No. 1 Chung Ying Street (中英街一號) has been attracting controversy in Hong Kong ever since its premiere at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival. While some have praised the film as a powerful examination of Hong Kong’s political activism scene, it has also earned condemnation for its sympathetic portrayal of the 1967 left-wing riots, when protesters planted bombs across the city and even brutally murdered a radio host. 

We spoke to director Derek Chiu at the Osaka Asian Film Festival right after its world premiere back in March about the eight-year struggle to get the film made, self-censorship in Hong Kong, the problem with co-productions and how he views the actions of Hong Kong protesters past and present. Several days after the interview, the film won the Grand Prize at the festival. 

Note: The interview was originally conducted in Cantonese. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: You were quite emotional at the start of the Q&A. Can you talk about that?

A: There was an eight-year struggle for me to finish this film. I witnessed many changes in Hong Kong over these several years. The motivation behind making a film in Hong Kong used to be very pure. All people asked before a production was whether a film was commercial enough and whether it’d attract an audience. If it wasn’t commercial, then we’d just have to work with a lower budget; make an art film and aim for awards or something. Those were the only issues we dealt with. People didn’t censor each other or had any taboo. But when I started this project, people saw that I was making a movie about the ’67 riots and they said, “It’s too sensitive!” When I decided that the movie would be about political activism in two generations, people thought it was even more sensitive.

I felt it was odd that Hong Kong has become such a place. Why can’t a film be judged by its quality alone? Why is there so much self-censorship happening? When we were trying to find funding or trying to find crew members, actors and now, a distributor, a lot of people decided to censor themselves first. Some crew members that helped me were afraid to have their names put in the credits. They were uncertain whether there would be repercussions. A lot of actors told me, “I’m not interested in these ‘political films’.” I asked them, ‘how do you know that this is going to be a ‘political film’? Why would you think that this is a ‘political film’?” I don’t think that this is a political film. People had all kinds of reasons, including worrying that they wouldn’t be able to work in mainland China. Why has Hong Kong become such a place? They haven’t even censored us yet, and you’re already censoring yourself. The investors were even more cautious – not out of commercial reasons, but for political reasons. So does that mean we can only make politically correct films in Hong Kong? What is “politically correct” anyway? When is something “correct” and “incorrect”? When the powers that be keeps changing history, do you change that definition of “correct” along with it? I was lamenting that this isn’t the Hong Kong that I love.

Q: You say that your film isn’t political. Then what kind of a film is it?

A: It’s a film about history and contemporary Hong Kong.

Q: Why is the ’67 riots still such a sensitive topic, 50 years after the fact?

A: Because it’s a historical event that the Hong Kong, Chinese and the British governments have no interest in revisiting. It wasn’t a proud moment for the Chinese government. The same goes for the British government because the riots were a protest against them. The Hong Kong government, which is stuck in the middle, definitely isn’t going to talk about it. No one wants to talk about it because it’s not something to be proud of. You know to this day, you still can’t make a film about the Cultural Revolution in China.

Q: You said that you started the project in 2010. That’s before the Umbrella Movement and the other political turmoil happening today. Did you change the script to include recent events?

A: I didn’t make much changes to the 1967 section; there was a lot of research behind that, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write. But the approach that my screenwriter and I wanted to take was to put 1967 and the present together. But my production kept getting pushed back because of delays in getting funding and the cast. I had to keep adjusting to reflect what’s going in Hong Kong politics and society. I’m writing about 2019, so I don’t want people to think the film’s outdated. I had to be very careful, so there were a lot of changes along the way.

Q: The 2019 section begins with the main character coming out of jail, but it wasn’t clear about what she protested against. Was that intentional?

A: I didn’t want to explain the circumstances from the beginning in the 2019 section. It’s clearly talking about the psychology of a “post-social movement” era. People have already lived through these social movements and they all feel very powerless. Hong Kong is very much in this state; social movements have pretty much been knocked down. Fewer people are showing up to protest marches. Government opposition voices are weak. Well, at least it seems weak, even though people are still very angry inside. That’s reality. Hongkongers have always been pragmatic. Once they’ve experienced failure a few times, will they persist? No one can say for sure. You can see that voter turnout was pretty low in the recent elections. I think that people are exhausted. That’s the feeling I included in the film.

Q: Do you see any parallels between Hong Kong now and Hong Kong in 1967? The film mentioned that at least the colonial government worked to improve conditions in Hong Kong after the riots in 1967. Do you see that happening in today’s Hong Kong?

