to the north, these interestingly geodesic, often curvaceous, sparkling surfaces envelop unsuspecting visitors and guide their frictionless ascent towards the most highly sought of the global brands. Lifestyle beckons from every polished window and over-attentive shop assistant to a wider range of clientele than the global souls contractually housed in the boutique quarters in the soaring towers above would imagine, and the inconspicuous but ever-present security detail assures that no one engages in anything but consumption, even if only vicariously. It is here that one finds flaneurs, although hardly ever solitary ones. Rather, aimless gliding hand-in-hand along the polished floors of upscale shopping centres seems a favorite pastime of romantic young couples. As long as one is swathed in air-conditioned solace from the inhospitable stickiness outside, the difficulty of finding exits doesn’t present itself as something in need of solution, on the contrary: the comfort of strangers in these spaces is provided by the illusion that you can spend your whole life there, connected to a global world whose operations are reassuringly mediated by the consumable homogeneity of brands and the very clear social order and stratification they have come to indicate.

[C]osmopolitanism must take place somewhere, in specific sites and situations – even if these places are more and more beginning to resemble those ‘non-places’ that French anthropologist Marc Augé has argued characterise the contemporary city. In a non-place, ‘one is neither chez soi nor chez les autres.’ Like the city, Augé's non-place must be understood not literally, but as paradox: a non-place is far from being nonexistent. Rather, it is a result of excess and overcomplexity, of a limit having been exceeded. Beyond a certain point, there is a blurring and scrambling of signs and an overlapping of spatial and temporal grids, all of which make urban signs and images difficult to read. The overcomplex space of non-places means, among other things, that even the anomalous detail may no longer be recognisable as such because it coexists with a swarm of other such details. This means the anomalous is in danger of turning nondescript, in much the same way that the more complex the city today, the more it becomes a city without qualities. The cosmopolitan as urban phenomenon is inevitably inscribed in such non-places and paradoxes.[7]

Transportation in Hong Kong can be daunting, especially for more out-of-the-way locales, such as registries, immigration offices, the Ikea in Tsuen Wan or its more upscale Japanese cousin, GOD, which opens and closes outlets with an off-putting regularity. While heading into Central means the comfort of air-conditioned double-decker buses or standing in a deep-frozen tube that runs on schedule every three minutes, those on local routes in the New Territories make do with open windows and soothing cell-phone chatter, and are spared the incessant background of Canto-pop TV-advertising on the Samsung screens installed in their upholstered long-haul counterparts. Whether on a shorter or longer trip, neophyte bus passengers feel compelled to surreptitiously watch their seatmates do their nails, their makeup, their homework, practically everything except their laundry, and thus avoid having to negotiate linguistic politics with either taxi drivers (green for local, red for Central) or souped-up mini-bus drivers. Buses and the underground are obviously not private space, but seasoned passengers do their best to make it such on their one-hour-plus commutes to and from ten-hour-plus work-days: by screening out the shared sounds (if they are not on their cell phones, everybody from toddlers to grannies has their MP3-player headphones firmly in place) and shared views of each other (by either watching the TV spots on the flatscreens or catching up on the shut-eye that a local pride in four-hour nights cannot provide at home). Hong Kong may be a city in which people rarely stop moving (even if this movement is sometimes unexpectedly slow, especially on foot); but this movement is not merely the faceless flow of urban strangers through a major global communication hub. Spaces have also been created for rest, moments of privacy and personal communication that offer a respite from the relentlessness of the flows that determine people’s work lives.

postculture: a culture that has developed in a situation where the available models of culture no longer work. In such a situation, culture cannot wait or follow social change in order to represent it; it must anticipate the paradoxes of hyphenation. A postculture, therefore, is not postmodernist culture, or post-Marxist culture, or post-Cultural Revolution culture, or even postcolonial culture, insofar as each of these has a set of established themes and an alternative orthodoxy. In a postculture, on the other hand, culture itself is experienced as a field of instabilities.[8]

If anyone ever looked out of the buses’ windows, they would see the other possibilities to create privacy on the road: the chauffeured Mercedes, Rolls and Jaguars with tinted windows (or the more modest Saabs, Volvos and Nissans without tint and hired driver) that overtake the buses and the endless rows of container trucks on the steep inclines of Hong Kong’s major highways. Only those in the right-hand driver’s seats actually themselves driving through the concrete jungle of overpasses, the tunnels and roundabouts with their polysemic possible outcomes can’t avoid looking out at the ghostly scenery of dramatic backdrops, bridges and shanty-towns. Watery, white cotton-batten backdrops are also visible from the air-conditioned apartments that are smaller than hotel rooms, but whose windows are often tinted green or blue to give the illusion of clean air. Rather than immersed, one constantly feels the presence of the invisible partitions that keep at bay the particles that make one’s eyes sting, one’s throat scratch, and the skin of more sensitive break out in itchy red blotches. These uncomfortable physical sensations are difficult to reconcile with the cinematic visuality of a city whose constant mutations exceed thresholds of perception and offer visual clichés instead of Visine.

