The Man without a Country: British Imperial Nostalgia in Ferry to Hong Kong (1959)

The Man without a Country: British Imperial Nostalgia in Ferry to Hong Kong (1959)
Kenny K. K. Ng
On New Year’s Eve 1959, Ferry to Hong Kong was screened at the Lee Theatre and the Astor in Hong Kong. Produced by Rank as its first CinemaScope feature, the big-budget movie tells the real-life tale of Steven Ragan (he was also known as Michael Patrick O’Brien), a stateless drifter who was stuck for ten months on the ferry sailing between Hong Kong and Macau from September 18, 1952, to July 30, 1953. The British film was Rank’s major Anglo-American joint venture of the year. Positioned within Cold War contexts, Ferry to Hong Kong could be seen as a British cultural-diplomatic response through cinematic soft power to reestablish national assurance on Asian Cold War fronts, following the 1956 Suez Canal debacle that witnessed the death of Britain’s imperial might at the hands of the Eisenhower administration. Unlike such vaunted Hollywood pictures as Soldier of Fortune (1955), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), and The World of Suzie Wong (1960), which imagined the incursions of American white knights into Hong Kong (as a stand-in for China), Ferry to Hong Kong conveyed imperial nostalgia and loss. The film turns the antihero into a paragon of British gallantry who saves the passengers and refugees from the hands of Chinese (Communist) pirates. The sinking ferryboat is the traumatic device used to recall British naval war stories and retell romantic and narcissistic tales of British valor and international influence. More than an adventure of a vagabond, Ferry to Hong Kong was an espionage thriller in uneasy disguise. The film preceded Gilbert’s three James Bond films, all of which affirmed the power of the individual in cracking transboundary networks of espionage and political intrigue.

Anglo-American coproduction, Cold War tourism, Hong Kong cinema, orientalism, Orson Welles

Publication date

1 Dec 2022 – 31 Jan 2023

Journal title, volume/issue number, page range

Global Storytelling: Journal of Digital and Moving Images, ed. Kenneth Paul Tan 2.2 (Winter 2022): 131–73.






International Relations and Politics
National politics
Art and Culture
War / Peace