Sophina Chu reflects on Hong Kong’s racial politics in the context of Jasper Fforde’s allegorical novel.
Jasper Fforde, The Constant Rabbit (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021), 320pp.
When we see the headline “Citywide manhunt underway for foreigner suspect wanted in killing of Hong Kong taxi driver,” one of the first comments you will find on Facebook is, “is he South Asian or white?” Though South Asians (and other ethnic minorities) have lived in Hong Kong for generations, learn Cantonese, and the Hong Kong way of life, they are still labelled as “foreigners.” In Tsim Sha Tsui is a world-famous icon of this paradox, bearing with fitting irony a rather Chinese name – Chungking Mansions.
As a Cantonese Hongkonger, a walk into Chungking Mansions can be like entering a burrow in Jasper Fforde’s The Constant Rabbit. This is not to degrade the occupants at Chungking Mansions – Fforde’s rabbits are allegorical of racial others – but to highlight an inversion of Self and Other when entering a space where one’s sense of belonging becomes confused and complicated.
The very first time I set foot in Chungking Mansions, people approached me eagerly to invite me into their restaurants, urging in Cantonese “eat curry, curry?”, “here, here”. Passing through the numerous stalls to find the correct elevator, I saw glimpses of Indonesian hair-dying products that my dad used for his hair, and stores that sold SIM cards like the ones in Apliu Street. I caught the wrong elevator by mistake. The doors opened and I found myself in corridors of cheap guesthouses and dark staircases. Chungking Mansions felt like a burrow of secret stairs connecting different, mysterious spaces. To me, these spaces were threatening and mesmerising at the same time. Chungking Mansions repositioned my “Self.” I was engulfed by a space where the unfamiliar constantly reversed the binarism of the majority “I” and foreign “Other.” As Gordon Mathews’s writes in Ghetto at the Center of the World, “if you are Chinese, you may feel like a member of a minority group and wonder where in the world you are.”
Before going further down the rabbit hole, it is essential to recognise how space can be interpreted. Reading Fforde’s novel, I began further to reposition myself in understanding uncanny spaces. I discovered a new and more appropriate way to interpret my experience of becoming a flâneuse, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, a detached observer strolling through the labyrinthine cityscape of Chungking Mansions.
In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin compares the city to a labyrinth, and as a flâneur strolls through the labyrinthine structure of the city, where the crowds of the modern metropolis are a shield, a veil, and an object of observation at the same time. Benjamin interprets the cityscape as a structural “labyrinth” of social spaces jointed by complex streets and ways: “within the labyrinth of the city, the masses are the newest and most inscrutable labyrinth.” The detached flâneur strolls through the labyrinth without admiration or terror.
However, it is difficult to be an unbiased flâneur in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions. Looking at the space and masses of Chungking Mansions, it would not be unfitting to say that a kind of bizarre orientalism affects interpretation of its own corridors and arcades. Hong Kong’s mainstream media consistently underrepresents and misrepresents South Asian minorities, compounding issues of racial politics in Hong Kong by reinforcing rather than challenging racist stereotypes. The news about ethnic minorities focuses on violence, crime, and illegal immigrants. As noted by John Nguyet Erni and Lisa Yuk-ming Leung, in their study Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong, the government generalises the varieties of South Asians into the catch all “ethnic minorities,” a term that carries a lower social status. Hong Kong Chinese tend to exclude South Asians from the “local population.”
These power dynamics are spacialised in representations of Chungking Mansions itself. Wong Kar Wai’s iconic movie Chungking Express (1994) depicted the block as a chaotic site of drugs and crime. Gill Mohindepaul Singh, the famous South Asian actor in Hong Kong under the Chinese stage name Mr. “Q Bobo,” often misrepresents minorities, frequently playing comical stooges or malicious in criminal. Depictions of Chungking Mansions’ spaces and the masses that live within are closely associated to such negative representations. It is difficult to detach any flâneury from this social stereotypical system of value while strolling through Chungking Mansions.
Through the lens of Fforde’s novel, it is troubling to realise how little many of us who are Cantonese know of the local community at Chungking Mansions, though we call ourselves “local Hongkongers.” In The Constant Rabbit, “space” can be contextualised as both the geographical and social spaces. Fforde makes the division of space between humans and rabbits distinctly unclear in his novel. In Fforde’s allegorical world, the “Spontaneous Anthropomorphising Event on 12 August 1965” turns a number of animal species into semi-human creatures. With their reproductive ability, rabbits proliferate. The United Kingdom, ruled by an anti-rabbit political party called UKARP (The United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party), assigns the rabbits to live in five colonies, which over time become a large “underground warren” as the rabbits tunnel between them. Outside the colonies, there is a utopian city called Ross-on-Wye, an “open town” where humans and rabbits co-exist in harmony, but elsewhere rabbits who are granted an off-colony status face discrimination and marginalisation.
