Evocative Accounts of Soon-to-Vanish Sites: Recent — and Not So Recent — Hong Kong Poetry and Prose

December 23, 2021   •   By Andrea Lingenfelter

AFTER THE DEMOLITION, as I strolled among those old things salvaged from the Walled City — sign boards removed from antiquated shops, discarded abacuses, old account books, yellowing photographs — I seemed to have wandered into an old, forsaken city, seemed to be greeted with all kinds of ambiguous signs pointing to all sorts of bizarre meanings. But I knew that those disjointed signs, the scattered artefacts, could never equal the solid, lived-in place from which they came.

If we now think about this soon-to-vanish site, it is not for reasons of nostalgia, but in order to understand better the place in which we live, the space which we all share.

— Leung Ping-kwan, “The Walled City in Kowloon: A Space We All Shared”

The celebrated poet Leung Ping-kwan (1949–2013) wrote these words in 1993 about the destruction of the Kowloon Walled City, an unincorporated patch of territory that was once the most densely populated spot on earth. But his sentiments are just as apt for Hong Kong as a whole today. In more ways than one, the city that Hongkongers once knew is being demolished. The civil liberties and independent judiciary that defined Hong Kong and which were guaranteed under the Basic Law are being rapidly eroded under the draconian National Security Law (NSL) imposed by Beijing in 2020.

Month after month come new reports of disturbing disappearances. August 2021, when I am writing this, has been no different. [1] Earlier this month, the 95,000-member Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, which had represented teachers for half a century, disbanded due to increasing official pressure. A few days later, the Civil Human Rights Front disbanded, and the Hong Kong Bar Association has been targeted in a People’s Daily editorial. At the same time, Hongkongers themselves are disappearing, some into jail for violations of the NSL, some into exile abroad, some into the silence of self-censorship. In the face of all of this, how can those who live outside of Hong Kong and who do not speak Cantonese or read Chinese get a better understanding of “this soon-to-vanish site”?

One good place to turn is nonfiction. There has been a bumper crop of books in English about the protests of 2014 and 2019, including Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong (2017) and City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong (2020); Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now (2020), a memoir co-written with Jason Y. Ng; Ben Bland’s Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow (2017); and Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (2020). For a sense of how the protests felt on the ground, Aftershock: Essays from Hong Kong (2020), a particularly poignant volume on the city’s travails edited by Holmes Chan for Small Tune Press, offers an excellent introduction. Aftershock brings together the reflections of 11 Hong Kong–based journalists who covered the 2019 protests for local and international news outlets. Editor Chan invited contributors to set aside their customary journalistic distance and share their feelings about what they had witnessed. These brief essays, none more than 10 pages long, combine analysis with reflection and are deeply moving.

The essays range widely in focus. Chan’s own chapter discusses police brutality and considers the implications: “Violence is often assumed to be functional, but I have learned that it is also expressive.” On a more personal level, Elaine Yu explores the loss of innocence. Comparing her high school years with those of 2019’s teenagers, she observes that her generation “sometimes had the luxury of not taking ourselves too seriously.” In contrast, she notes that “the school year in 2019 began with a light drizzle and a two-week boycott of classes.” Rachel Cheung, in “A Day’s Work,” examines the pressures exerted on journalists by editors afflicted with both-sides-ism. She describes “a lack of trust in the absence of free dialogue in the newsroom,” which results in reporters “being silenced.” She explains:

Readers tend to blame the editorial line of a publication on its ownership. But regardless of owner, the local press has its own system of self-censorship that has been refined over many years. […] The responsibility lies not with one person, but many: not just high-level editors who passed out instructions — for example, demanding more stories that are sympathetic to the police, requiring the two requiring the use of terms like “radicals” or “mobs” to describe protesters — but also incompetent middle managers that toe the line, and reporters who trade their integrity for better career prospects.

One of the contributors is an anonymous mainlander who was doxxed (attacked online, with personal details about them revealed) in retaliation for their social media posts. They also heard from concerned family members across the border, who feared for their own safety. As the anonymous writer observes:

Some of the finest minds in my generation — people who are familiar with Hong Kong and mainland China, and who I consider to be the best hopes for resolving misunderstandings between the two sides — have fallen silent one after another, each facing situations similar to what I had to endure. Walls are rising, gaps are widening, bridges are being burned, but what purpose does this serve? And to whose benefit?

The author concludes: “I lost my voice, and I have no idea when I will recover.”

But Hong Kong’s story did not begin in 2019, in 2014, or even in 1997, when it went from being a British colony to a “Special Administrative Region” of the PRC. For as long as there has been a Hong Kong, there has been Hong Kong culture and Hong Kong literature. Writers were among those who fled the mainland after 1949. Many of these refugees became part of a vibrant literary and academic culture.

