Hong Kong Convention Center

To watch Hong Kong cinema is to see the city itself, projecting its aspirations, and failures, onto the screen. When a new building goes up, filmmakers come up with ways to utilize it in their story, when one gets torn down, they do the same. In the first of a series, Peter Nepstad explores a city landmark and its representation in Hong Kong cinema.

When we think of American Cinema, we think immediately of Hollywood. Not because Hollywood is featured in any significant way in the movies themselves, but simply because that's where a majority of the studios, actors, directors, and producers are located. In fact, American Cinema is rather exceptional in just how much it isn't about any one particular place. Most movies take place in the past, or the future, in an interchangeable suburb or in an unidentifiable urban setting. As a global cinema, films with a strong sense of place tend to develop it by jet setting around the globe. Sure, there are films that take place in Hollywood, but there are as many that take place in New York, the latter usually with much greater impact for the viewer.

Hong Kong Cinema is different. Movies that are not set in various mythic or historic recreations of ancient China are set, by and large, in Hong Kong. The city forms the backdrop to each story, whether about triad redemption, yuppie love, cops on the beat, or some combination or all three. Hong Kong also strives to be a global, or at the very least, a regional cinema, but trips to Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, and Tokyo are infrequent, and are often wrapped in a story that begins and ends in Hong Kong. To watch Hong Kong cinema is to see the city itself, projecting its aspirations, and failures, onto the screen. When a new building goes up, filmmakers come up with ways to utilize it in their story, when one gets torn down, they do the same.

It is my belief that a history of the development of the built environment of Hong Kong is contained within Hong Kong popular cinema, it remains only to be revealed. This revelation in turn can inform analysis of the films themselves. Bullshit, or not? Only by trying will we know if the effort is worthwhile. Periodically this column will attempt to catalogue important places and put them in both a cinematic and historic context. This will be a difficult task, so I'll begin with a building of relatively recent vintage.


The Hong Kong Convention Center Extension was announced in 1994 and completed in 1997. While by no means as iconographic or bold as the Sidney Opera House, nevertheless Hong Kong gained a new and dramatic structure that for once, wasn't a skyscraper. Built on reclaimed land, the extension more than doubled existing conference center space. The main conference hall inside boasts a panoramic view of Victoria Harbor. Co-designed by the local firm Wong & Ouyang and the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (a little known fact that high quality architecture is the third most valuable cultural export of Chicago, right after the better known Al Capone and Michael Jordan), the building was completed and gussied up just in time for its big television debut, as the forum for the 15 July handover ceremony.

Perhaps in a mode of lingering resentment over the handover, the first time the Convention Center appears on the big screen, it gets blown up. At the conclusion of the adolescent action picture GEN-X COPS (1999), our young heroes are able to save some girls from terrorists, but are unable to save the building. At least they had their priorities straight. Jackie Chan, who in a brief cameo watches the destruction from a boat on the harbor, hosted the opening night gala for his most recent film, THE MEDALLION, at that same center, so there shouldn't be any hard feelings between them.

The Convention Center shows up again more recently in the film MY LUCKY STAR (2002). The romance between feng-shui master Tony Leung and luckless loser Miriam Yeung is cemented over his architectural dreams about the center. He compares the Convention Center to a turtle, looking out across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui, where it wants to go and get its egg (the Omnimax dome of the Hong Kong Planetarium), and swim out to sea. He imagines that the harbor needs to be balanced by a structure that resembles a bird. When he finally unveils his drawing, we can only look on it in horror and hope no one decides to take him up on the offer. If someone does, I suppose we can also hope that GEN-Z COPS will come along and blow the whole thing to bits.

The Convention Center began as a physical location for a historic transfer of power which will determine Hong Kong's future, and after a short burst of juvenile rage is now itself symbolic of that future. In MY LUCKY STAR the Convention Center turtle is directly compared to the mythologic "stone turtle," supposedly sighted one day by a Taoist priest roaming about the peak, who later dreamed that the turtle would reach the summit and upset the balance between heaven and earth, causing bad luck to the people of Hong Kong. But the movie also suggests that Hong Kong people have the power themselves to turn that bad luck into good. Buildings, governments, and even stone turtles come and go, the people endure. Besides, I've always thought the building looked more like a big bug.

This article originally published November 12, 2003, at the Hong Kong Movie Database.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 24, 2004.

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