[Review] Capturing Disappearing Hong Kong: Liu Waitong’s Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits

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

Liu Waitong (author), Enoch Yee-lok Tam, Desmond Sham, Audrey Heijins, Chan Lai-kuen and Cao Shuying (translators), Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits, Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016. 184 pgs.

Wandering Hong KongReading Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits is a special experience; it is a busy business and you cannot rush. You begin with the cover image taken by the author, and contemplate the monochrome photograph of a flying bird and its juxtaposition with concrete and glass walls. Then you might read the poems in their original Chinese. And then, the English translations. You might flip to the end of the book to consult the supplementary notes on certain poems.

If you are like me, you will pause while reading to listen to the echoes of films, songs, artists, writers and martyrs; the book is a concert of voices. You will also let the selection of photos inserted in-between the poems break the flow and distance you from all the concentration on words. At times, all of a sudden, you will even find yourself travelling a million miles and years away from the claustrophobia of the everyday. Yes, poetry can be this powerful, especially when photography is part of its method. Liu Waitong is a master of this kind of poetics, of capturing the nuances of our disappearing communities and rendering the sentiments of dislocation, estrangement, longing and belonging so palpably.

The Politics of Disappearance, and the Poetics of Photography

While reading Wandering Hong Kong, I was constantly reminded of the idea of “disappearance” in Ackbar Abbas’ book Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance—disappearance not in the sense of vanishing and irreparable loss, but of displaced appearances. Photography is very potent in demonstrating this kind of “disappearance,” as it simultaneously captures and freezes time in a frame, while also creating the realm of the image in the form of the artist’s own unique representation. One is also always aware of selectivity and perspectives when doing photography.

Liu Waitong’s poetry is very much in tune with his observations of the world as a photographer. In one poem, he meditates on the nature of photography:

Polaroid—passed quickly,
images fade gradually—like a life opposed to preservation

(“4am, Make Love to Me”)

Trying to converse through poetry with the American-Swiss photographer Robert Frank, the persona reflects on the irony of attempting to attain permanence, or at least to preserve fragments of memories, particularly as images, especially Polaroids, are transient. It is interesting to read “a life” as referring to the fleeting moments of human lives on the literal level and as “a life” that is constructed by images, conserving as well as creating a time beyond the passage of time. Here, Liu’s photographic poetics effectively articulates the sense of displacement, in terms of the placement of temporal spaces.

Placing Temporal Belongings

Wandering, in this book, is about wandering through places: from the densely packed tenements with no lifts of Ma Tau Kok Road, Temple Street or Apliu Street to look at “the antiquated look of new things” or “the newness of old things”; to the streets of prostrating protestors surrounding the Legislative Council opposing the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link and the demolishing of Choi Yuen Village; to Tiananmen Square; to the cold and dry “arid expanse” of China; to its wide stretches of land and the absurdity of speaking of the “main-land” 100,000 years from now. We as readers travel with our personas, taking our time and experiencing Hong Kong’s everyday realities, history and social movements through words and imageries and images. In such wanderings, it almost feels like our own world and our anxieties and assumptions melt away, and that the possibilities of imagination have been realised in poetry. A tense place is also a space of time, like the tense of verbs, and Liu’s poetry, in Maghiel van Crevel’s words, is “a feast of the senses, infectiously alive.” Alive, in the present, timely and also timeless.

Social Poems

I have identified several different broad categories of poems in this collection, the first of which could be termed “social poems.” Many of these are set against Hong Kong’s urban landscape, including “Jesus Is on Temple Street.” Like other socially conscious works in this collection, loneliness and estrangement are prominent themes. The poem displaces Jesus as an illegal worker at a construction site in Kowloon Bay, who thinks of Bethlehem and spends his time “waiting for a star,” a line that almost immediately draws to mind a vulgar Cantonese swear expressing anger or frustration. Similarly in the poem “Charlie on Temple Street,” the persona, just like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, squanders time between a “dated innocence” and “nostalgia” along the dingy streets of Yau Ma Tei, only to end up wishing, like Ho Bo-wing in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together to “go back to the start.”

Another poem, “Ballad of Disenchantment,” offers the story of an nameless working person. With a tone similar to Auden’s “An Unknown Citizen,” the persona narrates his/her life as being submerged by the absurdities of routine and everydayness and notes that even his/her friend’s memories and impressions of the persona are “fictionalized” and “remember[ed] with a nonchalance.” These are just some of the poignant and absurd portrayals of being insider-outsiders in modern Hong Kong.

Similar themes are explored towards the end of “4am, Make Love to Me,” when the persona asserts the importance of focusing on living in the present:

I think of holding you tight, your flesh and blood,
walking together into a thousand-hectare void of the past, of the future,|
of the next moment,
walking into death, of which we’ve never been afraid. Saying
‘4 a.m., make love to me.’

To live in the moment is as if to live in eternity.

In the “Ballad of Disenchantment,” the ending stanzas are also powerful, because after all those unsettling and disorienting lines about the fleetingness and meaningless of existence, there is a declaration, in two simple words:

From the sea breeze his nose was collected,
from electric waves his ears were dredged,
from the moonlight his eyes were drawn …
Yet he once used all of these together to say: I love.

