On Hong Kong

Some cities become symbols for a whole generation.

They become more than places where some people live. They become places where other people from less legendary cities locate their dreams... or, to be more accurate, nightmares, since there are better stories in hell than heaven.

I'd call these symbolic nightmare places 'traum-cities', because they appear in our dreams and sum up our most important contemporary traumas.

A traum-city will climb to the top of your 'must visit' list, if only so that you can compare its (often disappointing) daily reality with the dark imaginings it has inspired.


Berlin, a city I now visit a lot thanks to my German label Bungalow Records, was once a powerful traum-city.

To my teen heroes David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Berlin was the antidote to Los Angeles, the traum-city of fifty years ago. With its wall it was also a symbol of the schizoid personality, and, thanks in part to W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, the city par excellence of nocturnal excess and decadence.

On my first trip there in 1987, on tour with Primal Scream, I found a nocturnal warren of parties: bars where Blixa was the barman, the decor was plastic toys, shaven headed men wore miniature record-players strapped to their heads, and, in Kreuzberg, you had to bang on a thick metal door to gain access to clubs with names like The Beehive, secret dens of frightening bohemian cool.

A trip to East Berlin was a stunning contrast. Black American soldiers on leave buying crates of cut-price vodka, fascistic war shrines, the shops of the Alexanderplatz, where the shoestores had hardly any shoes, queues in the rain for the new arrivals in the bookstore, Soviet-only publications at the kiosks. I got lost and asked a flower seller how to 'get back to the West'. 'That way... but you need a permit!'

When I was there this year I still found parties signposted to the cogniscenti by scraps of paper, Mitte squats with junked Mustangs artfully placed and rusting, ultracool record and clothes shops. But, despite the hectic building activity, I found a city which has lost its capacity to be a symbol for the whole world, a city becoming... just a place where people live and work.


Hong Kong seems to be the symbol of the pre-millenium, in the same way that Berlin was the symbol of the Cold War. Hong Kong is the new traum-city.

I haven't been there yet. Kahimi Karie tells me I'd love it. Dark, futuristic and full of beautiful girls, it's more Bladerunneresque than LA and Tokyo put together.

The films of Wong Kar Wei confirm this. My Japanese friend Riho -- who has just taken the sleeve photo for the new Momus album, 'Ping Pong With Hong Kong King Kong (A Sing Song)' -- has seen these films a dozen times each. She took me to the ICA this week to see them again. 'Chung King Express', 'Days Of Being Wild' and 'Fallen Angels' impressed me more than any films I've seen since the early work of Leos Carax.

(The dark and desolate 'Boy Meets Girl' made me promise myself I would one day live in Paris. Why, after two and a half years in Montmartre, did I leave Paris? Perhaps because this beautiful city failed to incarnate a single one of the world's most significant contemporary traumas).

Wong Kar Wai

Isolated, impulsive heroes, nocturnal locations, cool music... a violent world in which sensitive people nevertheless continue to dream romantic dreams indifferent to the surrounding carnage.

In 'Fallen Angels' this happens quite literally: Agent girl Michelle Reis moons and munches dreamily in the wideangle foreground while in the background a triad fight happens in slow motion.

It's the Walkman syndrome, a thing you notice when you visit the orient. The bigger the population, the more busy the city, the more people develop the ability to retreat into an inner isolation, the space of a snackbar, a tatami mat, a computer screen, a song playing on headphones.

In the next century we will all live like this.

Wong Kar Wei maps out a perfectly postmodern, perfectly oriental psychogeography of small, busy places which nevertheless become the spawning ground of ultra-private obsessions and infatuations. Love in his films is more likely to be expressed by someone breaking into your apartment and tidying it, or by masturbation, than a healthy clinch. It is the mindset of ultrafetish, and cinematographer Chris Doyle puts it into images: a clear plastic sheath worn over a chinese silk dress, a mute riding the corpse of a pig in an abbatoir, a blow up sex doll with its head stuck in an elevator door, being kicked insanely by a couple of ultra-romantic maniacs.

And there is the real star, the traum-city itself. Corridors, subways, neon, time lapse, travelators and low flying jets, trains, shopping arcades, Chung King Mansions stuffed to the gullets with sullen, sweating people cooled by antique electric fans, the scheming tatooed triads, outbursts of random violence, warehouses, chopping knives, video cameras, motorbikes speeding through tunnels, the multi-racial hand in hand with the super-commercial... Hong Kong insinuates itself into our imaginations as the ubertraumstadt, the place of ultimate nightmare and ultimate romance, where beauty is all the more poignant for its dark, cheap, pitiless setting and dreams are all the more necessary.

This city has also superceded Berlin as a political symbol. Like Berlin in its frightening heyday, Hong Kong has capitalism and communism side by side, but instead of the exaggeration and separation created by the wall, here there's a much more frightening and modern commingling: where does one stop and the other start? Is the 21st century going to be some strange new hybrid of capitalist production / consumption firmly controlled by the rigid directives of authoritarian government?

A Metaphor

Thinking of the Hong Kong people I know, wealthy and trendy, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, flighty and spoilt, it occurred to me that the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing is going to resemble the delicate relationship between recording artists and record labels.

Hong Kong people are the recording artists: wallowing in self-indulgence and freedom, prima donnas and egomaniacs.

Beijing is the record company: a bureaucratic collective of conscientious or corrupt pen pushers and bead counters.

These two classes of people, artists and bureaucrats, speak different languages and lead utterly different lives. They get up at different times of the day and go to bed at different times. They use different sides of their brain. They live according to two opposing principles: the idealistic versus the pragmatic.

And yet they need each other, just as the stolid bureaucratic empire of China needs the talent of Hong Kong, and will indulge its whims and forgive its tantrums as long as it keeps laying golden eggs and burning gold disks.

The symbolic violence of symbolic cities is always sufficient for the world: there need never be any actual violence. There was none in Berlin, and I don't think there will be any in Hong Kong. But sooner or later there may arise the need for a go-between, an interpreter who can translate the cantonese of Hong Kong's freewheeling flair into the mandarin spoken by the Chinese bureacracy.

Hong Kong, the ubertraumstadt, may need a manager.

Momus, London, August 1997

Heather from Chicago wrote to say 'Do you really think that the city of the moment is the place in which reality is trauma and in which dreams are more important? I think it is the city of the past.'

Read her letter and Momus's reply here.

Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job