In the second of a series of field notes as short essays, Linda Lai continues to craft possible histories of Hong Kong’s everyday interiority through the lens of “intelligentsia” responses within the filmmaking community in the immediate post-WW2 years. 一連三篇由「細路祥」出發的第二篇:黎肖嫻繼續探討「細路祥」化身銀幕上,成為了甚麼樣的文化資本。小孩所牽連的是一張複雜的管治的權力網。

***feature image: A lobby card (film still) of The Kid (1950), showing Bruce Lee dressing like an adult (gangster) to do the adult’s work to sustain his family

***updated on 15 January 2021

【Summary translation in Chinese 中文撮譯:】「北方有三毛,南方有細路」。李小龍演的「細路祥」所引伸的,是把兒童和教育的問題簡化為如何安置街童的問題。街童是街上無所事事、遊蕩闖禍的孩童,是一個瞭解香港內部生存歷史的軸。街童是通俗電影和漫畫的恆久想像, 當中牽扯著各種心靈情緒身體鬥爭以至社會資源分配管治上的得失 … 等人口管理問題。給孩童一個家,或說街頭上樓,能解決的是甚麼問題?「細路祥」是個連環圖創作者筆下的小孩,借上海「三毛」的聲譽繫著香港讀者。兩個虛構的小孩都分別在1949和1950年化身銀幕上,被戰後「文以載道」的(電影)文化人用作文化資本去推陳各自的論述。小孩所牽連的是一張複雜的管治的權力網。這個一連三篇由「細路祥」出發的第二個篇章裡,黎肖嫻繼續近乎田野報告的方式,把一個新唯物的歷史視野,把人、地與物視為互動相成的歷史辯證體具體化。她探討社會文化生活的日常內在性是個怎樣的研究框架,用以彌補我們對香港歷史的認知。是國家民族認同也好,戰後社會的管治也好,基本生計的提供也好,戰後的香港是另一種戰場,殖民政府無法超越新世界秩序的大發展,掙扎著如何平衡克制各種矛盾,混淆的「左」「右」論述是反傳統還是政治角力的旗號?實質上,是香港成為了沒有被記名的孤島。

 

What is the everyday? The quotidian? Folk and popular? Customs and values? Domestic habitat? The setting up of “everyday interiority” begs a more complex view. To form a view of “everyday interiority,” I delve into a zone where the fictional and social-political-economic realities are implicated, and where personal crisis are linked to the big environment, but in flexible as well as precarious ways, not without room for make-doing. By doing this, I assert a new materialist view of history 唯物的歷史觀, which is what I have established in my introduction to Three Hairs and the previous entry of this 3-part field notes. In this current article, I discuss how personal desires, social survival and governmentality are performed in spatial terms as dramas of humans-things co-agency. The kid on the street is at once a fictional construct and a nodal point that holds many levels of problematization together.

Post-WWII Hong Kong cinema contains a subaltern history of everyday dwellings for the ordinary HK person. The use of a location is far from a token backdrop. A few ‘places’ have appeared repeatedly to form sub-genres without fixed dramatic conventions. Tenement buildings – a multi-family habitation with cubicles occupied by the poor… Tong lau 唐樓 – Chinatown-style low-rises with shops on the ground floor and residential use above. Hillside squatter areas… Public housing – also the resettlement of the squatter population… Cages and split flats – as in Chungking Mansion 重慶大厦… To me, the ‘primal scene’ of these lowly abodes is the street – epitomised by the kid(s) on the street(s).

Kids on the street, 1950s Hong Kong, found photo (by Nick Howard?) on the internet

A-Chang in The Kid lives in the backroom of a tenement building with his uncle and two little cousins. A child’s regular exteriorization of his agency as a young self-directed subject normally takes place in school education, the first locale outside home for socialization. But for A-Chang, it is the outdoor comics gallery he is running, which is suggested to be exposing him to precarious street influences. In the small picture-book reading gala he sets up using a few boxes and wooden stools outdoors during the day, he practices peer leadership, providing care, help and protection to his young visitors. As well, he learns to create an income, meagre it may be. Beyond the street corner where his stall is, there are all kinds of hawker stalls, including a dai pai dong 大排檔 (DPD), a cart on wheels that serves prepared food, or simply prepares food on the spot, for drop-in customers. In The Kid, Flash Knife regularly stops by for a bowl of soup noodle, hangs out with jobless men and assigns to them temporary shady jobs from the capitalists; at times they also pickpocket the arrogant rich who happens to pass by. Sometimes, a bit of a bully themselves, they also protect children who are bullied. In critical moments, though, they always manage to come to their senses to uphold righteousness. And they take A-Chang under their wings after he flees home. It is the street where he experiences life.

