Hong Kong cinema’s three-act story


Prof. YEH Yueh-yu, Emilie


Though Hong Kong cinema retains its distinctive identity, and still has an acknowledged place on screens around the globe, it is fair to say that its heyday lies in the past. After all, for several decades the city not only boasted the third largest film industry in the world, behind only those in the United States and India, it was also the second biggest international exporter of movies. In the 1980s and early 1990s Hong Kong film became a dominant presence in East Asian cinemas, and works such as John Woo’s 1989 movie The Killer went on to garner critical acclaim in the West, and were cited as an inspiration by a new generation of filmmakers.


These remain remarkable achievements for somewhere as relatively small as Hong Kong.  But where does the roots of the local film industry’s success lie? And can the blame for its commercial decline be placed at the door of those in charge, or has it simply been a victim of changing circumstances?


The research interests of Professor Emilie Yeh, Lingnan’s Lam Wong Yiu Wah Chair Professor of Visual Studies, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Director of Centre for Cinema Studies, include early film history, the media industry, East Asian cinema, and Chinese Wenyi Pictures.


In two of her most recently completed Hong Kong Research Grants Council General Research Fund (GRF) supported projects - “Screen Practices in Colonial Hong Kong Cinema: A History of Film Exhibition and Reception from 1897 to 1925”, and “Early Hong Kong Cinema in English-language Documents” - Professor Yeh has been attempting to bring the early days of Hong Kong cinema into sharper focus.


“My current projects stem from GRF-funded research on early Hong Kong film history: how cinema came to be institutionalized by the business community,” Professor Yeh explains. “I rely heavily on local newspapers to uncover facts, trends and ruptures in the records, and in our understanding of the film industry and historical changes.”


She is in the process of creating a database of Hong Kong’s English-language newspapers – South China Morning PostThe Hongkong Telegraph, and The China Mail – and their coverage of the city’s constantly evolving film industry of the 1920-40s. As the newspapers charted developments in film production, and reported on the celebrities and entrepreneurs helping to drive the industry’s success, the way in which journalists and readers understood film art and commerce is revealed.


In addition, as part of a Digital Humanities team, Professor Yeh is helping to give a global community of scholars online access to historical archives. “This kind of record-keeping and dissemination is useful in allowing scholarly investigation into understudied parts of our media archaeology. It’s a bit like making libraries, archives and image banks from museums available to a global community.”


Tours of locations, buildings and neighborhoods, used as settings in Hong Kong movies, is another related aspect of her knowledge-sharing work.


In one of her current research projects, Professor Yeh is looking at Hong Kong cinema’s more recent, and post-boom, past. “Hong Kong is famous for its film industry, and since the mid-1990s it has been in retreat. It is instructive to see how the Hong Kong SAR and its business community have understood this contraction, and taken tactical positions on film, music and popular culture.”


To know more about Prof. YEH Yueh-yu, Emilie research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.