The story of a “quintessential” Hong Kong modern family

Monday morning. I sit in a coffee house in Mongkok East, enjoying my coffee, reading the newspaper, sending emails to different people. The coffee house I’m sitting in is one of my favorites in Hong Kong: it is on the fourth floor of a shopping mall, it is large, has lots of nice couches to sit on, and provides a beautiful view over this part of Kowloon. When looking outside the window, I see the modern 42-stories high Langham Place Office Tower against the backdrop of old residential complexes; in the far back, when the sky is clear (like today) I see the top of the ICC tower. Looking outside the window, I wonder about which families would be living in the many apartments I can see in this densely built residential area of Hong Kong. What are their worries and cares, what makes them happy, how do they live their lives? What are their stories?

On the couch next to me, a man is having a meeting with a female artist. He is a film maker, she a camera woman. He has an idea for a film: he wants to make a movie, with only dancers, dancing to popular Canto-pop. The purpose of the movie will be to depict the – in his words – “quintessential Hong Kong culture”, featuring a typical Hong Kong modern family and the stories of the individual members of the family. According to the film maker, many people in Hong Kong are not aware of the injustices and inequalities that are present in the region and of what is happening under their very noses. The film therefore has to be a social calling.

“Hong Kong is a beautiful city,” the man says. “It has amazing buildings, a nice sea, and green islands. People in Hong Kong don’t realize how beautiful it is, and the complex ecosystems it has. Everybody is only concerned with their own businesses. In some busy parts of Kowloon, like Prince Edward and Mongkok, family values are very strong. But apart from those values, everybody is only concerned with themselves. Hong Kong people have a big city mentality. They never hear or are not interested in the stories that I want to portray in the film.”

The story of the movie would revolve around a typical Hong Kong family: a grandmother, a mother, and two sons. The mother is divorced (just this morning I read in the newspaper that the divorce rates in Hong Kong are this year higher than ever before). The mother lives with her two sons in a typical, 500 square foot apartment in Kowloon (when the film maker says this, he points outside and mentions “they would live in an apartment like this”). She works at Sasa, a pharmaceutical shop that – like many other pharmaceutical shops in Hong Kong – mainly serves the demand of the mainlanders that come to Hong Kong for shopping. Her eldest son has just started working in the financial sector, hoping to build up a career – a typical career in Hong Kong, a region that is built upon and revolves around finance. The youngest son is less successful. He is in his last year of university, but is struggling to graduate. He has big dreams, which he can’t seem to accomplish. Unable to deal with the pressure brought upon him by society and his family to succeed in life, he commits suicide (suicide rates in Hong Kong are amongst the highest in the world, especially amongst university students, unable to deal with expectations and pressures). The grandmother in the movie is in a wheelchair and is taken care of by a domestic helper: a Filipino maid that works and lives under harsh conditions. Her ‘home’ is a bed in the kitchen of a small apartment, without any privacy; her salary is under minimum wage, which she has to use to support herself and her family in the Philippines; and her only free time per week (if she is lucky) is on Sunday, when she goes to church and sits outdoors with her friends.

I sit on a table next to the film maker and camera woman, enjoying my coffee, and writing down what the film maker says – his description of  a typical modern Hong Kong family and the “quintessential Hong Kong culture”; a culture filled with injustice and inequalities; a culture that many Hong Kong people are not aware of, since they mainly focus on their own stories.

The film maker described a story of what he calls a typical modern Hong Kong family: a lower middle class family living on Kowloon in a small apartment (although, for Hong Kong standards, 500 square feet is quite standard) struggling with difficulties that are typical for the Hong Kong culture. However, this is just one story – a story that is both similar and different to the stories I collect in Hong Kong; stories that I will hopefully one day depict as well.

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One thought on “The story of a “quintessential” Hong Kong modern family

  1. Raymond:

    “Great and touching stuff. Now that you articulate this in greater detail, I actually realize how impoverished movies about HK’s social problems are – you see an individual or family struggling to make ends meet, but you never see how structural and intersectional inequalities have made it that way. The director’s approach is quite well-argued. It’s difficult to dispute that HK’ers are too focused on their own stories, and so we only get piecemeal bits and pieces of individual struggles. But in an ironic sense, he’s going to reaffirm one thing everyone knew all along: the wealthy and powerful are treated like kings in HK, while even the middle class, not to say the working class, struggle (especially with intergenerational inequality)”

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