What Price Hollywood: the mind as ideological battleground in CCP-controlled Hong Kong

It was the first time the 32 year-old Princess Latifa got to sit in the front row of a car, so she naturally thought the occasion merited a selfie.

Her backstory explains why she would find such a mundane matter a novel experience: her father is the ruler of Dubai, and normally, she is confined to a walled compound, forbidden to work and study, her every movement tracked by her maid and chauffeur – so great is her resentment of the latter that even when she has a friend with her in the car, she will brood in silence, rather than let the driver hear her speak and know her real thoughts.

Finally she became hell-bent on fleeing the prison that is her father’s kingdom. Her scheme was to reach neighbouring Oman by car and then set sail for India; there, she would apply for political asylum in the US. Alas, her father quickly foiled her plans: she was crossing the Indian Ocean when his guards suddenly appeared on the deck of her boat to retrieve her. Since then – she made her dash at freedom a year ago – she has been back in her father’s clutches.

Of the many twists and turns in the princess’s story, it was this exchange that took place between her and her friend in the car that intrigued me most: to her friend’s remark that they’re like Thelma and Louise, Princess Latifa immediately pleaded “don’t say that. It has a sad ending.”

The princess’s retort to her friend’s reference to an iconic film on female rebellion left me convinced of this: Hollywood probably played an outsize role in making her feel so out of place in her home environment that the only bearable option was to leave it for good.

I arrived at this conclusion not only as someone on intimate terms with the anguish of being torn between competing longings; as a writer in Hong Kong, I constantly waver between keeping a safe distance from the topics the the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deems off-limits, and reclaiming my voice and parading my real thoughts in print. I’m also well-acquainted with the uncanny may-the-force-be-with-you power of western films to galvanize my timid self into fully embracing my identity as an errant CCP subject.

To cite just one example: recently, I protested against the CCP’s encroachment into Hong Kong’s mainstream media by dismantling a column written by The South China Morning Post chief editor Tammy Tam, whose English is so laughable that it is a dead giveaway – the only plausible reason she is chief editor is because Beijing trusts her, period. I was, however, surprised by how much I had to work on mustering the courage to lay bare the shoddiness of her column. While working on that piece, among the concerns that gave me cold feet were this: Tam’s New York-based colleague Robert Delaney once confessed to The New York Times how tough it was for him to find interviewees in the States, so wary are people there of being courted by a publication they suspect of being controlled by the CCP; my piece will only give credence to their distrust. Will I end up angering someone and what might be the consequences that await me?

Outlandish as this sounds, it was by imagining myself as Scarlett O’ Hara that strengthened my resolve to follow through with my Tam takedown. While editing Tam’s column, again and again I watched this Gone with the Wind clip: Clad in rags, Scarlett is struggling to rebuild her war-ravaged plantation home when a Yankee deserter barges in and approaches her menacingly. She is a complete stranger to firearms and balks at the thought of murdering someone, but as the soldier is about to close in on her she can no longer afford to hesitate. So she shoots him in the face, wincing as she fires. He tumbles and falls on his back, his brain now splattered on the floor, leaving Scarlett stunned – she is shocked not so much by the gory aftermath of her act as by her bravery.

The director of the film once said he chose Vivien Leigh to play Scarlett because she was“possessed of the devil and charged with electricity.” Oddly enough, my unconscious must have associated the Yankee with CCP’s intrusion into so many aspects of Hong Kong, for as I took aim at Tam’s English, it was as if Scarlett had taken command of me: my pent-up rage against the CCP finally found an outlet, and words just flowed – I usually write so slowly, so this was very uncharacteristic of me.

Princess Latifa only had a vague idea of what she wanted to do should she succeed in quitting Dubai “ just waking up in the morning and thinking, I can do whatever I want today….it’ll be amazing,” she said in a video she made shortly before she tried to escape . In my case, my desire for freedom exhibits itself in a more distinct form: Vivien Leigh so overextended herself in playing Scarlett that when the film’s producer saw her towards the end of the filming, he exclaimed “my God, you look old!” This is what I want for myself, the right to wear myself out by writing and seeing how far my unfettered imagination will take me.

Of course, I’m not unaware that while I may regard my yearning as the most innocent of all desires, as the CCP’s grows increasingly obsessive with curbing its people’s exposure to information that undermines it – the past year President Xi Jinping has repeatedly declared “the country isn’t safe if the internet isn’t safe” (“網絡安全就沒有國家安全” ) – the only use I have to such a regime is as an object lesson. Don’t work on young people early enough, and western values like the primacy of the individual may infect them through Hollywood. However, like Princess Latifa, I’m already set in my ways, plus sense of liberation I got from shaming Tam’s column is admittedly addictive. So, I’m going to live the way I want, the spectre of a sad ending hanging over me notwithstanding.

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