Hong Kong Waste and the Politics of Visibility: On the Streets and on the Screen | Bram Overbeeke

by Critical Asia

by Bram Overbeeke, June 2022】

In the present day, everyday life in metropolises such as Hong Kong is often sensually and ideologically disconnected from the broader natural environment that it inhabits, even if the mountains and forests are never too far out of view from the city streets. It is almost impossible to grasp, let alone feel intuitively, one’s place within the ecosystem: we have no idea where our energy, water, foodstuffs and products originate, and we know little of the paths they take after consumption. Waste, garbage, or ‘refuse’ is one environmental crisis that shows how the cycle is particularly broken, as the name suggests. Waste might be seen as a more local environmental issue compared to the pollution of rivers or the intensification of tropical storms, which more obviously cross regional borders. Yet it can also be seen as a shared problematic across metropolises of Asia – in every case at the intersection of the excess of capitalism, the unjust distribution of urban space, as well as the imbalanced relation with the natural environment. Furthermore, the intensity of production and consumption within a metropolis always extends the waste problem regionally, and it will often cross borders after all.

Waste management in Hong Kong has never been sustainable or cyclical since at least the post-WWII population boom that established it as a modern city. As a British colony cut off from the Chinese mainland and since 1997 as a Special Administrative Region of China, it has always relied heavily on importing food and other goods from overseas, while burying or exporting the refuse left behind. In recent times, waste has however become a literally growing problem: roughly 11,000 tonnes of solid waste is piled on the city’s landfills every day for the past few years, and they are quickly filling up. The amount sent to landfills is about 70% of total waste.[1] The other roughly 30% is recycled – a percentage that has been dropping because overseas markets for recyclable materials have declined, and this recycling statistic mostly relies on such trade: only a shocking 4% of waste is recovered and processed locally.

Such structural problems are however surprisingly easy to ignore in everyday life. Separating trash for recycling is not much of an option at an individual level in many buildings and neighborhoods, and people joke about the existing recycling bins that ‘everything ends up in the same place anyway’ (as famously observed in many Mainland Chinese cities with split recycling-landfill bins). Trash doesn’t generally come up as a political issue – until disruptions or changes lay bare the workings of this hidden infrastructure. For example, when the government indicated planning was going ahead for a large-scale waste incineration plant built on artificial land in 2011, residents concerned for the habitat of local wildlife as well as the impact on air quality protested and a years-long legal battle followed.[2] In the midst of the pandemic, more such incidents suddenly made visible the buried issue of waste. When a massive wave of Covid-19 hit the city in the Spring of 2022 and the border with the Mainland became increasingly restricted, polystyrene boxes started to pile up in many places as they were unable to make it back across the border to Shenzhen, where they would normally end up.[3]

Aside from these anomalies, waste is in fact highly visible in daily life: in alleys and on street corners where bags and boxes often (legally or not) end up, and on the hand-drawn carts of collectors who manually haul immense stacks of refuge through dense crowds, putting their bodies in the way of dangerous traffic. The issue of waste’s (in)visibility is thus closely connected to the population who interact with it most on a daily basis. The status of waste as an unwanted excess is also at times projected on these people and their use of the urban space, as we will see in a few media examples later. While many collectors are formally employed under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, garbage collectors compose of a wide range of people including many outsourced workers who engage in an informal economy of collecting and sorting in alleyways and under bridges – often retired elderly or houseless people who can collect a small source of income from materials or reusable items.

In the case of the latter two groups, the intersections between two gaps in policy – taking care of both marginalized people and the lack of structural methods to deal with the excesses of material consumption – become highly visible. But visibility itself seems to be not enough for recognizing real value in people and things, when what is seen is coded as unwanted, unneeded, or refuge (even in an era of praise for those who are indeed ‘essential workers’). Capitalism relies on worthlessness to reproduce its skewed value system, and waste is a key product in this mechanism. As the word implies, ‘waste’ consists of resources used irresponsibly. Objects of waste still carry within them the materials and the labour that brought them into circulation as commodities, but they no longer hold their exchange value – or in Benjaminian terms: “garbage is the commodity stripped of its ‘aura.’”[iv] Within the politics of visibility, this worthlessness becomes coded in the urban environment and depictions thereof. As a starting point in any discussion of these politics, and in imagining what cinema or other visual media can do, we should recognize these limits of visibility as a driver of social change.

To further explore these issues, we may turn to depictions of waste in audio-visual media, which, through their distance from the everyday, open up possibilities to challenge these codifications and to alienate us from the normalized yet problematic value systems underlying the waste crisis. Waste is not a common topic in Hong Kong popular culture, so when it does enter the frame, it necessarily raises questions of where unwanted things and people go within a highly urbanized place like Hong Kong, alienated from its natural environment. At the same time, stories surrounding waste bring up the ethics of representation and the problematic mechanisms of spectacle. To understand some of the recent developments in these politics of visibility, the rest of this paper will look at some films that touch on the issues of refuse from a social perspective. The question in these discussions becomes whether the rendering-sensible (i.e. bringing-into-vision) of both waste and marginalized populations signals possibilities of reimagining excess, and of realizing our place within larger ecosystems.

