[REVIEW] “Poetry Blossoms Everywhere: A Review of ๐ป๐‘œ๐‘›๐‘” ๐พ๐‘œ๐‘›๐‘” ๐‘Š๐‘–๐‘กโ„Ž๐‘œ๐‘ข๐‘ก ๐‘ˆ๐‘ ” by Michael Tsang

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

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

Unusual times call for unusual ways of self-expression. At a time when civil freedoms in Hong Kong are being continually encroached upon, Hong Kong Without Us presents us with a possibility of making poetry in the worst of times.

One of the many aims of the anti-extradition bill protests of 2019 was to make resistance blossom everywhere (pindei hoifaa็‰‡ๅœฐ้–‹่Šฑ). In a way, Hong Kong Without Us perhaps reminds us that the verb โ€œblossomโ€ is even redundant, because poetry of resistance already exists and is everywhere in Hong Kongโ€”in peopleโ€™s day-to-day communication. This was what enabled the editors and translators of this volume to collect materials of self-expression from the protests and recraft them into poetic verse. These may not be the most ornate poems, but they all record the truths on the streets and translate the voices of Hong Kong people for the world.

One such truth recurring in many poems is selflessness and conviviality, an altruism that unite people on the streets at the moment of protest. Whether it is the sacrifice of teenage protesters standing on the frontline to buy time for others, or people giving each other a hug, โ€œthereโ€™s something / you can do, for everyoneโ€, as one poem says. Civil-mindedness and altruism were indeed distinctive features in the Hong Kong protests, as pictures of volunteers cleaning up rubbish after protests made headlines on international media. At the same time, while these poems are not desperate or polemical despite the dire situation, sometimes the emotion is so strong that there are short, impactful one-liners (often a stanza of its own) that declare strongly a viewpoint or an identityโ€”other truths on the streets:

I have no fear. (4)

I stand on my own two feet. (58)

He was the manager. (28)

I am a father. (6)

This is no longer my Hong Kong! (9)

While reading, I was particularly struck by two feelings. The first interesting feeling came from the way each of the first four sections was designed. The core poems of each section are in English (and the โ€œraw materialsโ€ before the poetic rework are not shown), but each section begins with a Chinese poem that appears alongside its English translation. But the Chinese poems are written in a literary language with grandiose words, which therefore sets the atmosphere for the following section but which the English translation often fails to capture. This is inevitable: current trends in English poetry simply do not favour exaggerated language. Hence the core poems of each section are quotidian, measured, short and crisp, momentous, but they are preceded by something of too great a scale:

ๅคฉไบก                                           post-mortem sky

่ก€ๅ’’       ๅคงๅœฐ่ตท                    blood spell           rising from earth

็‰ข็‰ขๅคงๆตท                                locked-down sea

้€ฃๆ นๆ‹”่ตท                                yanked by the roots

Even the last section, an interesting collage of Post-its of โ€œlast wills and testaments, along with dreams for a post-reclamation Hong Kongโ€ reminiscent of the Lennon Wall during the Umbrella Movement, is prefaced by these philosophically sounding lines that heavily rely on the context of the book to infer its relevance to Hong Kongโ€™s situation:

ๅคงๅœฐ                                           the earth

ไธ€็‰‡้ปƒๆฒ™่‚…ๆธ…                     yellow sand expunged

่ฌไธ–่ฝ‰                                      ten thousand lives revolve

ๅฆ‚็ฉบ็ฉบๆ›ฟ                                empty replacing empty

ๆ›ไบบ้–“                                      swap out this mortal coil

ไธ€่‰ไน‹ๅ–„                                one grassleaf of grace

The English translation lacks the momentum of the rhythm and the cosmological atmosphere of those short Chinese lines. This does not mean the translation is a bad one; it is just that some styles of Chinese poetry do not lend themselves easily to translation. Nonetheless, the grand scale of these Chinese poems is quite out of sync with the style of most of the other poems, and readers who value variety of style over consistency would find them a welcome change.

The other feeling is an incongruence between the tone of these poems and the discretion that has gone into protecting the identities of those involved in the project. Reading these poems felt like eavesdropping, as if I was in a cha chaan teng ่Œถ้คๅปณ (an informal Hong Kong cafรฉ) in a local neighbourhood, overhearing customers chirping at the next table. The poems are that quotidian, even though the protest was about such an urgent matter. Thus, enveloping these poems are a โ€œNote on Authorship and Processโ€ (which also gives a helpful overview of the intricate linguistic situation of Hong Kong for those who are not familiar) and a postscript on the situation of the National Security Law, where the editors describe the experimental gesture of making this volume โ€œauthorlessโ€ and the careful precaution they put into protecting the identities of people involved in the project. They also meticulously denote the source of the poems, from graffiti on Hong Kongโ€™s walls, writings on journalism platforms, or social media or forum posts. Although the word โ€œanonymousโ€ does appear later in the note to describe the poems, to use the word โ€œauthorlessโ€ for a tagline is extraordinary. In a way, the poems in this book are authorless, but they are not โ€œanonymousโ€ as in they do not have a name. They do: their name is Heung Gong Yan ้ฆ™ๆธฏไบบ, Hongkonger. Whether it is the poets, the translators or the editors, whether they are in Hong Kong or not, those who were involved in this project are simply Hongkongers.

The โ€œauthorlessnessโ€ of the entire project, from writing, translating and editing, is a remarkable mode of resistance-writing, one that may bring fruitful implication on other contexts of protests as well. In this sense, what has emerged is not one or two single poems, but, as the book cover reads, a peopleโ€™s poetry, or simply a poetry: a poetry of Hong Kong resistance by Hongkongers. Perhaps, soon, to be able to remain anonymous will be a privilegeโ€”can this book review be anonymous, for example? In imminently authoritarian Hong Kong, can readers also remain anonymous in future?

For now, โ€œwatch for Hong Kongโ€, as the last paragraph of the bookโ€™s postscript says. Watch for Hong Kong, and watch for Hong Kong poetry.

Also see these reviews in Cha:

How to cite: Tsang, Michael. โ€œPoetry Blossoms Everywhere: A Review of Hong Kong Without Us.โ€ Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 18 Jul. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/07/18/blossoms-everywhere/ 


Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, with previous academic experiences in Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His interests lie in East Asian literatures and popular cultures, as well as postcolonial and world literatures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021). He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Chaโ€™s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is a founding co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). [Cha Profile]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s