Like many Filipino-Chinese people of a certain age, I grew up listening to a lot of Teresa Teng, among other stars of the Chinese pop scene. I remember her greatest hits CD, with its glossy steel gray cover and portrait of her smiling in a black blazer, being played by my dad ad nauseum on family road trips, ensconced in between helpings of Simon and Garfunkel and The Brothers Four. He considered her the most ubiquitous of all the Cantopop greats, and I’ve found little reason to believe otherwise. Even as my grasp of Mandarin has grown tenuous at best—a side effect of being a third-generation child of the diaspora living in a country whose Chinese population favors Hokkien—I still know most of the words to classics like “月亮代表我的心” (“The Moon Represents My Heart”) and “我只在乎你” (“I Only Care About You”), as do many of my Filipino-Chinese friends who have likewise largely unlearned the rest of the language. For me, it feels like one of the few robust links I have to a heritage I’ve never really felt close to.
Not that I had any interest in doing so when I was younger. In my teens, I was very much what older Chinese people would call a “banana:” yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Beginning at age 13 when I discovered Queen by way of the Shaun of the Dead bar scene up until very recently, I was almost exclusively a disciple of Western pop music, thumbing my nose at my dad’s beloved Cantopop and deeming it turgid and fuddy-duddy. Few people are as convinced of their own correctness as a high-schooler who just started listening to Bob Dylan and thought that was all there was to “real music.”
This uneasy relationship with Chinese culture extended well beyond the music, of course. When I was younger, I often bristled at the rigid notions of success my parents and all their friends seemed to share, especially as I realized how much my passions differed from what was expected of me. I resented the way they never seemed to take my artistic ambitions seriously, and I found their commitment to tradition stifling and inexplicable. In hindsight, none of it was really specific to Chinese culture—it’s all very Lady Bird, actually—but at the time, it felt like an easy thing to blame for whatever angst I was going through. In the eyes of teenage me, to be Chinese was to be boring, and nothing frightened teenage me more than being boring.
So I ran from being Chinese, but as I would later realize, you can never really run from your heritage. Reminders of it exist everywhere you look, and you will even find yourself missing it given enough distance. Indeed, where the great angst of my teens was trying to escape that part of my identity, one of the great angsts of my 20s has been taking baby steps towards some sort of compromise with it.
Released in 1996—coincidentally, the same year I was born—Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story exquisitely captures the angst between wanting to run from and being ceaselessly borne back into your roots. It can’t help bur do so, given that it’s set during a time and at a place that, in hindsight, feels like a Rubicon moment for Chinese identity in the modern world: Hong Kong in the 10 years leading up to the transfer of power from the British to the Chinese government. Smartly, the film never engages with it head-on, and instead allows the sociopolitical dynamics between a Westernizing metropolis and a more traditional mainland to obliquely play out around its two leads, both young dreamers trying to make it in a city that is simultaneously merciless and brimming with potential.
Because the film takes such a roundabout route to get to its thematic preoccupations, it’s easy to mistake Comrades for just another schmaltzy but well-made romance. Centered on the epic, continent-spanning star-crossed romance between the kind-hearted by naïve Xiaojun (Leon Lai) and the snarky, street-smart Li Qiao (Maggie Cheung), the movie traffics in a fair bit of cultural shorthand that some people might miss. Fortunately, it isn’t devoid of surface charms for those not privy to its more specific Chinese touchstones—Cheung is the sort of actor whose talent and presence transcend languages and borders, and Lai acquits himself reasonably well opposite the screen legend. But those charms take on a new potency for those carrying the proper cultural baggage. Most crucially, the film’s emotional punch hinges on an intimate familiarity with Teresa Teng and how central she and her music are to the millions of people who make up the Chinese diaspora.
Teng’s music serves as a motif (and occasional Greek chorus) throughout Comrades. Its Chinese title is even taken from perhaps her most iconic hit, “甜蜜蜜” (“Very Sweet”), and you could chart the arc of the protagonists’ romance through moments that directly involve Teng or some evocation of her. The first time they sleep together is during Chinese New Year’s Eve, after a failed evening trying to sell Teresa Teng cassette tapes to a cosmopolitan populace that considers her too provincial.
They drift apart and then reunite as friends who now both have their own partners, and then they resume their sexual relationship after they encounter Teng herself being mobbed by fans on the street and get her to sign Xiaojun’s jacket, all while “再见我的爱人” (“Goodbye, My Love”) is playing on the car radio. The epilogue sees them both emigrating to the U.S. separately under vastly different circumstances and reuniting once again, this time half a world away in New York City, where both of them—in a bit of contrivance you’d have to be joyless not to forgive—end up watching coverage on her untimely death from outside the window of the same television store.
Alongside the evolution of the characters’ relationship, the film also uses Teresa Teng as a subtle bellwether for the shift in sentiments toward mainland Chinese culture in the very Westernized Hong Kong pre-transfer. In the late ‘80s, when everyone in the city wanted to learn English and eat at McDonald’s, no one would have been caught dead with a Teresa Teng cassette. “Only mainlanders like Teresa Teng,” Xiaojun even muses. Just a few years later, she would be openly accosted by groupies in the very same city. The fact that her death receives media coverage even half a world away is a testament to the push-pull of cultural heritage in the age of globalization, necessitating dispatches from home even to the most far-flung of elsewhere. Just as it is with Li Qiao and Xiaojun, to leave home for some other place is to be inextricably tethered to one’s cultural past even as one strives to hurtle towards a more uncertain future.
