Colonial Hong Kong influenced Cyberpunk Dystopia


When asked to imagine a post-industrial, urban dystopia, Westerners may summon images from Bladerunner, Neuromancer, or Ghost in a Shell. Backdrops of crumbling hyper-density, juxtapositions of poverty and neon, advanced technology and decaying urban infrastructure.

We may imagine humans living like colonies of ants within anarchic, decentralized structures covered in graffiti, filled with crime and the smells of laundry and street food. If asked to point to exact cultural locations, we would  think of Tokyo or Hong Kong based upon the films, anime and books mentioned above.

What is it about those cities that brought those qualities to mind, especially as these are already historicized, locked away in 1980’s cyberpunk nostalgia? These cities are now likely cleaner, filled with high rises instead of slums, Still, these images persist due to the powerful work of artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers. Where did it all come from? What were the roots of this post-industrial dystopia and why does it still touch people? What meaning does it all hold for us now in the 21st century…a time of luxury condos and sterile interiors?

Liam Wong, a graphic designer in the video game industry has come to enjoy fame with his photographs of Tokyo on Instagram. Citing influence from Ridley Scott‘s Bladerunner he tells of how he fell in love with Tokyo as his romantically filtered nighttime neon photographs attest. 

While looking at his work I reflect on my favorite post-war Japanese photographers who also photographed Tokyo at night, capturing this urban, dreamlike underbelly. Photographers like Daido Moriyama, or the terribly under-rated Osamu Kanemura whose disjointed, black and white images of post-industrial, post-war Tokyo couldn’t embody the dystopic imagination more. With rare collections with names like Shockhammer or Spider’s Strategy, they capture the darker, industrial aesthetic that is so different than works on Paris for example. Tokyo emerged from devastation after the war and built itself up in a hyper-modernizing pace as an amalgamation of both industry and pre-modern, Japanese culture. What we in the west see as an exotic juxtaposition actually carries deeper resonance for those in Asia.

This brings us to another city with a relationship between modernizing forces, cultural retention and change:  Kowloon City in Hong Kong.  Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto captured this infamous locale in his works from 1987.  Renowned for his photographs of demolished buildings he carried his expertise at capturing in black and white the detailed layering and texture of industrial decay. Kowloon City, as seen in this footage or Japanese explorers is really interesting  as the creative team highlights attitudes urban Japanese have toward space, density and collections that differ from those in the West who might focus primarily on blight, neglect, and code violations. A longer documentary explains the history of Kowloon City, as one rooted in Chinese resistance to British rule, of creating a self-sufficient city of sorts, albeit one lacking in first world amenities. However, Kowloon City holds powerfully nostalgic value for many 20th century East Asians, as their worlds underwent changes from Colonialism and growing Capitalism. It was an incubator in many ways, a place of liminal transitions, a blurring of post-war ‘village’ with the dark underbelly of industrial urbanism.

When Hong Kong gained its independence and became prosperous, Kowloon City became a blemish from its past, and the government soon set upon demolishing it over a period of many years. Prior to its erasure many architectural and design students from Japan as well as New York rushed to document what they could of this unique walled city. Its impact upon the modern imagination persisted, soon providing a backdrop from everything from kung fu crime movies to science fiction and video games. The anime artist Mamoru Oshii cites it as the basis for his imaginative backdrop in Ghost in a Shell.   The Japanese were so intrigued by Kowloon City that they created a three-story theme park in Tokyo replicating everything they could to preserve its cultural and architectural trace. The documentary footage linked here contains interviews with former residents, historians, artists and designers, all testifying to impact that city had upon post-colonial consciousness and memory.


Ghosts of Pre-Modernity: Butoh and the Avant-Garde

Some years ago after I had completed my M.A. in Asian Studies, was working full-time, raising a young child and starting on my second Masters, I discovered that someone in Germany had cited my  thesis on Butoh.  Elena Polzer had very generous words for it but also mentioned that it was difficult to obtain.   (You can find her excellent thesis here:  “Hijikata Tatsumi’s From Being Jealous of a Dog’s Vein“)

In 2006 I published a condensed version of it in Performance Paradigm# 2 essays on “Japan after the 1960s: the ends of the avant-garde” and via I received notice that it had generated noticeable interest, particularly in Europe.  It was even cited in Laura Cull’s book: “Theatres of Immanence: Deleuze and the Ethics of Performance.”

I vowed to get my thesis published…the easiest method to get it out there in the meantime would be as a digital e-book on

Re-configuring Progress and Development in the age of Sustainability Needs

Considering how lifestyles in the “developed” West consume the greatest amount of resources and have tended toward wasteful practices, what are non-Western lifestyle habits that we in the West could adopt? We may need to change our ways as populations grow, migrate due to climate change and resource restrictions.  One thing that we’re doing is growing more vegetables, herbs, chilis and peppers, getting beans, spices and lentils in bulk, especially from the local Indian grocery. We are learning to make Indian, Middle-Eastern and Asian dishes in low-energy ways (crockpot) and would like to learn how to create a solar oven as we live in a very hot climate with lots of sun exposure.  We are drying clothes outside, catching rainwater for the garden, not watering our lawn, drinking more teas and iced teas and running indoor fans.  I would like to see more telecommuting and working earlier and later, with staggered siesta times to conserve energy for people to rest.  People would be healthier, happier and there would be less carbon spent during the higher temperature times of the day.

