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from the June 2018 issue

Reimagined Cities: Fabulist Tales from Hong Kong


or 9971

what’s it

to me

—Xi Xi, “Pebble”


Hong Kong’s unique geographical, cultural, and historical positions offer much to inspire the magic realist and surrealist literary imaginations. Since the 1840s, the territory has undergone British colonization, Japanese occupation, and, depending on one’s perspective, a return to the motherland, or, alternatively, a Chinese recolonization. It is part of China, yet the two are separated by immigration checkpoints, as well as palpable institutional and lifestyle differences.

For several decades prior to 1997, when sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, the British Crown Colony was caught in between the political struggles of the Nationalists in Taiwan and the Communists in the PRC. The result was an alternative Chinese space with no national identity, the freest in the Sinosphere until martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987. One could openly read literature that had been banned in China for being too “rightist,” literature that had been banned in Taiwan for being too “leftist,” and Republican-period Chinese literature that had been banned in both places, in addition to foreign literature translated into Chinese. It was an ideological battleground as well as a neutral space, where pro-Communist and pro-Nationalist newspapers were sold side by side. It served as a point of refuge from the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and later from the authoritarian governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. From the 1950s through 1970s, mainlanders flooded into Hong Kong in search of better lives. Many swam all night across treacherous bodies of water; some drowned or were eaten by sharks, or were shot dead by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. Others were returned to China by the Hong Kong police. Those who safely made it became vital contributors to Hong Kong’s economic boom in the ’70s and ’80s.

Since the early 1980s, when Chinese and British government officials began discussing plans for the territory’s future, the year 1997 loomed as a specter in Hong Kong literature, a reminder of the city’s precarious future. What would happen when the clock struck midnight on July 1—like Cinderella’s magnificent carriage, would Hong Kong suddenly transform into a pumpkin, or did a happy ending await?                                                                                                                       

On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the handover, in 2017, a statement issued by a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sparked international controversy for seeming to belittle the Sino-British Joint Declaration as a historical document no longer of “practical significance.” Signed in 1984, the international treaty laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s subsequent transition from a British colony to a special administrative region of China. Enshrined in the Joint Declaration is the governing formula of “one country, two systems” that grants semi-autonomy and civic freedoms to Hong Kong residents, guaranteeing the territory’s right to maintain independent executive, legislative, and judicial institutions through at least 2047. Since the recent anniversary of the handover, Hong Kong has been under increased scrutiny, and for many, the spokesperson’s remarks confirmed their sense that the Chinese central government is encroaching on the city's autonomy and eroding freedoms that are supposed to be protected by law. These views were reinforced when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong last summer to commemorate the anniversary, delivering a sternly worded nationalistic speech and presiding over a grand parade that showed off Beijing’s military might.

Though Hong Kongers have asserted their voices at various points throughout history, they have never been able to truly self-govern. The desire for genuine universal suffrage triggered the 2014 civil disobedience campaign, Occupy Central, also known as the Umbrella Movement, in which democracy activists occupied several of the city’s main thoroughfares for a total of seventy-nine days, making it one of the territory’s longest-running protests. In late 2015, five of the city’s booksellers who’d published politically sensitive material were allegedly abducted and later reappeared in the mainland, causing concern that China had breached the terms of the Joint Declaration. Last July, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center refused to allow student activist Joshua Wong to speak at the launch of PEN Hong Kong’s anthology Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, prompting PEN Hong Kong to relocate the event (which Wong ultimately missed to participate in a sit-in protesting President Xi’s visit) and leading to accusations that the US-based Asia Society was “kowtowing to China.” Moreover, six pro-democracy “localist” lawmakers were disqualified from serving on the Legislative Council for failing to display the “requisite solemnity and sincerity” during their swearing-in ceremonies.

For the past two decades, Hong Kong has been “an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” Its economy is largely dependent on the mainland, and Chinese visitors regularly flock to the city. Yet these closer ties actually have illuminated the territory’s uniqueness. Localism is on the rise, especially among the younger generation, with writers, artists, and intellectuals striving to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct history, culture, and memories. One of these undertakings is the Atlas Project, funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which brings into English several previously untranslated works by established and emerging literary voices, including the three authors in this feature. Similar endeavors that promote the vibrant polyphony of local literary voices include the journal Fleurs des lettres, co-founded by Dorothy Tse; The House of Hong Kong Literature; Penguin’s recent Hong Kong Series; compilations of literature written by the city’s Southeast Asian domestic workers; the newly established academic journal Hong Kong Studies; and the above-mentioned PEN Hong Kong, among many others.

