I picked up the visual novel A Summer’s End — Hong Kong 1986 weeks ago, just at the start of Hong Kong’s swelteringly hot summer. I ventured out to Mong Kok later that afternoon to meet up with some friends for dim sum; Mong Kok is one of the busiest and liveliest areas of Hong Kong, densely populated with markets, food stalls, and a crush of people.
We pushed through shifting crowds and walked up Tung Choi Street after we ate, a street famous for its goldfish market and pet shops, stopping in at several places to coo at the kittens that slept in the display boxes, their tiny bodies clustered together. My friend bought himself a cup of curry fish balls on our way back to the subway station.
I began playing A Summer’s End that evening, after I had returned to my computer. Developed by Vancouver-based indie game studio Oracle and Bone, A Summer’s End is a visual novel about Michelle and Sam, two women in 1980s Hong Kong who meet, spend time together, and gradually develop a romantic relationship.
I don’t often see games set in my home city, much less those focused on romance between two women; games that represent such a perfect intersection of my identities are very rare as a bisexual woman born and raised in Hong Kong.
I was especially eager to catch a glimpse of Hong Kong as it was in 1986, more than a decade before I was born.
Going back in time to find myself, and my city
A Summer’s End draws upon the aesthetics of ‘80s anime and Hong Kong cinema to create its distinctive look. The game’s visual and aural elements blend together seamlessly to create a visual novel that is both atmospheric and seemingly true to the time period it represents. Again, this is set in a time that took place a decade before I was born; but I could feel the echoes of that place in my daily existence.
But the real surprise to me was the way the game made me feel seen, in a way no game has before.
Michelle is a tightly wound young office lady whose job and strained relationship with her mother puts her under constant pressure. One of her heels breaks while she’s heading to work one day, forcing her to seek out a cobbler who was recommended by one of Michelle’s superiors.
There, she meets Sam, the cool and self-assured cobbler’s daughter, who invites Michelle to dinner while they wait for her shoe to be repaired.
I felt a sudden jolt of familiarity as the scene transitioned from Michelle’s office building to the bright and bustling streets of Mong Kok. It was jarring to see such a familiar environment in a game that already felt like it was talking to me, but I was thrilled. It’s like suddenly recognizing an actor you know in a movie you didn’t realize they were in.
Michelle and Sam spend time together in a pet shop before they go to dinner. They gaze at each other across the fish tanks, and you get the distinct sense that they recognize something in each other despite never having met. I felt that same strange sense of recognition, too, watching these two women talk, reach out, and connect, surrounded by the swathes of color and neon that I knew, and know, so well. It made me nostalgic for a time that I hadn’t even lived through, but felt I had barely missed.
Why this year matters
The choice to set A Summer’s End in the year 1986 isn’t random, by any means. It takes place just one year after a joint treaty was signed between China and the United Kingdom, agreeing that, in 1997, Hong Kong would cease to be a British colony and be returned to China, an event more commonly known as “the handover.”
I’m part of the generation of young Hongkongers who grew up after the handover. My parents were both from China, and I never knew colonial Hong Kong, but the aftereffects of British colonialism still informed many aspects of my upbringing. I went through British international schools for thirteen years, adopted British slang, and learned British history. Almost every teacher I ever had was British. My friends and I all spoke English.
But there were also plenty of kids who didn’t have the same upbringing. The city is a hodgepodge of wildly different perspectives, in fact. I’ve always had a hard time puzzling out exactly which cultural background I truly identify with.
In A Summer’s End, the uncertainty that arises from the larger context of the coming handover is unavoidable and ever-present. That uncertainty is so much a part of the story that it runs parallel to Michelle’s growing feelings for Sam, and the complications that arise from that longing.
Just as Hong Kong is on the verge of entering a period of turmoil and unstable cultural identity that will continue for the next few decades, Michelle is making a discovery about herself that will leave her forever changed, in a place that doesn’t seem to have made up its mind about the future.
The challenge of navigating an ever-changing identity is something that most Hongkongers nowadays can relate to. Among young people, especially, there’s a persistent desire for Hong Kong to be its own coherent entity, something that’s not continually caught between states of being. Hong Kong’s future seems to be firming up these days, but I think there was a unique liberation in the perpetual uncertainty. Many of us shared the idea that Hong Kong could one day be whatever we wanted it to be.
A Summer’s End deftly portrays the strange freedom that comes with uncertainty, in knowing the future can be what you make of it. The game is deeply romantic, which may seem obvious, but it’s more than that, and dismissing it as such is to deprive yourself of a deeply human experience.
Joy and optimism shine out of the game at every turn, from the glitzy nightclubs to the sand-swept beaches. Even the way the game presents Hong Kong itself is romanticized. The colors are brighter. The skies are bluer. It has always been a beautiful place, but the game’s vision of Hong Kong is imbued with a genuine love that makes it shine.
Each moment lasts forever
A Summer’s End is a story about finding the fleetingly good things in life, and holding onto them as hard as you can.
Michelle and Sam drive out to a beach nestled in the mountains of Hong Kong in hopes of seeing the stars at night. The stars aren’t usually visible to the naked eye in the city because of the heavy light pollution, but Sam insists they’ll be able to see the Milky Way from the beach. They sit and talk late into the night, and finally, as they’re leaving, they manage to catch a glimpse of the stars.
Michelle’s narration is simple, but heartfelt.
“The cluster of starry lights shone brightly for us in this temporal moment,” Michelle says. “We gazed at it as long as we could. I knew it would only be a short moment. For the clouds would soon cover the sky once again, returning the night to a plain darkness. But we saw it. We actually saw it. And it was stunning.”
A Summer’s End has two endings. Michelle can’t bring herself to chase after Sam, and immigrates to America with her new family. Countless Hongkongers did the same thing, leaving the social and economic turmoil behind to start a new life elsewhere, in hopes of a better future for their children. Is this the true ending? It’s certainly likely to be the most historically accurate.
I don’t think that’s the good ending, though. The good ending shows us Michelle and Sam sitting in the same small restaurant where they had dinner together for the first time. They’re living together in Sam’s tiny apartment, nestled in the heart of Mong Kok. Things are sometimes difficult, but they’re together, and Michelle is happy.
It’s easy to be cynical and say that it won’t last, that the hardships and realities of building a life together in Hong Kong, especially as two young women working low-paying jobs, will drive them apart, eventually.
But that’s the beauty of A Summer’s End, and the romantic vision it presents of Hong Kong, and of gay love. It acknowledges that some things aren’t meant to last, but it also allows you to believe, if you’d like, that Michelle and Sam will always be happy, and they’ll always be together, despite all the hardships.
Though it may not be the more realistic ending, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the game establish that they don’t have to compromise parts of themselves or leave Hong Kong to achieve the better future that everyone strives for. Ultimately, that’s what all of us want: the freedom to be ourselves, in a place that feels like home to us.
Every so often, the stars are visible through the clouds. All you have to do is reach out for them.
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