Xu Xi, Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City, Penguin, 2017. 156 pgs.
Let me be upfront about this: I have long been an admirer of Xu Xi and of her important, but somewhat underrated, contribution to the Hong Kong anglophone literary scene. So my review of her latest work—an elegy to the city of her birth—is unlikely to be impartial and “blind” in the time-honoured scholarly tradition of reviews. On reflection, given the author’s (perfectly justified in my view) swipes at the seats of higher learning in this city on the basis of their current values and priorities, my partiality may be a good thing! Knowing her well from our collaborations on Hong Kong writing in English and as a friend, I understand very well where much of the lively spirit of critical intervention in her memoir-cum-extended essay emanates from.
Her latest publication—part of a series of Penguin Specials focusing on current Hong Kong perspectives—can be read separately on its own merits, but it is better understood in the context of the series as a whole. The series, whose other titles are also being reviewed in this journal, features seven progressive and critical voices, and Xu Xi’s contribution as overseas Chinese (so-called wah kiu), but Hong Kong born, raised and educated, is a significant addition. It is also interesting to read it in conjunction with her 2008 essay collection, Evanescent Isles. This previous publication with Hong Kong University Press marked a new departure in creative non-fiction for a Hong Kong wah kiu writer with strong creative roots in imaginative fiction, even though, as she explains in the latter part of the memoir, initially some Hong Kong readers seemed to take her fictional representations of life (and sex) in the city as somehow autobiographical and confessional. Here, as with some of the essays in Evanescent Isles, she mixes Hong Kong history, culture and politics with personal reminiscences of her childhood and adult life.
In particular, she adopts the personification conceit that she employed in the final essay of that collection entitled “A Short History of Our Shores—as told to the author by the City of Hong Kong.” In the essay, the city is anthropomorphised as a very old interviewee reflecting on its life and times pre-, during and post-colonisation. The author-interviewer remains impersonal, apart from an opening note to the reader and a coda mixing reported speech and direct speech question and answer. It closes with an intervention by the otherwise impersonal interviewer stepping out of role as it were: “We write because to write is to think is to imagine, regardless.” That final line of Xu Xi’s essay would serve as an apothegm for this new memoir. It says much about her own life and work in Hong Kong and the USA. When she lived for a period in her writing hideaway in New Zealand, she saw herself as living on the flightpath between New York, Hong Kong and South Island.” However, as this memoir makes plain, she always responded to the call of her native city, a metaphorical lover, warts and all, patriarchal, self-centred, amnesiac and pragmatically mercenary.
For me, at least, this memoir connects both with Evanescent Isles (a “good read” to quote the website that appropriated the epithet) and That Man in our Lives—her 2016 novel about an enigmatic Gatsbyesque old-style New Yorker who simply disappears, leaving no trace of his existence. The novel constitutes an attempt to reconstruct it through the memories of those who knew and loved him. The former creates an echo because the memoir expands on the short fragments of personal experience in essays such as “Glories of the nouveau riche” and “Et tu mon pere?” and others, and the latter because her latest novel deals with the topos of disappearance.
With the disappearance of certain Hong Kong ways and values, or rather the gradual erosion, we are reminded of the definitive prescient analysis of this phenomenon, namely Ackbar Abbas’s 1997 book Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Searching through Xu Xi’s back catalogue for other earlier examples of disappearance in her work, I am also drawn to the final piece in her short fiction collection from the 1990s, Daughters of Hui, “Valediction,” a story about a younger sibling’s attempted suicide, which references the title of John Donne’s famous poem “Valediction forbidding Mourning”—”So let us melt, and make no noise / No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move.” The present elegiac, but critical, valedictory memoir—what is a good memoir, after all, other than a valediction?—for Xu Xi, and perhaps also for her birth-city, is likewise quiet and dignified, slightly melancholy in parts, but at the same time bearing ample traces of her trademark irony and whimsy.