Hong Kong is situated at the convergence of multiple literary and linguistic traditions. Its official written languages are English (a colonial language) and Chinese, the latter only becoming official in 1972. While there is no official Chinese spoken language, the majority of Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese, though since 1997 Mandarin (for some, also a colonial language) has become more widespread, especially in public announcements, which are usually broadcast in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. There are writers, especially graphic novelists, who have incorporated Cantonese into their work, and perhaps the future will see the rise of a Cantophone literature. At present, however, Chinese-language literature in the territory is primarily composed in standard written Chinese, including the three stories in this feature. Standard written Chinese has a different grammar, and often a different vocabulary, than Cantonese, creating a gap between the written and spoken word. As Andrea Lingenfelter observes, most outsiders, and many in the mainland, regard Cantonese “as a dialect, a language that sinks beneath the surface of the written word (standard written Chinese) and is thereby rendered inaudible, unless a Cantonese-speaking author is reading his or her work aloud.”* Nevertheless, a benefit of writing in standard Chinese is that it allows for Hong Kong literature to be read in Taiwan, mainland China, Singapore, and other Sinophone communities—for example, the authors showcased in this feature all have dedicated audiences in Taiwan, where they regularly publish their work and have received major literary prizes. Yet even “standard” written Chinese has its variations, and a Taiwanese or mainland editor might ask a Hong Kong writer to change certain words or phrases to better accommodate readers outside the territory, thus domesticating the language for a different region while further distancing the text from its roots.

The three writers who are the focus of this feature—Xi Xi, Dorothy Tse, and Hon Lai Chu—mainly write outside of the realist literary tradition. Much of Xi Xi’s writing is labeled as magic realist or fairy-tale realist, and Tse and Hon are noted for their surrealism and absurdism. Similar to Kafka, who hailed from a Central Europe of ever-changing borders and coexisting languages, they fuse together elements of reality and fantasy, crafting fanciful worlds that are grounded in the mundane. They rarely mention Hong Kong by name, either dreaming up alternate designations for the city, or not referencing it at all. Xi Xi’s fictional stand-in for Hong Kong, Fertile Soil Town, is a place with mythical origins that floats to and fro, no destination in sight. In “Chewing On Words,” Tse recreates Hong Kong as City 1997, a flea-sized micro-city that “seems to have disappeared into the same black hole as language.” While the city in Hon’s “Puma” is unnamed, development and urbanization lead to its inhabitants’ imprisonment and alienation. Renaming or not naming Hong Kong gives these authors the freedom to construct competing versions of the city vis-à-vis its official history, enabling them to invent their own limitless realities.

Xi Xi was born in 1937 (though until last year, she thought she was born in 1938) in Shanghai and immigrated with her family to colonial Hong Kong in 1950, one year after the PRC was established, placing her among the first generation of writers to have grown up in the territory. Born in the late 1970s, Dorothy Tse and Hon Lai Chu are part of a younger cohort of writers. Like Xi Xi, Tse and Hon frequently write about Hong Kong, as evinced in the stories that make up their coauthored collection, A Dictionary of Two Cities, where they express raw, heartfelt emotions toward their home. The three women also share a fascination with the fantastic, and Tse is in the final stages of writing a scholarly monograph about Xi Xi.

Xi Xi wrote the earliest selection in this feature, “Apple,” in December 1982, three months after Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping began the first formal negotiations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and fifteen years prior to the handover. It initially was published in Plain Leaves Literature, the noncommercial literary journal that Xi Xi cofounded with friends, and later reprinted in her famed short fiction collection, A Woman Like Me. In fairy-tale fashion, “Apple” tells the story of Fertile Soil Town residents who become entranced by Snow White’s poison apple and set off on a quest to find it so that they may fall into a deep sleep while misfortune passes them by. The story’s whimsical style belies an underlying ambivalence; unlike the children’s tale to which it alludes, there’s no guarantee that the townspeople will end up living happily ever after, thus reflecting the anxiety and uncertainty felt in Hong Kong in the early 1980s regarding the territory’s eventual return to Chinese sovereignty.

