[REVIEW] “Dissected by Theory: A Review of C.T. Au’s The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-kwan” by Emma Zhang

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

C.T. Au, The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-kwan, Lexington Books, 2020. 202 pgs.

C.T. Au’s The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-kwan is the first monograph in English devoted to the systematic analysis of the vast oeuvre of Leung Ping-kwan, also known as Yasi. Leung (1949-2013) was a prolific writer and scholar; his diligent pen crafted Hong Kong as a distinct city, set apart from continental counterparts such as Shanghai or Taipei, New Delhi or Ho Chi Minh City. From the 1970s to his death in 2013, Leung tirelessly sketched the sense and sensibility of Hong Kong in numerous poems, proses, novels, short stories and critical essays. He captured the city facing traumatic transitions with a dignity of its own. In 2012, Leung was awarded the Author of the Year by the Hong Kong Book Fair. In his reception speech, he spoke of the importance of literature: “[a] society without its own literature will lose its language, its identity, and its ability to converse with others on an equal platform”. Leung devoted his entire life to the craft of Hong Kong literature. He was one of the most important writers of his generation, who forged a Hong Kong identity from its perceived vacancy. His poetry, written in Cantonese and translated into a number of languages, amplified the voice of Hong Kong on the world stage. Au’s systematic analysis of Leung’s works through the theoretical framework of modernism is a much-needed contribution to the study of Hong Kong literature, and illuminates our understanding of Hong Kong modernism.

In the introductory chapter, Au informs the reader that Leung considered himself a modernist and that since there is not yet a consensus on the definition of Hong Kong modernism, her approach is to use the characteristics embodied in Leung’s works to help define Hong Kong modernism. She explains that she distinguishes her approach from others by laying stress on the relationship between Leung and Western authors’ modernist features, rather than on Chinese modernisms alone. In this chapter, she briefly acknowledges the impact and influence of Chinese modernists in the 1940s, and Hong Kong modernists Ma Lang and Liu Yichang. In the ensuing chapters, Au details Leung’s rejuvenation of the Chinese literary tradition; his “invention of the ordinary out of the extraordinary”, and his “celebration of multiple perspectives” in travelogues and concludes with an analysis of translations of Leung’s poetry collection City at the End of Time.

The book showcases Au’s expertise in modernist literature and theories of modernism in both Chinese and Western literary traditions. Prior to the publication of this volume, Au had authored The Aesthetics of Taiwanese Modernist Poetry (2008), and a wide range of journal articles and book chapters on modernist writers of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. Clearly the fruit of years of labour, this book synthesises Au’s extensive knowledge of modernist literary theories and Leung Ping-kwan’s wide-ranging corpus of poems, prose, novels, short stories and critical essays. Au’s chief focus in this work is to map out Hong Kong modernism by identifying features of Leung’s writings according to important themes in modernist literature–tradition, the ordinary, disease and medicine, travelogue and translation.

When examining Leung’s handling of the Chinese literary tradition, Au notes that the sadness in the lyrical tradition of Shijing is eased in Leung’s modern rendition. “[M]ost poems are optimistic, rather than sentimental” (41). Leung’s “Shijing Exercise” series transports figures and scenarios in the Chinese lyrical classic Shijing to modern day setting and shows how technology, including the control of environment, ease of transport, and free flow of information softened the impact of weather on mood, the trauma of separation, and the anxiety caused by uncertainty. This reading implies modernisation in Hong Kong is welcomed as a balm for the traumatic experiences familiar to the premodern condition.

While discussing the invention of the ordinary, Au argues that in Leung’s poetry, the concrete melts away—homes vanish, streets become unrecognisable. As a city, Hong Kong goes through constant metamorphosis, and even locals lose their way in the ever-evolving landscape. She contrasts Leung’s poetry series Jiashi (“Home Affairs”) with Yixiang (“Foreign Country”) and asserts that, in contrast to European cities, where people’s homes are preserved for more than a hundred years, for Hong Kong people the concept of home does not rest in concrete realities such as architecture or furniture. Instead, home is embodied in the habitual aspects of everyday life. In Leung’s poetry, food, because of its intimate connection with the circular, habitual aspects of ordinary life, becomes the anchor of identity and culture. Food plays an important role in inventing the ordinary in the extraordinary context of colonisation. Au quotes Leung’s poem “We travel with lots of stuff” to drive home the idea of constructing a home on a foreign land through the preservation of habits. Hong Kong people carry their “homes” with them in the forms of food, the Cantonese language, tea house culture, and a family-oriented lifestyle as they travel and settle elsewhere in the world.