One of these writers was Liu Yichang (1918–2018), whose 1962 stream-of-consciousness novel The Drunkard was one of Wong Kar-wai’s inspirations for In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), two of the most acclaimed Hong Kong films. Set around 1962, The Drunkard (translated by Charlotte Chun-Lam Yiu and published as part of a six-book Chinese University of Hong Kong Press series edited by John Minford) charts the alcoholic decline of a cynical and washed-up writer. Over the course of 43 brief, phantasmagoric chapters, peppered with an eclectic, cosmopolitan range of references (from the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, to works by leading 20th-century Chinese writers like Xiao Hong and Eileen Chang, to The Twilight Zone and Doris Day movies), the first-person narrator ricochets around town, drinking until he blacks out. Trying to escape the misery of his present life, he is haunted by the traumas of his past.

The main story unfolds chronologically, but what gives this book extra dimensions are the chapters in which the narrator recalls events from earlier in his life — a moment in his childhood in Shanghai, at a time China was troubled by violent rivalries between regional warlords, when he witnessed the murder of a captured soldier; a horrifying vignette from his time as a journalist in the wartime capital of Chongqing. These traumas culminate in the narrator’s post-1949 displacement to the crowded city of Hong Kong, where every day is a struggle to survive. He ekes out a living writing serialized martial arts fiction for a local newspaper, a pursuit that fills him with self-loathing because at one time he had been idealistic about literature. The opening of the novel sums up the narrator’s state of mind:

Another day of rain, on my rusty emotions. My thoughts chase one another in and out of wreaths of smoke. Gently opening the window, I see raindrops blinking on a branch. Water slides down the leaves with the fluid steps of a dancer. I turn on the radio. God calling. Probably a good time to go out. In the bar, a waiter in white is serving drinks. Across the table from me is a pair of sparkling eyes.

Liu was more than a gifted writer; he was also a mentor to the generation that came up after him, a generation that included two of the most beloved literary figures in contemporary Hong Kong, the fiction writer and poet Xi Xi (Sai Sai in Cantonese) and Leung Ping-kwan, best known as a poet but also a writer of fiction. (Both have written essays and plays as well.) The best introduction to Xi Xi’s poetry is Not Written Words (2016), translated by Jennifer Feeley for Zephyr Press. (Fans of that work should be happy to learn, as I was, that Feeley is working on Xi Xi’s genre-bending cancer memoir, Mourning a Breast. Much of Xi Xi’s fiction — My City: A Hong Kong Story (1993), A Girl Like Me, and Other Stories (1983) — has been published in Hong Kong, and I’m optimistic that more of it will become available globally in the future.)

English-language readers looking for a delightful example of Xi Xi’s versatility can turn to The Teddy Bear Chronicles, translated by Christina Sanderson for the CUHK series (distributed in the US by Columbia University Press). Part literary essay, part informal personal reflection, part picture book, this volume offers a wonderful window onto Xi Xi’s inexhaustibly inventive and playful mind. The book combines color reproductions of the writer’s collection of handsewn teddy bears with short, informal commentaries. Not only did Xi Xi sew the bears herself, but she also fashioned historically researched costumes for each one. She originally embarked on this project as a form of occupational therapy, after she lost the use of her right hand due to cancer treatments, and the project took on a life of its own. Xi Xi’s bears represent legendary, historical, and literary figures from China’s past, as well as characters from Western fairy tales. The essays relate to the images, sometimes containing descriptions of the costumes and how she made them, along with notes about substitutions where she has had to use contemporary materials. At other times she comments on the figures depicted, drawing connections between historical context and the present moment. This project, like much of the author’s work, reflects her simultaneously whimsical and serious approach to life and art. The mythological and cultural figures are familiar to Chinese-speaking audiences but not to Western readers, and the translator has prefaced each selection with an introductory note to provide further context. These notes sometimes take up so much space that they get in the way of the images and Xi Xi’s text, but this is still a fun and worthwhile read.

A fair amount of work by Leung Ping-kwan (who also published under the name Ye Si) has been translated into English. For a sense of Leung’s prose writing skills, Brian Holton’s 2015 translation of the novel Paper Cuts is an excellent place to start. As for his poetry, a very fine sampling is Fly Heads and Bird Claws (2012), edited for MCCM Creations by Christopher Mattison, who worked with a group of excellent translators. The book contains texts spanning Leung’s long career. Other collections of his verse include City at the End of Time (2012), translated by Gordon T. Osing for Hong Kong University Press, and Travelling with a Bitter Melon: Selected Poems, 1973–1988 (2002), edited by Martha Cheung, with translations contributed by a number of translators. These collections are rather hard to find in North America, so it was promising that a new compilation of Leung’s poetry, Lotus Leaves: Selected Poems of Leung Ping-kwan (2020), is part of the CUHK Press series. Unfortunately, this volume adds little to an overall appreciation of the poet, as translations of most of the poems have been published elsewhere. Furthermore, while the cover lists Minford as both editor and translator, some of the versions inside are essentially identical to previously published ones by Michelle Yeh, the late Martha Cheung, and others. A passing reference to other translators appears in the work’s introduction, but their names do not appear next to specific poems. (In response to queries, the press has noted that they will change the ebook version to bring it into line with the standard practice for collections of this kind, placing the translator’s name by each poem, and that Minford will add an explanatory paragraph to the acknowledgments section. If there are future print editions, these changes will appear there as well.)

