[REVIEW] “We Shall Have to Learn How to Live with Ghosts: A Review of John Minford’s π»π‘œπ‘›π‘” πΎπ‘œπ‘›π‘” πΏπ‘–π‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘Žπ‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘’ π‘†π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘–π‘’π‘ ” by Douglas Kerr

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

John Minford (general editor), Hong Kong Literature Series, The Chinese University Press, 2020.

If the library was on fire and you could only preserve six books of Hong Kong writing, what would you save? I’m sure my choice would not be the same as John Minford’s. Nevertheless, his selection for this series is judicious, generous, and quite cunning. In these six books he manages to cover a lot of ground, both chronologicallyΒ­β€”covering 170 yearsβ€”and in terms of genreβ€”long and short fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, even a book about teddy bears. Most of Minford’s authors were not born in Hong Kong, a fact that properly reflects the history of the life of the city as a thing not found, but made. It is relatively recently that the drama of the place is being acted out, and written about, mostly by people who are native to the place.

β€œThis new series of books, originally the brainchild of the prominent Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan, proudly presents the defiant and distinctive character of Hong Kong’s imaginative literature, which marks it off from the other parts of the Chinese-speaking world.” This spirited claim by the editor is made good in this collection, but a stronger and more challenging boast is encoded in the title given to one of the books, an anthology of thirty essays written in or about Hong Kong, The Best China. In bourgeois England β€œthe best china” is (or used to be) the phrase for the more expensive and show-off cups and saucers brought out to impress special guests who came to tea. Minford says he’s using it here β€œto describe a similarly special collection of prose items that demonstrate the β€˜best’ Chinese tradition of free thinking and creative writing”.

Far from being a cultural desert (as it used to be dismissed, particularly by mainland Chinese critics), historically, Hong Kong has been a place where freedom has been protected from political strife and corruption, civil war and ideological persecution; β€œHong Kong has in fact been a veritable oasis, nurturing the delicate shoots that express the Best, the Truest, China”. It is a startling claim, in which peripheral Hong Kong is promoted to a central position in modern Chinese culture, a culture which, to put it mildly, has not always benefited from the attentions of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The publication of this collection of Hong Kong writing in 2020 carries a terrible irony, but also perhaps, as a reminder of what Hong Kong can do, suggests future possibilities. Inevitably, the series is retrospective, so that its overall effect can seem elegiac. Its most recent item is a mournful essay by Chip Tsao, dated December 2019, about deathbeds. But the story of Hong Kong writing is far from over, and these days to write about the life of Hong Kong is an ever more important and challenging task.

First in the series is a book which counts as a Hong Kong classic, Liu Yichang’s The Drunkard (1962) (trans. Charlotte Chun-Lam Yiu, ed. Nick Hordern). It’s a sprawling story of the life in Hong Kong of a writer who aspires to be the Chinese Joyce or Proust, in a city whose idea of literature is limited to kung fu serials and pornography. Aspects of Hong Kong culture and society are criticised, but the protagonist himself is far from heroic, his life punctuated by regular hangovers and equally regular resolutions to give up the grog. This is what his mind sounds like:

This is a display of stream-of-consciousness writing, an example of the project to bring modernism into modern Chinese writing, but it’s also incidentally a contribution to the passing history of Hong Kong (remember ricebirds?). The passage, and the book as a whole, is a Hong Kong ragbag, and so in a sense is Liu, bringing together in his person a disparate twentieth-century Chinese experienceβ€”Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, war and peace, Chinese and Western literature, the culture of the book and of the street, Loke Yew and Hollywood, stinking bean curd and vodkaβ€”all flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore of a sleepy colonial outpost already becoming the richest and most modern Chinese city in the world.