The Chinese identity as depicted in Comrades is a fractured mosaic of subcultures rubbing uneasily against each other, which is as close to accurate as it gets. Guangzhou native and aspiring city mouse Li Qiao grouses when Xiaojun, from the more northern province of Tianjin, calls them the same when he finds out she had also emigrated from the mainland like him; she argues that, being from southern China, she was more cosmopolitan because “we get Hong Kong radio stations there.” Even within the mainland, there exist discrete factions and traditions, all attempting to coexist and coalesce into something vaguely resembling a coherent Chinese culture that still does justice by its own domestic cultural diversity, as well as the myriad communities that have sprouted up abroad but still identify as Chinese.
All this makes it difficult to ascertain what it really means to be Chinese, which feels like the point. One of the great misconceptions about any national culture is that it exists as a monolith, with a clearly defined set of values and morals that determine whether you are in or out. The human experience is, at heart, about existing uncomfortably with each other despite our differences, so there is no reason to believe cultural identity would be founded on any other dynamic. Taken as a global community, the Chinese have three major languages, dozens of culinary traditions, a plethora of religious beliefs, and politics that span the entirety of the left-right spectrum; it is practically impossible to boil it down to a specific way of being. If the only thing we can all agree on is Teresa Teng, that would be more than enough.
The scene in Comrades I go back to most often happens early in the film. Li Qiao had just enrolled Xiaojun in the English school where she works as a recruiter and cleaning lady, and he offers her a ride as she is rushing to get to her next side hustle. Riding his bike (Li Qiao remarks that no one really offers anyone a ride on a bicycle in Hong Kong) across the streets of Hong Kong’s city center, they pass by several recognizable icons of Western capitalism—the Lacoste crocodile, the Swatch logo, what have you—as Xiaojun ironically remarks that he feels like he is back home in rural Tianjin. Suddenly, the unmistakable strings of “甜蜜蜜” play from some radio in the background. Li Qiao begins to sing along—an early tell that she isn’t exactly the dyed-in-the-wool Hong Kong native she carries herself as and initially claims to be—and Xiaojun follows suit. For that one beautiful moment, these two markedly different individuals shared the same soul.
This marks the beginning of their friendship, a kinship born out of a shared appreciation for a pop song, of all things. To some, that might seem like an awful thin reed to hang a relationship on, but when you’re alone and far from home in a strange and unfriendly new city, these moments of profound familiarity become a rarer and more precious sort of currency. The feelings they elicit are not quite nostalgia, although in this case, the moment does derive its power from these characters associating Teng’s music with their past lives in mainland China. However, where nostalgia is static and inert, this moment is immediate and dynamic. When they sing along to “甜蜜蜜” on Xiaojun’s defiantly provincial bicycle amid the metropolitan cars on the road, they are not reminiscing about the home they left behind but discovering in that present moment a new home that has space for both who they once were and who they have yet to be, and that is neither Hong Kong nor China or even strictly a geographical place.
The film’s meditation of what home means to its characters is inherent in its very structure, as Xiaojun and Li Qiao, both already transplants at the start of the film, are pushed further and further away from their homeland as the narrative moves along, first emotionally—Xiaojun brings his sweetheart from Tianjin to Hong Kong and Li Qiao’s mother in Guangzhou passes away, thus knotting both their surviving ties to the mainland—and then geographically in the film’s epilogue. And yet, the ending gives us the sense that these two have never felt more at home then at that moment in the front of the window display of a nondescript New York electronics store. To borrow a quote from the Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, “Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.”
And so they find their homes in each other, some 8,000 miles away from where they first met in Hong Kong, “甜蜜蜜” once again playing in the background as they stumble into another moment of profound familiarity just as they did nearly a decade prior. In each other, they recognize the faint echoes of old lives they have left behind, but also the potential for a second chance. We don’t find out for sure if they last, but that hardly seems like the point. In this increasingly modernized and globalized world, placelessness is the status quo and home a constantly moving target. Sometimes, home feels like home forever; other times, it only lasts as long as a pop song. Both are worth pursuing, as is everything in between. Love—and by extension, home—is all a matter of timing.
Comrades ends where it begins, moving from New York in 1996 back to Hong Kong in 1986 in the span of a title card. More than just dropping one more dollop of schmaltz, it speaks to the circular relationship between our past, present, and future. Even as we all must someday leave our first homes to discover parts of ourselves that we never would have otherwise, we will always be drawn back to them, with each new home carrying pieces of each old one like souvenirs on its shelves. These new homes, then, ought to have enough room for the parts of yourself you cannot leave behind. Like the words to a song you know all too well, your heritage and history are something you carry with you even as you build an identity beyond it, simply waiting for an errant radio or passing car with the windows down to stir it back to the surface. Even far from where you came from, they can be home too.