As a former primary school teacher, Xi Xi regards fairy tales as specially significant. The first book she recalls reading as a child was an illustrated version of Snow White, and she found herself particularly delighted by the characters’ colorful clothing. She counts Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” and the writings of Hans Christian Andersen among her favorite literary works. One of the characters in “Beard with a Face,” her short story based on Italian author Gianni Rodari’s Fairy Tales Over the Phone, muses that as long as there are readers, fairy tales will continue to gain new life through their countless retellings and reinterpretations. Xi Xi believes in the enduring relevance of fairy tales for understanding contemporary society, and while she prefers to use a light touch to broach serious topics, she cautions that her predilection for comedy as a literary technique shouldn’t be mistaken for comedy itself.

Whereas Xi Xi’s “Apple” leaves the future of Fertile Soil Town open-ended—will it be swallowed up by foreign invaders and the sea, or will everyone get their happily ever after?—the fate of Dorothy Tse’s imagined city in “Chewing On Words” is downright chilling. Tse envisions a dystopian universe dotted with micro-cities that calls to mind Wong Kar-wai’s film 2046, where passengers journey by train to the future—one year before the expiration of the “one country, two systems” policy—in order to “recapture lost memories.” In Tse’s unsettling piece, City 1997 (whose name references the handover) vanishes from existence, and its former inhabitants lose all memories of their language and thus are unable to speak. This anxiety over the disappearance of language is evocative of real-life fears that in Hong Kong, Cantonese eventually will be eclipsed by Mandarin, as depicted in one of the shorts from the recent film Ten Years, where a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver is no longer understood by his passengers. Natascha Bruce, the translator of this piece, notes: “I like that the story manages to be clearly didactic and politically charged without being predictable or heavy-handed in how it goes about it. . . . There’s also something delightful, as a translator, about translating a story about lost meanings, barely grasped meanings, and untranslatability.”

Tse muses that “the political implications are almost too obvious, which I think is not the best thing for a story, and most of the time something I try to avoid as a fiction writer. However, I also believe that writing is about experiments and interactions with life that should appear in as many ways as possible.” “Chewing On Words” is from the book she cowrote with Hon Lai Chu, A Dictionary of Two Cities. The stories in this collection were first published in the journal Fleurs des lettres between 2006 and 2012 and reflect Tse’s and Hon’s impressions of Hong Kong society during that period.

While the residents of Tse’s City 1997 are rendered mute, Hon Lai Chu’s “Puma,” from her short-story collection Lost Caves, conjures up a world in which an absurdly large house cat inexplicably is able to use language to engage in intelligent communication with his owner. Transformed and deformed bodies appear in both of Tse’s and Hon’s stories published here, as well as in many of their other works. In Tse’s “Chewing on Words,” former City 1997 residents are presumed to be suffering from some sort of disease due to their inability to speak. In Hon’s “Puma,” the cat outgrows his owner and eventually can no longer be contained in her apartment, and he questions whether she desires to “cling to the identity of a sick person.”

Andrea Lingenfelter, the story’s translator, points out that both “Puma” and another of Hon’s feline-themed stories, “Notes on an Epidemic” (included in Lingenfelter’s translation of The Kite Family), display Hon’s “affection for cats and her acute sensitivity to issues of social control. . . . Pets do indeed provide meaningful companionship to people, and this is what Hon explores in ‘Puma’— that intimate relationship and the special communication that passes between humans and other animals. It also touches on the ethics of ‘owning’ animals and explores and overturns the power balance inherent in human-pet relationships.” In this reversal of species hierarchies, it is the cat who ends up rescuing his owner, encouraging her to cast off the clutter of modern urban life and become free. Hon regards the cat as “an intimate friend, a soul partner, or a guide to the ‘I’ in the story. He is a bridge between her conscious and subconscious, the self and inner self who helps her reconnect with herself and nature.”

In each of the stories featured here, the fictional proxy for Hong Kong disappears or is left behind: The denizens of Fertile Soil Town embark on a worldwide trek so that they may escape their unpredictable fates; all traces of City 1997 are erased from history; and the narrator in “Puma” abandons her city to find solace and freedom in the wild. Yet in spite of these erasures, all three works ultimately could be read as tales of survival—surviving an unknown future, surviving a new form of governance, and surviving modern urban society.

*Quotations from the authors and translators in this essay come from personal correspondence.

© 2018 by Jennifer Feeley. All rights reserved.

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