The final two words of self-affirmation are all that an individual has to struggle against the oblivious succession of the passing crowds.

Apart from these more personal poems that focus on insignificant individuals, there are works that are critical of society at large. “A Song of Spring Light” uses a Blakean tone in its critique of the widening gap between the superrich and the poor in contemporary China. The persona expresses his disgust through painting a ludicrous scene of a “beggar cloaked in gold, pleading poverty, / swallowing its own son,” never satisfied in his/her insatiable desire for more riches. Hong Kong officials and politicians are also not let off easily in the “Poem for the Universe’s Prostrating-Walk,” in which “fat councilors” are described as “giant rats.” Such poems that address the realities of social injustice provide a backdrop for contemplating the stories of everyday struggles and frustrations.

Among the social poems, I found the “Ballad of the Central Star Ferry Pier” particularly moving. Since it is meant to be a ballad, its frequent use of repetition gives the work a sense of rhythm, just like the innocent-sounding refrains of “how many” in Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In the poem, the historical clock tower of the ferry terminal is personified as having witnessed major events, the narrowing of the harbor and encounters between lovers over the past forty-nine years. The recurring use of “disappear” (as in “will disappear” and “will finally disappear”) adds to the poignancy of the terminal’s irreversible and inevitable demolishment. To end the song, the clock tower appeals to the rain in a painfully loving tone:

The rain, ah my darling, my witness, please gently wipe away the debris
on me pressing down so painfully; please wipe away the 49 years
of footprints, lovers’ silhouettes, all those murmured delusions and bells …
please comfort these young people crying for me. Let them take
all my iron for their future struggles.

(“Ballad of the Central Star Ferry Pier”)

I wept when I read this, having been one of those young people who shed tears in the rain for this disappearing piece of Hong Kong. It is almost as if the obliteration of the rain could offer consolation from the futile fight against the falling bricks and the bulldozers at that moment.

Poems of the Past/Poems of Tribute

While the poems in this collection seemed to be scattered and lacking a clear organising principle—with the insertion of photos in-between some pages making for an interesting reading flow—I did discern a second important group of works among its pages, those that attempt to open dialogues with the past or to provide tribute. A short poem, “Revisiting Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage”—which recounts a journey to a park and museum in Chengdu built to commemorate the Tang poet Du Fu—takes a bite at our modern consumption of heritage and the impossibility of reconstructing the past:

Ancient consolation can be heartbreaking,
artificial scenery also can be heartbreaking.
[…]
Ancient letters refuse entry to the ancient land.

(”Revisiting Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage”)

The poem sounds wryly ironic when we think of our attempts, as contemporary readers and writers, to try to travel to distant and ancient time-spaces, and about the conversations we attempt to open up with the figures we conjure from the past.

Another impressive poem that brings together very disparate worlds is “Luk Ming Street: To Madame Wu.” The persona of this poem brings together two worlds—the lives of Trotskyists persecuted under Maoist regime, such as poet Tse Shan who passed away in 1996, and of his widow, the protagonist of this poem, Madame Wu, who survives the trauma and resides in present day Hong Kong, snailed away in the cramped mezzanine of an old apartment block on Ma Tau Kok Road because “they drove [her] out of public housing because [she’s] been in Hong Kong / less than seven years.” As the poem advances, the two worlds become increasingly indistinguishable: from the deeper felt sense of the weight of memories “pressing down [on her] thin shoulders,” to the constant and more active sense of the female protagonist’s will to carry on to “write, write’ write endlessly”; and from Guangzhou to the public housing in Wong Tai Sin to her present room. The juxtaposition of the tiny squeezed space and the all-encompassing worlds of “immense battlefields” that she carries in her heart perfectly portrays the stoicism, quiet strength and resilience necessary to sustain herself and to write, “to bleat / loudly and eat in the wild.” Just like its Chinese title, which literally means “Goat Bleat Street,” this poem is a tribute to writers—in this case, women writers like Madame Wu who are also warriors—and their courage to be as wild and free as goats, undeterred by the political strife and turbulence of the times.

There is no way to overlook the importance of the collection’s tribute poems, particularly the three which share the title “Register of Ghosts.” Originally written by Zhang Sicheng in the 14th Century, the Register of Ghosts contains the histories and stories of several Qu poets of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). Liu appropriates the title as a tribute to the people who died as part of the 1989 June Fourth Massacre at Tiananmen Square, as well as to other poets, writers, artists and activists. For instance, in the poem dedicated to Luo Yihe (“Register of Ghosts: Luo Yihe”) who died of a hunger strike and was probably the first victim of June Fourth, the persona is described as a forerunner (“Please call my name: Charon”), who helps the souls of subsequent victims cross the river of the dead. Another poem, “Register of Ghosts: You,” is dedicated to the unbearable weight of the second person pronoun, “You,” which in the poem refers to all the nameless dead of the June Fourth Massacre. Haizi—one of the most famous Chinese poets after the Cultural Revolution and who “died before death” by committing suicide in 1989—is remembered in “Register of Ghosts: Haizi.” The heaviness of grief is articulated by the personas’ deeply personal and almost living voice, and his direct addresses to the reader such as “my dear” and “I still remember” enliven the experience of wandering with the spirits of those martyrs whose lives were tragically cut short but who remain forever youthful, rebellious and free.

