The Dystopian Vision of Hong Kong’s First Successful Sci-Fi Writer

It is the year 2100. A man-made island exists between Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui that is enshrined in a giant, pollution-defying dome. Home to the mega rich, beyond this hallowed zone lie the slums of a city in which wealth disparity has spun out of control. Economic growth has ground to a halt, and those that suffer most struggle to find suitable homes. Shantytowns sprawl across Kowloon.

This is how Albert Tam envisions his city’s future. The 44-year-old science fiction writer and film consultant admits that he is a pessimist, and that this pessimism colours his work and drives his passion to depict dystopian worlds that serve as warnings for where our society is headed. He is the author of 11 novels, several of which have earned accolades across China and Taiwan. Arguably Hong Kong’s only notable science fiction writer, Tam has long been inspired by his home city.

Albert Tam in Sai Ying Pun – Photograph of Viola Gaskell

“Hong Kong, and in fact the world, do not hold bright futures,” he says. “The current growth models are not sustainable and we all have to face the unprecedented climactic and environmental changes.” This unsustainable growth comes hand in hand with technology that is developing so fast, humans will soon be totally unable to cope without it. These are the ideas that shape his writing, which is often set in a dystopian version of Hong Kong.

While Tam might be the only award-winning science fiction writer in Hong Kong, he is certainly not the only creative to use the city’s streets as a backdrop. The recently released film Ghost in the Shell, based on an acclaimed Japanese manga first published in 1989, is one of the many examples of how the city’s singular density and distinctive architecture have informed visions of the future. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is another example – an incredibly prescient work that looks a lot like parts of Hong Kong today. Its sequel is slated for release this year.

Blade Runner is one of the major influences in my writing, especially the stunning visuals, the sound track and the hybrid of different cultures – one guy even speaks Cantonese,” says Tam. The Philip K. Dick novel on which Scott’s movie is based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is even better, he advises, as it explores more deeply the themes of identity and what it means to be human or android.

Trilogy Humanoid software describes the mysterious disappearance of a noodle shop owner – Courtesy Albert Tam

I meet Tam in Sai Ying Pun, a district Tam has called home for 15 years and which has transformed rapidly since the MTR opened two years ago. He leads me through the increasingly gentrified streets, where family-run noodle shops and local-style diners have been pushed out by high end eateries. I asked Tam to show me the futuristic slices of Hong Kong that scare him, and here we are. “The real estate hegemony is a real concern to Hong Kong people,” he says. Tong lau, caa caan teng and wonton noodle places – those are close to the hearts of many Hong Kong people,” but they are thinning out in neighbourhoods like Sai Ying Pun.

Tam’s most popular series attest to his strong Hong Kong influence. Partially narrated by a robot, Humanoid Software is a three-part cyberpunk thriller centred around the mysterious death of a noodle shop owner in Western District. With greedy property developers high on the list of suspects, it’s a politically-bent yarn that taps into anxieties pertaining to Hong Kong, while incorporating a futuristic dimension that breathes life and personality into technology.

First published in 2010, the series now includes three books, the most recent of which is not available in mainland China, due to its focus on corruption and iniquity. Written in Chinese, it has yet to be published in English, but it may be translated in the future.

“Hong Kong’s culture, cityscape and society are important elements in my works,” says Tam. “As an international city where East meets West, with the rapid beat of living and consumption, micro habitats, hyper-capitalism, political disillusion, one in five of the people probably living under the poverty line – all these are saying to me that I’m [living] in a dystopian and hyperreal city.”

Those shops that will disappear – Photograph of Viola Gaskell

Tam’s first entry point into the world of science fiction was George Orwell’s 1984, which he read in middle school and which had a big impact on him. He still remembers finishing the book while taking the Star Ferry to Central on a sunny day. “I closed the book and felt that both sides of the harbour were calling me, and that oddly none of it looked familiar to me,” he says. “I realised that somehow, Big Brother, in some social disguise, was watching me.”

Buoyed by that experience, Tam began writing his own science fiction, completing his first work at the age of eighteen. At the time, he shared the opinion of many Hongkongers – that the life of a writer in this city of soaring rents was untenable. So he acquired a degree in IT instead, working in the industry for 15 years as exponential advances in computing unfolded.

“Ten years ago, I foresaw that AI would replace most human jobs within twenty years and that writing stories is something human can still beat AI [at] – so being a writer is not a dream but might become a business.” That insight led Tam to devote himself to writing full time. He now works primarily on his novels, with side projects as a screenwriter and consultant for film projects. He recently completed work as a screenwriter for Warriors of the Future, an upcoming big-budget vehicle for local film star Louis Koo. “I earn my living through storytelling,” he says.

While Tam’s focus is often on Hong Kong, readers from big cities on the mainland relate to the stories and issues he raises. The same is true for Taiwan, where Tam has based a young adult fantasy trilogy and where he is involved in film project. He says the science fiction communities there are far more developed than in Hong Kong, something he attributes to the fact that Hongkongers are too time poor and disengaged to build a community.

Hong Kong tomorrow – Courtesy Melon Hong Kong

But that might change with the arrival of Hong Kong’s first science fiction conference, Melon HK, an event that brings together writers, filmmakers and investors. The goal is to provide a platform to discuss the future of the genre and industry in this increasingly dynamic corner of the world. Science fiction is increasingly seen as a valuable culture export, and, as such, infrastructure and opportunities around the industry are growing.

Tam will be speaking at Melon HK about his involvement in science fiction film production, which has become a hot topic across Chinese-speaking markets. This year, a mainland Chinese production of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Project is slated for release. A multi-layered, alien-populated, complex and inventive tale, it was the first Chinese book to win the sci-fi Hugo Award. The film version is being marketed as China’s answer to Star Wars, but critics wonder whether Chinese film studios are up to the challenge of rivalling Hollywood.

Tam believes there are two main problems with Chinese-language science fiction films. He thinks there is too much emphasis on special effects, to the detriment of original storylines. “Most filmmakers are interested in making science fiction movies but need to understand that the essence of science fiction is more about humanity rather than the CG,” says Tam. “Production design teams and CG teams should form their own visions of the future rather than copying Hollywood movies.”

Censorship is another problem. “People outside of China want to read Chinese fiction to understand the country,” says Tam. But only Chinese people living outside of the mainland have the freedom to express themselves without censors telling them which topics to avoid. Science fiction has long be a vehicle for telling allegorical stories that speak more to our current social and political ills than they do project promote the agendas of the powerful. China hopes to repurpose sci-fi as a vehicle for soft power, but Tam says this approach is at odds with the tenets on which the genre was founded.

Hong Kong faces another struggle entirely: a lack of writers willing to put the time and effort to devote themselves to the craft. “Hong Kong people are too busy preparing for exams when they are young and making money and enjoying hedonic lifestyles when they are older to try and be writers,” he says. “It’s a well know fact that the field of science fiction is the hardest to master – I craft and re-craft my writing every day.”

As we wander through the streets of Sai Ying Pun, Tam maintains his cynicism about the city’s future, but he is not without hope for local creatives and consumers. He speaks highly of Ten Years, a dystopian Hong Kong film produced on a shoestring that became a box office hit in 2015, despite being censored on the Mainland. “Hong Kong people want to see more than entertainment when they go to the cinema,” says Tam. “They want to see — and to think about — their future.”
Melon Hong Kong will take place on April 19 & 20, 2017. For more information visit here

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