In an interview discussing her two Tin Shui Wai-focused films, the director Ann Hui described her initial impressions of the area, saying “It doesn’t look like a sad city, it looks like a carefully planned, modern, almost comic-book place….giving the feeling of a fairy tale.”[1]

Both of Hui’s films explored issues of marginal life in Tin Shui Wai (TSW), though in very different ways.  The second, “Night and Fog” (lit. “Night and Fog in Tin Shui Wai” 天水圍的夜與霧), a fairly straightforward social critique, focused on the much-publicized 2004 murder of a mainland woman by her working-class Hong Kong husband.  That case, and subsequent media and filmic attention helped to both bring to the fore the many issues that plaque the New Town, even as they also helped build and cement the stigmatizing image of Tin Shui Wai as the so-called “City of Sadness.”

The juxtaposition of Hui’s films, the second in particular, and her quote above illustrates tensions that work through our research.  Partly this is a question of the gap that Hui’s quote deliberately evokes between the fairy-tale like quality of this hyper-modern yet in some ways rural, highly-planned yet in many ways failed New Town.  As a retired government official who worked on city planning issues put it to me, TSW isn’t actually “town” at all since it lacks many of the fundamental features of a living community, not least of which is a local economy.

This is one way of thinking about the issue of visibility.  My first impressions of Tin Shui Wai were much like what Ann Hui describes.  And it is an overwhelming impression – spindly, pastel and white high-rises amid green hills and surprisingly shiny shopping malls, manicured landscaping and tastefully hued bike paths, a park with an impressive line-up of abstract sculptures, a carefully structured (though largely un-patronized) outdoor market area, public facilities and schools, all organized in to “superblocks” of living, shopping, education, and leisure.

A second glance though, and this is what I take to be the point Hui is making, reveals other harder, possibly more melancholic, realities.  There is little of the social and economic life in the area that characterizes most other parts of Hong Kong.  Long distances separate the super blocks.  Leafy foliage attractive to the eye does not offer the shade needed to linger.  Public spaces are lovely to look at and yet almost barren. Roads and pathways are conduits to other places, not gathering points, either for people or for small businesses.  They are meant to move people along efficiently from home to mall to market to school and back.

The vertical villages of high-rises cut people off from one another.  Many of our interviewees have described how people do not speak to their neighbors except in the simplest of greeting – although they at the same time know them intimately, since they can hear their conversations and quarrels through thin walls.  Lacking the horizontal life of dense shops amid gridlike networks of streets, overhanging building eaves offering needed shade, and public spaces less well-planned but more amenable to gathering and lingering, the narrow verticality of home solidifies features that, as Tieben et al. have described,[2] discourage economic and social life.

For wealthier residents of Hong Kong, life in a remote living community and with limited local socio-economic life isn’t such a bad thing.  It keeps things tidy.  The air is fresh.  You don’t have to talk to your neighbors.  The (relatively expensive) shopping mall is attached by walkways to your high-rise complex.  But such people have other social networks and the economic resources with which to connect with and move about the city, linking them to geographically diverse but socially-related networks of people, opportunities, and practical advantages.  For those whose lives are more dependent on their local environment, a lack of nearby economic and social life has devastating effects.  These effects usually are not as dramatic as a murder.  They are, rather, a form of “slow violence,” taking place over time and through a kind of wearing down.  This is another problem of visibility.  It’s hard to see something that isn’t an event.

That Ann Hui’s second movie in particular seems to have contributed, I think unwittingly, to stereotypes and stigma about Tin Shui Wai exemplifies some of the complexities of talking about a place with serious problems without it spinning away, out of one’s control and beyond good intentions, into stigma and stereotype.  This is yet another issue of visibility – the gap (hysteresis) between a complex, lived reality and its representation.  To paraphrase Ackbar Abbas,[3] the ways Tin Shui Wai is made to appear in media and governmental representations make its more complex and human realities disappear.

I have this very clearly in mind as our research enters a fraught arena.  Tin Shui Wai is a stigmatized space, and so are the people who live there.  How can we empirically represent the ordinary struggles, slow suffering, and basic life and humanity of the area without feeding into a pornography of poverty focused on spectacular events and salving hopeful cliches? This isn’t an abstract question.  Social marginalization has real and painful effects on real people.  Even apparently sympathetic accounts can add to the separation of communities from the social and economic resources of the city, as they contribute to the cultural marginalization of communities that are already struggling.

