Hong Kong Blues and Roots
March 11, 1999 / Updated 5:30 p.m. PST
By Justin Lowe

The Hong Kong that Ruby Yang once knew no longer exists. In the 20 years since her family emigrated to San Francisco, many of the details of her hometown have changed beyond recognition. So when Yang, a film editor and director, returned in 1996 to begin research for her new film, Citizen Hong Kong, it was not to document the city she remembered, but to explore a rapidly evolving Hong Kong.

The handover from British to Chinese rule the next year was tense and unpredictable not only for the city’s residents, but for the thousands of Hong Kong expatriates who followed the transition with trepidation and anticipation.

Both groups became the subject of Yang’s film about the “transition generation”—the young people born under British rule who will come of age under Chinese authority.

“Chinese rule signals the end of the Hong Kong of my youth—a memory that I still hold dear,” Yang said while taking a break from laying down the last audio tracks for Citizen Hong Kong, which will premiere March 18 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. “I began filming in an effort to encapsulate the bittersweet memories of a colonial childhood and the Hong Kong of my youth. But through this process, I discovered a new kind of connection to the city.”

Citizen Hong Kong is not only the first feature-length film to record the year following the transition, but also Yang’s documentary directing debut. However, she is well known in the Bay Area for her film editing work on Spencer Nakasako’s Emmy award-winning A.K.A. Dan Bonus, Avon Kirkland’s Street Soldiers and, most recently, first-time filmmaker Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu.

In Citizen Hong Kong, Yang creates a structure that uses her own story and family history to frame the accounts of five contemporary Hong Kong residents. “As I witnessed the [recent] changes taking place in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but feel that this was not only the end of a colonial era, but the culmination of a family saga,” she recalls. More than 50 years ago, Yang’s parents fled communist persecution in Canton and established a new life in Hong Kong.

Yang readily acknowledges her ambivalence toward the transition: “Growing up British-Chinese, you want to fit into the culture and be Western,” rather than associate with the Chinese heritage that caused her family so much misfortune, she says.

In recruiting a group of documentary subjects embodying the characteristics of contemporary Hong Kongers, Yang found five individuals who shared her ambivalence: Qi Ke Jia, a recent immigrant from China; Louise Wong, a Chinese Australian seeking her roots in Hong Kong; deaf brothers Edward and Edwin Chan; and Ed Wu, a longtime resident of Hong Kong.

Funded by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other nonprofit sources, Yang provided her subjects with digital camcorders and frequent guidance. During the turbulent year following the handover, the five Hong Kongers created video diaries, recording their own experiences.

Yang’s footage and voiceover set the personal and historical context for these narratives, using family photos and archival footage. As the film progresses, Yang’s story fades subtly into the background, and the voices of her subjects take over.

Wu, the first diarist featured, is a 23-year-old music store buyer and aspiring animator who struggles with his family’s expectations and his own plans for the future. While coming to terms with the new Hong Kong, Wu also meditates on his relationship with his father, who died of cancer before the handover: “Maybe I’m still searching for what I’ve lost.”

The adjustments that Jia faces are of a different nature. After arriving from southern China two years before the film began, she was the youngest project participant at 17. Still settling into Hong Kong life, she faces the burden of her mother’s expectations that her daughter will one day attend the prestigious Hong Kong University. Describing her own aspirations for social acceptance, Jia says, “I want to become a real Hong Konger.”

An expatriate, 24-year-old Wong has come back to Hong Kong to work as a radio journalist and rediscover for herself what it means to be Chinese. “I don’t think I’ve ever really known my roots, because I never grew up in Asia,” she reasons. “So I decided to return to Hong Kong.”

Certainly, the greatest undertainty presents itself for Edwin Chan, 27, and his brother, Edward, 30, who doggedly establishing a place for themselves as deaf brothers in a society that tends to ignore them. However, Yang observes that the attitude toward handicapped people is improving, and the brothers themselves explain (through sign-language interpreters) that they have come to terms with their disability.

In fusing the stories of these five individuals with her own narrative, Yang’s documentary style is fluid and dynamic. She complements the video diaries with panoramic shots of the film’s true star—Hong Kong, a city constantly on the move.

Altogether, Yang and her subjects shot 300 hours of video, but the director’s footage comprises more than 60 percent of the final film. “The challenge was not the diary material,” Yang recounts, “but representing it within my own story.”

The final work that emerges is Yang’s tribute to a city and its residents who are continually improvising and adapting to monumental changes with optimism.

“Through the stories of Jia, Ed, Edward, Edwin and Louise, and the friendships we built, I have renewed my connection with Hong Kong,” Yang attests. “I saw in their strength and resilience the Hong Kong I remembered. As long as its people thrive, I know the Hong Kong I call home will not fade.”

Citizen Hong Kong premieres at 7 p.m. March 18, at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The screening is followed by a closing night gala at the San Francisco Art Institute, attended by video diarists Ed Wu, Louise Wong, and Edward and Edwin Chan. Call 415-255-4299 for ticket information.

Original link: http://www.asianweek.com/031199/arts_citizen.html