Geert Lovink on Thu, 24 Jul 1997 14:13:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with Ackbar Abbas

Hong Kong and the Culture of Disappearance
An Interview with Ackbar Abbas
By Geert Lovink

Kassel, July 19th, 1997

Ackbar Abbas is a senior lecturer in comparative literature at the
University of Hong Kong. He has published on modern Chinese painting,
Baudrillard and Benjamin, film theory and postmodernism. His most recent
book, Hong Kong, Culture and Politics of Disappearance, has just been
released (University of Minnesote Press). For more info on the book:
He also co-edited the latest issue of the magazine Public Culture:
Ackbar Abbas has been one of the 100 days lecturers. You can see it at:


GL: In your lecture for the 100 days program of Documenta X, you used
terms like disappearance, disorientation and dislocation. The city, or
at least Hong Kong, is for you a 'violation of what is familiar', with
a specific mixture of global communication networks and local
discontinuities. What are the underlying processes behind all this?
Anthropologists and geographers, for example, always come back to the
tension between the international city culture versus the rural culture
of recent arrivals to the city from the country.

AA: What interests me most is how the question of cities and geographies
link up with history.  In a place like Hong Kong, different moments of
history now seem to be out of step with each other. There is a very
urgent history going on at the moment, the one you see on TV, which
directly effects people's lives. However, there is another history going
on which has disappeared. Not in the sense that it is over -- it is just
one which is hard to represent, because the way in which we are
representing history is still in the old way. When you are faced with a
new and unprecedented situation and you don't know what to do, you hang
onto your life savers.
As in the case of Hong Kong: the Handover either means the end of
colonialism, or the death of democracy. It is very hard to get out of
these overriding narratives, though neither makes much sense. It has
gone beyond any of these positions due to changes in the nature of
capital, and also in the nature of information. What interests me is how
to describe the little movements, certain happenings in the everyday
life -- the unacknowledged historical processes.

GL: In your lecture you spoke of the newly erected monument to the
victims of Tiananmen Square in Victory Park, made by a Danish artist, as
an ugly piece of kitsch which fitted into a series of spectacular events
taking place during the Handover. This was within the realm of the
simulacra of politics. On the other side, you said that there is indeed
the possibility of a true form of modernity in local Hong Kong politics
and aesthetics. You have found this in Hong Kong cinema. Do you see
films from, for example, Wong Kar-wai, as an alternative to the
political kitsch?

AA: Yes, I am an optimist in this respect. I do see an alternative and
try to bring it out in my own work. This functions within the current
situation, which is very closed. In Hong Kong, the options are closing
down. We still have the Hong Kong cinema of the eighties, which had
really started to become a world cinema. Not because it was trying to deal
with world problems -- it dealt with local issues, in order to dislocate
the local.
This local was not just a provincial thing. The local films from the
forties and fifties were different. They were local in the sense of a
exclusionary process, and were meant for a particular audience. The new
localism contains many paradoxes. If a filmmaker is able to find new
images which evoke things that are hard to say, then something can

What I find interesting about Hong Kong cinema is the use of genre and
its relationship to new types of cinematographic images. Some filmmakers
have been able to come up with ways of describing disappearance. For
example, Wong Kar-wai's first film 'As Tears Go By', in his use of
colour, which is never completely right: the reds are too red, the blues
are too blue. They are never just right, in much of the same way as the
narrative situation. The story is a generic one about gangs, but the
difference is in the nature of the image. Like in his use of
slow-motion: not in order to romanticise the action but in a much more
epistemological way, to analyse the image. The conclusion is that
whether you speed up the image or slow it down there is still a level of
the real that you cannot reveal. A gangster movie in this way is saying a
lot about the conditions of urban life. This is a good example how closed
options can be opened up. Wong Kar-wai's 'Happy Together', of which I have
shown a fragment here, deals with migration. 
In the line of options that can be opened up, we could look at another
dominant cultural form in Hong Kong which is architecture. Building
infrastructure is one of the biggest projects going on, worldwide.
However, there is very little reflection on building.

GL: Rem Koolhaas is presenting this aspect here at the Documenta. I find
that his image of China (in particular, the Pearl River Delta) a very
romantic one. He is more involved in a polemics with his Western
colleagues than in dialogue with the Chinese architects. Why should we
be impressed by the fact that Chinese architects are earning such small

