[Review] “Seeing a City Through Words: The Hong Kong Issue of World Literature Today” by Cameron White

{Written by Cameron White, this review is part of Issue 44 (June/July 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

“City Issue: Hong Kong”, edited by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, World Literature Today, Volume 93 No. 2, University of Oklahoma Press, Spring 2019.

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With self-awareness comes constant wondering what other people think about you. Pride and insecurity are wont to go hand in hand. And I also wonder about how Hong Kong is perceived by those who do not live here or those who imagine it in passing. We can see ourselves, or so we think, but how are we seen?

So asks Tammy Lai-Ming Ho in her introductory essay to the Hong Kong issue of World Literature Today (Ho is also a founding co-editor of Cha). At face value, Ho’s is a paradoxically universal position in international literary fora: a writer tasked with introducing the work of her local peers to a global audience. Yet there is a prophetic aspect to Ho’s question in regards to Hong Kong. This particular issue of World Literature Today was published in the spring; since then, a series of marches and protests—one of which drew more than two million people—have elevated Hong Kong‘s visibility in the global psyche. The attendant media exposure adds fresh urgency to Ho’s query, as well as the follow-up: does the world only see Hong Kong—one of the most international cities in the world—when its citizens take to the streets?

With tourists and capital flowing through Hong Kong at a ferocious pace, the city is firmly enmeshed in a globalised world. Yet how many abroad understand that the pressures and inequities laid bare by the ongoing protests have been long felt by Hongkongers? Many watching the protests use social media to stay informed, a mode of communication astounding in its speed but prone to flattening local issues and narratives so as to render them easily consumable. Look, so many videos on Facebook appear to say, look how many people are protesting. But the nuances of what those marching figures think and feel is hard to surmise in an aggressively optimised one-minute clip.

Hong Kong has a captive audience. However, it deserves to be treated as more than just spectacle. It deserves a medium that conveys both depth and breadth, with access to registers soft and loud, voices ebullient and elegiac. It is under these circumstances that projects like the Hong Kong issue of World Literature Today deliver. Although protest features nominally in only a handful of the selected pieces, the collection conveys a diverse array of attachments to Hong Kong, all the better to help readers understand why so many now strive for their city’s future. To borrow a phrase from another essay in the collection—this one by Bei Dao—here is an opportunity to “dwell poetically in Hong Kong.”

Ho explains her curation as the nexus of two chosen themes: Hong Kong cuisine and the Cantonese language. She notes that these two aspects of local culture “are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, for all the changes each might undergo.” The mention of “changes” is key, as there is an underlying tension across the pieces between what has changed in Hong Kong and what remains the same.

In a short essay by Xi Xi, translated by Jennifer Feeley, the author compares her years-long habit of taking English afternoon tea to Eileen Chang’s ritual of buying scones in Central. There is a nostalgic eloquence throughout Xi Xi’s description of teatime fare, with cakes “like delicate wax carvings, filled with frosting or liqueur centres.” Yet a cloud hangs over the end of the piece, brushing up against the ambivalent murkiness of time. “The more you drink English afternoon tea, the less it tastes like you used to.” Whether that is good or bad is left to private assessment.

In other instances, time passes, and yet there is clear frustration at an accompanying stasis. Kit Fan, in his poem “Hong Kong and the Echo,” weaves a self-consciousness of time with an eye on history:

Although I count every second of mine
I remember nothing of those Crown-
appointed governors come and gone who said
nothing, did nothing, changed nothing.

For a poem filled with vivid markers of distinctly Hong Kong life, an admission of amnesia is telling. Memory is a record of time live and loved, but it is also political. In a city prone to the political whims of powers elsewhere, forgetting may constitute its own form of protest.

One of the more idiosyncratic inclusions in the Hong Kong issue is an essay by scholar Lian-Hee Wee on the scribbled shorthand of daai paai dong waiters across the city. Totally inscrutable to otherwise “literate” Hong Kongers, the script combines characters in unusual ways to communicate all manner of food orders. Wee’s essay reads as both vignette and ethnography, conveying a sort of tradition many locals may well be unaware of. An example: the character 央 used in lieu of 鴛鴦,or yun yueng, the name of a Hong Kong concoction of coffee and milk tea. 央 is a Cantonese homophone for 鴦 (and composite radical), and is much faster to write.

The collection ends with “A Recommended Reading List” from novelist Xu Xi. The fifteen books included span fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It’s a great resource for readers looking to further “read” Hong Kong, and I second many of the recommendations (Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City and Nicholas Wong’s Crevasse would certainly top my list). However, I would also add the bilingual poetry collection Pei Pei the Monkey King, by poet Wawa and translator Henry Wei Leung (both of whose work appear in the Hong Kong issue). Not only is the book moving in its exploration of Hong Kong’s relationship with nature, but it also includes a prefatory essay by Leung on the relationship between Cantonese, Mandarin, and written Chinese; it should be required reading for anyone trying to understand Hong Kong’s linguistic relationship with the rest of the Sinophone world.

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Cameron White is a writer, screenwriter, and academic with an abiding love for Hong Kong. His work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and China Channel, while his short screenplay City Music was a Grand Prize winner at the 2013 Beijing International Screenwriting Competition. This fall he will begin PhD studies at the University of Michigan, researching the relationship between the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese film industries.

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