Unlike the typical self-reflexive memoir for which the memoirist can naturally be forgiven—if we don’t want to read someone’s life story, we are not forced to buy the book—Dear Hong Kong is conceived as a farewell to a loved place, in the guise of a person. It is whimsically constructed as an extended “Dear John” letter (no, not the Taylor Swift song! What is it about popular culture and its all-embracing grip on us?). Thus, the author in effect continues her dialogue with the city begun in her 2008 essay; the difference being that now it is the lady’s turn to speak and the gentleman (if Hong Kong can be appropriately endowed with that honorific!) has had his say, and has simply to “suck it up” as popular culture would elegantly put it.
The memoir is designed as a sequence of six chapters with a prologue and epilogue (a P.S. which is apt for the epistolary convention, even if it isn’t used in Pamela or any of the other long 18th century novels she devoured when studying English literature in the US in the 1970s). However, the six chapters in question aren’t simply straightforward, temporally linear exposés of her past life up to the present. Rather they tend to oscillate between the past and present, somewhat in the manner of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles where the organisation of subject matter hinges on the writer’s memory of particular songs. In Dear Hong Kong, there is a neat dialogue between past and present, which interweaves the events of Xu Xi’s life, decade by decade, with events in her city. Each chapter is a diptych containing a current personal/social/political commentary and a past reminiscence that is more or less chronological, I, designated I:1; II: 2; III: 3; etc., all of which pairs are in dialogue with each other, whether more explicitly or implicitly.
The author has a deft touch alluding to key sociopolitical issues with both mordant irony and critical insight. For example, her reference to unruly football crowds catcalling and refusing to stand for the communist party song (aka the national anthem) in one chapter is remarkably resonant and could have come out of today’s SCMP. The issue takes her back into remembrance of things past, recalling that under the British colonial system people used to exit the cinema as soon as “God Save the Queen” began to be cranked out (no, not the Sex Pistols’ variation on the theme). Her hybrid of commentary and narrative is laced with factual-historical anecdotes, such as “Bruce Lee died in our building [in Kowloon Tong], its one historical moment.” There are also the literary quotes and allusions one expects in Xu Xi’s writing, including a passage from Eliot’s The Waste Land invoking “roots that clutch.” The most salient for me is her quote from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” at the end of Chapter Five: “Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget / What thou amongst the leaves has never known.”
Consistent with this Hong Kong-themed series, the book is beautifully designed in retro Penguin paperback style with a cover that looks like it came straight from the late 1940s. On the credit side, the footnotes provided are helpful and informative, especially for those who are interested in the lowdown on City University’s abrupt closure of the highly successful MFA programme that Xu Xi inaugurated back in 2010. It very much relates to topical questions over the future of academic freedom in the city under the tender loving care of its de facto new owners and the future role of critical and creative writing in the humanities. The book’s only drawback is that the notes are so cramped at the foot of each page that they resemble the annoying bottom line of a sight-test board that we can only see clearly with binoculars or a telescope. If you can read the notes unaided, I assure you there is no need to visit the optician, since you indubitably have 20/20 vision! In all other respects, this is an absolute peach of a memoir, and one that packs a punch.
P.S. I’ll wager she’ll be back …
Mike Ingham is Professor of English Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. A founding member of Theatre Action drama company in Hong Kong, he has written on Shakespearean adaptation, performance studies, and stylistics, and has had numerous publications in adaptation studies and cinema studies, as well as Hong Kong creative writing in English for Hong Kong University Press (City Voices, 2004; City Stage, 2005; and Hong Kong: A Cultural and Literary History, 2007). He collaborated with Ian Aitken on a book-length study of Hong Kong Documentary Film for Edinburgh University Press in 2014. His contribution on Shakespeare and jazz in the Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, his Shakespeare Studies article “‘The Stretchèd Metre of an Antique Song’: Jazzin’ the Food of Love” and Routledge monograph Stage-play and Screen-play: The Intermediality of Theatre and Film all appeared in 2016.