Fforde divides his world into spaces of confinement (the rabbit colonies and later the Mega Warren Project to relocate all rabbits, comprising prisons, concentration camps, and rehabilitation centres), spaces of early “postcolonial” integration such as Much Hemlock (the village where Peter Knox, the protagonist lives), and finally an imaginary postcolonial utopia, Ross-on-Wye.
The shared spaces in Rabbit bring into focus how the inhabitants of a space can inspire changes in conceptions of Self and Other, challenging not only Brexit (the direct target of Fforde’s allegory), but also racist mindsets that distort conceptions of Chungking Mansions. In The Constant Rabbit, the balance of geographical space is subverted. With the rising population of rabbits, setting up five rabbit colonies are not enough, a “Mega Warren” is built to relocate all rabbits and use them as cheap labour. The area is enormous, as shown on the map in the book’s frontispiece.
Looking at Chungking Mansions’s history, built in 1961 it was intended to be a high-class building. During the colonial period, the population of South Asians in Hong Kong increased, and they started taking up more and more stalls there in the late twentieth century. With its shoddy construction and poor infrastructural design, it was described as a “dump,” “labyrinth,” and most significantly, a “rabbit warren” (Ghetto). The complexity of a rabbit warren in the cityscape of The Constant Rabbit and the description of Chungking Mansions reflects a recurring sense of imaginative threat, the horror of being overpowered appears in the scenarios of Rabbit and Chungking Mansions.
Yet Fforde’s design of the social and demographic space invites readers to reconsider binarism. The rabbits in Fforde’s novel behave almost exactly like humans, and most of them live like the sophisticated human communities . They enjoy French literature and have unique political ideas. They may look like rabbits, but their culture is a variety of human culture (maintaining a consciously vegan diet, socialist stances, matriarchal religion, and duelling culture).
When rabbits behave like humans, the boundaries between the segregated space are confused. At the point in the novel where Peter Knox, the human protagonist, enters Rabbit Colony One, Fforde writes, “there didn’t seem to be anyone around […] To my left and right were the call centres and factories, and straight on was a single thoroughfare that led on to rows and rows of allotments under which there would be a network of tunnels.” The colony was an integrated space of rabbits’ warren and humans’ industries. The cityscape is not easily accessible due to the complex structure of tunnels and though a spotter, Peter can’t identify any rabbit by sight.
Peter’s experience entering Rabbit Colony One in a sense resembles the flâneur’s experience of the labyrinthine modern metropolis in Benjamin, which inspires a re-interpretation of my experience walking into Chungking Mansions. The infrastructure in Colony One is a labyrinthine structure of inscrutable space that reject human entry. To Benjamin, the labyrinth is a space that relates the dichotomies of “Inside” and the “Outside”, the “Above” and the “Beneath” of the urban geography, it also relates the passages “Beneath” to the life “Above.” Through such connectivity, metaphysical binaries disappear.
The warren in Colony One likewise relates the human space above and beneath. From Peter the flâneur’s perspective, we get a glimpse at a fusion of the human way and the rabbit way, the human space and the rabbit space, at how the joined masses and social spaces became one big labyrinth. Peter’s flâneur experience recontextualized my experience in Chungking Mansions. In The Constant Rabbit, the rabbit’s special transgressions intimidate the leporiphobics, and a similar transgression of boundaries in Chungking Mansions also intimidated me as a single Hongkonger of Cantonese ethnicity.
The ending of Fforde’s novel invites readers to reflect upon cultural fluidity. The anthropomorphised rabbits reject “everything that made them human” and revert to their original form, but this apparently definitive choice is destabilized by a number of metaphorical border crossings. One Lugless, “derabbitised” by his own community, has his ears returned after he dies willingly. On the night of deEventing (the revert of the Spontaneous Anthropomorphising Event), Peter’s daughter, who falls in love with another Lugless rabbit, chooses to follow the “rabbit way” and transforms into a rabbit. Peter himself chooses to remain human so he can continue to tell the rabbits’ history when they no longer can. Fforde suggests that, instead of fighting to occupy the same space (physically or metaphorically), we might decide to live harmoniously in adjacent spaces.
In Hong Kong’s context, instead of relying on stereotypes of “local” and “foreign,” perhaps it would make a difference for those of us who are Cantonese to detach ourselves from our presumed role of the “majority” or “Self,” and detach also from our prejudices about so-called foreign others, and engage with what we discover by acting as the flaneur. We might wander through Chungking Mansions as we stroll through other spaces in this modern metropolis, and observe the everyday life of the Chungking labyrinth and its people as a cityscape in miniature that captures our multifaceted Hong Kong culture.
Sophina Chu is a lecturer in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include monster theory, gender studies, and ecocriticism.