Stephanie Han, Swimming in Hong Kong, Willow Spring Books, 2017. 134 pgs.
On the surface, “Swimming in Hong Kong,” the title story of Stephanie’s Han’s collection of short fiction by the same name, is about one of the brief relationships people develop in the dynamic city of eight million Cantonese locals, ex-pats and immigrants. Froggy and Ruth meet at a public swimming pool, where he hangs out with his elderly buddies and Ruth has come to teach herself to swim. At first, she struggles to cross the Olympic pool even by paddling. Froggy, who taught his son to swim, observes Ruth’s struggle and offers quiet advice—much through pantomime. He and Ruth communicate in “broken Cantonese and his broken English,” as many people from different backgrounds do in casual friendships in Hong Kong. Through her determination and his patient instruction, she learns to cross the pool and eventually perfect her front crawl. But then he and his buddies see Ruth on TV. She has just completed a marathon and has probably been targeted by the cameras because she is African-American and in the minority among runners. Froggy and his friends realise there is much more to Ruth than they had assumed. In the city alone and divorced, she is defined by her work as an architect for a big firm. She feels rootless like so many roaming ex-pats, but seeks connection, too. One of Froggy’s friends, Fei Yun, is a different kind of refugee. He fled mainland China during the Cultural Revolution after losing his family and escaped by swimming the dangerous waters of Tolo Harbour. Froggy accepts that with his painful childhood, his friend Fei Yun is often gloomy. The group of old men who meet to swim rely on their friendship. All such connections keep people’s heads above water in Hong Kong.
Connection (or a lack of) and marginalisation are common threads in Swimming in Hong Kong. In “The Ladies of Sheung Wan,” two old women bond as they collect cardboard for recycling on the hilly streets of the Central business district. They see each other as older and younger sister—Yu Ki older with a history of loss. Ten years earlier, her daughter rebelled, then left for Canada after she and her husband lost their newspaper stand outside the Wing On Department store. Yu Ki’s friend, Che Sum, helped her get a hand cart and showed her how to find good cardboard. They are allies among the boutiques and upmarket restaurants where the managers get angry when the old women sit on the steps to rest.
In “Hong Kong Rebound,” another story about the poor existing on the margins of prosperous (often ex-pat) Hong Kong, a daughter tells a story prompted by a memory. When she visits a bar to drink with colleagues, she recalls accompanying her father and his friends to the same place as a small girl. Her father’s yearning to watch football at that establishment drove him to peer in the window. He was an “odd-job, jack-of-all-trades” man and struggling to support his family, but “tall with hope” at the time. The narrator observes, “To most of the foreign men, the uncles and myself are invisible, mere background, a backdrop to important lives, like the smell of car exhaust and old orange peels.” The writing is this evocative throughout the collection. The father and daughter do not remain invisible and are soon excluded by more than just the price of a beer.
Invisibility and stereotyping are important themes in Swimming in Hong Kong. In the first story of the collection, “Invisible,” the narrator begins: “This is how to become invisible in Hong Kong. Ideally you should look Han Chinese … You should be attractive, but not so much that you gain attention in any unusual way … attractive enough to pass the scrutiny of the doorman of the club that you and your tall, light, green-eyed husband have belonged to for the last three months.” Being blanked as she sits alone at the bar of the colonial era club begins the story. The writer’s observations of patrons’ behaviour bite as the story unfolds.
In “The Ki Difference,” set in Seoul, “an older Western man, a younger Korean woman” go out for a meal. She is in Seoul teaching English and studying Korean. He is passing through on business, although they used to be involved back in the US. “I knew he was the wrong guy the first time he showed up at the door in those overpriced athletic shoes,” she recalls telling a friend. She’d told him back in the US that he was too old for her, but appears to have left a door open between them. Over the course of a meal in a Korean restaurant, her lover speaks loudly at the waitress as if that would help her understand and bows because he assumes that is the norm throughout Asia. The narrator realises how much her lover reduces his surroundings—and her—to the exotic: “You just fit with this room. I mean it is so right for you, … There next to the vase. You look great,” he asserts. “I am Western, but I’ve always thought of myself as having an Eastern sensibility.” The story is cringe making and hilarious at the same time.
The stories mentioned in this review are some of the highlights. “Nantucket’s Laundry, 1985,” excerpted in Cha here, explores the cultural and racial divide through the summer relationship between a white prep school boy and an Asian girl about to start university at a state school in the fall. “Languages,” set in Korea, unfolds in a series of diary entries by a Korean teacher of Korean who becomes interested in a visiting Western Caucasian student. It explores the perspective of a woman in her thirties under constant pressure to marry to satisfy family expectations. It reminded me in theme and character to Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters, which is set in 1920s Japan and focuses on sisters’ different responses to the traditional expectations of their parents.
The stories in Swimming in Hong Kong show characters re-inventing themselves, struggling against marginalisation, systemic racism and the pecking order in the former British colony of Hong Kong. The themes are explored in vivid prose with humour and empathy and open a window onto the lives of all the characters they portray. Swimming in Hong Kong is a very worthwhile read.
In 2017, Kate Rogers’ poetry collection, Out of Place (Aeolus House–Quattro Books), debuted in Toronto, Hong Kong and at the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival. Rogers was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her poetry is forthcoming in Catherines, the Great (Oolichan) and has appeared in Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong (Landmark Books, 2017); Juniper; OfZoos; the Guardian; Asia Literary Review; Morel; The Goose: a journal of Arts, Environment and Culture; Kyoto Journal; Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes and Cha. She lectures in literature and media studies at the Community College of City University.