One of our Project Share interns, who grew up in Tin Shui Wai and is one of those rare success stories attending university in Hong Kong, put the lived ambiguity of this situation very succinctly.  On the one hand, she was glad that “spectacular” cases attracted attention to Tin Shui Wai, and with it some increased government investment in public facilities and social services in the area – though that didn’t also come without a fight by social workers and others. On the other, she sensed that the broader effect of the “othering” of the area, which attaches stickily to the people there, was harmful.  The young people I talk to in the area likewise seem to sense this.  They are defensive about their place.  They point to its wide open spaces, lack of crowded streets, and fresher air.  They contrast it to the densely massed spaces and the foul air of the city.  They affirm the virtual rurality of Tin Shui wai, but they turn upside-down its valuation.

I’m partly suggesting here that the “otherness” of the area seems to do the cultural work of sustaining an image of the normality of Hong Kong in contrast.  This is a normality of smooth surfaces and regular order, a surface which is being abraded, as Hong Kong scholar John Nguyet Erni writes, by those who are serially cast as “strangers in the city.”[4]  These include the deviant figures of the post-80’s youth (a shorthand for immaturity and selfishness), the young gang member, the mainlander, the welfare recipient, and the ethnic other who is barely recognized at all.  These categories do a lot of cultural work.  Behind them are real people who are being importunate enough to make demands for basic livability and possibilities for better futures.

TSW is associated with all of these stigmatized groups.  The area is then in part a cultural dumping ground for local symbols of human exclusion.  Its spaces are cast as external to the normality of cosmopolitan Hong Kong – an aberration, not the norm.  It is not, however, an aberration. TSW has a population larger than many US cities.  Hong Kong’s income and wealth inequalities are staggering and growing.  The normalities of Hong Kong’s large and growing social underclass are being effectively unloaded onto marginal spaces and the people who live there.

I think that many of the young people I have talked to sense this.  They reject being the poster children for the down-and-out in Hong Kong, the poor “other” within the supposedly normal, happy prosperity of the cosmopolitan city – surely by now a badly frayed imagination. They sense that the problems of Hong Kong are being displaced on to them and their place.  They refuse this in a number of ways, some perhaps self-destructively. Most reject the stereotype of TSW as the “sad city.”

This cuts different directions though.  In 2007, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, on his first visit to the area since the infamous 2004 murder case, said “”Tin Shui Wai is not a town of sadness. It is actually full of warmth.”  Great.  He followed with “”It should not be labeled as such anymore and the spirit of self-help and helping others should be promoted.”[5]  Let us not disparage this community, he says with benevolent condescension – let them build community.    The myriad practical realities that delimit social mobility, the growth of social and economic life, and effective interconnections with the rest of Hong Kong – Tin Shui Wai’s marginality – much of which is a direct result of government policy and  obscenely intimate relations with the two massive corporate interests that dominate the areas’ commerce, are shuffled aside, or rather made to disappear.

The term “City of Sadness” obscures far more than it reveals of the complex problems and lives that inhabit Tin Shui Wai.  It adds to the marginalization of the area and the people who live there.  The area has very serious problems, but these reflect broader issues in Hong Kong, which are not bounded by official district lines and essentializing categorizations.  Attempts by the government to cynically agree that Tin Shui Wai residents are the agents of their own prosperity must be seen for what they are – elisions of responsibility for the material conditions that make many lives in Hong Kong less valuable, less promising, less visible, and less “central” than others.

This takes us back to Ann Hui’s first movie about Tin Shu Wai, “The Way We Are” (lit. “Day and Night in Tin Shui Wai” 天水圍的日與夜).  The movie paces the normality of urban anomie, relative poverty, and enduring humanity of the people at the margins of Hong Kong – a very large and growing number of people – with the rhythms of day-to-day lives.  The effects of poverty are horrific but they do not always appear as spectacular events.  More often they are realized over time in the “un-eventful” but no less urgent wearing down of bodies and spirits.  These eroding effects come in to view slowly, like other forms of erosion, and so can be difficult to oppose, or even clearly identify. The challenge is to investigate, represent, and contest the “slow violence” shaping the lives of too many young people in Hong Kong.

[1] Available in the original Chinese at http://www.infzm.com/content/27331.

[2] 2013. Tieben et al. “How to Create Sustainable Communities in Hong Kong: Inherent Problems of Urban Layouts for Microeconomic Opportunities and Quality of Living.” Presentation: Sustainable Building 2013 Hong Kong  Conference, Urban Density and Sustainability.

[3] 1997. Abbas, Ackbar.  Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. University of Minnesota Press.

[4] 2012. Ernie, John Ngyuet.  “Who Needs Strangers: Un-imagining Hong Kong Chineseness.”  Chinese Journal of Communication, 5 (1): 78-87.

[5] Available at: http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=12&art_id=56018&sid=16061782&con_type=3&d_str=20071031&sear_year=2007

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