Au elaborates further on the theme of home being elsewhere when discussing Leung’s travelogues. She argues that Leung’s fictionalised travelogues are different from the travelogues written by the coloniser or the colonised. Leung believes “Hong Kong is distinguished from other colonies like India, Vietnam, or Korea in terms of their different histories and cultures” (152). “If being homeless is the major problem someone from other third-world countries face, the Hong Kong people face the opposite problem: they have too many choices in terms of home” (144). She uses the romance between Roger and Ah Su in Leung’s Postcolonial Affairs of Food and the Heart as an example to show that there is a reversal of power between the coloniser and the colonised. Despite Roger the white American’s consistent efforts to adapt to the life and culture of Hong Kong, his local lover Ah Su rejects him as an outsider and ends their relationship. Au argues that Leung blurs the line between the colonisers and colonised and rejects the idea of white privilege by portraying Roger sympathetically as an outsider failing to fit in. She ends the chapter by quoting feedback from Leung himself, “when we thought or wrote about Hong Kong, perhaps it was important that we did not put emphasis on one single perspective” (155).

One limitation of Au’s approach is that theory is given priority over the literary work itself, somewhat thwarting her aim of defining Hong Kong modernism through features of Leung’s work. Western modernist theories provide frameworks of analysis, and Leung’s writings are dissected into fragments. His writings are not analysed according to genre or period, which may offer a fuller picture of the poet scholar’s evolving perception of Hong Kong before and after the handover. Instead, fragments of the same work are analysed according to various frames of analysis. For example, Au claims Leung’s application of the yongwu tradition in food poetry is not successful because the relationship between human and food is ultra-stable. Au proposes the yongwu tradition, which destabilises the relationship between humans and objects and frequently reiterates the theme “mankind is inferior to objects”. But her analysis may reveal more of a limitation of the theoretical framework than the inadequacy of Leung’s poetry. In a later chapter, Au revisits Leung’s food poetry and examines it through the lenses of the ordinary and affirms the value of food as an emblem of culture and identity. Applying different theoretical frameworks leads to different evaluations of the same body of work and undermines the appreciation of Leung’s food poetry as a meaning conveying artwork independent of modernist frameworks of analysis.

At times, her application of theoretical framework distracts Au from pinpointing the meaning of the literary work and instead directs her attention to a consideration of how well the work fits the constraints of theory. Guided by her interpretation of the yongwu tradition already mentioned, Au declares Leung’s Liaozhai poetry series “likely a beautiful mistake” (43), “an early indicator of Leung’s future failure in rejuvenating yongwu poetry/food poetry” (49). She compares Leung’s poem “The Cricket” with the Liaozai story “Cu zhi” that inspired it and argues that Leung’s version undermines the “mankind is inferior to objects” theme expressed in the original. The evidence she provides is that the parents in the poem are portrayed as caring for their son, whereas the parents in the original did not. This interpretation is problematic at two levels. First, in the original story, the parents are described as deeply remorseful when they discovered that their nine-year-old has committed suicide, so it is not accurate to perceive them as uncaring. Second, the speaker of the poem is the boy—his assumption that his parents miss him cannot be convincingly interpreted as evidence of the parents’ care. The parents’ perspective is not represented in the poem.

The yongwu tradition is wider in scope and more complex than Au suggests. Leung’s own explanation of his food and object poems also indicate that his interpretation of this tradition is different from Au’s. He writes in the postscript to his poetry collection East West Matters: “Classical Chinese poets wrote yongwu poems about lotuses or bamboos to express their ideals. I wrote poems on sneakers, bitter melon and kimchee, because I am interested in the complicated relationship between us and contemporary objects” (167). When we set aside the question of whether Leung adequately expresses the theme of “mankind is inferior to objects” in “The Cricket”, because this may not be Leung’s aim in the first place, we can then understand the poem better in its own right.

