[Review] A City of Strangers: Dung Kai-Cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories

{Written by Vivian Tang, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Dung Kai-Cheung (author), Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson (translators), Cantonese Love Stories, Penguin, 2017. 136 pgs.

Cantonese Love StoriesGrounded, permanent and everlasting—the very opposite of the relationships and experiences of the personalities in Cantonese Love Stories.

Dung Kai-Cheung’s sketches draw us in and immediately send us helter-skelter on an emotional rollercoaster. As we step off, we sigh wistfully, dismayed that things haven’t worked out for our characters—and in each of these brief encounters, few do. Instead, we meet ephemeral creatures whose lives and loves are hairy, unresolved and somewhat bleak in the whimsical moments they experience in the city. We cheer for them, hoping their situation will somehow improve, that their struggle will cease and that they may eventually mature and find real, full and lasting relationships.

Yet Virginia Anderson’s introduction, “Dream of a Dream: on Language, Love and Storytelling,” explains the capriciousness of Dung’s vignettes. She identifies the author’s philosophical leanings and literary influences, particularly the genre of fictional sketches found in Chinese literature, such as in Meng Yuanlao’s Dreams of Prosperity in the Eastern Capital (東京夢華錄), Zhuangzi’s parable of the butterfly and Cecil Clementi’s translations of the romantic melodies of Cantonese courtesans, Cantonese Love Songs, which the future Governor of Hong Kong undertook while first stationed in the city at the turn of the 20th century.

Anderson picks up on Dung’s artistic preoccupations, observing:

Actually, it is disillusion that interests him, with expectations constantly thwarted or diverted. Sometimes the characters seem like mere playthings of fate; their only choice is to fight back, with a determination and ferocity that border on the incredible.

Given such perseverance, we must assume that Dung’s characters thrive beyond the intimate flashes presented in each vignette.

We are led smoothly from person to person thanks to the well rendered translations of Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson, who have carried the stories from Chinese into flawless natural English. They also provide timely and neutral notes on the era and social phenomena of the stories, giving us snippets of pop culture that let us slip back into the 80s and 90s. For example, preceding the vignette entitled “Photo Stickers,” we find this introduction:

Photo sticker booths or photo sticker machines are popular in East Asia. A booth can accommodate more than one person. Money is inserted and pictures taken. People can then customise them in different ways, changing backgrounds, colours, lighting, retouching, etc. Love Generation was a Japanese TV serial that was broadcast in 1997. Two of the characters were played by Matsu Takako and Fujiwara Norika. These two women are friends but have complicated lives involving love triangles. In Cantonese their names are pronounced Chung Lung-Tsz and Tang-Yuen Kei-Heung.

In “Photo Stickers,” we meet Kei-Heung and Lung-Tsz, best friends who adopt the monikers of the characters from the then-famous Japanese drama series Love Generation. While we never learn their true identities, we watch as Kei-Heung drags her boyfriend to snap a set of photo stickers and soon discovers their influence on their relationship. She must set things right before the pictures ruin their romance.

This encounter goes against everything that the innocent and light-hearted photo sticker stands for—a souvenir of a fun summer afternoon with friends—and it leaves the reader wondering just how many couples have been kept together or torn apart because of the random or injudicious placement of such an image.

In “Red Wing,” we grow up with Tam Chi Wing and her titular red wing sneakers. Ridiculed and bullied for her awkwardness and ability to sprint, the teenager runs into more trouble when she crashes into her classmate Kwong Kin Sang, a boy admired by her bullies. Kwong is curious about Tam and calls after her, but she eludes him, scampering off into her own world as usual. For Kwong, it is another day, another defeat; for Tam, it is an endless escape.

Cantonese Love Stories is a museum of iconography from the 80s and 90s. The collection’s unique characters are defined by their relationship to Portuguese egg tarts, an Agnes b. bag, Hello Kitty accessories, Che Guavara, a Bathing Ape tee, Windows 95 and then Windows 98, non-no magazine, konjac jellies, aprons, magical Air Jordans, Adidas gear, a Prada briefcase, a Gucci watch, life-giving Miu Miu boots, the comic magazine Cockroach, a cowboy hat, Depsea Water skincare spray, a duffel coat, Burberry Blue Label, khaki trousers, Birkenstocks and the plot of a Fruit Chan film.

Dung Kai-Cheung’s collection reminds us of James Joyce’s Dubliners and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street with less rounded portraits, less hope and more pop culture. Dung’s odd and broken characters can only exist in transient Hong Kong, and we see former loves, past hurts, indecision and mercurial temperaments shown in the garish light of the city. But each vignette also honestly portrays people in need of love. Although set in the 80s and 90s, his teenagers and twenty-somethings are passers-by we could easily bump into on the street or a train platform today. Each encounter resembles a YouTube video made before YouTube—coexisting for one or two minutes before disappearing. Next clip, please.

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Vivian Tang

Vivian Tang is a writer, daydreamer, crafter and teacher. She is currently reading Frank McCourt’s autobiographies, Ernest Cline’s Ready, Player One , John Yorke’s Into the Woods and John McPhee’s Draft No. 4.  She can be found chipping away at her sci fi novel from a decade ago on the identity of work in the Hong Kong community, encouraging her fellow writers in weekly Meetups and, just for fun, binding journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from City University of Hong Kong and is a first-time reviewer for Cha. Vivian’s journal and shop are up at bit.ly/v-stories

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