In chronological terms, the rise of Hong Kong indeed succeeded the fall of Shanghai. The injection of capital and human resources to the colony that followed was certainly one factor in its growth as an international city, but it was not the only or even necessarily the most important factor. What was equally decisive, paradoxical as this may sound, was Hong Kong's dependent position and the way it made a career of dependency. In Shanghai even at its most corrupt, there was always some vestigial interest in issues of nationalism as a means of liberation and independence. For example, it is well known that even notorious triad societies like the Green Gang, when not engaged in nefarious activity, had nationalist concerns – and both Sun Yatsen and Chiang Kaishek drew on them for help. In Hong Kong, by contrast, there was no possibility of – and hence little interest in – nationalism. Hong Kong could never have been a city nation like Singapore, only a hyphenation. It therefore accepted its colonial status as a priori and turned towards the international, fully exploiting its position as a port city or, in Mao's picturesque phraseology, as a pimple on the backside of China. Hong Kong was less a site than a para-site. If colonialism in Hong Kong had a certain benign-looking aspect to it, it was because it was a mutant political entity and a living demonstration of how the relative autonomy that comes from economic success could be based on dependency. While Shanghai was multiple and polyvalent, Hong Kong was single and paradoxical.[9]

Yet there are occasions designed to provide fixes of the great part of the outdoors. A weekend activity as popular among Hong Kongers as shopping is hiking, which exists mainly in three forms: training, competition and family outing, the latter of which is expansive enough to include the previous two and picnic-barbequing. In addition to the hyper-urban living conflagrations and the many lively villages that continue to mark festivals with poon choi, communal bowl dinners, 40% of Hong Kong consists of official conservation areas, country parks and nature reserves with breathtaking hiking trails. Websites and books about hiking in Hong Kong have titles like “Hazards” (, “Staying Alive” ( and “Better Safe than Sorry” (, awakening childhood memories of weekends consisting almost exclusively of windswept peaks, gravelly slopes and other marathon, vertiginous challenges. Hong Kong’s trails are not intended for a leisurely stroll after a heavy main-meal of the day, in the European spa tradition; nor is any attempt made to make nature accessible, by car or secured trails, in the North American way. Hikes here can easily last ten hours in terrain otherwise accessible only by helicopter, and hikers are seriously outfitted in gear obtained from outfitters in the same shopping centres that cater to the luxury needs of the brand-conscious, and equally branded. Patina is as gauche on the trails as in Central; hand-me-downs are only for the hired help, or to be donated to the mainland.

Hiking in Hong Kong may not be about an introspective Romantic vision of a mystical closeness to nature that Western academics have analyzed, critiqued and scorned for a long time; however, like Western visions, it is thoroughly mediated by culture. It is not the culture of industrial urbanization that drives many Hong Kongers up the hills and sharp peaks while remaining unfazed at the sight of their harbor shrink under the onslaught of land reclamation in the form of highways and skyscrapers (rather than waterfronts as entertainment hubs). Hiking is exertion with a goal. It is self-improvement captured in mini-gadgets that measure pulse rates, time and distance and generate curves that visually resemble those charts meant to communicate the supposed pleasures of economic growth, and, despite the designer boots and competitive aspects, it can be strangely enjoyable in a profoundly solipsistic, physical, and entirely unromantic way.

If the speed of change is creating spaces we do not understand, then one strategy might be to slow things down – to preserve some almost erased concept of civility and respect for otherness in the midst of chaos. This was what the older cosmopolitanisms had strived for. But, it seems to me, such a conservative strategy has little space for manoeuvre. One of the most interesting things we can learn from the example of urban preservation in Shanghai today is how it, too, is infused with the spirit of globalism. “Preservation” and “heritage” do not act as brakes against development; in some strange way, they further a developmental agenda. The problem of cosmopolitanism today still remains how we are to negotiate the transnational space that global capital produces.[10]

While on Sundays the extensive network of trails in the high hills thus transforms into a catwalk for Hong Kong families with phenomenally good conditioning, Central reveals a part of Hong Kong’s population that is otherwise almost invisible. Filipino and Indonesian maids have Sundays off (regulated by law like everything else in their employment relationship), and they congregate in choice quasi-public spaces deserted by the office crowd on their only day off (Saturdays are still considered workdays in Hong Kong). Whether they inhabit the small, non-air-conditioned chambers off the kitchens which serve as vestibules to even smaller spaces containing a toilet and shower, and which raise an apartment to middle-class respectability while alleviating the need for kitchens to be equipped with hot water, or share cramped quarters in ethnically marked boarding-houses, all are as relieved as the mall-dawdlers for a space free from goals.

