“Chinese Box” (1997): the Hong Kong Handover, Almost 17 Years Ago

CHINESE BOX, starring Gong Li & Jeremy Irons (1997).  Image source: cineplex.com.

CHINESE BOX, starring Gong Li & Jeremy Irons (1997). Image source: cineplex.com.

Like the novel on which it is loosely based (Kowloon Tong
by Paul Theroux), Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box uses problematic human relationships as metaphors to represent and comment upon the geopolitical ménage à trois of China, Hong Kong, and the UK.  The relationship of these “lovers” changed permanently in 1997, when sovereignty over Hong Kong passed back to China from Great Britain.  The return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule (which included Hong Kong Island proper, several other nearby islands, and the mainland developments of Kowloon and the New Territories) was a fait accompli because of the terms of  Britain’s ninety-nine-year “lease,” which expired on 30 June 1997.  Until that date, Hong Kong had been under UK administration, although (as with many former British colonies) significant democratic reforms preceded the UK’s withdrawal from involvement in its government.

Michael Li, Jeremy Irons, Gong Li - CHINESE BOX (1997). Image source: taipeitimes.com.

Michael Hui, Jeremy Irons, Gong Li – CHINESE BOX (1997). Image source: taipeitimes.com.

The three geopolitical players are represented by the characters of Chang (Michael Hui), John (Jeremy Irons), and Vivian (Li Gong).  Their story covers the six months between December 31, 1996 and June 30, 1997, during which preparations for and emotions about the Handover (as it was called by the British) heightened.  The beautiful and talented Li represents the prize of Hong Kong.  John, a British journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for fifteen years, represents British colonial interests, while Chang represents China.

However, the correspondence between the fictional love triangle and real-world international relationships is not as simple as these matchups might make it seem.  Vivian is a “Northerner,” not a Cantonese, who emigrated to Hong Kong to seek her fortune.  Over the course of British rule, many other mainland Chinese did the same.  Her past holds a secret which prevents her from consummating a relationship with either John or Chang and which is a pointed commentary on Hong Kong’s role as the female in the economic and political ménage. Hui is well-cast as Chang, who represents the powerful and affluent Hong Kong businessmen with unsavory backgrounds whose negotiations with the powers-that-be in China are portrayed in the movie.  As his counterpart does in Theroux’ novel, John demonstrates the chaotic and ambivalent mixture of love and hate, of pride and self-loathing, that characterized the Hong Kong British expatriates’ emotions towards Hong Kong and themselves.

Maggie Cheung, Jeremy Irons

Maggie Cheung & Jeremy Irons, in CHINESE BOX (1997), (c) Trimark Pictures (image source: cineplex.com).

A subplot, the story of Jean (Maggie Cheung) and John, narrates a second relationship that also comments on Hong Kong’s situation as it transitioned from British to Chinese rule.  Jean represents the Hong Kong Cantonese, who are caught between the departing British (who loved but also mistreated them) and the incoming mainland Chinese (who are greeted with a mixture of joy and trepidation, of defiance and pragmatic adaptability).

Post-Handover shot of Kowloon, circa 2001

Post-Handover shot of Kowloon, circa 2001 (image source: personal archives).

From this gweilo‘s perspective, Chinese Box is a fairly accurate portrayal of a Hong Kong in transition.  My first visit was in late 1996, at roughly the same point in time at which the movie’s action begins. My second visit was one year later, after Hong Kong had become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.  Among the many changes in the interim concerned the airport.  My first journey to and from Hong Kong involved the old airport, which offered quite an experience to both passengers in the aircraft and pedestrians on the streets.  No longer can one experience or watch a plane taking off or landing directly over the city, as is shown in the movie.  One of the pre-Handover Hong Kong government’s last actions was to invest a tremendous revenue surplus to build a new airport on Lantau Island, which (besides Kuala Lumpur’s facility) is probably one of the best in Asia.


CHINESE BOX, directed by Wayne Wang

Directed by: Wayne Wang

Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière

Produced by: Canal+NDF InternationalPony CanyonWW Productions Inc.



Kowloon Tong

KOWLOON TONG by Paul Theroux

Date of Original Publication: June 2, 1997

Publishers:  Houghton Mifflin (hardcover); Mariner Books (paperback)