“Is Hong Kong Losing One of Its Finest Anglophone Fiction Writers?: Xu Xi’s Insignificance” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 43 (April 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Xu Xi, Insignificance, Typhoon Media/Signal 8 Press, 2018. 190 pgs.

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Compared to her previous work, the stories in Xu Xi’s Insignificance reveal the author’s ingrained disappointment and annoyance with Hong Kong. On the surface, many of the stories carry Xu Xi’s trademark style: whimsical and street-smart. Most continue to feature characters that have similar profiles as those in Xu Xi’s previous works—mixed-race, jet-setting, upper-middle-class, work-hard-play-hard professionals. But a shade of darkness looms over much of the collection.

One of the most striking features in this book is Xu Xi’s exploration of the noir genre. I do not recall her past stories containing so many noir elements, but death and lunacy appear in several stories in this collection. Noir is not uncommon in Hong Kong Anglophone writing, and is certainly becoming more popular, as seen in recent publications such as the collection Hong Kong Noir (edited by Jason Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason) and Peter Gregoire’s thriller The Devil You Know. I speculate that Hong Kong’s increasingly dystopian socio-political reality has driven writers to use these motifs to imagine what an alternative Hong Kong—for better or worse—could be like. Gregoire’s novel uses the Chief Executive election as its background, while references to the Umbrella Movement and the anniversary of the Handover celebrations abound in Xu Xi’s pieces.

Apart from highlighting the city’s shifting political terrain, this collection also interacts with Hong Kong’s social problems, such as racial prejudice, with a punchier voice. The narrator in the two-part story “Canine News” asks: “Do we dislike a place because it’s too familiar, not familiar enough, or simply because someplace else compels us with its siren lure?” An example of this “someplace else” is New York; for a while now, Xu Xi’s works have shown an unmistakable preference for New York’s cosmopolitanism, but her characters always find themselves unable to divorce Hong Kong completely, despite all its damned problems—perhaps a reflection of her own split lifestyle. The story goes on to make a blunt comparison on race:

Most of the bartenders in Tsim Sha Tsui are Filipino or Chinese, not American, so perhaps it is about nationality if not race, about a different kind of human (if not universal) experience here in this so-called “world city” that differs from that other world city, New York. Bartenders in New York may be any race, or nationality, given the city’s multicultural character.  … Our neighbours [New York] are many shades of white to brown to black.

This is perhaps as straightforward as Xu Xi will get, commenting on Hong Kong’s racism without preaching. Ever so slightly, the narrator lets the emotion out only in footnotes, such as: “We refrain from showing photos of [floating dead swines] in Shanghai in order not to upset your digestive system as you dine on swine in the 5-star restaurant nearby”; or, commenting on the generic, cliched remark that women should not get drunk to avoid getting raped: “Fact. Look it up. Sadly, I kid you not.” A sense of subtle anger and disapproval is palpable but is embodied in the paratext. Many of Xu Xi’s past stories shed light on the lives of mixed-race characters in Hong Kong, how they live hard, work hard, play hard. Here, however, is a sense of disorientation, as if the unnamed narrator finds the city alienating and realises that there is a much broader social malaise to blame.

But if these thoughts still appear rational at least, the second part of “Canine News” begins by constructing a world as far-fetched as it can be. The narrative imagines racism as a “disease of the mind” and a crime that needs to be persecuted by locking up offenders in a doghouse. The unnamed narrator then comments:

A doghouse is such an obvious solution. Hong Kongers love and adore their dogs, perhaps, at times, more than their children who, according to another recent survey, are the most spoilt and over-indulged in the world and are, therefore, insufferable brats.

This is a different mode of writing from what Xu Xi has published previously: stories with mixed-race characters that scream the derogatory term “jaap-jung (mixed-breed) to boot” as an act of self-indignation, defiance and sarcasm (read Habit of a Foreign Sky). The sarcasm here is different since it is directed outward at society; it is at this point that I really feel the sizzling anger couched in this sarcastic, hyperbolic language.

Standing in a curious relationship with all the noir elements is nostalgia, which has become a recurring trope in Xu Xi’s writing in the last decade. Here it comes in various forms. “Longevity’s Eyebrow” is a reimagination of Jonathan Swift’s poem “To Stella Visiting Me in My Sickness” in contemporary Hong Kong and contains a personal reminiscence of a decades-long love game between an English professor (Jonathan) and an artist (Stella; mixed-race, of course). “The 15th Annual Anniversary” reflects the turbulent thoughts of a man who recalls his own insecurities growing up in an unhappy upper middle class family and the downfall of his family prestige. “Here I Am” is written in memoriam for legendary Hong Kong writer PK Leung (Ye Si) and is about a man who lingers around his friends and family after death, recalling moments of his early life, witnessing his own wake and cremation and being exposed to the secrets harboured by the people around him. “Kaspar’s Warp” is also written in memory of someone and can be seen as a spinoff of Xu Xi’s 2010 novel Habit of a Foreign Sky, portraying a young man’s remembrance for a childhood friend now dead. Having read through these nostalgic accounts, it is a chilling sensation to reread the last line of the story “Off the Record,” which is the second story in the collection. The line goes, “[f]amiliar old stuff was just that, old, and being alive, having survived, was way better than being dead.” Perhaps this is so, but many a story paint an opposite picture: living can be painful, too, especially when haunted by the past.

Two stories in the middle of the collection caught my attention because they combine a hint of social critique with good prose. One is the aforementioned story, “The 15th Annual Anniversary.” Through the use of a mixed mode of free indirect thought and stream of consciousness, the memory of the narrator’s loss of social status is effectively intercalated with the story’s present-time event, a commemorative dinner celebrating both the 35th reunion of his elite secondary school cohort and the 15th anniversary of the Handover. Ill at ease at the pretensions of his former classmates, the default inheritors of privilege, the man reveals his banal job as a news clipper. The story “Mariner” portrays a well-to-do half-Chinese man going through an “affair of the mind” after meeting a middle-aged, conservative, GOP-supporting, Obama-damning American pilot at a bar. This is a refreshing, fast-paced story that depicts the tinge of curiosity that liberal elites sometimes have towards their ideological other. The protagonist is unable to stop thinking about the pilot, but, as with all bar encounters, their brief chit-chat leads to no real empathy for each other. At the end of the story, the protagonist looks down at the street from his “perfect urban flat, rent paid for by the bank that employed me,” but still imagining the man going about his life “against a sky that was no longer illuminated.”

Both stories are easy to read with a writing style that flows. They also both dramatise the feeble connection between two opposite camps, the average joe vs the upper echelon, liberals vs conservatives. “The 15th Annual Anniversary” is unusual because we seldom see class tensions become such a driving force in Xu Xi’s stories; this is not to say that she is not aware of such tension, but that it most often appears as an off-handed remark made by a character. On the other hand, “Mariner” presents a potential for dialogue, the possibility of understanding, but one that is inevitably unfulfilled. We confirm our differences, but at the end of the day, no one has the power to change anything.

The voices in Insignificance register a change in Xu Xi’s mode of writing; not necessarily towards stronger social commitment, but certainly a more vocal impatience towards Hong Kong’s social ills. The stories still carry her usual whimsical style, but they are darker than before. As Hong Kong edges towards a dystopian path, class stratification, racism, and sociopolitical issues become more prominent in this volume—a welcome change to me.

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Michael Tsang.jpgMichael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information. [Cha Profile]

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