Thursday, 29 March 2007

The Unbearable Narrow-Mindedness of Being

Years ago I knew it was going to happen at some point, but it didn't. By the time I believe it will be lucky enough to escape the cruelty, it is proven to be inevitable.

I was talking about the failure of Commercial Press, the leading chain bookstore in Hong Kong, to renew its lease of its cosy and convenient flagship store at Star House near Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry.

Not surprisingly, most local media didn't pick up the news, as if it were something as trivial and insignificant as a pin drops into the sea. But for booklovers like me, it is yet another piece of sad news about which we should complain and grumble.

While I respect the landlord's full freedom to make its own decision based on business judgment, I can't help wondering why leasing to bookshops is such an unfavourable option, if unwelcome at all, to landlords.

Just like the silent and gradual removal of the reputable English-language Swindon Books at Ocean Centre that was not even mentioned or noticed by the media.

Of course I have no idea how bad tenants can bookstores possibly be, but knowing the former general manager of Commercial Press, Dr Chan Man-hung, I don't think Commercial Press can be among those notoriously amateur bookstores that are run by bookworms who know nothing about business. Dr Chan is a cultured and respectable publishing guru of more than 30 years with an extraordinary combination of business sense and academic commitment. He knows both sides of the game inside out and is capable of striking an amazing balance between the two. In essence, he is one of the few scholars-turned-businessmen whom I respect most.

From a cultural perspective, I can't tell you how sad it is to witness the retreat of a flagship bookstore in the heart of Hong Kong. Perhaps for most corporate landlords who don't have a clue about what difference culture really makes, having a genuine, groovy bookstore in a prime location is nothing more than a ridiculous business decision that needs to be rectified at all costs. By the same token, the corporate landlords will never know how boring and tasteless it is to have shopping malls of exactly the same shops around almost every corner of Hong Kong. Neither will they realise how stupid it is to scrap the lease renewal contract with a popular and well-respected bookstore. Having another high-end restaurant or luxury brand boutique as the tenant may bring greater economic gain, though at the expense of frequent and habitual visitors, the landlord's corporate reputation and perception in the eyes of the sophisticated.

Unfortunately, however, this is something intangible and not reflected in financial books to which nine in 10 companies in Hong Kong hardly pay any attention. They just can't be bothered less.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

The Greatest Sorrow

I had wished to write something about the first "contested" selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I had wished to follow through the "miraculous election campaigns" of both Sir Donald and Alan Leong, the outcome of which was anything but unknown. I had wished to witness the first live debates of both contestants on television.

In the end, however, I didn't.

I didn't even bother to watch Sir Donald's emotional speech of gratitude to his loyal subjects. When I was told that he was on the brink of tears upon the announcement of his successful bid, I could only respond with a sneer of contempt and indifference.

I only managed to quickly read through the policy platforms of both candidates. I only managed to keep up my spirits until Sir Donald promulgated his candidacy with the much-mocked tagline, "I will get the job done."

To native English tongues, there was nothing seriously wrong or improper with the tagline, although some old-school English language professors might find it a bit too informal and colloquial. And yet this reflects how much Sir Donald understands his people. Hong Kong people are straightforward and simple-minded to the extent that they don't really care how the rhetoric is phrased, as long as the meaning is explicit and understood within a split second.

The Chinese version, obviously a tasteless diehard translation of the English, was much worse but hardly surprising. In Chinese, "getting the job done" carries a negative connotation that this is nothing but a job and the bearer of the statement has no choice but to get this done following a shrug of shoulders. Full-stop. Within days there were hundreds of mocking versions of the tagline floating around on internet forums and people's lips, which interestingly rhymed with the original. Not surprisingly, Sir Donald's election office wasted no time to take this widespread mockery with complacence and interpreted it as a successful tactic to raise public awareness of Sir Donald's bid, as if it were an intended outcome of the half-baked Chinese translation.

Don't ask me where my frustration and indifference stems from. This is a question that I can't even answer to my own satisfaction. All I can think of is that neither candidate could give me hope and confidence in him and his governance by reading their policy platforms. Well, I know this is again a very uncommon Hong Kong thing to do, but it is just impossible for a bookworm like me to resist the temptation of reading.