The poem opens with the lines “Father, please don’t be angry with me / and you don’t need to look for my whereabouts / your son wants to transform into a cricket / and I think it is time for me to pay you back”. The voice of the child speaking to an angry (tyrannical) parent evokes the parent-child analogy used by the famous Chinese poet Wen Yi-duo in his 1925 poem titled “Hone Kong”. In that poem, Wen anthropomorphised Hong Kong as a child eager to return to the arms of Mother China. Leung’s poem therefore provides a completely different perspective. Using the voice of the child, he tells his father “you don’t need to look for my whereabouts”, and that he “wants to transform into a cricket”. The child does not want to return home but has chosen the transformation and is content in his transformed state. The poem, written in 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s return to China, proposes an alternative parent-child relationship. The child has metamorphosed into a different creature and promises to perform his filial duties in his transformed state. The cricket brought wealth and status to his parents the same way Hong Kong played a pivotal role in the economic development of post-Mao China. “Let me be your cricket” the child pleads, “and I will not blame you because I understand your difficulties”. The poem proposes a reconciliation and reconnection without the necessity of sharing of the same sphere of life. Both the parents and the child continue to live in separate spaces and the child can best serve his parents in his new form as a prize-winning cricket. This poem can be understood as an analogy of Hong Kong after its return to Chinese jurisdiction. The “child” Hong Kong would rather be the different creature that he has shape-shifted into than be made to return to an abusive home and live as a neglected child.  

Another example of Au’s dissection of a story by applying different theoretical frameworks is in her conflicting interpretation of Paper Cut-Outs. Au first reads the story as one about mental illness and medicine. She argues that though the protagonists suffer from mental illness, no one around them considers sending them into mental hospitals. She concludes “Leung Ping-kwan’s Paper Cut-Outs seems to bring forth the message that the colonised Hong Kong people were, to a great extent, free to choose whether or not they should accept Western medical treatment (in this case, for mental illness)” (90, emphasis mine). This reading opens an exciting potential to read the story as one about the special status of Hong Kong as a colony never fully conquered by its British colonisers. Michel Foucault famously pointed out that the scientific institutionalisation of medical treatment of the insane in modern times ended the dialogue between the “rational” and the “insane”. In other words, the medical treatment of mental illness strengthened the institutional control of the socially undesirable and reinforced conformity. In this light, the protagonists’ freedom to reject Western medicine can be interpreted as a metaphor for Hong Kong’s tolerance for diversity and resistance to colonial domination.

Au, however, does not explore this potentially fruitful reading of mental illness and resistance to medicine. Instead, in the chapter that follows, she revisits this story and interprets it through the lenses of magical realism. She asserts that Leung “is obviously not using magical realism as a means to challenge colonialism”, because “[t]he magic realist descriptions embedded in Paper Cut-Outs do not disturb temporal and special orders in particular, and all its descriptions are considered to be figments of the characters’ imaginations or hallucinations, and thus they do not help re-establish a new order” (133). This is another example of Au prioritising the theoretical framework over the literature itself, and for me, employing these two frameworks to analyse the same story fragments the analysis and constrains the discussion.

Reservations about her analysis do not prevent one from appreciating Au’s informative, well-reasoned and carefully structured argument on the whole. Leung Ping-kwan himself consistently celebrated multiple perspectives throughout his work, so it is appropriate to adapt his words on writing about Hong Kong to the analysis of his legacy—“perhaps it is important we do not put emphasis on one single perspective”. No doubt, Leung would readily approve Au’s interpreting his works through multiple frameworks.

How to cite: Zhang, Emma. “Dissected by Theory: A Review of C.T. Au’s The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-kwan” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 02 Mar. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/03/02/leung-ping-kwan/.

Emma Zhang.jpg

Emma Zhang is a lecturer of English in the College of International Education in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation “Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels” (2015), analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight – the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake – The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.

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