As the poinsettias of Christmas are replaced by tangerine trees, and as red lai see envelopes invade supermarket and stationery store shelves, a question comes to mind: what does the colour red really represent in Hong Kong? Is there a guiding thread — un fil rouge, a red thread, as we say in French — that connects the many shades of vermillion that exist in the Hong Kong landscape, from the territory’s flag to the MTR logo, from taxis to market lamps, from the sails of old junks to the giant billboards that line the shores of Victoria Harbour?
Those who spend their first Christmas in Hong Kong might be surprised to find the city covered in poinsettias, jat1 ban2 hung4 (一品紅) in Cantonese, which means “something red,” but also “red of the first order.” It’s nothing compared to the unveiling of red merchandise in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year, however, when each building and every shop is covered in a thousand crimson decorations: lanterns, cut paper, calligraphy, strings of mock firecrackers. When you ask about this colour, you are invariably told that it guarantees fortune, happiness, luck. Yet it seems there are many other ways to imagine the colour red in Hong Kong. Let’s look at a bit closer.
The most recent addition to the spectrum, Communist red, can’t be ignored. It’s the colour of the Chinese flag that has flown on Hong Kong’s official buildings since 1997, the colour of Mao’s Little Red Book, sold as a souvenir on the shelves of Cat Street tchotchke traders. This red that represents revolution and spilled blood was revisited in the flag of Hong Kong, as it was defined by the Basic Law passed on 4 April 1990, and hoisted for the first time on 1 July 1997. Its two colours, red and white, illustrate the principle of “one country two systems,” with the red representing the motherland. This means Hong Kong is associated with the colour white – specifically with the bauhinia flower that adorns the flag with five petals, each one bearing a star in order to represent the five stars of the Chinese flag, which in turn represents the Communist Party and the four classes of society as defined by Mao: proletariat, peasant, the petty bourgeoisie and capitalists.
Red had a special place in Chinese culture well before the People’s Republic of Chairman Mao. It was an imperial colour associated with ceremonies, limited for a long time to nobility. It is a symbol of sincerity, loyalty, courage, luck, happiness. It offers protection against evil spirits. Red seems imbued with so many virtues, it is naturally the colour associated with marriage, too. Hong Kong shares with mainland China an immoderate love of this colour which, among the five elements as defined by Chinese philosophy, is associated with fire, the South and summer. Red is the dominant colour in temples, whether they are large and renowned structures or little makeshift structures that surprise you as you turn a corner. It is the colour of candles, of wishes attached to incense coils suspended from the ceiling, of metal buckets where you burn offerings. As soon as you enter Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, you are enveloped by a carmine halo of incense smoke.
In Hong Kong, this symbolic red brushes up against a pragmatic red, a quotidian one, that of taxis, market lamps, the little plastic stools in dai pai dongs.
Red: the sails of traditional junks, originally covered in a primer made with tannins extracted from the sap of oaks in order to protect them from humidity. The colour red was therefore a byproduct, but it became so emblematic, it was preserved for aesthetic reasons on the sails of the Duk Ling and Aqua Luna, the two restored junks that criss-cross Victoria Harbour today.
Red: taxis, making their way inexorably around Hong Kong Island, even their more far-flung green and blue counterparts having been repainted by their owners, after they imported the standard red Japanese model – look at the frame of the door as you step out of your blue taxi on Lantau.
Red: plastic market lamps, supposedly there to make meat look more appetising. They are the flagship product of the Red A brand produced by the Star Industrial Company. They are prized by design connoisseurs like Douglas Young’s Goods of Desire (G.O.D.) brand, which has built its success by reimagining Hong Kong’s everyday icons.
There are pragmatic reasons for red’s popularity – and in Hong Kong, pragmatism is a core value. The colour red became widely used in the years after World War II because it was one of only three kinds of pigment that were widely available, the others being green and white. As the city rebuilt after the ravages of war, red paint was the cheapest, so it was used in all its varying shades on a wide scale, to paint buildings, shops and signs.
In Hong Kong, red is also the colour of paper lampshades and neon signs, the kind of kitschy red that bathes the screen in Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love. Happy are those who have eaten at the China Club under the soft light of these red paper lampshades, evoking as they do a bygone colonial era.
Outside in the streets, you’ll find an amalgam of signs where red in the dominant colour, especially on the signs of pawn shops, which are shaped like bats holding a coin – a symbol of good luck. Even as the number of neon signs decline, and they are progressively replaced by harsh LEDs, they linger in Hong Kong’s collective memory – and that of every Chinatown on the planet.
I set out looking for a fil rouge and I found impressionistic spots of colour. A Communist colour, the colour of good fortune – in Hong Kong, red is a particularly strong part of the visual landscape, the colour of the improvised juxtapositions that create the unique patina of Hong Kong’s popular culture, enveloping it in a halo that is at once comforting and mysterious. If I had written this column with an ink brush, I would seal it with a chop plunged in cinnabar paste. Red.
Translated from French into English by Christopher DeWolf