Hong Kong undercover : an approach to ‘collaborative colonialism’

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Journal article

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Inter-Asia Cultural Studies

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gangster films, structure of feeling, undercover, genre, city, colonialism, collaboration, Hong Kong


Early Hong Kong colonial history offers a distinct angle for understanding the exceptional circumstances in which a place was colonized by both the British and their Chinese collaborators. The term ‘collaborative colonialism’ characterizes a political‐cultural formation where descriptions of flows and trajectories of forces may be more helpful than history in illuminating the colony’s murky pasts. Full of treacheries, conspiracies, betrayals and mistrust, such pasts can also help to explain the popularity of ‘undercover’ figures in Hong Kong’s movies. At risk of losing his true identity, the undercover figure was received as a social victim in the early 1980s’ ‘new wave’ that followed the legacy of social realism. To feed the appetite for gang heroism, this ‘victim’ soon transformed into a tragic hero agonized by moral anxieties. Yet the frame imposed by the police‐gangster genre did not stop it from being used as a vehicle to reflect on Hong Kong’s geo‐political situation: a place located in‐between different political projects beyond the locals’ control, and gripped by the relentless march of policed‐managerial modern order. A twist in the 1990s gave the undercover figure a cynicist and comedic turn. Postmodern celebrations of witty betrayal can be read as rewriting the undercover story to reinscribe Hong Kong’s fate: released from narcissistic heroism, new undercover images responding to the 1997 transition took identity less as a matter of authenticity than of performance. Unravelling this historically‐embedded structure of feelings shows how the way had long been paved for the success of the award‐winning series Infernal Affairs, extending a deeper reach into the local politics of memory and time.



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Law, W. S. (2008). Hong kong undercover: An approach to ‘collaborative colonialism’. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 9(4), 522-542. doi: 10.1080/14649370802386412