The tenement building is the backdrop of the street, the “primal scenes” where A-Chang’s initiation unfolds. But the kid must not be left on the street, says those who “care.” Much of the rest of the film’s drama is the attempts to put A-Chang away from the street: he is sent to school, but forced out by rich kids’ bully; he is then given an apprenticeship in a factory, but gets implicated in organized hoarding, theft and a workers’ strike. A-Chang wants to be a man, to be independent, but the moral demand on him was overbearing. He aspires that his make-doings will take his uncle out of the tenement building into a big mansion one day. But is the street really so undesirable? A-Chang is carefree on the street except when he’s starving – unlike when he is at school, where he is rejected, or in the factory, where he is exploited as child labour together with other female workers. The soup noodle stall in the film, which appears both as a movie set and as real location, is the place of fraternal solidarity, refuge for those outside the establishment. But what would become of street-kids remains an open question – except for endless precariousness, the film endorses little hope.

L: A-Chang (Bruce Lee) and his young customers at the street-corner reading gala; R: the street with hawkers and dai pai dong, the locale of his initiation

The association of DPD to the poor is no pure cinematic imagination. DPD had been an object of the colonial government’s perennial struggle – whether to kill street hawking, to suppress social disturbances, or to encourage it as pacification measures. One early documentation of the vibrancy of street-hawking in urban Hong Kong could be read in British missionary Reverend J Nacken’s letter in 1873. [1] The 1882 Chadwick Report suggested food stalls bred and spread infectious diseases. But street stalls were mobile and could go where business was, such as at horse races and soccer games. On record, they had caused occasional fires – including the well-known big fire that burnt down the racing course in February 1918. Many complained they block the traffic, others were against sound pollution due to street-hawkers’ yelling culture. To avoid provoking public rage, the government chose to reinforce licensing and raise the annual licensing fees rather than prohibition. Advocates of licensing also argued that street hawking promised to the poor the means to make a living, thus an indirect solution to contain social unrest. Within the Legislative Council, it was asked repeatedly: would we drive poor families to risky and illegal deeds if they lose the chance to hawk on street, and to what would that leave their children? The concern for potential children crime had underscored Legco discussions, which is also The Kid’s motif.

Street-hawking in Yaumatei; street-haukers’ stalls on wheels, to be differentiated from street hawking in official government policy since 1921

DPD was not differentiated from street-hawking until October 1, 1921, characterized as ‘stall-holder hawker’ as opposed to ‘itinerant hawker’; further classification (valid until 1970s) separated ‘large cooked food stall’, for congee, noodles and rice dishes, from ‘small cooked food stall’, selling coffee and tea with milk only. The post-WWII period saw street-hawking a quick solution to the influx of immigrants from China who needed places to eat and ways to make a living; the government also offered a hawker’s space as a form of compensation to civil servants who had suffered hardship during the war. Large families were given priority to be issued licenses to run a street stall: the more birth certificates of children one could produce, the higher the chance to get a license. It was an irony: having more children was to heighten the danger of not making ends meet, but it also earned you more birth certificates to be entitled a street stall’s license. The growing number of licensed and unlicensed hawkers nonetheless restored the government to a regulatory mode. In early 1950s, about 2000 licenses were issued per year on top of the 70,000 recorded in 1946. [2] Due to spreading sanitation problems, issuance of new licenses for street-hawking was terminated in 1954. [3] Since 1959 until today, the general policy of the HK government has been to “kill” street hawking, step by step, adopting different strategies.

children playing marbles on the street

The kid must be removed from the street and its influence. The same time DPD was on top of the government’s agenda, housing problems were aggravated by the spilling squatter huts on hill slopes, many of them new immigrants’ self-made additions to the already overcrowded tenement buildings. The first government public housing, Shek Kip Mei estate, was the first to be erected in 1954, which gradually absorbed residents in the hillside squatter areas. Children and young people on the street remain a prominent social discourse and space-bound imaginaries in cinema in the 1970s and 1980s.

poster of The Delinquent, aka Street Gangs of Hong Kong 憤怒青年 (dir. CHANG Cheh 張徹 and KUEI Chih-hung 桂治洪, 1973)

The Delinquent, aka Street Gangs of Hong Kong 憤怒青年 (dir. CHANG Cheh 張徹 and KUEI Chih-hung 桂治洪, 1973) tells the typical story of a young man turned member of a triad-gang that rules the streets of Shek Kip Mei resettlement estate. Cops and Robbers 點指兵兵 (Alex Cheung 章國明, 1979) is primarily a story from the cops’ viewpoint. But its expansive coverage of kids roaming through a public housing estate in East Kowloon highlights spatial drama. Lonely Fifteen 靚妹仔 (1982, dir. David Lai 黎大煒) finds two teenage female protagonists steering away from family problems; the drama of their “fall” is played out in the disco and the skating rink, two epitome urban locations of deviance. Allen Fong’s semi-autobiographical Father and Son 父子情 (1982, 方育平) encapsulates a legendary historical moment – the birth of HK’s public housing in the 1950s – as the protagonist’s family loses their huts to a big fire that scrapped an entire hillside squatter area, and they get resettled to a flat in a public estate. In his next film, Ah Ying 半邊人 (1983), the young female protagonist, living with her family in public housing, spends the little time left from her daytime job as a hawking fishmonger on drama and film evening classes taken at the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre 香港電影文化中心, hinting on other less represented life-styles on the big screen. Impregnated by the progressive sentiments for greater love, A Son is Born 苦海明燈 (aka. A Guiding Light, 1953, dir. Chun Kim 秦劍, produced by the Union Film Enterprises Ltd. 中聯電影企業有限公司) [4] shows a kid (also played by Bruce Lee) being rescued from the street several times by different families: it is better for a kid to have his heart for society than to belong to the stable home of a family, the film argues.