Hong Kong appears as a recognizable cityscape across global media, and its dense, sometimes ‘trashy’ streets feature prominently in genres such as cyberpunk and neo-noir (e.g. Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell), which often reproduce the vertical dichotomy of crime-filled city streets versus techno-futurist skyscrapers and aerial traffic. In Hong Kong cinema itself, two genres repeatedly visualise issues of waste: police-crime films (警匪片, e.g. A Better Tomorrow (1986) or Infernal Affairs (2002)), as well as social issue films (such as the tradition of tenement films focusing on the city’s cramped housing from the 1970s, or the works by director Ann Hui since the ‘80s). While these genres are not as prominent these days (Hong Kong is no longer the regional powerhouse of popular culture that it was in the late 20th century), some interesting attempts to revive these genres have sprung up. Two films released in 2021 are notable here: Limbo (dir. Cheang Pou-soi) and Drifting (dir. Jun Li). Both films clearly struck a chord as they are both nominated for Best Film at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, and they bring us back to these two genres of respectively crime and social-issue, and their negotiations of the visuality of waste.

Limbo tells the story of a serial killer who leaves chopped-off hands as traces, which the police officer protagonists have to trace in order to stop the ongoing murders. The film produces a whole monochromatic, rainy cityscape of piled-up trash away from the recognizable streets of Hong Kong, and the police must become familiar with this trash urbanism, its rules, paths, smells and sounds, in order to stop the murderer who hides among them. The victims are all drug-using women, houseless or living in shacks, “social outcasts, nobody cared about them” as one character summarizes. This lack of care extends throughout the film, where we see women slapped around even by the film’s heroes, who view them as a means to an end, at best. The ‘excess’ hands, rendered useless by being chopped off from living bodies, here reinforce the association between waste, violence, and ‘bare life’ (the reduction of people to mere bodies, as theorized by Agamben).

This theme of useless body parts finds a different expression in the film’s Chinese title, Wisdom Tooth (智齒 Zi Ci), which refers to the storyline of Will Yam, the young-cop protagonist. His coming-of-age (vis-à-vis his experienced colleague) is symbolized through his growing-out wisdom tooth, which pains him throughout the film until being knocked out in the final fight with the killer, seemingly bestowing full manhood on Yam. Whereas the hands of the ‘outcast women’ are expendable, and their worth is only found as they point the investigators toward the murderer, the violent extraction of the wisdom tooth embodies a much more meaningful transformation.

The short review here can’t do justice to the film’s complexities in its engagement with a violent (and often misogynist) cinematic tradition. These few observations do show however that while the film pushes our nose in trash and reconfigures the cityscape to confront us with a glossed-over underbelly of the city’s waste economy, it doesn’t really challenge the ‘uselessness’ ascribed to the people who inhabit this cityscape.

Drifting presents a story much more empathetic with its protagonists who face similar stigma and violence as the women in Limbo. The film is based on a real 2012 story of a group of street sleepers who were forced away from the site where they were staying in the area of Sham Shui Po, and whose belongings were trashed during this incident.[5] They engaged in a years-long legal battle to get compensated for their losses – and although the actions of the authorities were indeed deemed illegal and they received some meagre compensation, one of the street sleepers had already passed away when the decision was passed. The film makes a point of presenting its protagonists as people first and foremost, showing their daily life, the aforementioned legal struggles, as well as the media attention that comes with them – without digging deeply into their backstory and asking the question of “why they became homeless” which most well-meaning media stories tend to focus on. The film in fact starts out with a Judith Butler quote that positions the value of these people as found in community and humanity (rather than empathy with their victimhood or past sins):

Such bodies both perform the conditions of life in public—sleeping and living there, taking care of the environment and each other — and exemplify relations of equality that are precisely those that are lacking in the economic and political domain.[6]

While Butler was discussing public demonstrations in the original passage, the recontextualization of these words in the story of this small community of street sleepers highlights exactly the discrepancies of value that are missing from much of the discussions (and representations) of marginalized people on the streets of Hong Kong. These people’s closest possessions, including gifts from departed loved ones as well as identity documents, were simply identified as refuse and sent to landfill, just because they were in the public space of the street rather than a private home.

Both of the films touched upon here show a tendency to re-engage with Hong Kong’s waste and bring its visible-yet-glossed-over infrastructure back into view, yet they show that visibility itself is not enough if what we see is already overdetermined by the skewed attributions of value of both people and things. However, as especially Drifting shows, there are plenty of possibilities for a cultural shift towards an awareness of these values as well as of the place of the metropolis within the larger ecosystem and material flows.

Bram Overbeeke, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong


[1] “Monitoring of Solid Waste in Hong Kong: Waste Statistics for 2020” Statistics Unit, Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong SAR. December 2021.

[2] https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1291486/islanders-bid-halt-shek-kwu-chau-incinerator-fails

[3] https://hongkongfp.com/2022/03/25/covid-19-hong-kong-besieged-by-styrofoam-boxes-as-china-refuses-to-take-them-back-amid-fifth-wave/

[4] Kantaris, Geoffrey. “Waste not, want not: Garbage and the philosopher of the dump (Waste Land and Estamira).” Global Garbage. Routledge, 2015. Page 54.

[5] www.news.mingpao.com/pns/港聞/article/20220113/s00002/1642010892585/通州街清場案-入稟無家者-勝訴才可證司法公正-昔失家當允和解-今為逝者決對簿


[6] Judith Butler, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Conversations with Athena Athanasiou. Polity Press, 2013. Page 102.

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