Better than the reel thing

Source: South China Morning Post | Published: December 22, 2019

Tourists making trips to visit beloved movie and television locations is big business and getting bigger, especially in Hong Kong which for decades was the film capital of Asia

Enthusiastically adopting kung fu poses, visitors to the statue of movie icon Bruce Lee, on the Avenue of Stars beside Victoria Harbour, get a kick out of impersonating their screen idol.

“I think movie culture is the most important cultural aspect of Hong Kong. Everyone knows the movies and the actors Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Leslie Cheung,” says Paul Chan Chi-yuen, co-founder and CEO of tour group Walk in Hong Kong, as he stands next to the popular tourist landmark.

Chan’s company regularly conducts movie-themed walking tours of the city. Armed with an iPad and clipboard, he and his colleagues lead groups of locals and international visitors to locations immortalised in about 20 famous Hong Kong films. He plays relevant clips while answering questions from enthusiasts eager to know more about their heroes.

“They are always curious about the gossip and side stories, and they really want to know the exact location. Then they like to mimic their favourite movie stars,” Chan says.

Chungking Mansions on busy Nathan Road is a popular destination. The culturally diverse building crammed with shops, restaurants and low-budget guest houses played a memorable role in the 1994 classic Chungking Express, directed by Wong Kar-wai, and starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Faye Wong.

A short walk away is the InterContinental Hong Kong. Standing in front of the luxury hotel, Chan shows a clip on his iPad of the Stephen Chow Sing-chi comedy From Beijing with Love, also released in 1994. This is where leading man Chow, playing a secret agent, tries to check in, only to find he has made a wrong booking and ends up in a cheap local hostel with a similar name.

Another regular stop is also close by: the basement McDonald’s in Peking Road, which featured in Fallen Angels, the 1995 de facto sequel to Chungking Express also made by Wong and starring Leon Lai Ming and Karen Mok.

Movie tourism has become a phenomenon in parts of Asia, with visitors eager to be photographed in the streets, temples, bars and other scenes captured in their favourite movies and shows.

The Hong Kong film industry was producing up to 150 movies a year at its peak in the 1990s, which were widely distributed throughout the region. They had an enormous cultural impact and were regarded by millions of Asian movie fans as exemplars of affluence and style.

“When I was young, conditions were still poor in South Korea, so watching Bruce Lee movies, they were so sophisticated and Hong Kong looked like a dream city to us,” says Professor Sam Kim, of Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management.

Kim has published several research papers on the subject of movie tourism in Asia. He first became aware of the phenomenon in South Korea when thousands of visitors flocked to locations for popular TV drama series Winter Sonata. “I first noticed it in 2003 in Seoul. The TV drama was attracting travellers from all over Asia, Japan and Taiwan in particular,” he says.

A key location in the series, Nami Island in the city of Chuncheon, has become one of the country’s most visited destinations, with hundreds of thousands of tourists a year generating millions in tourism revenue.

Kim says the authorities are acutely aware of the power of television dramas and films, and deliberately promote it to project a positive image of South Korea overseas.

There is nothing new about movie tourism, but it has been regarded as a niche sector in Asia, not on a par with heritage tourism or eco-tourism.

Kim’s colleague, Professor Brian King, worked in Australia for many years, and notes that the 1986 comedy Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul Hogan, was successfully leveraged to promote tourism down under. New Zealand later adopted a similar strategy, King says.

“New Zealand was very deliberate about movies. The national airline was themed on Lord of the Rings, and used it to emphasise a green, small-scale friendly image of New Zealand,” he says.

Kim and King recently released research that found a new genre of movie tourism is becoming increasingly significant in Asia which could provide an opportunity for Hong Kong’s struggling tourism sector. They looked specifically at nostalgia film tourism, and found that an emotional connection to a favourite old movie or TV series could be a significant influence in the choice of a holiday destination.

Their research focused on visitors to Hong Kong from Taiwan – one of the biggest inbound markets for the city – and found levels of recognition and feelings of association with stars of old Hong Kong movies such as Lee, Chan and Cheung. “Some 90 per cent of the respondents recognised all 11 Hong Kong movie stars listed in the survey and 54 per cent had watched at least 10 of the 28 listed movies,” says King.

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, he says, Hong Kong was a major producer of movies for the Asian market, pumping out more than four times as many films as any regional rival. “Cultural proximity” made the scenes and references easier to relate to than those in Western imports.

“This was Hollywood for millions of people in Asia,” King says. He suspects there is a major movie connection not just for viewers in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, but also for those in neighbouring Guangdong province.

Hong Kong movie nostalgia has huge potential in Guangdong, a largely Cantonese-speaking province of the mainland with a population of about 113 million.

As China opened up in the 1980s and ’90s, many residents living in the Pearl River Delta region had access to Hong Kong movies, becoming devotees of Bruce Lee and other southern Chinese stars.

“Movie culture tends to cut through political divisions,” King says. “We should be doing more in Hong Kong, because movie tourism is like food tourism. It tends to bring people together from different cultures. Movie tourism needs more prominence.”

The two tourism experts say that while some initiatives are to be applauded, such as the Bruce Lee exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, the city’s impressive movie culture should not be confined to galleries.

Out on the streets, walking guide Chan could not agree more that nostalgia is a powerful factor in attracting visitors to Hong Kong. He is constantly searching for locations to share, but it isn’t easy. The sites he takes enthusiasts to are not listed, protected or signposted, and many are threatened with redevelopment.

Perhaps the most memorable Bruce Lee landmark, the Kowloon Tong home where he spent his final years, was demolished in October. When asked about it, Chan struggles to conceal his frustration.

“That was pathetic. Wherever I am in the world and I tell people I am from Hong Kong, the first name people say is Bruce Lee. That’s how powerful our movie culture is, but we can’t even protect it in our own city and turn it into a positive visitor attraction.

“It would have been a very strong pull for millions of Bruce Lee fans but we just allowed it to disappear,” he says.

The demolition could not have come at a worse time, he adds. When movie nostalgia might have been embraced to project some much-needed positive images of Hong Kong as part of its tourism offering overseas, this valuable asset was lost forever.