A crude piece of colonial fiction, this film exposed but in some ways also perpetuated the dated racially-fixated elements of the interaction between the basic viewers conception of “China” and the “West.”
The racial elements are almost immediately evident from the start of the movie, where nearly every Hong Konger, and most of the ones with speaking lines are females, has a servile role. This contrasts with the Westerners, who have had their entire “race” in this film condensed into one monolithic power block, pursuing their own interests as the elites.
It shows the tropes of the era: “local” administration with Hong Konger police, but with unenforced ethnic zones, and tries to display the stereotypes of East Asia, the exoticism of the sights and practices, the crowding, and the economic poverty. It also shows the integration process as the protagonist gradually accepts the exploitation everywhere, of women, but also the symbol of the rickshaw, the purest exchange of labor from elites to the very poorest. It shows the competitiveness, for partners, for trade, but also Suzie’s ambition to escape from this path that has trapped her in illiteracy, shame at her exploitation and choices, and danger.
There is criticism of this in the lines regarding Westerners, despite their stark differences and aims, “sticking together,” and criticism of the social segregation of different “kinds,” but what it fails to criticize is the singular notion of race itself.
This 1962 film far pre-dates localism or the development of an explicit Hong Kong consciousness, but both the “Western” and “Chinese” ethnic and cultural identities are themselves socially constructed, but also severely problematic, and this rears its head in the initial opening lines when locals like Suzie refer to themselves as “Chinese,” despite their having severed their ties with either of the two “Chinas” in existence at this time, and fleeing to neutral British territory.
While at the time, such an ethnic distinction made clear the largest cleavage between immigrants from China, locals, and the British, in 2021, referring to one’s identity in this fashion would be in itself a political statement, as Hong Kong, and indeed China’s places in the world and relation with one another have undergone irreversible changes.
The clearest message shown by this film is that regardless of one’s views on ethnicity, culture, and love, it is exceedingly difficult to escape the social strictures that form around us, but never impossible.
Rating: three tattered dresses