Pardon me for being a bit blunt here, but I found while both candidates had spent so much time making high-sounding promises and commitment, they failed to convince me how they would be able to deliver their promises, at least on paper. Indeed, some others may think it is unrealistic to present an action plan at such an early stage, but I still can't understand why the electorate can possibly make an informed judgment without knowing whether the candidates' promises are realistic and sensible at all? More importantly, with the absence of a meaningful action plan, however brief and simple it may be, how can the voters tell whether the candidates are capable of doing what they have proudly proclaimed?

Well, I don't need to be told how the Chief Executive election works, as if it were an election at all. This also explains why both candidates, especially Sir Donald, who received so much blessing from Beijing and the rich-and-powerful electorate, were so extraordinarily obsessed with their appearances and exchanges on the public front. While they knew better than anybody that winning the hearts and minds of the people would have no impact on the outcome, they spared no effort fighting on this battlefield to secure public support and, ultimately, the legitimacy of their powers and governance once elected.

Why bother? The answer is simple: this is where the biggest paradox of Hong Kong's political system sets in. On the one hand, for no well-explained and convincing reason, the people from whom the Chief Executive's legitimate powers are derived are adamantly denied a legitimate right of selecting their own representatives who are empowered to elect the Chief Executive. On the other hand, the 800-strong electorate who enjoy the luxury and privilege to cast the votes are widely recognised as rubber stamps of Beijing but not the source of the Chief Executive's legitimacy and powers to govern. While the candidates had no chance of getting round the paradox, they needed to work something out to build the momentum of recognition among the people. The easiest and most straightforward strategy was to raise the standard of democracy or to paint a rosy picture of common affluence in a distant future to solicit public support. Clearly this was a two-bladed sword that could either justify their rise to power or please the loyal subjects, who would have been otherwise left in despair of neglect and helplessness.

In my opinion, therefore, both candidates' struggle for legitimacy and justification on the public front was either a bitter mockery on the complacent electorate or a disguised flattery of the ridiculous election system.

Don't ask me which one of the above is true though. I don't have the model answer, and I don't want to know.

I must admit that I was surprised by the magnitude of my indifference. Sir Donald's inherent arrogance and clumsy pretence, Alan Leong's high-sounding rhetoric and targeted criticisms at his opponent were, however, just part of the blame. Not to mention the dull and boring coverage in the local media. Not to mention the shameless proclamation that the so-called live candidate debates have successfully transformed the political culture of Hong Kong. At the end of the day, I believe, it was the absence of hope and long-term commitment in everything around the election campaigns that quickly drained my enthusiasm away.

As the old Chinese saying goes, "There is no sorrow greater than the death of heart." This was the only thing that popped up my mind when I tried to jot down my feelings about the Chief Executive farce.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

淺談《家風》的白海燕

剛看完晴姐兩、三年前的時裝劇《家風》,很喜歡她飾演的白海燕。

相比劇中其他角色,白海燕的結局甚有遺憾,但她卻是劇中唯一能夠打破團圓俗套的人物,渾身閃耀著現代女性獨立自主的光芒,令人眼前一亮。

當然,這份獨立自主得來不易,甚至稱得上血淚交融,但也更彰顯白海燕擇善固執的可敬可憫。

某程度上,白海燕仍擺脫不了女子「出嫁從夫」、「愛情至上」等性別角色的傳統論述框架--女子無論有多聰明漂亮,事業和生活多麼成功,也要結婚生子,然後全心全意地奉獻家庭,這才是女性理所當然的歸宿,女性真正的價值所在。追求個性獨立和自我尊嚴的女子,似乎註定了愛情或婚姻失敗,孤獨終老。

白海燕也是一樣。對某些觀眾來說,她為了維護那勞什子尊嚴,選擇與丈夫分隔兩地,最後又拒絕與丈夫重修舊好,根本就是自討苦吃。

但是,我不禁要請問:為甚麼女性一定要委曲求全?為甚麼女性為了愛情和家庭放棄事業、放棄自我是那麼理所當然、眾望所歸?為甚麼不能相信女性會忠於自己的感情和感受來為自己作主?歸根究柢,是誰逼著一個又一個像白海燕那樣莊敬自重的人兒,無可奈何地接受事業與愛情不能兼得的所謂「選擇」?

