Public Screen Culture in Modern Hong Kong

In this essay, Cara Singell, a student at Indiana University, discusses the varying degrees of "publicness" of contemporary public screens in Hong Kong, suggesting that screens vary from "partially-obsolete publicness," "semi-publicness," to "true/pure publicness."
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Student Voices section on Hong Kong, cities, screens, and spectacle. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Public in the simplest of terms refers to a place to gather. Hence “public screens” are located in gathering spaces.1Lisa SoYoung Park and Maurice Benayoun, “A Cautionary Tale of Urban Media Art: Media-Bait, Planned Censorship and Its Repercussions,” Leonardo, (2018): 1-14, Synonyms for the term include free, open, or available. Screens are a blank canvas that can be transformed into almost anything and be used for a multitude of purposes.2Anna McCarthy, “Shaping Public and Private Space with TV Screens,” Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 117-154. Encounters with public screens happen every day, they are a part of everyday life but they are not everywhere. Screens have been integrated into architecture and transportation systems and much more. But they are still far from ubiquitous media. Higher concentrations of screens can be found in urban areas; large cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are saturated with them, from shopping districts to financial districts. But what does it mean for a screen to be truly public? Is there a spectrum of publicness and where do the screens we see all around us fit on that spectrum?

Depending on who has power over the screen, how it is operated, and what function it serves, a different definition of public comes into play. Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist and philosopher, defined the public sphere in 1962 in his “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” which is imperative for understanding the notion of the public and how the modern public has been disrupted by screens. As summed up by his critics, Deluca and Peeples, “the public sphere denotes a social space wherein private citizens gather as a public body with the rights of assembly, association, and expression in order to form public opinion.” Additionally, “the public sphere assumes open access, the bracketing of social inequalities, rational discussion, focus on common issues, face-to-face conversation as the privileged medium, and the ability to achieve consensus.”3Kevin M. DeLuca & Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19:2 (2002), 128. I have been able to identify three different types of publicness of screens, each with a set of restrictions of varying degrees. The third and most true to the free form of expression, true/pure publicness, second semi-publicness and then partially obsolete-publicness. The terms are used to divide the types of screens commonly seen in Hong Kong into separate categories that describe the power structure that is at work behind the technology. Public screens can be transformed into almost anything, but that transformative power is only in the grasp of whoever is controlling the screen. Screens are a continuation of an already in play power structure that is encroaching on the purest form of publicness.

Partially Obsolete-Publicness

Partially obsolete-public screens are the epitome of privatization in the public realm. These screens can be seen from a public setting or sphere and are viewed by the general public but the space is only available to the company that owns it. In turn, this means the public realm is becoming increasingly more monopolized by corporations. As Hong Kong continues to develop, the physical landscape is changing to incorporate digital technology into the building facades making the technology more and more ordinary. As W. L. M. Yee has argued, “Hong Kong architecture constructs a visual space that resists critical dismantling. It seems that architecture encourages a process of unreflective visual consumption.”4W. L. M. Yee, “Between crisis and creativity: Esther M. K. Cheung’s Study of the Everyday,” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, 3, no. 3 (2016): 409. As these screens become more ubiquitous, spectators are still internalizing the content but are less conscious of it, thus giving the content and by association the companies more power over the spectator. The screen disrupts the public sphere’s natural process of determining public opinion by dialogue by instead using dissemination. Partially-obsolete public screens serve as an advertising space for the company that has ownership. The screen below displays a Swatch advertisement film on loop above a store in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. The screen is owned by Swatch and will never display a message or ad for anything other than Swatch. It is limited to who/what owns it. This screen inhabits the same area as the next screen example, they are caddy-corner from one another. To the untrained eye they look the same but at slightly different scales. Yet while both are able to coexist alongside one another, they operate in different manners.