A: That’s a big topic. It has to be seen from multiple perspectives. There’s a difference in social backgrounds. Hong Kong was a very poor city back then. There were still a lot of people coming down from the Mainland, and the city was at a stage where it was just beginning to rise up. Everyone was poor, but everyone also worked hard to find ways to make money, to build their homes. Of course, there were some injustices when the Brits were in power. British people and locals were treated very differently, so the workers rose up. That motivation is understandable. Of course, there was influence from the Cultural Revolution, which was happening at the time.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a large-scale riot like that. There were a lot of external and internal factors that can’t be looked at separately. All these culminated to the riots. Of course, as the film mentioned, there were also people with ulterior motives.

Things are completely different now. Hong Kong belongs to China. What happens when people face a regime that hasn’t been very good with democracy? To some people, it’s even a question of the civilized versus the uncivilized. Money doesn’t make one civilized. There has to be fairness in society and its system. There has to be freedom of speech. These are the things that make a society civilized. Hongkongers no longer think that just making money is enough. Back in 1967, maybe it was about making money or about standing up to the bullies. Hongkongers are no longer like that. They’re supposed to be civilized now. People should know what they’re after now in economics and society. A lot of people are now after what people call “universal values”. Some people don’t see those things as “universal values”, and that’s why Hong Kong has become so divided.

Q: Do you consider yourself to be a politically active person?

A: I care about politics. I’m not affiliated with any political party, nor do I stand in the front lines of any social movement. I support things that I believe are worth supporting. That’s when I go out on the streets. But I wouldn’t stand in the front lines. I write to express my thoughts as well. I don’t know if that’s being politically active or not.

Q: Can you explain the title of the film and why you chose to set the film in Sha Tau Kok? Hongkongers may be familiar with Sha Tau Kok, but a lot of foreigners may not know the significance of the place.

A: For the contemporary section, we really want to examine the issue of land. We really want to hone in on one area. My scriptwriter thought, Sha Tau Kok carries great significance because it’s a village that sits on the Hong Kong-mainland China border. Relations between Hong Kong and mainland China is also an issue that many people care about. During the riots, there was indeed a gunfight in Sha Tau Kok that we included in the film. So we thought that it would be interesting if we could have the two eras set in the this same space. As for No. 1 Chung Ying Street, that came from the time when I was doing research in Sha Tau Kok. We were in the restricted area (Note: Even residents have to carry permits to be inside the Sha Tau Kok area) and we saw this construction site for a residential development – this was in 2010 or 2011 – and the name of the site was called No. 1 Chung Ying Street. I felt the name had great significance (Note: “Chung Ying” literally means China-Britain). Chung Ying Street is just a small street in Sha Tau Kok, but that street actually separates Hong Kong and China; back then, China is on one side and British-ruled Hong Kong on the other. Now, China is on one side and a China-ruled Hong Kong is on the other. It’s such a small street, but it’s almost like the border that separates the Koreas. I feel that it carries a huge significance. So when you put all those together, the name No. 1 Chung Ying Street is pretty interesting.

Q: What do you think about the current state of Hong Kong cinema? What are some of the changes you’ve seen?

A: I think it’s similar to the division of Hong Kong itself. The film industry is also a very divided place. You can only choose to either make Hong Kong-China co-productions or your so-called “local films”. There’s plenty of money in co-productions. We’re talking hundreds of millions of yuan. If you make “local films” about local themes that can’t enter the Chinese market, then you have to make it on a very, very low budget. My film is an example of that. That creates a rift of sorts. When anyone start up a film, the investor would ask, “Is it going to be a co-production? No? Then forget it. If it’s not a co-production, all I’ve got is one, two, maybe three million (US$127,000-382,000). You still wanna make it?” The quality of the story doesn’t even matter to them. Even if John Woo wants to make a local film, that’s all the money he’ll get because investors think they won’t make it back. So that’s the biggest change I’ve seen.

Q: You’ve done co-productions as well. Why did you give that up and spend eight years on this film?

A: Because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do it well. Once, I made a Beijing-set love story (Note: My Boyfriends 我的男男男男朋友). Afterwards, I asked myself, who was I to claim that I understood the psyche of people who live in Beijing? I’ve never lived there. I’ve only been there for travel and for work. I didn’t grow up there. Who was I to claim that I know how Beijingers see love? So it didn’t work. When you make a co-production, they force you to cast mainland Chinese actors, or have those actors play Hongkongers. I didn’t understand why I had to do that. So I decided to forget about it.

Q: There was a film critic in China who wrote that he no longer loves Hong Kong films because Hong Kong directors don’t even believe in what their films are saying anymore.

A: I wholeheartedly agree with that. There are a lot of examples of that. Look at Founding of a Party or Operation something-something, do you truly think those directors believe what’s in those films? You can ask them about that.