白海燕的故事,其實是女性自覺追求個人尊嚴和獨立的過程。可惜她維護了自己的尊嚴,建立了久違的自信,卻失去了愛情和婚姻。不過,值得注意的是,那是她深思熟慮之後的決定,不是可憐兮兮地被人拋棄的結果。她之所以那麼堅決地拒絕與丈夫復合,不只是因為曾經受傷,更是因為她深深地明白到,兩人的差距實在太大,難以繼續一起生活了。

所謂「難得糊塗」,頭腦清醒的人永遠活得比渾渾噩噩的人累上千萬倍,白海燕就是這樣的水晶心肝玻璃人兒。打從白海燕跟丈夫、女兒回到楊家那一天起,她就明白自己的處境有多麼不堪。所以她下定決心,無論多麼艱苦,也要憑自己的努力扭轉這種局面,不再做依偎在丈夫臂彎裡的小燕子。這不只是為了自己,也是為了她深愛的丈夫。只要自己活得有尊嚴、公婆接受了自己,丈夫才不會夾在父母和妻子的齟齬之間裡外不是人。可是她的丈夫不明白、不關心也不理會;楊家上下看在眼裡,只覺得她倔強得莫名其妙。

所以,她只能靠自己。

孤軍奮戰的滋味當然不好受,何況還有那麼多平白無端、出乎意料的橫生枝節,但白海燕還是咬緊牙關熬過來了。原以為終於盼到月朗風清,可以跟所愛的人地老天荒;但是到了那一刻,她才驀然驚覺,自己早已不是甚麼婉轉依人的海燕兒,而是身經百戰、光彩鑑人的鳳凰兒。那個自己仰仗、傾慕多年的男人,如今竟變得那麼渺小和陌生。

脫胎換骨之後的白海燕,不是不需要愛情,而是她的眼光開闊了、境界提高了,需要愛情的本質也不一樣了。如今她需要的,不是小女孩白日夢裡柔情萬種的白馬王子,而是理解她、信任她、彼此扶持,能夠一起成長的soul mate。可惜她的丈夫不是甚麼成熟大方的男人,而是一個任性自我的獨生子。他曾以第三者的殷勤體貼,作為自己心旌動搖的藉口,甚至以此作為「威脅」,要她放棄事業回到他身邊。如此幼稚無聊的舉動,白海燕看在眼裡,固然傷心氣憤,但也正好讓她漸漸看清彼此難以踰越的距離。

儘管楊家老媽嫌棄白海燕離過婚,又沒有大學學歷,配不上兒子,但白海燕是真正敏慧剔透的女子,一直很清楚自己在做甚麼,為甚麼要那樣做。她對身邊的人和事,總有自己獨到敏銳的觸覺,一切也逃不過她的法眼。她沒有小姑楊錦萍的張揚跋扈、好高騖遠,而是努力做好自己的本分,不卑不亢地爭取自己應有的尊嚴。所以她成功了,楊錦萍卻一敗塗地,被逼回歸傳統,做個符合眾人期望的賢妻良母。

更何況,那份刻骨銘心的愛情,也早在營營役役、孤單無助的日子裡消磨淨盡,只留下一片發黃湮遠的回憶。楊大公子的「浪子回頭」,不見得是割捨不下曾與自己同甘共苦的愛妻,恐怕更是礙於父母的壓力、留住女兒的渴望,甚至可能是不要被女人拋棄的情意結。

既然如此,白海燕怎麼可能紆尊降貴,重新接受精神境界與自己判若雲泥的丈夫?公婆和小姑不約而同地問她是否有了男朋友,婆婆甚至避重就輕地把一切歸咎於時機上的「陰差陽錯」,也正好說明白海燕和她們之間的天壤之別。白海燕一直勇敢地面對現實,努力地解決問題,到了事無可為的時候就決定捨棄,清脆俐落。但是楊家的人呢?他們一廂情願地以為白海燕的決絕是移情別戀的後果,而不是忠於自己、深思熟慮的決定。看在眼裡,真是俗不可耐,說不定更是為了姓楊的面子而找個下台階罷了。

所以,在最後一場戲裡,白海燕苦笑著搖了搖頭,隨即聲淚俱下地訴說自己多年來的苦楚,以回應丈夫重續前緣的請求,我一點也不感到意外。我只是心疼白海燕不為人理解的寂寞:為何那麼多的人,仍然戴著有色眼鏡來看這個堅忍溫婉的女子,不肯相信她是為了忠於自己而作出這個決定?

