More than law and order : film regulations and the control of Chinese theatres in colonial Hong Kong

Emilie Yueh-yu YEH*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


Motion pictures were first brought to Hong Kong in 1897. Initial screenings were held in the City Hall, the colony’s only venue for public assembly at the time, and shows of the ‘new invention of the 20th century’ (a typical tagline used to advertise Edison’s pictures) were received with enthusiasm by local expatriates. Soon motion pictures spread to Chinese neighbourhoods and were shown in traditional opera houses in the interval between the acts of live performances. In the ensuing ten years (1897–1907), such screenings would become a thriving business and a popular form of entertainment, their success marked by an increasing number of dedicated cinemas, some of which held several hundred seats. With little local production to be found in the colony, the early film scene in Hong Kong remained largely in the realm of exhibition. The exhibition of motion pictures thus served as a pivot between the socio-economic aspects of the industry and the introduction of film regulations in Hong Kong in 1908. Studies on early cinema in Hong Kong have focused on key personalities and productions in an attempt to construct a genealogy of Hong Kong cinema, including naming the ‘founding fathers’ and their struggle to create a cinema that would later establish Hong Kong as the ‘Hollywood of the East’. While this focus is imperative, given that the dominance of Shanghai film personalities in the standard historiography routinely underestimates the impact of film culture in places such as Canton or Hong Kong, it is important to expand its scope by attending to cinema’s civic role in the social fabric of early 20th-century Hong Kong. Some recent works have ventured in this direction: a recent article by Ting-yan Cheung and Pablo Sze-pang Tsoi, for example, discusses the germination of a local film culture and its transition into a small-scale sector of production and distribution, paving the way for development of the film industry in the 1930s. The ways in which motion pictures, ‘the marvel’ of the new century and an emergent commercial sector, were incorporated into the larger social and economic fabric nonetheless remains an under-explored terrain. To address this, I concentrate upon the scarcely examined field of film regulation from the first two decades after motion pictures were brought to the colony. Previous studies on Hong Kong film regulation and censorship have focused on two areas: one being the politics of film policy, responding to the 1987 outcry over the illegitimacy of the censorship imposed in Hong Kong over several decades; the second being the cultural Cold War and the complex negotiations by different stakeholders after World War II. Other studies on national film law or policy examine the ideological, cultural, sexual and business control of film production, distribution, exhibition and consumption. More recently, racial, ethnic and religious politics have also played a role in policy studies. In early colonial Hong Kong, ideological or cultural control was less prominent, while business and racial control reigned in the regulatory frameworks. My essay traces the legal and ideological genealogy of film regulations in the early 20th century, and how financial motivation and discrimination against Chinese business sat at the very heart of their enforcement. I argue that the colonial credo of ‘law and order’, when confronting local Chinese businesses such as movie theatres, was far from an impartial tool for administering justice in Hong Kong. As the legal foundation of the colonial governance, ‘law and order’ instead veiled the mercantile motivation and tended to target the non-European businesses – in correspondence with Teemu Ruskola’s term, ‘legal Orientalism’. Law and order, at this period in colonial history, ruled cinema exhibition in tandem with the racial prejudice of the British rulers, attesting to what Victor Fan calls the ‘extraterritoriality’ of the cinema in Hong Kong.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-57
Number of pages20
Issue number1
Early online date21 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

I thank the anonymous Screen readers for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of the essay. Research for this work was funded by General Research Fund for ‘Screen Practices in Colonial Hong Kong Cinema: A History of Film Exhibition and Reception from 1897 to 1925’ (12613217) by Hong Kong Research Grants Council, and I thank the Humanities and Social Sciences Sub-Panel for supporting this project. The first draft of this essay was presented at the 2019 NECS Annual Conference at Gdansk, Poland, and I thank Kristian Feigelson and Wafa Ghermani for their feedback. Kenny K. K. Ng kindly offered me good suggestions, and colleagues who attended a seminar at Lingnan University extended support and encouragement. I am indebted to Erica Poon and Snowie Wong for helping me to locate the historical documents of film legislation in Hong Kong.


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