The Drunkard is a good place to start because it tells the story of a man trying to be a writer in Hong Kong, a place no more hospitable to literature than anywhere else. There is a threadbare narrative. The protagonist struggles to make a living by his pen, while trying to salvage some self-respect as an author and a man. He is a flyblown cosmopolitan, the modernist antihero, part Dostoevskian underground man and part Grub Street warrior. He complains endlessly about Hong Kong. It’s provincial, transactional, philistine, with a culture of pornography, pulp fiction and trashy films. His quixotic ambition to run a magazine called Avant-Garde Literature with his idealistic young friend Mak Ho-Moon is doomed from the start. And yet Hong Kong is constantly feeding him material, and the city he affects to despise is itself his great theme.

Liu is inaugurating a demotic Hong Kong literature, as his first-person narrator works out a way to come to terms with the place where he has washed up, and does so especially through his relations with a number of women; it is the women who really embody the city. These notations of the place and people are a good deal more interesting than the writer’s freely-given opinions on Chinese and Western writers and aesthetic matters. And in the end the style of the novel, with its stream-of-consciousness passages and its occasional moments of self-conscious surrealism, is less remarkable, and less original, than the content it now makes available to future authors and film-makers. This is the novel that unlocks Hong Kong for later writers.

One of Liu Yichang’s literary heirs, Leung Ping-kwan, is generously represented in this series, by one book of prose and one of verse. In Dragons: Shorter Fiction of Leung Ping-kwan (trans. Wendy Chan, Jasmine Tong Man and David Morgan, ed. Laura Ng and John Minford), two of his stories are brought together. The rationale of this choice is understandableβ€”an early (1975) and a late (2007) story, both featuring dragons. The first, β€œSee Mun and the Dragon”, dates from the early days when PK Leung thought he might become a magical realist on the South American model. (Some Hong Kong writers were drawn to the South American novelists because they offered a way of writing that seemed β€œnon-aligned”, not shackled by the weight of either Chinese or Euro-American literary traditions.) The second tale, β€œDrowned Souls”, is a novella written, as the editor says, β€œin a more symbolic and psychological manner”.

β€œSee Mun and the Dragon” is the story of a young man who gets a job as a dragon-keeper. The dragon in question, a less-than-fearsome beast which is never described, at first behaves like a sullen teenager, but eventually, patiently, See Mun succeeds in cleaning it up, improving its mood, and teaching it language. In a lyrical scene, with its keeper’s encouragement, the dragon learns to fly. But See Mun discovers that most people are not actually all that interested in dragons, preferring the spectacle of a whale that has been dressed in gaudy trinkets and taught to do circus tricks. At this stage, it looks as if the story might be seen as an allegory about the artist nursing his creativity in uncongenial surroundings, harking back to the failure of Liu Yichang’s Drunkard to find a reading public for his literary work. But Leung’s dragon-keeper is a government employee, a kind of civil servant really, and in the shadowy background there is an inefficient and meddling bureaucracy, a bossy supervisor, and ultimately the emperor himself. All these forces are working to exploit and vulgarise the dragon, and literally to tie it down. In the end See Mun manages to set the dragon free, though with fatal consequences both for himself and for the emperor. Here the fantasy seems to have taken a more overt, though underdeveloped, political turn.

I don’t subscribe to the romantic theory of development that supposes that writers get better and better at what they do. However, in the case of these tales the later one, β€œDrowned Souls”, is much the more interesting and richer. It brings a young scholar, editor of the Taoist Scripture of Darkness and Light, to a scholarly retreat in a castle on the north-western coast of France, where the river Loire joins the sea. Here characters and surroundings are evoked in a quite realist way; the β€œmagical” dimension of the story comes in the narrator’s belief that everywhere is infested with Taoist spirits, and particularly water-spectres who specialise in haunting river-banks and coasts, and luring the unsuspecting down to a watery tomb. Thus, the young scholar is mugged in the streets of Marseille, but has no luck in explaining to the police that his attackers were the malevolent spectres of drowned Chinese, intent on stealing his copy of the ancient scripture. This is properly magical-realist, with the supernatural element accepted (though unfortunately not by the French police) as a normal part of the environment. In this way the ordinary becomes routinely uncanny.