我深信白海燕情不自禁痛哭失聲,不是為了嗔怨丈夫,也不是為了博取他的同情,只是被丈夫沒頭沒腦的話觸動了內心深處的傷口,忍不住把鬱積多年的苦楚盡情發洩。回首來時路,她一個人披荊斬棘的跑了那麼遠,到最後才發現丈夫的軟弱和自私,多麼令人失望。她多年來的奮鬥,只能成全自己,卻沒有成全與丈夫終生廝守的許願。儘管她的努力說不上是白費,總也是功虧一簣,教人遺憾。

看白海燕哭得梨花帶雨、我見猶憐的模樣,不禁又想起Anita在《男人四十》結局那個哭得肝腸寸斷的樣子來。我本來不太明白Anita飾演的陳文靖,為甚麼要哭得那麼傷心;如今與晴姐的白海燕作個對照後,卻另有一番體會。

也許,白海燕和陳文靖的眼淚,都有一點點傷逝的意味罷?畢竟是曾經深愛過、同甘共苦的夫妻,即使真的沒有繼續一起生活的理由,來到分道揚鑣的一刻,難免會有點捨不得。誰說女人的眼淚是懦弱的表現?白海燕和陳文靖都比她們的丈夫堅強、勇敢、爽快,她們深知與丈夫之間的隔閡無法消除,而且感情已逝,就平心靜氣地提出分手,沒有半點糾纏下去的意欲,倒是她們的丈夫喜歡拖泥帶水、夾纏不清。在我看來,白海燕和陳文靖的眼淚,只是哀悼美好消逝的輓歌,並不是向男人乞討的武器。

看白海燕的故事,也教我想起《男人四十》的主題曲《相愛很難》:「也許相愛很難,就難在其實雙方各有各寄望,怎麼辦?」兩個人要相愛到老,的確不容易,外在環境的改變和壓力,固然把人逼得喘不過氣;人的個性和想法,也會隨著歲月流轉和經驗累積而有所改變。伴侶能否理解和接受,是維繫兩人關係很重要的因素。本來呢,兩個人要相處就得互相遷就包容,但如果像白海燕那樣被人無故蔑視,連做人的基本尊嚴也沒有,即使兩人愛得再深,又有甚麼意義?無論是哪一種感情,也不應該建立在輕蔑和歧視的基礎上。眾生平等,尊嚴總是要尊重和維護的,根本沒有討價還價的餘地。

可惜,如今還有很多女子無法像白海燕那樣勇敢地衝破傳統的桎梏,只能無可奈何地放棄自我和理想,接受賢妻良母的角色。不知要到甚麼時候,大家才能放下傳統的沉重包袱,站在兩性平等的角度,重新審視男女的社會角色,讓彼此在生活模式上有更多真正自由的選擇。

Monday, 5 March 2007

I Love The Queen

With Shirley I watched the much-appraised The Queen yesterday. While I must admit that it was slightly disappointing due to high expectations, it was by all means a great film with an excellent sense and judgment in the well-thought portrayal of characters and human relationships. This is what I enjoy most in drama and yet what has been rapidly losing ground to shallow sensual appeal or complicated representations of cultural theories that are difficult capture and comprehend in visual images anyway.

Certainly Dame Helen Mirren does not need my two-penny worth to add to her sweeping success in presenting a remarkably dignified human face of Her Majesty, which has already been recognised by film academies and professionals worldwide. I would like to take this opportunity to present my credits not only to Dame Helen but also to the side cast, including those who played Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the Prince of Wales (Alex Jennings), the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), Prince Philip of Greece (James Cromwell), and last but not least, Sir Robin Janvrin, or the royal housekeeper (Roger Allam). Understandably, their performance may have been outshone by that of Dame Helen, but they certainly deserve the same level of applause as she does.

Actually, the subtle and low-profile style of acting of the entire cast is what makes the film most enjoyable. How refreshing it is to see that everyone in the film was so classy and elegant that reminds me of what nobility is all about.

I would also like to give a huge credit to the screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has done an excellent job in giving an impartial but empathetic outline of characters, as well as their delicate interactions with each other over the tragic death of Princess Diana.