Q: But you understand why they would do these films.

A: For money. What director wouldn’t want to make a movie with hundreds of millions of yuan? The entire budget for my film is probably the budget for a single scene in those films. Who would reject that? Who wouldn’t want to sit on a film set, say “action”, and have planes and hundreds of cars collide and blow up? Imagine the satisfaction from that. I’m not even talking about the salary here. If the budget is hundreds of millions, do you think the director’s salary is only going to be a few hundred grand? That’s the temptation.

[A section about Chiu’s outlook for the Hong Kong distribution of the film has been omitted: The film is set to open in Hong Kong cinemas on May 31st]

Q: Your film is getting its world premiere overseas. What do you hope audiences overseas will get from the film?

A: I hope that they’ll care about Hong Kong. I hope that they’ll know about a part of Hong Kong’s history, which I think it’s worth knowing. No matter what country one is from, I hope that they can learn something from the history of other countries or their own country. I hope that Hongkongers will learn something from their own history. And I think foreigners can also gain something from Hong Kong’s history as well.

Q: How do you see those who participated in the 1967 riots? And how do you see those who participated in this current generation of political protest movements?

A: I don’t agree with those with a single-sided view of history. You can’t just label a person as a “bad person” or a “good person”. A good person can have a bad side and vice versa. If you ask me, the more I understand history, the more I can see the different dimensions of it. Of course, what happened in 1967 can only be labeled as a “riot”, regardless of the excuses behind it. It’s like those who say, occupying Central was wrong regardless of the reason. As I was saying, there were a lot of factors behind the 1967 riots. As you saw in the film, there were families that were left-wingers, there were schools, there was the Cultural Revolution. All those things drove hot-blooded young people to go out on the streets. But does that mean you can dismiss their passion? But it’s also true that they had dissatisfactions towards society. Their dissatisfactions were totally justified because they questioned why they had to be second-class Chinese citizens and why hard-working laborers had to be oppressed. It’s not unusual. People who go against capitalism are usually hot-blooded youngsters. Of course, throwing bombs and hurting innocent civilians is heinous. Is it also true that some of those who stepped out purely out of ideology were a bit ignorant? Sure. You can’t simply define one thing only with one line. You have to put all those factors together. You can lean on sympathizing with them or lean on condemning them; that’s a personal choice. But that’s not how history should be written. History has to include both sides and let people make their own judgment.

The same goes for this generation of social movement. A lot of adults go, “You can’t occupy the street like this. People have to make a living. Do you know how much money was lost because of Occupy Central?” Did those people think why the activists had to take to the streets? What were they doing it for? What were they protesting? They just wanted a fair society. Why can’t we choose our own Chief Executive? Why can’t we choose our own leader? The government won’t let them have this and even came up with some fake election in its place, so there was discord. They protested again and again, and the government refused to listen, so they took to the streets. When the government refused to listen again, they occupied the entire street. The government still refused to listen and even fired tear gas on those people, then it comes out to condemn them? I don’t know how history will depict this. The thing is, people won’t bother examining the root of [the Umbrella Movement]. For the ’67 riots, part of the root was colonization, right? But it’s not the only reason. There was also the Cultural Revolution, the protests before that, and people who were blindly patriotic. Those were all part of the root.

You think that people have so much free time that they want to sleep on the streets on Mongkok and Admiralty [for the Umbrella Movement]? Of course, there were saboteurs who tainted the movement, but that happens in all movements. Were there saboteurs in Sun Yat-sen’s movement? Of course there were.

Q: A character in the film says that you wouldn’t know whether a fortune teller is right until the end of each year. Do you think that this generation of activists will eventually have their image rectified in the future?

A: I don’t think that’s important anymore. What’s more important is whether society will have learned its lesson by then. You’ve heard the saying, history is written by those in power. Those in power don’t question what happened during the Cultural Revolution. No one’s questioned all the crimes that took place then because those same people are still in power. As long as those same people are still in power, there won’t be any rectification happening. The important question is whether this generation or the next generation will learn from the mistakes of the past. If they don’t, then it’s pointless.

Q: Do you think your film will change anything in Hong Kong?

A: I just want to do what I think is the right thing to do. I’ve never thought about changing anything. Of course, films can enlighten people, and I think my film is making people think. Even Japanese audiences are thinking about its issues, so I hope Hong Kong audiences will do the same.

Q: Do you think your film is optimistic or pessimistic?

A: For me, it’s pessimistic. But I believe in existentialism, so I’m generally pessimistic anyway. Still, I have to live on according to my conscience.