Thinking with Lauren Berlant in Hong Kong: Affect, Race, and Queer Visuality | Alvin K. Wong

by Critical Asia

by Alvin K. Wong, Dec. 2021】

In June 2021, the well-known theorist of affect and sentimentality Lauren Berlant passed away. While Berlant’s work has been central to the formation of queer theory and affect theory in North America, very few thinkers in Hong Kong have expanded on her thinking and examined how events, politics, and popular culture in the postcolonial city might complicate her work on the violence and impasses of late capitalism. This essay is a humble attempt to think with the work of Berlant in Hong Kong, tracing the concept of cruel optimism in relation to affect, racial formation, and queer visual culture. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant offers a transformative analysis of late capitalism, affect, and modes of attachment that resonate with many issues of our time. The rise of conservativism and populism in the US, China, and Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental crisis, and ongoing military occupations and the presence of US empire in places like Japan, South Korea, and Israel-Palestine make the fantasy of “the good life” all the more unreachable for many in the world. Berlant writes, “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project.”[1] Put it differently, while biopolitics and necropolitics name the management of population and the death-driven capacity of neocolonial violence, the concept of cruel optimism opens up new ways to theorize the present and contemporaneity as a stretched-out process, an impasse, a time-space of ordinary violence and ongoing-ness. In this essay, I turn to everyday scenes of ordinary violence, the affective economies of fear during the pandemic, and queer visual art to suggest some ways to think the political alongside queer desire and affect.

To dissect the ongoing scenes of ordinary crisis in Hong Kong, it might be useful to situate Hong Kong within the recent social upheavals. I am writing at a moment when Hong Kong has just surpassed the two-year anniversary of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement (Anti-ELAB). The Anti-ELAB movement refers to a mass social movement aimed at overturning an extradition bill that the Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced in February 2019. This bill, if passed successfully, would extradite serious crime offenders to Mainland China. On September 4, 2019, Lam officially withdrew the controversial bill after an intense summer of protests and numerous violent clashes between the protesters, the police, and supporters from both the pro-democratic and pro-establishment sides (often nicknamed the yellow ribbons and blue ribbons). On June 30, 2020, the National People’s Congress enacted the national security law in Hong Kong, which aims to ensure prosperity and stability for Hong Kong’s postcolonial governance. Its sole aim is to safeguard national security by “preventing, suppressing and imposing punishment for the offences of secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security in relation to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”[2]

In the months after the passage of the law, pro-democratic politicians who participated at the annual June 4th Tiananmen Vigil have been sentenced to jail; a major anti-establishment newspaper Apple Daily is forced to shut down because its founder Jimmy Lai is charged for violating the national security law; a few academics such as Benny Tai, Ip Iam Chong, and others who are active in local social movements are sacked. While the 2019 protest captivated global attention due to the powerful movement that erupted in the summer, it also brought millions of Hong Kong people to the street to voice their opposition to the extradition bill. June 9, 2019 brought more than one million peaceful protestors to the streets, while June 16, 2019 resulted in another peaceful march numbered at more than two million people. The subsequent escalation of violence at protest sites between the police and the protestors and public morning and outcry over the 721 Incident at Yuen Long MTR station (2019) have resulted in serious mistrust between Hong Kong people, the government, and the police. Coexisting with the 2019 protest and related exceptional incidents of violence and chaos are also the more ordinary states of violence, emotional impasse, and affective economies of fear and containment as Hong Kong encountered the Covid-19 pandemic starting in late January 2020.

To show how crisis is mediated as scenes of ordinary violence in Hong Kong, I turn to the treatment of Southeast Asian domestic helpers at the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. The outsourcing and transfer of care work globally refers to what Rhacel Salazar Parreñas terms the international division of reproductive labor. “Whereas class-privileged women purchase the low-wage household services of migrant Filipina domestic workers, these women simultaneously purchase the even lower-wage household services of poorer women left behind in the Philippines.”[3] Currently, there are more than 400,000 domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sir Lanka who are working in Hong Kong. Many who left Hong Kong for their annual visit back home in the Philippines found it impossible to return to Hong Kong for work during February 2020 when the government imposed travel ban. For those who continue working in Hong Kong, school suspension in early February 2020 for both K-12 and college students means that the domestic space is suddenly more crowded than usual. On the top of performing the usual domestic chords, many foreign domestic maids find their employers to be emotionally unstable, extremely demanding, and increasingly regulatory over them. From January to April when Hong Kong experienced the first and second waves of Covid-19, the regime of social distancing has disproportionally affected female domestic workers in racially charged and gendered ways. Many domestic workers are discouraged to take their only day off in the week on Sunday due to the fear by employers that their live-in maids might bring contagions from “outside.” The normality and sanctity of the domestic sphere is heavily guarded through the logic of policing imaginary threat from the outside.