AA: When I came across the Koolhaas' article, 'The Generic City' I liked
it because it was both against architectural snobbery and anti-identity.
It discussed questions like repetition and seriality -- a whole new
discourse on the city which might allow us to rethink the ways we produce
it. Naming what is going on and by doing so, intervening in the process of
creating a new urban space, bringing architecture in line with the
artworld. However I was disappointed by the argument in the end. On the
one hand, you have the anti-identity, which becomes the ruling one. It is
a little bit like the Baudrillard argument of the silent masses where
silence now becomes a form of imploded resistance. It can only be taken so
far. In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the 'generic' just means
capital, low production costs and placing architecture outside the realm
of other social values.
Architecture becomes a purely practical process. One of the ways of
avoiding the social question for the architect is by saying 'I am a
builder.' However I think that Koolhaas is onto something that needs
further development. I would like to see this urbanism as a genre, like
in cinema. We should not celebrate it, but instead, within the genre of
the generic city, make a twist, if architecture is going to make any claim
to social responsibility. This is what we tried to do at the conference in
Hong Kong about architecture and cultural studies --  to open up the
dialogue with the architects. What kind of building would you like to see?
How can architects work within the economic restraints? Once you asked
these questions, you are already doing something. We all have a
responsibility. It is also a question of specialisation. Architecture is
not just engineering, it is not just construction, it is also social

GL: There seems to be a temptation, amongst Western intellectuals, to
follow business and politicians to discover the Asian 'emerging
markets', in an attempt to leave behind the Europe-in-crisis and one's
own eurocentrism. A therapy to open yourself up to the 'global', with
the help of a censored Internet. One could criticise it as a new form of
Orientalism. Koolhaas' exhibition piece and lecture at the Documenta X,
almost unavoidably, slips into this context. What would you say to
Western travellers about going to China, for example. if they want to
start a dialogue with fellow intellectuals and artists?

AA: Opening up a dialogue is certainly what we want, but there are
certain ground rules. It should not be a dialogue between East and West,
simply because as soon as you say that, the positions are defined
beforehand. By the same token, it should not be a dialogue between the
Architect and the Theorist. It is the same issue: both are facing a
common problem, which is how to deal with social processes. My model
here would be Walter Benjamin's essay on translation. The translation,
not just as a true copy of the original, but as the incomplete, full of
faults. It would be an interesting model for what a dialogue would be. It
is a question of cultural translation.

Say for example, you have a Chinese subject matter and Western
expertise. In order to 'open up the markets', you can put the eurocentrism
between brackets, otherwise this market cannot be opened up. That is not
how it should go. Another approach is that now the world has gone global,
differences are disappearing. You no longer have places. That is not
true either. Globalism is making places problematic, but they are still
there. China and Hong Kong are still different, like New York and
America. One World Culture could be read in two ways: with the emphasis
on One and the other on World. When they are apart, you can show the
asymmetries. What I see happening is bracketing certain things in order
to get into the market. One of the more sinister arguments today are the
ones about 'Chineseness', which are once again are becoming dominant. To
be proud of being Chinese is becoming a sign of the overcoming of
colonialism. That is a dangerous argument. 'Think global, act local' is
now the statement of banks encouraging that kind of thinking. It has the
same structure of the East and West. The trouble with that opposition is
that you are not changing the terms at all.

GL: You quote a lot of postmodern sources. On the other hand, your topic
is rather different.  How do you view the Paris of the nineties? Is it
still the intellectual world capital?

AA: It is not easy to answer, or to come to grips with. For me, Walter
Benjamin is absolutely essential. I read Benjamin in the terms of real
displacement, as someone who is writing in English. As someone who is
writing about the contemporary situation, and as someone who is writing
about Hong Kong. if someone says to me, you are using a German
intellectual, a wise man from the West and applying that kind of wisdom
to this new subject matter, I would say that I do not see it that way. It
is a misreading. I do not claim to be a Benjamin scholar. 'If you knew
German, this essay on translation would be impossible to read'.  In
English it seems to be so clear and lucid. I see Deleuze and even
Virilio and Baudrillard as writers that I can use. It could also be a
particular building or urban space in Hong Kong which I would also try to
learn from, in very much the same way.

GL: What image of Hong Kong would you like to give readers in your new
book and in the special issue of Public Culture you have been

AA: I wanted to re-introduce the question of history. By history I do
not mean a continuous thing that we see. History now means these different
historical moments and periods all coming together at the same time.
That is what you see in Hong Kong. It is also important to see that there
is no one narrative which comprehends this very complicated history. I am
not saying that the image has replaced history. You could show photographs
as examples of what cannot be seen. Within what cannot be seen,
something else might be perceived. What I am disappointed about in the
reports of Hong Kong is that the narratives are too straight. The images
all tend to take on an independent life and tend not to show the hidden

GL: You have stated that the issue of human rights and democracy has
stagnated a lot of discussions.

AA: Yes, this is very important for Hong Kong. The only way to get
around this is to change the terms of the discussion. If you are at the
top and start talking about democracy, you never get back to the real
problems that are taking place. We could start with immediate questions,
like how do you create a new type of public? Who has the right to the
city? A shopping mall is not public space..... that kind of question would
then arise. It would also include questions of who is responsible for
space we love, space we can live in? There is, for example, the need for
an art cinema. There is no point in saying: this is what I want, no matter
what the conditions are. There is no point in lamenting how commercial
Hong Kong is. Those complaints are completely irrelevant. The question
should be: under these conditions, what can be done?

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