[REVIEW] “The Art of Alienation: A Review of Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong” by Phill Provance

{Written by Phill Provance, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong, Musical Stone Publishing, 2018. 45 pgs.

An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong

If any one line hints at the world—or, better yet, the environment—of Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s poetry collection An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong it is, “The citizens know for sure / that something is not right.”

In this way, Ho succinctly expresses the social malaise in a contemporary Hong Kong of which she is, at times, overtly critical but towards which she never evinces anything less than unflinching devotion. And yet, something is indeed off-kilter in the place her speaker often calls, “this city”. Being “not right” proves to have a refractive meaning: things can be morally or ethically wrong (socially, politically, historically) as well as odd; they can also, at the very least, be difficult to understand.

In this collection of spectrums and juxtapositions embedded deep within a culture and simultaneously hurtled into the future, time loses meaning. It races ahead on one city block, while remaining still a block farther on. Ho wants us to recognise this complication, walk the streets in its confusion, its sought-after delights and promises, while recognising those invisible people and the ticking clock of possible ruin at the hands of a menacing national government.

To achieve this, Ho approaches the hardened strata of her city’s reality as the quintessential visitor—an alien from space—though as a writer she is anything but removed, being the founding editor of the Hong Kong-based international publication Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, among other things. Interestingly, she chooses a level of detachment and authorial remove that is difficult to achieve and conveys, perhaps better than any alternative approach, the uncomfortable, stark alienation one feels when gazing down at the pedestrian affairs of a home one is certain to lose.

We are struck, for instance, by such complications in “Dancing Silhouettes”, the collection’s first poem: “In news / you read about the abuses / (verbal, physical, sexual) they suffer. / They mind others’ children, / while peering at their own, / stored on phone screens. […] One hopes / that not all of their stories are grey, / entirely about hardships / and trying to make their exile pay. // For, after all: // I’ve seen their striking faces, Sunday beams, / and dazzling dancing silhouettes.”

The exploited workers who are collectively the subject of this poem are “moving this city forward / in their unique, significant way, / no less noble than the moneyed”. But such observations and layered juxtapositions are not without their ironies in the context of Ho’s Hong Kong: the haves and have-nots filling a massive city, turning the gears in their respective ways, are hardly what one might expect in the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, these are the sorts of stories one would expect from other mega-metropolises such as New York, Seoul or Tokyo—but while many of Hong Kong’s objective facts may be universally applicable, one is not: in 2047, “One Country, Two Systems”, the policy under which the city is governed, will end, and with it, potentially, so much of the Hong Kong Ho cherishes.

Similarly, in “269C” the collection’s speaker engages in an examination of Hong Kong’s social strata on a long bus ride and, at a stop, observes, “old people practice tai-chi / to a slow Beatles number” while several of the upper deck seats remain free since “Even the men don’t want to be exposed / to the sun. In this city, / fair skin remains important.” Meanwhile, we’re told, a woman spends the time between several stops separating out her makeup, two men quietly share the alternating pages of a newspaper, others nap, and a few hold tightly to their imitation designer handbags. Here we have the luxury of time observed, or at least the illusion of it, along with so much felicitously telling, quotidian behaviour. If there is tension in the collection, we come to understand, it is in the speaker’s entire divestiture of persona for the sake of collecting a summary record of a people and a way of life that will not survive the present century.

And yet, even with all the speaker’s apparent care in preserving as many incidental glances at Hong Kong’s residents as possible, the poet insists on referring to Hong Kong with abstract remove as “this city”. Is this a subtle, standoffish gibe? Perhaps. But if so, it is no more than the half-hearted insult of objective alienation that is never entirely genuine—something more akin to a child calling a disappointing parent by their first name than to a true insult. The chief accomplishment of An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong, then, lies in the felt detachment of an observer who cannot afford the attachment; in some sense, it is an elegy for Hong Kong—and, in that, perhaps one of the finest and most emotionally honest elegies ever penned.

How to cite: Provance, Phill. “The Art of Alienation: A Review of Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Aug. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/20/alienation/.

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Phill Provance

Phill Provance was born in an Appalachian valley town of 5,000 people to a Kirby salesman and a welfare caseworker who divorced when he was four. Subsequently spending his early years in a trailer on his grandparents’ farm, he witnessed the same alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and poverty that figure into most stereotypes of Appalachia. Yet, at the same time, he also experienced the genuine devotion and kindness of people whose only hope, often, is sticking together. Since leaving home at eighteen, he has published comics, nonfiction, journalism, and poetry in numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines throughout the English-speaking world. His forthcoming poetry collection, A Plan in Case of Morning (Vine Leaves Press, 2020), is his third book. His other works include the nonfiction popular history A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (The History Press, 2019) and the poetry chapbook The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist Press, 2010). His second full-length work of nonfiction, Postcards of McHenry County, Illinois, is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing in 2021. Visit his website for more information.

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