[EXCLUSIVE] “On Writing Hong Kong: Growing Pains” by Jon Ng

Jon Ng, Hong Kong: Growing Pains, Proverse Press, 2020. 74 pgs.

MY CURATION OF PRIVATE THOUGHTS

I was trying to grow up when I started to put this collection together. It’s funny to think of now but, as I hit 29, I was trying to move on from all of my childhood-themed memories, throwing poems that were five to ten years old into a manuscript, deluding myself with the fantasy that their being trapped between two covers would stop them from haunting me with all of my childhood grudges, musings and miseries.

You see, I never knew what a nuclear family felt like except from TV. My parents were never really home, and though they were providing everything for me and I lived far above the poverty line in the comfort of the middle class, my mother was a stranger who expected unconditional love from me, and my father was a stern man who had expectations that seemed better fulfilled by my two older siblings. 

Living at home with just a domestic helper from the age of 13, I eventually became estranged from my family at the age of 19. By then, I had become a private tutor, but in the study centres and while visiting private homes, I had begun to notice children who were in similarly fragmented, broken families. I began to notice kids who were mindlessly chasing grades for the praise of their parents, kids who had dark bags under their eyes and who studied not to learn but because they had been taught that this effort would be proportional to the salaries they hoped to earn. 

I also saw the adults and instructors who were in it for the money, and the parents who were out working, driven by the same motives, not realising that there was a hurt child alone at home.

So I wrote and recorded for them, but then had second thoughts, because I wondered if I was just projecting myself onto the children I was teaching. I decided that since I couldn’t know, it was time to “grow up”, to try to publish, and move onto writing about “adult things”. Like… about love, or something. 

But over the course of 2019, the collection took a hard turn away from forgetting, and shifted towards remembering. Suddenly it was important to not forget, necessary to keep an exact recollection of just how hot the streets were beneath the slow cooker of the sun, just how many people crammed into the trains we took back when stations closed for actual crowd control reasons; track these weekly hikes that took place not on hilly trails but in the ravines of streets where clouds and thunderclaps could burst without warning. Suddenly, I needed to record and document what I was seeing: a time-lapse of young people having to grow up far too fast.

The world has 2020, but Hong Kong’s was 2019For years, I’ve wondered whether or not I should write about Hong Kong at all; what did I have to say? I’m an island-side kid, my Cantonese is awful and I can’t read the language (yet). But when I realised that Hong Kong’s history was changing, and people who were “neutral” slowly lamented the loss only of the privileged side of Hong Kong that they had known and were now planning to leave, I realised that my version of Hong Kong was at least better than theirs—a version of someone who loves the city even if I don’t understand and remain fearful of three-quarters of it.

Hong Kong: Growing Pains is not a collection of “Hong Kong”. I don’t want to pretend that it is close to being representative of Hong Kong voices, but it is collection from a voice in Hong Kong. It’s my collection of contradictions; my curation of private thoughts presented for the public eye, my past as a child reimagined through the peepholes of an adult mind, my aging version of what was then present-day history, a complete work with a necessary, yet thus-far unwritten sequel. 

The last section of the book is entitled “A City like a Stone”Truth be told, I am still somewhat convinced that Hong Kong is becoming an Atlantis, a myth of a city that once was something special that will fade into legend and therefore become unbelievable. And though I’m convinced that this is inevitable, I’m also convinced that even futile struggle has its value and meaning, that ripples can cross even oceans.

I wrote this believing that writing can make a change eventually, even if the expanse it must cross is not an ocean measured by distance and conquered with speed, but rather an expanse overcome by duration and resiliency. I wrote this because I believe writing can make change occur, so I plan to continue doing just that, even if that change takes a century. 

POEMS

A Year Behind

The same songs warble over naked streets
As bare as a home just sold round the block;
The storefronts shiver, hollowed out, while the
Grand marble markets meditate, flesh-void,
The bright lights practicing morse code.

In the meantime, classrooms sit, dim,
The fate of ideas twisted and hewn down by absence.
Thoughts drop, discarded into the shadows of rusting doors,

Falling to dust while faces fill screens from everywhere,
Everyone wondering what, and if they’re learning at all.

Still, what remains hidden behind the veil of this year
Is not just the robbery of youth, of sunshine’s rays,
But the uncertain worry of the look of tomorrow,
Since these days, neither chanting or silence brought change,

The wonder now, is when or if, there will come better days.

Sickness

If we can cough out any lesson
From out of this city, perhaps
It is the callused thought that
Uniformity brings solidarity;
Though not in mindlessness,
Not in being a drone, nor in
Being blanketed in the black
Where sin sleeps so deep
One’s immune to both penance,
And the parsing of people’s grief — 

No, if anything, we’ve discovered
The banners to rally under,
Hacked out an a sphere of an economy,
Sneezed out our rage in phlegm
So viscous we’ve had to turn from
Our media to scrub it away.
Nothing’s for certain yet,
The battle’s far from won,
Yet for as long as this city’s
Still feeling sick, together,
Masks are what we’ll don.

Two poems by Jon Ng published in Issues 54-55 of Hong Kong’s Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (July-October 2020). Illustration by Gianluca Costantini.

How to cite: Ng, Jon. “On Writing Hong Kong: Growing Pains.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 25 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/25/growing-pains/.

Hong Kong: Growing Pains is Jon Ng’s first published collection of poetry. Though Canadian by birth, he has come to call Hong Kong his home and plans to stay in the city for as long as he can. He was the second runner-up of RTHK’s Top Story Competition in 2018, and has since had poems published in Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine and in the Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong anthology published in 2017. 

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