Princeton University professor lectures on Hong Kong post-socialism, cinema

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Huang visited the College Nov. 28 to discuss post-socialism, infrastructure and cinema in Hong Kong. ETHAN BROWN / THE FLAT HAT

Princeton University professor Erin Huang visited the College of William and Mary Wednesday, Nov. 28 to give a presentation entitled, “Post-socialism in Hong Kong: Zone Urbanism, Urban Horror, and Post-1997 Hong Kong Cinema.” Her talk concerned Hong Kong’s budding cinema industry in the post-socialist era and how 21st-century cinematography serves as a locus of economic, social and humanitarian interaction.

Huang, who specializes in East Asian studies and comparative literature, is also an executive member of Princeton’s specialized Committee for Film Studies. While on leave for the fall 2018 semester, Huang is in the process of drafting her first book with Duke University Press. Her current book project, “Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism, Chinese Cinemas, and the Limits of Visibility,” aims to contextualize cinematic depictions of Hong Kong’s society, people and infrastructure in a broader political context.

“Professor Erin Huang is an interdisciplinary scholar and a comparatist working on modern China,” Chinese studies professor Calvin Hui said when introducing Huang.

Hong Kong was a British dependent territory for 152 years. When the United Kingdom transferred the colony to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the political and economic autonomy that Hong Kong enjoyed under British rule was undermined by the PRC government.

In accordance with Sino-British agreements signed before the 1997 transition, Hong Kong is theoretically guaranteed the right to maintain a free-market economic structure under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. According to Huang, PRC President Xi Jinping’s government, however, has spearheaded urban construction projects throughout Southeast Asia with the aim of consolidating infrastructural influence over Chinese cities and territories and cementing the government’s economic control over principal cities.

“If you happen to fly over the Hong Kong International Airport, you will be able to see the newly completed Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge that just opened last month on Oct. 24 after nine years of construction,” Huang said.

“If you happen to fly over the Hong Kong International Airport, you will be able to see the newly completed Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge that just opened last month on Oct. 24 after nine years of construction,” Huang said.

The bridge plays an important role in reducing distance between Hong Kong and other Chinese cities according to Huang.

“As the world’s longest sea crossing made of suspension bridges, artificial islands and sea tunnels, it is one of China’s mega-infrastructure projects that is designed to radically reduce the distance between Hong Kong and factory cities across the Chinese border, as well as to materialize the imaginary urban future of the greater bay area,” Huang said.

Frustration over China’s excessive influence in Hong Kong’s economic and infrastructural development, as well as the consolidation of thousands of students within Hong Kong’s condensed urban population, culminated in street protests and incidents of police brutality during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

“Against the darkness of the sky, the fireworks’ brilliant colors shined above the protest streets that were transformed into urban battlegrounds,” Huang said. “Shots were fired, and canisters of tear gas flew across protest sites. The contrast between the sights and sounds of festivity and violent police aggression became a haunting juxtaposition [between socialism and capitalism].”

Huang theorizes that Hong Kong’s cinema has evolved in the 21st century to reflect these scenes of urban horror in the face of changing political and economic conditions in the region. Throughout the presentation, Huang incorporated clips from three famous Hong Kong films, all of which portrayed the interactions between urban residents and their environments, as well as between Hong Kong and China as larger political entities.

Rowan McDowell ’21 appreciated Professor Huang’s linking of horror cinema to political and social movements in Hong Kong and viewed their intersection as a fascinating phenomenon that rarely gets addressed.

“[Professor Huang] was extremely knowledgeable about her topics, and made strange yet interesting parallels between the horror genre and current events [in Hong Kong],” McDowell said.

“[Professor Huang] was extremely knowledgeable about her topics, and made strange yet interesting parallels between the horror genre and current events [in Hong Kong],” McDowell said.

One of the films featured, “The Midnight After”(2014), imagines Hong Kong as a desolate city where only dozens of people are left alive to inhabit its sprawling urban environs, and the survivors arm themselves with protective gear to safeguard themselves against external threats. The film performed well at the box office and was largely believed to contain allusions to the Chinese surveillance state, as well as the mainland’s encroachment onto Hong Kong’s territorial autonomy in the post-socialist era.

“[‘The Midnight After’s’] portrayals of cities in goggles and masks protecting themselves against the unknown is arguably a rehearsal of an anticipated conflict that was later actualized in the Umbrella Revolution,” Huang said.

Overall, Huang posits that the nuanced relationship between cinema and politics is especially prominent in Hong Kong, where citizen expression is repeatedly undermined in social forums. In a city characterized by its unique economic status and distinctly urban development, Huang theorizes the evolution of a film industry defined by urban emotion is a logical yet meaningful artistic embellishment.