the cosmopolitan today will include not only the privileged transnational, at home in different places and cultures, as an Olympian arbiter of value. Such a figure, it could be argued, has too many imperialistic associations. The cosmopolitan today will have to include at least some of the less privileged men and women placed or displaced in the transnational space of the city and who are trying to make sense of its spatial and temporal contradictions: the cosmopolitan not as a universalist arbiter of value, but as an arbitrageur/arbitrageuse.
     This is arbitrage with a difference. It does not mean the use of technologies to maximise profits in a global world but refers to everyday strategies for negotiating the disequilibria and dislocations that globalism has created. Arbitrage in this sense does not allude to the exploitation of small temporal differences but refers to the larger historical lessons that can be drawn from our experiences of the city. This is where the de-scriptions of Shanghai and Hong Kong, to return to these cities one last time, can contribute to a rethinking of the cosmopolitan today. In Shanghai, negotiating the anomalies of extraterritoriality so that a kind of grace comes out of the grotesque; and in Hong Kong, the development of a culture of disappearance under conditions of dependency – these were already examples of cultural arbitrage.[11]

Perhaps most striking is Hong Kong’s elemental quality, its utter vulnerability in the face of the life-threatening natural elements that periodically assail it. Typhoons, pollution, and viruses: despite its sparkling pockets of sanitized sterility, there is nowhere in the SAR that can truly be considered a safe space, which is why Ackbar Abbas underscores that Hong Kong exists:

not as a ‘third space’ that can be located somewhere; not as a neither-nor space that is nowhere; not even as a mixed or in-between space, if by that we understand that the various elements that make it up are separable. Above all, hyphenation refers not to the conjunctures of ‘East’ and ‘West’, but to the disjunctures of colonialism and globalism.[12]

Staying on in Hong Kong for more than a few weeks or months necessitates venturing into, and getting familiar with, at least a few of those disjunctures, the routes carved out by local knowledge; and Hong Kongers themselves usually get by with knowing the routes they need and not bothering about finding new ones. In Hong Kong, almost everybody is a relatively new arrival anyway, the feeling of being lost in the city a generation away at the most, and this exponentially increases the need to know your own neighborhood. For most, dwelling in this world city, and experiencing oneself as part of a global urban environment, is facilitated and mediated by very close quarters. Social difference determines whether one is physically stuck in these quarters, in this city, exposed to global flows solely via technology and media, or whether one has the financial, social and passport means to connect those quarters to the international flows that generated them. For all strata of society the daily experience of globalism is paradoxically delimited by the narrow confines of a housing estate, a gated community with all-inclusive facilities, or a boutique apartment, enabling survival in the urban complexity that dazzles any sense of orientation.

From this we can literally see the complexities of urban spatial experiences in this multi-tiered city as instances of localizing global flows for which one needs a particular skill-set to navigate. These skill sets make Hong Kong very real; they produce, for everybody, the specificities of the local, of routes mastered, places appropriated: they produce memory and affect. “Arguments about the ways mental maps are incomplete, distorted and schematized are significant and should be remembered, but they nevertheless fail to grasp people’s emotional dynamism, in part seen in the constitutive ambivalence of many, if not all, spatial practices.”[13] Because Hong Kong implants itself as a kind of holographic sensation on its inhabitants, it is neither a non-place nor generic. Once one has become a cultural arbitrager, it is remarkably easy to leave Hong Kong, perhaps because one never really does.


[1] Pico Iyer, The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (New York: Knopf, 2000), 85.

[2] Lisa O. Stokes, L. O. and Michael Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema (London, New York: Verso, 1999).

[3] Michel de Certeau, “The Politics of Silence: The Long March of the Indians,” in ed. B. Massumi, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 225-233. We are grateful to Elena Siemens for providing us with the impetus to consider Hong Kong in this light.

[4] R. Terdiman, “The Marginality of Michel de Certeau.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 100: 2 (2001), 399-421.

[5] Ackbar Abbas, “Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong.” Public Culture, 12.3 (2000), 777.

[6] Ibid, 777-778.

[7] Ibid, 772-773.

[8] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 145.

[9] Ibid, 776-777.

[10] Abbas, “Cosmopolitan De-scriptions,” 783.

[11] Ibid, 786.

[12] Abbas, Hong Kong, 143.

[13] Steve Pile, The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space, and Subjectivity (New York: Routledge, 1996), 28.