We need a way to reframe the notion of “development’ or ‘progress’ so that it is not immediately equated with increased resource consumption and carbon creation.  There needs to be a way to reframe a move back to practices of the “less-developed” world in ways that are not negative or patronizing. We need to rethink the 20th century industrial/colonial linear paradigm that has this world on a crash course. How can we describe a move toward sustainability, conservation, investment in renewable resources and energy in ways that are practical, positive and possible?  Some may observe that the “developing” world is already leading on this topic…How then can we in the “developed” West release our grasp on wasteful practices and learn from the rest of the world?  This concerns how we structure our work-day, how we build our homes, or how we manage the water we use (can we begin to implement home-irrigation methods using a natural-filtered process to use grey-water from laundry machines, showers and dishwashers? – something that would be especially useful where homes would like to grow their own vegetables and fruit trees).

In as much as the 21st century seems to be shaping up to be an Asian century, I believe it would be good to revisit the work of early 20th century Indian, Chinese and Japanese intellectuals who debated traditional Asian values vs. the goals of colonial modernity in the pre-World War period.  Scholars like Okakura Kakuzo and Rabindranath Tagore.

And I am of course also looking to practices in pre-Colonial “Latin” America and Africa as we are discovering that colonial practices destroyed the sustainability these populations had achieved over thousands of years and lead to current states of poverty.  I’m considering lifestyle, permacultural and social practices that fostered greater communities and well-being.  Examples of efforts to heal these communities can be seen in the following resources (for Africa and South Asia):  A Thousand Suns,  a permaculturalist on “Greening the Desert”Barefoot College,  and the work of Narayana Krishnan.

What are other theories, examples and practices that could offer those in the West a way toward a greater “progress” or “civilization” in how Gandhi might have understood it?  As the rest of the world “advances” and the climate and resources of the world change radically and constrict, how can we all adapt in ways that are positive and sustainable? What about the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, need to change? How do we need to re-define “leadership?” How do we need to re-consider “development?”

Contemporary Asian Art resources

Some great sources from Art Radar Asia:

e-flux – A basic yet comprehensive list of new exhibitions and announcements in the art world. Its journal, which has been published online since November 2008, raises questions about contemporary art issues.

Art AsiaPacific – One of my favorite periodicals: it covers the Middle East and Central Asia as well as East Asia. AAP also has articles that describe the major successes and progressions of major Asian artists and movements, which makes it especially helpful for research—for example, in the last issue, Zhang Huan and Roberto Chabet were mentioned.

ArtRadarAsia – As a student, I appreciate ArtRadarAsia for its broad range of topics covering all of the Asian art world. It’s an excellent resource for finding a paper topic or finding an overview of a movement or a specific area of Asia.

New York Times exhibition reviews – The New York Times art critics often review Asian art shows in the New York area. I would especially recommend reading reviews by Holland Cotter because they contain valuable specialist information on Asian art.

Asia Art Archive – A library of contemporary Asian art resources in Hong Kong which contains reference materials, exhibition catalogues, periodicals, pamphlets, exhibition invitations, newspaper articles, among other things. It’s comprehensive (it has over 25,000 catalogued materials), especially for East and Southeast Asia, and its catalogue is viewable online. It also has a listing of special events related to contemporary Asian art.

Wu Hung, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China: This is my favorite book about the development of contemporary Chinese art. Wu Hung, one of the foremost scholars of Chinese contemporary art, wrote this book as a catalog for Cancelled: Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, a 2000 show at Chicago’s Smart Museum. It explains the reconstruction of Song Dong’s installation Father and Son in the Ancestral Temple, which had originally been shown in the 1998 exhibition It’s Me, which was shut down by the Chinese government. It also lists all the exhibitions that were shut down or censored in the 1990s.

Emerging Japanese artists resources

Guides to Galleries/Exhibitions
Great list of collectors, dealers in NY

Assembly Language – Reference list of Tokyo art gallery spaces.

Directory of museums in Japan
Tokyo Galleries, Art Market exhibitions Tokyo
Japan Times art exhibition listings:
Artist-in-residence program Tokyo
Tokyo Visualist – Book, Curators, Artists

AZITO: online gallery specializing in Japanese contemporary art
Mizuma Art Gallery

Web directory of journals, organizations and events.
Tokyo Art Beat – Art e-Journal – Tokyo art scene reviews
Kyoto Art Center critical journal.
Monthly Japanese art scene e-journal.

Individual Articles/Reviews/Reports:
Frieze Magazine – Tokyo – 2007
Brooklyn Rail – Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York
Emerging Artists from Japan

Edan Corkill reviews for Japan Times:
The ins and outs of competitive art shows
Art world fortunes linked to the ‘noughty’ economy
Murakami’s influence continues to prevail
The parallel world of art associations
Asian art ‘madness’ a la mode
This ‘Garden of Painting’ needs to be perennial

“The logical question, then, is why not make an exhibition on the period 1995-2010, and really explore what it was all about?

The answer Shima gave was disappointing. Yes, he wanted to do that. No, he didn’t because — “for one thing” — one of the prominent figures of the period, Takashi Murakami, refused to allow his work to be included. (In the past, Murakami has told me that he doesn’t want his work included in any group shows in Japan.) The other reason Shima gave was that the other artists wanted to show new work, as opposed to work dating back to the late-1990s.

Shima’s response was to narrow his focus to the ’00s — a period where the absence of Murakami would seem less like a gaping omission. At the same time, though, he surrendered the chance to tell us his interpretation of the period dating back to 1995…..