Furthermore, the racial and gendered logics of fear about domestic workers during the pandemic recalls Sara Ahmed’s notion of affective economies. Demonstrating how fear of the racial other reproduces existing social hierarchy of racism, Ahmed writes, “In such affective economies, emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments. Rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective.”[4] Indeed, what we can learn about the mechanism of racialization in Hong Kong during the pandemic is this—while the pandemic has gradually shifted from the state of exception to what Berlant might call “crisis ordinariness,”[5] even during the temporality of the impasse and ordinary affect certain racial and gendered subjects bear the brunt of social scapegoating, potential health “risk,” and so on. A parallel comparison is how LGBTQ subjects were blamed for “spreading” Covid-19 when a cluster of cases were found in Itaewon, the cosmopolitan gay clubbing district in Seoul in May 2020.[6]

The racialization and gendering of domestic workers as “outsiders” whose hygiene (not to mention sexual practices and queer desire) must be constantly monitored is fraught with contradictions and irony, given that the very outsiders are also the ones performing the most intimate domestic chords and duties for most Hong Kong middle-class and economically privileged families. As Jason Y. Ng perceptively argues, “Furthermore, the government’s strict live-in rules, which require domestic workers to live in the same home as their employers, means workers have nowhere to go if someone in the household falls sick or needs to be home-quarantined after returning from abroad. The law compels them to bear the risk of infection.”[7] One domestic worker anonymized as Lhotzky remarks on the racialized economy of risk and the extreme burden of work during the epidemic: “There’re just too many people in a small space. They get upset over little things like how much bleach to use and how many times surfaces should be wiped down. A friend joked on WhatsApp that she’d die from the smell of chlorine before the virus kills her!”[8]

While I have sketched scenes of ordinary violence and the affective economy in Hong Kong as ones of crisis ordinariness and how narratives of good life remain out of reach for the majority of folks on the social margin, I like to invoke briefly the possibility of seeing Hong Kong queerly from the visual optic of what Gayatri Gopinath terms unruly visions. In Unruly Visions,

Figure 1. “The Couple” by Fung Ming Sum (2021)

Gopinath defines queerness as a mode of reading queer desire and intimacies across multiple racial formations, bodies of knowledge, geographies, and temporalities through a particular South-South regional imaginary. Gopinath writes, “This queer optic reanimates the nonnormative desires, practices, embodiments, and affiliations that can be gleaned from the past; it brings them into the present in order to envision other possibilities of social life.”[9] In January to February 2021, a queer arts exhibition entitled Unruly Visions was held at WMA Space in Central on Hong Kong Island. The exhibition was inspired by the works of queer theorists such as Jose Esteban Munoz and Gayatri Gopinath. Curated by Tse Ka-Man, it features the works of nine emerging LGBT visual artists in Hong Kong. The editorial statement frames the aim of the exhibition boldly: “Unruly Visions, for our exhibition, is a queer proposition: to dissent and disrupt, to reframe. To question

Figure 2. “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” by Nelson Tang Chak Man (2021)

how we see and what we know.”[10] While one photograph from the series The Couple (Figure 1) by the visual artist Fung Ming Sum depicts a queer lesbian couple enjoying themselves and sitting on a bench in an urban landscape, other works such as Dancer and Reader by artist WY Kwan feature queer bodies in Hong Kong that disrupt the mundane urban space with queer gestures and bodily stillness. Nelson Tang Chak Man, a former university student journalist who was arrested by the police during one illegal assembly, produces the series called Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?, featuring one photograph of a transgender subject looking back at a young man who looks like a protestor with a mask (Figure 2). Tang’s photograph invites the viewer to ponder at the possibility that queer subjects could have been (or are in fact) participants in the 2019 social movement. Collectively, Unruly Visions affectively connects diverse queer subjects from all walks of life in Hong Kong who must emotionally work through the impact of social upheavals in the last two years. Hong Kong is indeed the city of cruel optimism par excellence in globalizing Asia, where desire for the good life continuously returns us to scenes of impasse, collective amnesia, and psychic failure. This essay is a humble attempt to trace the uneven and heterogenous contours of racial formation, queer desire, and affect in contemporary Hong Kong. The kind of queer visuality produced by these emerging visual artists gives us not simply “hope for the future,” but a queer vision for seeing queer desire in the historical present.

Alvin K. Wong, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

[2] The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region., Accessed November 13, 2021.

[3] Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 29.

[4] Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 22.2 (2004): 119.

[5] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 81.

[6] Steven Borowiec, “How South Korea’s Nightclub Outbreak is Shinning an Unwelcome Spotlight on the LGBTQ Community,” Time, May 14, 2020. Accessed November 14, 2021.

[7] Jason Y. Ng, “Why Domestic Workers are the Unsung Heroes of Hong Kong’s Coronavirus Crisis,” Hong Kong Free Press, 10 April 2020. <>. Accessed November 14, 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 14.

[10] From the exhibition catalogue of Unruly Visions, curated by Tse Ka-Man, 2021.

You may also like

Leave a Comment