A set of poems entitled “A Seaside Graveyard: Three Poems” offers a meditation on Repulse Bay in Hong Kong and a thoughtful tribute to three women writers, Xiao Hong, Dai Wangshu and Eileen Chang. Again, it is fascinating to see the use of a physical place as an agent to connect people from different worlds. These poems also reveal Liu Waitong’s rich literary inheritance and his concern for his fellow writers and artists, a concern which can also be seen in pieces dedicated to Chinese activists, such as “The Missing,” in which the poet added “to Ai Weiwei and others “forced to disappear” in China,” and “A Christmas Book, or Dark Fairy Tale,” dedicated to the late Liu Xiaobo.

Poems of the Future

In Liu’s “tribute poems,” especially those on China, there is a recurrent image of the country as an “unborn nation.” Images of latency, nascency or the “yet to come” are prominent in a quite a number of his works throughout the collection and very often evoke a sense of hope. Contemplating self-immolation victims in Tibet and the burning of stars in the universe, Liu questions the purpose of poetry:

death is not the reason for poetry, nor rebirth|
the wreckage of stars fell on snow, a hundred thousand years flew by
in a split second

                                                                        (“An Elegy That Does Not Mourn”)

Which brings us to the third and final group of poems I have identified in Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits, those which try to imagine a future, although here “future” is perhaps better thought of as a space of “the beyond” instead of a temporal marker.

Apart from an “unborn” China, Liu also envisions a surrealistic distant future for Hong Kong. Playing with the deliberate oxymoron of the poem’s title, “The Future History of Hong Kong Island” (i.e. a record of a past that hasn’t yet happened), the poem expands not only into the temporal future (5,000 years to 19,000 years to 100,000 years), it also takes form by gradually blurring and erasing bounded places, for example through years of endless rain that cause the sea to overrun the land. The poem’s scenes include familiar landmarks, such as the Legislative Council (now in rubbles), Happy Valley and the formerly crowded streets of Admiralty and Central, although they are now sites where sea otters, rats and pandas coexist and where sharks “cry like human babies.” The scene is totally devoid of human beings, as if they have long ago become extinct, and the presence of human civilization can only be unearthed as an “underground city,” as our skyscrapers and emblems of prosperity have become “abundant iron and oil.” The last lines of the poem are even more complex to unpack, with their ironic tone and displaced imagery that force us to think from the other side of our common understanding:

Globalisation truly will have arrived,
Hong Kong will remain an advanced corner of the earth’s
sole continent.

Globalisation here is no longer an economic process of interaction and integration mediated through the international flow of capital, but precisely its opposite: humanity will now literally be “out of place,” having given way to the movement of nature. As interesting as these lines are, however, I would like to point out that some nuance in the very last line of the English version has been lost in translation: instead of “sole continent,” the Chinese original uses the word “dai luk” (大陸), which literally means “main-land,” and is perhaps a pun on and a displacement of the words “main” and “land” and of our understanding of what “Mainland” would normally connote in our contemporary context.

The Place of Hong Kong Poetry

Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits explores the ways in which temporal belongings are located and represented, and reading it has made me ponder the place of Hong Kong poetry. Very often Hong Kong poetry, especially by poets like Liu Waitong who write in Chinese, is subsumed under the category of contemporary Chinese poetry, which seems to assume that poetry of a place is determined by its language and intended audience. However, this collection is a bilingual book, in which the English translations represent important works in their own right and deserve recognition and attention, too. This bilingual nature complicates any simple categorisation of the collection based simply on language or place. As does its subject matter. What are specifically “Hong Kong” topics or themes? This again speaks of the time of place, be it narratives about the witnessing of collective memory or expressions of individual encounters in particular moments in history. This leads to the necessary and even more problematic question: who is a Hong Kong writer, or even the broader question of who is Hongkongese? This collection is a play of encounters and recollections of ghosts and nomadic beings that constantly challenge and question the quest for the meaning of being in, and of Hong Kong.

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Janice Tsang.jpg

Janice Tsang graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where her research was on Postcolonialism and World Literatures. She is editor of Mundi, a Hong Kong-based journal that seeks to promote public knowledge in the local community, and she manages the hkpeoplereading Instagram page. Her reviews have appeared at Hong Kong Review of Books. Tsang works in English language centres in local universities, and is a freelance writer and artist.

3 thoughts on “[Review] Capturing Disappearing Hong Kong: Liu Waitong’s Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits

  1. Pingback: Tsang on Liu Waitong’s “Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits” | Notes on the Mosquito

  2. Pingback: [Review] Capturing Disappearing Hong Kong: Liu Waitong’s Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits – The Silk Road Story

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