Chinese Face/off: The Transnational Popular Culture of Hong Kong

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CHINESE FACE/OFF: THE TRANSNATIONAL POPULAR CULTURE OF HONG KONG Kwai-Cheung Lo. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005, 253 pp.

For most nonresidents, Hong Kong has always been the most visible face of China, second only to the US in film exports. Westerners have both enjoyed and been puzzled by Hong Kong popular culture as it is seen in films. In Chinese Face/Off, Lo attempts not so much to explain as to place this popular culture in its proper multicultural perspective. Dissociated from China for one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong developed a culture that, while still Chinese, is unique to itself yet staunchly international. Lo argues that this Hong Kong is searching for a new identity while holding on to the traditional and standing as an example to mainland China. Yet he also argues that the traditional "Chineseness" of Hong Kong is a myth held on to by mainlanders as they see the stability of their own culture change and grow, and, to some extent, disappear. He delves into the reality of this struggle by examining the fantasies and realities as well as the meanings and sources of Hong Kong's popular culture.

In the first of the book's three parts, Lo focuses on the print culture of Hong Kong and how it has influenced popular culture and the use of language. He focuses on how Hong Kong popular newspapers, a significant element of residents' daily lives, have changed from literate and literary to visual and graphic, from emphasizing reason to emphasizing sensation and feeling; in particular, he looks at how this shift is reflected in the ever-increasing number and diversity of newspaper "columns," most of which are incomprehensible to non-Chinese speakers or nonresidents. These columns contain immediate discussions of happenings in the daily life of Hong Kong, as well as shameless gossip mongering. Lo's analysis of these columns as a kind of community conscience could just as easily apply to Western media, with their almost obsessive focus on the spectacular, the frightening, and the titillating.

The book's second part examines how subtitling in Hong Kong films represents not only a forming cultural identity but also a split in the national forms of speech, a split that defies easy explanation. Lo looks at the power struggles between languages and the tension between voice and script, dialect and language. While most films are made in Mandarin, most Hong Kong residents don't speak Mandarin, nor do most mainlanders; thus a "national" language seems to be in formation, with films subtitled in this national language for most viewers. Lo also argues that English subtitles are deliberately made bad and humorous, as this increases the enjoyment of Western audiences. Some badly subtitled films are elevated to cult status as a direct result of what appears to be inadvertently comic mistranslation. One could wish he had spent a bit more time examining the unique and often misunderstood Chinese sense of humor seen in Hong Kong films-a humor Western audiences often don't comprehend. …