[REVIEW] “Across the Silence of Oceans: A Review of Hong Kong Without Us” by Arwi Y. Wong

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

The Bauhinia Project, Hong Kong Without Us: A People’s Poetry, University of Georgia Press, 2021. 120 pgs.

Growing up, I was told quite often that when you write with real feeling, the piece will be moving. I am sure children see through that well-intended baloney—all cited examples of good writing were analysed as having been produced through consummate skill and even profound research. Even songs we love do not offer any counterexamples. Everything that moves us is deliberately well written. When we grow up, we perpetuate this myth and encourage younger people to write sincerely, truthfully, telling them that is all that is needed to write.

And then, one finds an anonymous 15-year-old writing this:

Consummate skill? Perhaps only that of the translator, if indeed this was translated. There is no way to be sure. Hong Kong Without Us is an anthology shrouded in secrecy. All that is known is the “poems” are found in the various locations of 2019 Hong Kong. Whether they were written as poetry, or have they become poetry because they were written, one is unsure. The editors tell that most of the works were ostensibly Cantonese (written in traditional Chinese characters, some of which are found only in the Cantonese vernacular), which implies that some were not. A few Cantonese originals are embedded in the volume, or cited in the editorials, and these give a sense of how the editors approached their translations.

Those who read Chinese, even if not in Cantonese, might be curious to see the original, perhaps out of an urgent sense for documentation. But how then to “reach out across the silence of the oceans, through differences in language and culture”? (Foreword, p. x) As far as is discernible, I think the translations capture the moods, intensity, and lexical subtleties very well. For someone who reads Cantonese, and as an observer physically present in Hong Kong, I find myself nearly able to peer through the muslin of English to detect the outlines of what the original might have been. It could just be me, so do read it for yourself. For me, the feeling is one of trans-linguistic alexithymia, if such a concept is even sensible. The translations stir a recognition and yet, I found it hard to vividly make out the Cantonese words, although occasionally, I could nearly make out echoes resembling 我未來係點,都睇唔到, as in the final lines in this piece by a 14-year-old girl.

Age is also very evident in the works. The words of the teenagers and even those younger tend to reek of tear gas and blood, all folded into a courageous fabric looking toward a future that has been promised to them, salted with tears for those who love them but do not understand, and for their sisters and brothers. The writings of the middle-aged are tinged with guilt and anxiety for their children. The elderly breathe fresh fires, angered at the deterioration of a city they spent their whole lives building into a bastion of freedom, now in ruins. There are, of course, exceptions, but still, compare these lines below. They provide a glimpse of the different psychologies despite their common humanity.

Fortunately, the oceans did not silence. Unplacated by the Pacific, a 20-year-old Berkeley student must have in her blood a deep understanding of esse est percipi, for she was no tourist when she wrote,

What happened in Hong Kong was seen and felt around the world. As the editors note in their essay intimately addressed to Roberto Bolaño,

The ghost-men rave there between bites, adrift in spirits, flirting in English while across the harbour smoke fills the streets and children run for their lives in Cantonese. Meanwhile, .. in the Santiago where neoliberalism laid its first golden egg: a mutilation of eyes, young masses blinded by shots of rubber and tear gas, …. In Catalonia they chanted slogans from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong they flew Catalan flags. On a radio in America: “no police brutality” in Spanish, then in Cantonese, …

—”Afterword”, Hong Kong Without Us, 99.

From here, one can guess too that the ghostly editors fell in with the middle-aged group in Hong Kong, and that they too were not pacified by the blueness of the oceans and skies.

Can the world imagine a Hong Kong without those whose voices are enshrined in this anthology? These people are Hongkongers in a very  broad sense, not reducible to places of birth, passports, languages or religions. Because Hong Kong had been a cosmopolitan city that was not just another Chinese city, anyone could be a Hongkonger. Everyone stood for the same idea, that perhaps one did not have to care much for politics if we had been left free. This had been the British style of governance, albeit not necessarily one motivated by lofty ideals. For that reason, Hong Kong attracted everyone, and everyone was welcome to stay or leave whenever they are ready one way or another. Then things changed. Someone felt that control was necessary, and others who had much to lose were eager to sell out. Consequently,

I urge you to find the last wills and testaments in part V of the anthology. They are a sample, for sure, but a good sample. As the editors intended the collection to be a mirror, and I saw my reflection in this particular one,

The intentions spelled out by the writers showed no revolution. No calls for the toppling of any regime, only for homes for the destitute, jobs for the jobless, bicycle lanes, children’s animation, trees, and for others to note that the writers would never take their own lives. Yet, as pointed out in the postscript, the anthology is “a criminal book”. Although I have not yet learned of any official pronouncement against the book, I am certain the editors would be vindicated, sadly. Perhaps this review too (and those who publish it).

In articulating the artistic merits of the collection, I am at least guilty of celebrating the myth of honest and sincere writing of truth. Truth, under laws that have sweeping “absurd audacity to claim universal jurisdiction over all persons in and outside Hong Kong, whether Hongkonger or not” (p. 103), belongs only to the Übermenschen. There needs to be nothing true about it.

Also see these reviews in Cha:

How to cite: Wong, Arwi Y. “Across the Silence of Oceans: A Review of Hong Kong Without Us.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/16/hong-kong-without-us/ 

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Arwi Y. Wong is an unusual name but probably not surprising in Hong Kong where given names are often given by themselves. It took Wong many years before deciding on this name. The gender is deliberately neutral. Wong is committed to exploring notions of fairness and justice, and wonders if indeed non-anthropocentric ethics is conceivable. Similarly, if political powers cannot be inherited, why is economic inheritance perceived as normal when both affect the lives of many without allowing exercise of volition to the parties involved? Why shouldn’t these extend to all sentient beings? Until some answers are found, Wong prefers to just be another human being, albeit one worthy of friendship, a parameter often lacking in many who are powerful in some way or another. The powerful, it seems, appear to think that rights apply to none other than themselves, even if they lie about it.

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