Why does Hong Kong represent a “future city” in cyberpunk movies?

When talking about the city of the future, “smart city” might be one of the phrases that come to your mind. Indeed, the government has been trying hard to make Hong Kong a smart city. In 2020, the government rolled out the Smart City Blueprint of Hong Kong 2.0, promising to use more technology and innovation to improve the economy and living standards.

Yet, for a typical Hongkonger, one can hardly imagine how the current cityscape can have any relation to the look of a future city. At least not the old-styled neon-light and the mix of dark-shades buildings with the brand new ones. Interestingly, to some of the foreign movie directors, these current faces of Hong Kong represent the image of the future, or to say the least, the future in their science-fiction movies.

If you take a closer look at some cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner (both 1982 and 2017 versions), Ghost in the Shell, or Transformers: Age of Extinction, you could easily find traces of Causeway Bay, Sham Shui Po, and the famous Monster Building in Quarry Bay.

The trailer of Blade Runner (1982) in which some of its scenes were filmed in Hong Kong and drew on the city’s landscape.

So why is Hong Kong seen as the representation of the city of the future? Experts said the reasons could be due to the architectural, societal, and historical aspects of Hong Kong. These aspects show similarities to the themes of cyberpunk movies, which usually characterize the combination of high-tech and lowlife, featuring a future dystopia filled with inequality, corruption, and social upheaval.

The neon lights and mega billboards

Hong Kong is a highly urbanized city with a beautiful landscape. At night, you can see the neon-light signs dangling and the facades of the high-rise buildings twinkling. These characteristics of Hong Kong, thus, provide an exotic Asian techno look in cyberpunk movies.

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Otto Heim, a professor teaching science fiction at the University of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong has combined “the digitalization of a visually saturated urban landscape of commercial signs with imaginations of an ecosystem of corporate power, organized crime, and outlaw underdogs.”

Pegasus Mak, the Chairman of the Hong Kong Science Fiction Club thinks the neon lights also resemble the blinking that of the computer’s LED screen.

The mix of new and old buildings

In some areas on Hong Kong Island, like Central and Causeway Bay, you can find the worlds’ most renowned banks, corporations, and shopping malls densely packed together with some local shops and old buildings in between.

Such cityscape is one of the elements that make cyberpunk movies reference Hong Kong, as it visually shows the extreme wealth gap between the rich and poor, said Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a professor specializing in films studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Alex Martinez, a cyberpunk fan working as a language teacher in Spain, thinks the mix of new and old buildings in Hong Kong well represents the decaying future in cyberpunk movies.

“This also symbolizes the decaying future: a future we always depict as “modernized” with machines and high technology, but also decaying: the bad usage of machines, the corruption, the lack of resources to sustain the whole world…”

The Kowloon-Walled City

The Kowloon-Walled city is not only an important part of Hong Kong history, but it also inspired the cyberpunk genre since its first adaptation in Blade Runner (1982) and the anime Ghost in the Shell (1995).

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a first-person shooter video game based on the cyberpunk anime series Ghost in the Shell, references the Kowloon-Walled City in Hong Kong. Photo: Press Kit

The Walled City, demolished in 1993, was a self-governed slum independent of the British and Chinese government rule with some illegal business and criminal activities going on.

“It is the lawlessness, the ruling not of the authority but the triads in KWC sets the atmosphere of the cyberpunk stories, where the protagonists often use the methods outside the system- the cyberspace, the hackers, to rebel against the authority,” said Mak.

A model constructing the old face of the Kowloon-Walled City, which was only a 6.4-acre place accommodating 50,000 people in the 1990s. Photo: Ida Kwok

Magnan-Park also thinks the Walled city represented “an actual underworld in action”, that in cyberpunk narratives serves as the “ripe zones to initiate narrative intrigue and allow characters who would otherwise not meet socially have a means to meet clandestinely”

Hong Kong as a Cosmopolitan City

Hong Kong is a metropolis where you can find cuisines and brands from all over the world; it is also a city inhibiting people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Mak said the co-existence of different cultures in a city like Hong Kong would help accelerate cultural evolution, as there are more contacts and clashes between cultures.

The interconnection of cultures correlates to the features of cyberpunk work, as Mak added, “Cyberpunk is characterized by the interconnection of cyberspace, where it enables open-source software and allows corporation and discussion, so it speeds up the production time.”

The General Postmodern Atmosphere

Leiya Lee, a professor specializing in film theory and film-philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, said the people nowadays are living in a postmodern time, which shows the “tendency of going back, (something) of regress and backward progression.” This, Lee said, consequently makes the looks of Hong Kong ideal to represent a future city, especially with its old-styled neon lights and decaying buildings.

A street in Jordan where some old buildings and local stores are densely packed together. Photo: Ida Kwok
A street in Jordan where some old buildings and local stores are densely packed together. Photo: Ida Kwok

“If you pick a film like Looper or Blade Runner 2049, it’s precise because of the really old stuff that the filmmakers put there you feel it’s the future…” said Lee.

“Think of environmental protection, the way to progress is to regress, use less plastic, use less fuel, use less of the stuff that had made civilizations more advanced than they once were without these resources.”

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