In his well-known essay on rail travel, Michel de Certeau compares travel to “'traveling incarceration,” the condition of being “immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by.” It is a very similar sense of incarceration or entrapment which the Hong Kong journalist Yuen Yongding (Alex Man) feels, in Stanley Kwan’s 关锦鹏 1988 film Rouge 胭脂扣, as he gradually realizes that the mysterious woman who has been following him and now is nostalgically recalling her trips to the now-defunct theatre, is in actuality a ghost. Terrified, Yuen rushes to a window at the back of the bus and starts shaking it violently, as if the bus actually were his prison.
In fact, the two of them had been just sitting by the window, “seeing immobile things go by.” Simultaneously “immobile” and extraordinarily “slip[pery],” these “things” which they were observing were historical sites which Fleur (Anita Mui), the ghostly courtesan, remembered from her youthful days. The old brothel, she notes with wry amusement, has been converted into a kindergarten. The old Tai-ping theatre, meanwhile, has been replaced with a 7-11, and it is precisely Fleur’s baroque descriptions of visiting the theatre every weekend with her fellow courtesans.
As Fleur narrates these vivid memories—and as the camera itself is momentarily drawn into that nostalgic space as well—Yuen becomes increasingly anxious and distressed, ultimately standing up and asking her in horror, “What are you? You’re not human.” She is, in fact, a trace of the city itself, a splinter of nostalgic investment which had succeeded in inserting itself under his skin, invading the prison-like sanctity of the public tram.
This nostalgic nub which Fleur represents is distressing for Yuen because he is very firmly grounded in the present, displaying little interest in or knowledge of the past. He is, after all, a reporter, who makes his living pursuing “news” 新闻. Indeed, at one point he interrupts Fleur’s account of her days as a courtesan by confessing, “I failed my school certification exam in history.” In this respect, Fleur represents a return of the repressed, a historical consciousness in which Yuen—together with the contemporary Hong Kong society he represents—has little interest.
It is therefore perhaps not coincidental that the reporter is surnamed Yuen 袁—which is an exact homophone for 元, used as the sign for Chinese currency. In this context, monetary currency symbolizes not only contemporary Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center
Moreover, it is similarly not entirely coincidental that the outside of the tram Yuen and Fleur are riding contains prominent advertisements for Standard Chartered Bank. On the outside of the tram, moreover, there is a prominent add for one of the bank’s credit cards, called “Moneylink” in English and “Wanliling” (万里灵). This transliteration is aptly chosen, insofar as it not only capitalizes on a rough phonetic similarity between the two terms, but furthermore it suggests a very intriguing semantic correspondence between the two terms.
The term “Moneylink” suggests the role played by money in “linking” together individuals and institutions distributed across a potentially wide geographic area. In temporal terms, the “Moneylink” credit card suggests the role of monetary exchange in creating a system of debt and encumbrance which binds together individuals and institutions from one temporality to another. The Chinese term “wanliling,” on the other hand, could be translated literally as “soul or spirit [ling] across ten thousand ‘li’” [one li is roughly a third of a mile], suggesting the way in which “spirit,” like money itself, establishes enduring bonds across vast gulfs of space and time.
The translingual equivocation, on the side of the bus, between “money” and “ling” (spirit/soul), in turn, is paralleled quite precisely by the pairing, within the bus itself, of the reporter Yuen and his spectral interlocutor, Fleur. Yuen’s name, as I indicated above, is a precise homophone for (Chinese) money, while Fleur is quite literally a spirit, a ghostly revenant.
Overlaid onto the translingual tension, within the credit card advertisement, between money and spirit, meanwhile is another equivocation at the level of the advertisement itself. The external ads of the tram which Yuen and Fleur board are all for the bank in question, and they can be seen very clearly in several external shots throughout the scene. The scene concludes, however, with an apparent continuity error. After Yuen disembarks from the tram, we see him standing on the sidewalk as he watches a tram drive away. The cinematic logic of the scene strongly implies that the tram is the one he was just riding, but this reading is complicated by the fact that the ads on the right side of the vehicle in this final shot are no longer the ones for Standard Chartered Bank, but rather are now ones for a home and office furniture store.
Although this apparent continuity error may in fact be entirely accidental, I nevertheless would suggest that the issues it raises are not without interest. As the tram traverses the geographic space of contemporary Hong Kong, and in the process also oscillates between two different historical eras, the tram advertisement subtly shifts from one for financial services to one for furnishings. What is suggested in this latter shift, therefore, is the way in which an alienated urban space grounded on anonymous monetary exchange may be figuratively domesticated—made homely, perhaps even given a “soul”—though a process of nostalgic investment. In other words, our sense of attachment to an urban space is not simplistically in tension with the alienating tendencies and reifying tendencies on which that space is predicated, but rather that sense of attachment or “homeliness” is in fact paradoxically constituted by those same alienating factors. Money and ling/soul, Yuen and Fleur, are in fact both two sides of the same coin.
This interconnection between mediation and immediacy, alienation and attachment, in turn, is also related to the role of the train or tram as a both a quintessential figure for processes of deterritorialization, as well as a catalyst for the creation of new orders of knowledge. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that it was precisely the need for coordinated train schedules which played a crucial role in helping to spur efforts to institute a global system of standard time at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as in transforming people's understanding of their own position within a matrix of simultaneous and homogenous time. In the case of the tram in Rouge, it both reaffirms the implicit authority of a global system of standard time (i.e, the temporality of the international financial markets on which Hong Kong is so dependent, but also perhaps the temporality of the widely watched countdown to July 1st 1997, whereupon Hong Kong would be “returned” to Mainland China), but also at the same time challenges that same temporal authority as well (i.e., through the anachronistic appearance of Fleur, and the historicity which she represents).