Partially Obsolete-Public Screen Example. Tsim Sha Tsui District, Kowloon, Hong Kong (2018). Photo by author


Semi-Public refers to a platform or screen that can be viewed from a public setting. It is owned by a company but the screen space is available to be purchased – all citizens have access if they have the proper dollar amount. This type of public is the most typical for public screens in Hong Kong. Screens in Hong Kong similarly vary in scale from small to medium to large and their content varies based on location. As Chris Berry has noted for the context of Shanghai, “In the case of today’s public screens, the scale of the image is variable, sound is often (although not always) absent, and the screen increasingly acts as a platform for a range of rapidly changing materials (news, weather, advertisements, and film, to name a few).”5Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Ambient Screens and Transnational Public Space, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016): 59-80. The screen shown below is also located in Tsim Sha Tsui. Owned by JM Network, it primarily displays content of this same nature. JM Network owns the screen, pays for the technology and its installation, maintains it and sells the space to a variety of different industries. Their biggest customers come from the film industry and government agencies. JM Network owns seventy different screens across Hong Kong, from small to large scale screens. This one screen alone, 9×16 m, generates $1-2 million a year. JM Network acts as a gatekeeper in this case. Since they purchased the screen, they control what is displayed and when. Anyone can display their content if they go through the proper channels and have the means to fit the bill. There is a decently high point-of-entry here solely due to the fact that space costs money. But because the gatekeeper, JM Network, entertains the content of many other companies, the power of influence is spread out amongst them.

Semi-Public Screen Example. Tsim Sha Tsui District, Kowloon, Hong Kong (2018). Photo by author

True/Pure Publicness

This form of publicness is perhaps an ideal, one that is well documented in scholarly journals, but an ideal nonetheless. Habermas’ idea of the public sphere is transferable to this notion in the sense of openness and accessibility. True/pure publicness implies that a screen can be seen from a public setting and is open to or shared by all the people of an area or country. In order for a screen to be truly public, unrestricted access must be granted, and with a digital platform that is hard to come by and maybe impossible to find. As demonstrated by the examples above, some restrictions apply. These restrictions come from the entry point that is required to gain access to a public screen, there is a monetary value attached to purchasing, installing, and maintaining the technology. A gatekeeper then comes into play and you must then differentiate between publicly owned and publicly accessible. The public’s freedom of expression is limited when access to thought items or screens in the public sphere are cut off.

Even if the problem of ownership was removed from the equation there is at least one remaining outside factor—location—as it keeps the platform of a screen from expressing a truly public form. One must consider location as a context under which screens operate. The examples provided in this essay are located within Hong Kong, a former British Dependent Territory that is in a period of reintroduction into communist China. This Special Administrative Region (SAR) operates under the slogan “one country, two systems,” a partially democratic society soon to be converted to communism. Chris Berry emphasizes, “public space is a contested space, and screens participate in attempts to regulate and smooth our public behaviors.”6Ibid, 59. Although the screens in Hong Kong are not regulated officially by a fully communist government, the government of mainland China still plays a role in what is allowed to be displayed in public areas. A degree of censorship does occur, most censorship efforts are to decrease indecency or violence shown in the public sphere, which is arguably a good thing but is censorship nonetheless and therefore a reduced form a publicness. Additionally, a degree of censorship comes from the new trend of persons that are buying these screens and art projects to display on them, as “the city’s wealthy landlords and managers of public spaces are increasingly funding art projects to dress up their malls and apartment buildings, and creating their own arts foundations—but most remain heavily beholden to Beijing because of their vast commercial interests in mainland China.”7Vivienne Chow, “Hong Kong Wants to Remain a Global Arts Hub While Censoring Political Art,” Quartz, May 24, 2016, This new trend of buyers contributes to the Chinese government’s agenda and begs the question: will the same amount of public expression freedoms be allowed in 2047 and beyond?


I fear there is no purely public platform in the digital age. Because of the monetary value attached to screens, there is no truly public form of a digital screen – a gatekeeper is required for the operation of the screen, dollars are required to purchase the technology or rent the space or to create a digital image for the screen. Some level of ownership is involved regardless; publicly owned screens are obsolete, but publicly accessible screens live on in the form of semi-public screens. Public screens aren’t truly public. They are instead a continuation of the pre-existing power structure in Hong Kong and Shanghai, China. Freedom of expression for the general public is being limited in this top-down society. As stated by Habermas’ critics DeLuca and Peeples, “there is no real public, but, rather . . . the public is the product of publicity, of pictures.” 8Kevin M. DeLuca & Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, no. 2 (2002): 133. Screens have disrupted publicness in the sense that the power of suggestion seems to place distraction over deliberation, slogans over arguments, and appearance over truth. Gatekeepers or in some cases government agencies who have a stake in the matter participate in both conscious and unconscious censorship and dissemination that limits the potential for a purely public screen. The potential of the blank screen canvas, which could to be transformed into almost anything and be used for a multitude of purposes, is instead limited by the power structure that has a hold of it.


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