The past decade has seen the publication of a number of English-language translations of collections of poetry and works of fiction by more recent generations of Hong Kong writers, most notably Dung Kai-cheung, Hon Lai Chu, and Dorothy Tse. Dung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (2012) is a book about Hong Kong that is in many respects a response to Xi Xi’s My City, itself a riff on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). His speculative novel The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera (Hong Kong UP, 2018) is part of an ongoing trend of speculative and surrealistic fiction by Hong Kong writers. Hong Kong’s leading surrealists are Hon and Tse, whose dystopian imaginings, touching on climate change, disease, gender relations, and unemployment, capture the zeitgeist. Tse’s collection Snow and Shadow (Muse, 2014; translated by Nicky Harman) and Hon’s collection of short stories The Kite Family (Muse, 2015; translated by the author of this review), along with Dung’s Vivi and Vera and Not Written Words, were published as part of the ongoing HKAtlas project initiated a decade ago by editor Christopher Mattison.

If the HKAtlas series is devoted primarily to work by the younger generation of writers, the 2020 CUHK series is focused more on what came before. The Drunkard and The Teddy Bear Chronicles are the real standouts, but one other title deserves attention: The Best China: Essays from Hong Kong (2020), a collection of writings about Hong Kong or by people in Hong Kong dating from the 19th century through the end of 2019. It is a grab bag of material, including observations and verse translations by early British colonists, essays written by Hong Kong Chinese scholars and intellectuals of the mid-to-late 20th century, and work by more recent movers and shakers like Louis Cha (also known as Jin Yong, the much-admired author of martial arts novels) and Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily newspaper (now in jail as a result of the NSL).

Section I, “Forerunners,” is made up of nine essays from the 19th and early 20th centuries, seven of them written by colonialists, two by Chinese men. Wang Tao (1828–1897), an eminent translator, is represented by a eulogy for the missionary and sinologist James Legge, while the piece by Sun Yat-sen (“I Got My Ideas in Hong Kong”) is full of praise for the British system of government. While the nostalgia for the time of British rule left me feeling somewhat queasy, the content and curation of this section illuminates the colonial mindset, presented here (with no discernible irony) as a mixture of entitlement, curiosity, and cluelessness.

Section II, “More Recent Times,” contains 21 essays by 20 writers, all but one of them Chinese. Reading the handful of essays by and/or about sinologists was like attending a series of wakes for a parent’s college classmates. Fortunately, the rest of this section is very engaging. There are essays by political figures (Jimmy Lai, Margaret Ng), public intellectuals (Lee Yee), and poets and fiction writers (Timothy Mo, Leung, Xi Xi). Many of these pieces are reprints from sources that are less accessible to the general reader, and it’s good to have some of them gathered in one place. That said, apart from a handful of memorable recent essays, it was the obliviousness of the British colonizers in the first section that made the deepest impression on me and left me wondering if Hongkongers ever stood a chance.

I will let Leung have the last word, with a quote from his “The Sorrows of Lan Kwai Fong” (1993–’94):

Like Hong Kong, [Lan Kwai Fong] is a mixed, hybrid space, crowded and dangerous, carnival-like even in times of crisis, close to heaven and yet never far from disaster, easily accessible and also easily exploited and appropriated by political, economic and other forces. How can we strive to ensure that this place remains an open and creative home? What may appear on the surface to be mere prudence can so easily succumb to the pressure of self-censorship; what passes for free uninhibited debate can end up injuring the freedom of others. This open space can all too easily be lost. In the absence of a friendly, stable home, we are destined to wander homeless, with nothing but our words and images.

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Andrea Lingenfelter, an award-winning translator, teaches literature and film at the University of San Francisco. She has written on Hong Kong poet Tammy Ho Lai-Ming for BLARB, and she recently finished work on two collections of verse by Shanghai poet Wang Yin: Ghosts City Sea (Seaweed Salad Press, 2021) and Wang Yin: Selected Poems (New York Review Books, forthcoming 2022).

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[1] In the three months since I wrote this article, the crackdown on civil society has continued, with more detentions and dozens of organizations forced to disband, including Hong Kong’s largest union, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Significantly, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, despite increasing pressure, has not folded.