Jeffrey Tam reviews the latest anthology by the Hong Kong Writers Circle, a text which envisages twenty utopian/dystopian futures for the city.
Peter Humphreys and Elizabeth Solomon (eds.), Hong Kong Future Perfect (HK Writers Circle, 2016) 245pp.
Hong Kong Future Perfect begins with an easily relatable story about the ‘hand-over’ of Hong Kong. The writer Jason Ng tells his short but insightful tale, ‘Future, Arriving’ through the eyes of Joseph, a child whose parents have dividing views on the secession of Hong Kong to China in 1996. As a 20 year-old, I am surprised by the degree to which I can relate to this story about an incident that happened in the year I was born. One would think that two decades would see to changes to a city and thus to its people’s concerns, but this story suggests the contrary, retrospectively asking us to consider just how important that event might have been for our future today. ‘Future, Arriving’ serves as an excellent opening by recounting the defining moments of the becoming of contemporary Hong Kong, laying the groundwork for what is to come in this exceptional anthology.
‘The Man Who Loved Cable Cars’ by Cindy Lam is a short story about Chung, a middle-aged father who has worked for a bank for more than three decades. His story takes places on his 37th anniversary date with his wife to whom he has proposed a year after the bank hired him in 1985. Unbeknownst to his blissful wife is his anxiety and fear of being laid off after years of loyal service. Lam captures and delivers the unsettling emotions of a middle-aged worker who is uncertain about the future of his career, and the livelihood of his family. Chung goes through the feelings of hopefulness and despair back and forth waiting for his employer to call and inform him of the news of a potential layoff. This contrasts with his delightful anniversary date and serves as a juxtaposition which shows the emotional hardship workers face in contemporary capitalism. The story criticizes a capitalist indifference when it recounts how Chung’s employer finally calls and has him go to the office with a ‘passion that has never been shown before’. Such ‘passion’, however, is only towards the urgent ‘need’ of cost-cutting and efficiency for the sake of profit. ‘Passion’ itself, apparently one of the deepest human drives, is controlled by commerce and capital.
‘In The Floating City’ is a foretelling of the future of Hong Kong through sci-fi spectacles. Though it is set in the distant future, its plot is an allegory for our current predicament. It tells the story of the coexistence of two opposite worlds – a dystopian reality and a utopian virtual reality achieved by advanced technology; a kind of technology which is fast becoming the dominant form of entertainment consumption.
The story begins by describing the protagonist’s life in a virtual life-like reality. It is further into the story that it is revealed to the reader that the unthrilling virtual reality ‘game’ is not a failure in game design but a utopian substitute for a dystopian Hong Kong. The real Hong Kong is flooded by its surrounding seawater due to global warming. Its buildings and homes ravished by the risen sea-level and its people are ruled by an iron fist. The enhanced VR is secretly controlled by the future political power to tighten its grip over the people under the guise of entertainment. It provides realistic sensations and adapts to people’s interests and behavioral patterns. However, it collects data on the masses without their knowledge and runs simulations of raids and protests for the government to tighten political control further. It is later discovered that the protagonist’s virtual Hong Kong has been tampered with and its players’ in-game counterpart live on even when the players are offline, mimicking the actions of the players and ‘living on’, growing and learning to become human in the virtual, restored and utopian Hong Kong. In this Owen Schaefer has written a thought-provoking tale using a distant, futuristic setting that is seemingly remote to readers. However, the plot interrogates the usage of technological entertainment, and unveils the fact that our enjoyment may be used against us for the benefit of political powers, proving enjoyment is, in fact, political. The scariest point may be that the exact same technology described in this dystopia is being developed and implemented today without our full knowledge of the fact. It also induces a vital rumination on the transferring of consciousness from human to machine and asks whether humanity can survive in virtual reality as algorithms should it face extinction.
Coco Richter’s ‘Island Oasis’ is also a tale of the intertwining of utopia and dystopia. The world depicted in the story is utopian for some but dystopian for others. It begs thought on whether an exclusive utopia enjoyed by a select population can be considered ‘utopian’. The protagonist of the story is a US expatriate who finds himself in a future Hong Kong in which almost every crucial element that defines Hong Kong is removed for political reasons. He wishes to stay and have a family in Hong Kong, a beautiful island oasis surrounded by mountains and see as he describes, and doubts there is anything more he could want. This version of Hong Kong, in other words, is a utopia in the eyes of a person who has only concerns for his or her subsistence and enjoyment, and refuses to question its political and social issues. For those who face the truth of Hong Kong, it is a dystopia. The new Hong Kong citizens all speak Mandarin and are prohibited from speaking out against the harsh control policies laid down by the government: a horrifying dystopian future for those who treasure Hong Kong for its cultural uniqueness and political openness. In ‘The Floating City’, the line between utopia and dystopia is clearly drawn by separate worlds – a utopian virtual reality and a harsh, dystopian reality. However, in ‘Island Oasis’, those who view the new Hong Kong as utopian, like the protagonist and his future wife, and those who view it as dystopian, namely the protagonist’s parents who have once lived in the old Hong Kong, are alive in the same time and space: the difference is only one of perspective and privilege.
This book is a superb, collective glimpse into the future of Hong Kong through the eyes of locals and newcomers who each have their own unique take. This diversity in storytelling allures any reader interested in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Future Perfect appeals also to philosophical readers as it has an underlying philosophical theme which inspires thought on how Hong Kong should act as of right now if it is to achieve a utopian future or to avoid a dystopian future explored in the anthology.
Jeffrey Tam is a writer and musician born and living in Hong Kong. His book reviews have appeared in both the Hong Kong Review of Books and the South China Morning Post.