What is so Cyberpunk about Hong Kong? — A view from Ghost in the Shell

A mixture of a high density of neon signs, billboards and skyscrapers peppered with a touch of umbral, a classic Hong Kong street view setting that we might be bored to see, was a perfect sample for cyberpunk films to illustrate. The “New Port City” in the Ghost in the Shell (1995) was inspired by Hong Kong. The adaptation from Hollywood in 2017 also chose Hong Kong for real location shooting, referring to the Kowloon Walled City that was demolished in 1993, constructed a retrofuturistic tone for an imaginative future look of 2029. A vast array of films on Cyberpunk, including Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), had chosen Hong Kong to fulfill the imagination of a high technology 21st century.

What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk is a combined word from Cybernetics and Punk. Cybernetics was originally interpreted as the theory of the interaction between animals and machine, then adapted to generally apply for cyborg and robot-related objects. Punk conveys an anti-establishment concept, often related to a rebellious music genre, punk rock. The first appearance of Cyberpunk was in 1983 in the title of Bruce Bethke’s short story. And the ideology behind it, dystopia, shortly spread out through the novel Neuromancer (1984) and became the main genre for science fiction. The Cyberpunk cinematographic films were influenced by a stylish Hollywood crime-drama genre that was active between the 1940s and 1950s, film noir. The similar pessimistic features, dark and distinctive fatalism was meant to ring a bell to the potential danger and crime that high technology would bring in. 

Why Hong Kong?

Then, why is Hong Kong a perfect hotbed for Cyberpunk films? There are two main reasons:

1. Cyberpunk aesthetic street view

According to the words from the art design of Ghost in the Shell, Atsushi Takeuchi, the street view in Hong Kong was overwhelmed by information, signboards and neon lights, revealing a stressful living condition of people. The conflict represented by the visual contrast between old streets and skyscrapers well reflects the contradiction of urban modernization. On the upper side, the view of Central, Victoria Harbour with CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) effect depicted in the Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in 2017 amazes both locals and the outsiders with strange familiarity as well as a distant image of a futuristic city. On the lower side, the Kowloon Walled City and Yau Ma Tai residents were struggling on the edge of survival. Such combination ideally fits the future landscape of cyberpunk, where cyborgs, robots, and humans live together.

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(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

2. Cyberpunk concept and cultural melting pot

The special geography and history of Hong Kong provide an array of possibilities for cultural development. In the setting of Cyberpunk, high technology is inclusive, where the tradition and futurism peacefully fuse enabling various cultures a degree of freedom in the city. We could get a glimpse of the reality of Hong Kong in the Wong Kar Wai’s film Chungking Express (1994) when the different cultures have their own rules in Chungking mansion with a lack of unified ownership. The disorganized, ungoverned nature of past Hong Kong offers something akin to an imaginary Cyberpunk city.

Other cities like Tokyo and Shanghai might be able to pose challenges to Hong Kong in the future, but Hong Kong is still a top city when it comes to a cinematic exotic taste. The Dark Knight (2008), Pacific Rim (2013) and Transformers: Age of Extinction(2014) also centered their movie scenes in Hong Kong.