Essentially, there is nothing dramatic to justify a plot like the current one. By nature the film should have been a public affairs documentary more than anything else. But the screenwriter was clever enough to build the drama on the clash of the established role of Her Majesty as a sovereign of state and the changing expectations from her people with which, sadly, she found somewhat difficult to catch up and understand. What was even cleverer on the screenwriter's side was that he restrained from taking the easy route to make the film into a lousy piece of tasteless satire or disgusting propaganda of the monarchy (which, sadly, would most probably be the case should any Hong Kong director or screenwriter work on a similar project). Instead, he presented an insightful and thought-provoking juxtaposition of what Her Majesty firmly believes and what her young prime minister and the people he represents (sort of) do. Her Majesty's gradual realisation of the changing minds and hearts of her people and her internal struggle of how to deal with the clash between old and new values were by all means one of the best monologues I have ever seen.

Another thing that interests me was the screenwriter's empathy and understanding of Her Majesty more than as a sovereign of state. She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother. Each of these roles was so closely knitted to her best-known role as a monarch that made things ever more complicated. Unlike the most of us when we often take for granted to make a clear distinction between what is private and what is business, monarchs do not necessarily enjoy the same luxury. Paradoxically, when Her Majesty tried to make this distinction to keep her sorrow away from public scrutiny, her people made a big fuss of it by pointing their fingers at the "cold and heartless".

To me, the people were just crying for consolation and sympathy from someone great and powerful, without realising that the great and powerful is also a human being just like anyone of them.

This is also why I found the scene in which Her Majesty was walking slowly outside the Buckingham Palace, looking at the sea of flowers presented in memory of Princess Diana, as well as the harsh and emotional messages scribbled on cards my favourite scene of all. A sigh of relief emerged when a little girl presented a bouquet of white daisies to Her Majesty, and the crowd saluted to the monarch with a bow as she walked along in the opposite direction, getting closer to the crowd.

Interestingly, all those who bowed were women. Perhaps the loneliness of being someone who truly believes duty first, self second is something that wives, mothers and grandmothers commonly share.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Women in Prejudice

I attended the "Twelve Faces of Woman" at the Arts Festival last night, and was helplessly disappointed with the so-called "vision" provided by most of the short films screened in the multimedia concert.

Not surprisingly, most short films focused on love, or more precisely, heterosexual romance, as if there is nothing else that can bother women more. As a female for more than 34 years, at least in biological terms, I wonder why both men and women are still so obsessed with the masculine stereotypes imposed on fellow females for so many years.

I can understand why men have done so to women. The answer is simple: Men want to maintain social order with a division of labour to keep women at home and at bay, so that women would not pose a threat to their hard-fought and established domination of social resources and discourse of history, among other things. Competition is keen enough among men. They don't need any more competitors other than fellows of the same species.

If we truly believe that human beings are born equal, regardless of their race, sex, family, class and education and so on, why do we still take the general stereotypes and expectations that were imposed on us many centuries ago for granted? Despite the calls from feminists of different schools throughout the years, why can't we just sit back and think twice before we rush to give ourselves a definition? Why can't we appreciate the fact that each human being is an individual that is unique and equal by nature, regardless of our race, family, class and education, and more importantly, sex? Why should we live up to others' expectations so much so that we may go that far to deny our sex, either intentionally or mockingly, if we want to do no harm to people around us but to live our own way?

I can't tell you how sick I feel when I am repeatedly told of how women look like in literature, films, drama and for that matter, especially those that are claimed to be avant-garde and refreshing with new perspectives. There are essentially nothing new but repeating and reinforcing the conventional stereotypes under dazzling disguise. Like the "Twelve Faces of Women", women are generally portrayed as creatures that treasure love (predominantly heterosexual romance with marriage and childbirth as the ultimate objectives) more than anything else, that are ready to give up anything else for the sake of love as defined above, that would become a piece of shit or unpredictable mess when they lose their ultimate goal of life. More importantly, women often lose their love not as a result of voluntary choice but as helpless victims of betrayal or any other reason. To me, this is nothing more than a disgusting and unforgivable denial of women as unique individuals who enjoy the same level of respect and dignity as any other human beings do.

I am waiting to be convinced why women are often portrayed in various forms of art as victims of love rather than people who make a sensible choice for their own good. At the same time, I am also waiting to see a piece of art in Hong Kong that is bold and understanding enough to show another face of women like me, who treasures personal dignity and freedom, both physical and spiritual, more than anything else. Love is by all means an enriching sphere of life, but this is by no means vital, let alone a matter of life and death. Family and friends and personal achievements are far more enduring and rewarding.

In the meantime, please pardon me and leave me alone if you happen to find me not meeting up to your expectations. I can't care less about this.