Environments and Imagery in Chung Kuo

Nothing fun from David today, but I do have some thoughts to share about imagery in the world of Chung Kuo — something we haven’t really discussed at length here (touched upon briefly when I redesigned the site a few months back) but I think deserves some discourse. This’ll apply more to what will take place starting in The Middle Kingdom, but was touched on briefly in Daylight and Paperhouse, and obviously these are my own opinions and interpretations.

By the way, if anyone else has anything they’d like to share (reflection pieces like this, fan fiction, fan art, etc.), I’m more than happy to post here.

Jump past the break for more on Environments and Imagery in Chung Kuo.


A few months back, I saw the remake of Total Recall in theaters. Being a big fan of the original, I expected to be horribly disappointed by the new film. Much to my surprise, and contrary to the opinions of most of the critics, I thought was actually a pretty decent flick. Specifically, I thought the production design and set construction was phenomenal. I also couldn’t help but think back to Chung Kuo and how similarly parts of the movie reminded me of how I imagined some of the spaces in Chung Kuo, especially in the squalor lower levels.

All that’s missing here are some roofs separating the levels. I can’t find any good stills, but the scenes of his apartment are also a pretty good representation of how I imagine the city’s inhabitants’ living spaces: cold, dark, gray, and lifeless (obviously we’re not talking about the upper levels here).

The other obvious movie comparison is Blade Runner, although I think close inspection kills some of that comparison (to the movie’s credit). They did a very good job of showing that the Asian aesthetic was implanted on top of the old Western one of Los Angeles, which obviously wouldn’t be the case in the City of Ice.

Looking at real life comparisons, I think the most obvious selection is the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong’s Nathan Road in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong.

Again, add some roofs and there’s Chung Kuo, at least in my mind’s eye. A Google image search of “Nathan Road” or “Mong Kok” or “Tsim Sha Tsui” will produce countless similar images. Interestingly, a building in another part of Hong Kong was featured on the cover of Son of Heaven.

While’s we’re using Hong Kong as a graphic comparison to Chung Kuo, let’s look back a few years to the Kowloon Walled City, which I think is probably the best comparison to the lowest levels of the City. Kowloon Walled City was a city-building that went largely ungoverned for many years (both the Chinese and British wanted nothing to do with it). With seemingly infinite DIY additions by the residents, the structure grew organically. Despite the rampant illegal activities, small businesses thrived, and many residents opposed its eventual demolition in 1993. Read more here.

KWC from the ground.

KWC from the sky.

The insides.

A cross-section of Kowloon Walled City. If this doesn’t remind of you of Chung Kuo‘s City, nothing will.

A serene park now stands on the site of the former Kowloon Walled City.

I’m curious as to if anyone has had similar or different conceptions of the how the environment looked in Chung Kuo than what I’ve suggested here. Looking forward to reading your opinions in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Environments and Imagery in Chung Kuo”

  1. Matt, great images! The Total Recall still is indeed, exactly how I would picture Chung Kuo, particularly the frenetic Lowers. will read the full article after work today.

    Would this article benefit the forums, were members can post underneath? To the forums allow for pic posts?

    Book 3 almost here!

    1. Thanks! If you think this piece is worthy of further discussion, you’re more than welcome to copy and paste it to the forums (if this is something you’d rather me do let me know). And yes, the forums allow posting pictures. I’d love to see other people’s perspectives on this!

  2. You’re so interesting! I do not believe I’ve read anything like that before. So nice to find someone with some genuine thoughts on this subject. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is something that’s needed on the web, someone with some originality!

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