Crammed dwellings are physical-psychological entrapment fuelling rage and violence. The tenement building on film is a phenomenal exception, as it has been imagined. The tenement house in films like In the Face of Demolition 危樓春曉 (Lee Tit 李鐵, aka Li Tie, 1953), Yang Gongliang’s The Apartment of 14 Families 一樓十四伙 (楊工良 1964 ), Shaw Brothers’ House of 72 Tenants 七十二家房客 (1973, dir. Chu Yuan 楚原), or He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother 新難兄難弟 (Lee Chi-ngai 李志毅, Peter Chan 陳可辛, 1993) is the seedbed of the poor’s communal charity against greedy landlords, and more so, in these stories’ final resolution, the celebration of benevolence and neighbourly love.

Shaw Brothers’ House of 72 Tenants 七十二家房客 (1973, dir. Chu Yuan 楚原)

 

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother 新難兄難弟 (dir. Lee Chi-ngai 李志毅, Peter Chan 陳可辛, 1993), recreating the ideology of collective neighbourhood harmony, “everyone for me, me for everyone” (人人為我,我為人人)

 

We must put away the kid on the street!? Physical housing of the homeless body seems always to be connected to the containment of moral values and the tempering of the self for the collective others. But what justifies and defines good education? Too much of our discussion on education upholds unstated (sources of) ideals that earn little attention to those who make the policy and manage the system. The process of writing this essay takes me through, phenomenally, into debatable spatial domains whether disputes on education plays out.

Is the street unsafe? But that’s where Bruce Lee in The Kid (1950) was initiated. The home as the domestic space, either incomplete or ridden by poverty, is temporary. The work place is exploitation, but also generates experience of solidarity. But is returning to the “motherland” solving all these problems? We don’t know as the film ends right there on the point of return. Bruce Lee in A Guiding Light (1953) manifests a somewhat May Fourth anti-traditional sentiment: do not rely on a permanent home for it is better to have no ties to a family in order to be useful to society. Such are the variants of the “progressive elements” in 1950s residing in two films among other examples.

 

(movie still captured by Linda Lai) The solution to the kid on the street in The Kid is overtly ideological — to remove him not only from the streets, but from Hong Kong altogether, as we see in the closing scene (above), the pastoral return to the mainland for peace and endurable livelihood. The kid, his uncle, and the exploited female factory workers who fail to receive a decent way, walk back to China on foot following the tracks of the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway).

 

I took much fun in watch He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993), which harks back onto the 1950s, and even published an academic essay discussing this film. [5] But looking back, its nostalgia is simply too “heavy” and alienates me, who grew up in an ordinary family in a tenement building before I moved to public housing at the age of seven. Lonely Fifteen (1982) reminds me of all the scare and anxiety instilled in my mind about how dangerous it was to have fun out school and family; it suffocates. I also wonder why these two last films were taken for granted at the time they were made. Lonely Fifteen connects me with the busy hype on juvenile delinquency and the Urban Council’s whole-city and district-base youth programs, as well as the use of the term “youth ministry” in church and social work organizations, the result of a long-term management program initiated by British HK governor Murray MacLehose since the 1970s. To me, He Ain’t Heavy was a necessary tongue-in-cheek statement to be made in Hong Kong when we were about to be “handed over” to a different sovereignty. It does not address any political crisis, but by avoiding it, the film asserts a form of positive absence “solidified” via dramatic pastiche. A different Hong Kong is with us. What are we supposed to say?

 

NOTES

[1] “A Brief, Poignant History of Hong Kong’s Street Food Hawkers,” read on 2 August 2020: http://discovery.cathaypacific.com/brief-poignant-history-hong-kongs-street-food-hawkers/

[2] “Closing Time” read on 2 August 2020: https://multimedia.scmp.com/hawkers/

[3] Hong Kong Urban Council, “Hawkers: a report with policy recommendations”. Hong Kong: Government Printer, 1957.

[4] A Guiding Light (aka A Son is Born, also starring Bruce Lee) has many nice real location sequence (see, for example, 34m30s and 1h03m). It has an anti-thesis of the streets potentially better than home — the former the place of self-determination and chancing though with severe hardship, the latter imprisonment either by the capitalist class or by treachery driven by poverty. Though with all the expected melodramatic components calling for the resolution of interpersonal conflicts, and the good curing the bad, the key drama hinges on the enduring process of the kid’s disbelief of adults, the family, and his struggle to reclaim faith in others. To remove the kid from the street, the purpose is in order that he will belong to society at large, not to a specific family.

[5] Linda C.H. Lai, 2001: “Film and Enigmatization: nostalgia, nonsense, and remembering,” At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, ed. Esther C.M. Yau, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 231-250.

 

RELATED READINGS: The Children series on Floating Teatime: http://floatingprojectscollective.net/tag/children/