What I remember most about my childhood growing up in Hong Kong was when I was about seven or eight years old. We were living in apartments at the time near the university and there was a reservoir behind us. It was the Pokfulam reservoir, so it was pretty large. I used to play there a lot, jumping around on the rocks, feeding the fish, trying to catch them, that kind of stuff. And one day I was feeding the fish, throwing pieces of old bread into the water. . . . There was already a very large school of fish that had gathered trying to eat the bread. They were splashing around the surface, jumping around to get at the bread.
I didn’t see it at the time, but this watersnake had come up underneath and sort of emerged from the water and grabbed one of the fish in its mouth and withdrew back into its hiding place amongst the rocks. It was a really interesting thing—it must have done it quickly because it caught one of the fish, but everything seemed like it was in slow motion. It was almost like I was watching a videotape: I play it and then I reverse it. It was smooth, very fluid, sort of strangely elegant. I became obsessed with this watersnake.
I wanted to catch it, I wanted to keep it, and see how it lives. So I would go back day after day for a long time to try to catch it, to try to find it, to try to lure it out. I’ve never seen it since that one time. It was the only time I saw the watersnake. I looked all over the reservoir, I was obsessed about it for a really long time. But that was the only time I saw it.
—Voice of M-Y.M., recorded in Los Angeles, CA, USA
In [os] the stories are left to the storytellers. The only requirement is that they share their strongest memories of growing up in Hong Kong and that these stories have a beginning, middle and end. They are identified by their initials and locations and we come to know them only through their voices.
Ming-Yuen Ma, assistant professor of Media Studies, began working on [os], the final video in his Xin Lu project, by collecting stories from a group of Chinese gay men who had similar life experiences as himself growing up in Hong Kong and now living abroad. The memories these men recount range from stealing comic books to bonding with family members during typhoon season to taking a tram ride back to Hong Kong’s western district.
Running parallel to these voice recordings are images of architectural ruins from around the world—the “Panorama” kiosk in Hollywood that has since been demolished, the submerged wreckage of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, the disused immigration station at Angel Island in California, scaffolding and a temple in Hong Kong’s central district and many others. The interplay between disembodied voices and dream-like travel images leads to the recognition that these men’s memories, located in a specific time and place, are actually fluid. “It’s about identity and identity politics,” Ma said. “That is recognizing that your identity is not fixed in one position—most literally and metaphorically—it’s really much more about a journey and mobility than about being stationary.”
Not only is memory malleable, but it is also haunting as the video attests to with repeated disruptions in the form of a reality TV-style tour of the reputedly haunted Roosevelt Hotel as well as stylized black-and-white classic Hollywood-like scenes. At first the piece plays with the idea of haunting as a metaphor, but once an actual ghost appears, Ma reveals, a clash between the metaphor and the actual phenomenon emerges. “The ghost wants in, wants to be heard, so you have to give the ghost space to try to talk, to hear his story,” Ma said. The forum in which the ghost is heard in the film is through scripted scenes of imagined conversations that take place in a series of voice-mail messages.
Furthermore, Ma integrates re-recorded Mandarin pop songs from 1930s Shanghai to amplify the nostalgic content of the stories, images and ghost. Through all four elements, “the film excavates the personal and the collective, the colonial and the transnational, the traumatic, the wistful, the queer, and the spectral to tell intersecting stories about our desires to return to the past,” Ma noted.
Ma’s own story, transcribed above, is the last to be heard. And just as the watersnake eludes his capture, so the viewer finds that memories and identity inevitably also evade capture. “I’m really interested in exploring different ways people look back in time, essentially try to imagine, remember or represent things that do not exist anymore,” Ma said. “The piece is about the interaction of all these different elements—how they bounce off one another, layer over each other, how they intersect.”