By Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
Hong Kong and Dubai have more in common than towers wearing architectural brandnames. Being hubs between what has commonly been called the “East” and the “West,” both cities have been submitted to spectacular developments that transformed them within a few decades from fishing villages deprived of any urban history into international metropolises. Both cities possess port locations that are central to trade and both cities have attracted massive international capital as well as large expat communities. Neither Hong Kong nor Dubai occupies a central position within its respective region as a producer of goods, but both function as centers of facilitation and are rather para-sites than sites. Dubai is the third most important re-export centre in the world just after Hong Kong and Singapore. Neither Hong Kong nor Dubai has transport rivers and, at present, neither city has a significant amount of raw materials. Though the foundation of modern Dubai depended very much on initial oil reserves that are no longer available, it is correct to maintain that both cities owe their present existence to obstacles that forced them to invest in non-traditional economies. Finally, both cities came to symbolize globalization and an extreme form of urbanity based on aggressive international capitalism.
Attracting international investments, but little “culture” (and being deprived of local cultural resources), for a long time, Hong Kong’s entire existence as a city depended on financial markets. Dubai’s existence can be defined in the same terms. As a matter of fact, Dubai has been quite commonly called “the Hong Kong of the Middle East.” Neither Hong Kong nor Dubai are “real” cities in the conventional sense because neither has preserved its historical context.
Hong Kong and the Celebration of Disappearance
In the 1980s, when Hong Kong owned the world’s largest container cargo terminals, the city’s image was that of a cultural desert determined by superficiality, internal fragmentation, consumerism, and the lack of urban history or local identity. Today all this is seen as typical for Dubai. However, a “cultural turn” promoting a local ethos based on a common language and a particular geographical location, seemingly reversed Hong Kong’s cultural situation in the 1980s, creating a film industry focusing on local stories and local people that would become famous as the Hollywood of the East. In popular music, Cantopop has been a local genre since the 1970s. This, together with a belief in typical Hong Kong virtues such as rationality and discipline, would give Hong Kong the cultural identity it needed, which changed the perception of the city. This individualist cultural system was even strong enough to oppose big businesses.
In a way, Hong Kong became a “postmodern” city: Hong Kong is neither “pre-modern” because it does not exhibit a continuous string of histories, traditions, and culture, nor is it “modern” in the sense of de-cultured, or simply functionally economic. Mike Featherstone has called this type of city, which decides to return to culture, style, and decoration, “postmodern” because here cultural elements are most often “decontextualized, simulated, reduplicated and continually renewed and restyled.”
It is for these precise reasons that it is wrong to characterize Hong Kong’s cultural ascendance as a straightforward process of acculturation. Ackbar Abbas describes Hong Kong’s “cultural self-invention” as a device that is linked, in a paradoxical fashion, to a complex concept of “disappearance,” which comprises at least three things: First, “disappearance” addresses Hong Kong’s frantic cycle of construction, demolition, and reconstruction that yields the impression of a constant disappearance of architectural substance. Second, as Hong Kong has been submitted to more and more aggressive and advanced stages of globalization, the newly built Hong Kong architecture remains restricted to that of the brandname kind. This tendency creates a global environment that, once again, threatens to erase the newly achieved local culture and makes the city “invisible” within an international context, letting topical cultural experience disappear into an anonymous international system. This internationalization concerns also the film industry as its productions have been more and more geared towards international (and Mainland-Chinese) markets. The third meaning of disappearance has to do with the “real” disappearance of Hong Kong as it is taken over by China and will presumably, sooner or later, be absorbed into an oversized motherland.
The first two developments are not unique to Hong Kong, but what is unique is the way in which Hong Kong copes with them. As a matter of fact, Abbas links all three developments (which partly overlap and are difficult to disentangle) to the nostalgic experience of the disappearance of colonial space, which created, in his opinion, not simply a space from which “the colonial” has disappeared, but rather a “colonial space of disappearance.” Abbas’ point is that “disappearance” does not lead to disappearance at all, but rather to a sustained “aesthetics of disappearance” creating, in the case of Hong Kong, the particular cultural space of a “floating identity.” Hong Kong cinema, for example, is eager to keep pace with a subject that is always at the point of disappearing.
Dubai and the Colonial Space of Appearance
Hong Kong will not disappear but it has installed its existence within a peculiar aesthetics of disappearance. Abbas actually believes that Hong Kong will remain almost unchanged for another fifty years. The floating state of Hong Kong’s existence makes it a true forerunner of Dubai, which seems to be suspended in a similar state of floating existence, though at the opposite end of the spectrum. Dubai will simply not appear. For this city, the act of becoming has been charged with such complicated connotations that “becoming” seems to have been eternalized. While Hong Kong revels in what is (almost) no longer there, Dubai revels in what is not yet there. While Hong Kong engenders the feeling of a déjà disparu rooted in an irretrievable, colonial ex-past, Dubai installs itself in a perpetual not yet there that speaks to us through the veil of an indiscernible ex-future.
Dubai has been financed by colossal debt from international banks and its neighbor Abu Dhabi, but “Dubai as an event” has from the beginning been staged as a spectacular and eternally postponed “not yet there.” Apartments were sold long before they were built and would change their owners five times. While in Hong Kong, property speculation causes the absurd state of affairs that sooner or later any building, no matter how new or monumental it is, will vanish from the map, in Dubai maps have been written in the future tense from the beginning. We assist in the creation of Borges’ map that covers the earth because the map is supposed to be the earth. At the airports of Dubai and Abu Dhabi expensive color catalogues of the most famous architectural attractions are handed to tourists for free though a large part of the buildings presented in these catalogues do not yet exist. They are scheduled for the (sometimes very distant) future. The only positive impression that these pictures yield is that of a déjà vu of a not yet there.
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is assistant professor of philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait and the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, and Wong Kar-Wai (2007), Aesthetics and Politics of Space in Russia and Japan: A Comparative Philosophical Study (2009), and The Cool-Kawaii: Afro-Japanese Aesthetics and New World Modernity (2010).