It’s not too hard to find here the two elements of PK Leung himself, the poet-scholar-translator dedicated to his craft, and the restless romantic globetrotter. John Minford’s introduction suggests that there are specific autobiographical elements to this story, and this may account for the fact that its episodes sometimes seem arbitrary and disconnected. You get the impression of reading a parable whose key has been stolen, as Theodor Adorno said about Kafka’s stories.

To be sure, the scholar encountering spirits is a very familiar subject in Chinese literature, and opera. But it is defamiliarising to find him on a research mission at the mouth of the Loire, searching for a compatible plug for his computer. Later, in a cave on the shore he encounters the Dragon Maiden, and goes on a journey across an apocalyptic and probably allegorical landscape to visit her father the fearsome Dragon King. Towards the end there is a climactic battle with the evil spirits, an entirely characteristicβ€”and very Hong Kongβ€” combination of the sublime and the farcical (there is an epic battle in the kitchen against seafood possessed by demons, a scene you might find in a Hong Kong movie). Some sort of victory is achieved over the forces of darkness, and at the end of the tale the novice is ready to pass on to the next adventure.

β€œYou have accomplished a good deed in this lifetime,” the narrator of β€œDrowned Souls” is told at the end of the story by his Taoist master. β€œBut you still have been unable to see through the emptiness of the material world.” I imagine something similar being said to PK Leung in the afterlife. For the poet loved the material worldβ€”loved to touch it, weigh it, taste it β€”far too much to be ready to give it up for the life of unalloyed spirit. In his heaven we can be sure there is seafood, fruit, plenty of wine, and good conversation: a version of Hong Kong.

PK Leung wrote fiction, essays, criticism, translations, and journalism, but it is as a poet that he gave most to Hong Kong, and in its highly idiosyncratic way his is an essentially Hong Kong voice. He was the leading Hong Kong writer of his generation. In Lotus Leaves (trans. and ed. John Minford), his friend Minford has gathered and translated some ninety of Leung’s poems. Actually, Leung has been well served by a number of English translators, but there is an advantage to finding a large body of his work here translated in a steady idiom by someone who knows it very well. Still, it is a selection, and some people will be disappointed to find favourites missing. (I couldn’t find β€œThe Square” or β€œThe Silk Road”, both magnificent poems.)

Here, right from the start are the familiar Leung themes: places, travelled or returned to; friendship; observation of the natural world; conversation; art, especially the visual arts including film; memory and history; food and drink; the everyday material world. Indeed, it’s possible that we are so used to thinking of him as the poet of the life of the city (or of cities) that we might forget Leung’s exceptional lyrical gifts, as in the ending of this early poem about a reflection (in both senses).

But much of the time his work is more grounded, firmly emplaced bulletins from an experience unremarkable in itself, but transfigured by the poet’s attention. It is this rootedness, this trust in the ordinary untempted by heroic or ideological language or poetical diction, that makes Leung’s a thoroughly democratic voice. Here is the ending of β€œHaunted House in Berlin”, a poem about history written in 1998, but absolutely contemporary in its resonance.

Xi Xi is another of the Hong Kong writers whose talents were nurtured by Liu Yichang. She is represented in this series by a very odd but strangely beautiful book, The Teddy Bear Chronicles (trans. Christina Sanderson). Partly as physical therapy in her recovery from illness, it seems Xi Xi has become very fond of making rag dolls and teddy bears by hand. This book consists of colour photographs of dozens of her bears, mostly historical figures in colourful costumes, each with a short ekphrastic essay about the character and their clothes and accoutrements. The translator also provides introductory notes to each bear. So, for example, we have a splendid photo of the legendary Yellow Emperor and his wife Leizu, accompanied by a text that tells us who they were, and describes the clothes they are wearing in the photo. His Majesty has striking golden yellow fur, appropriately enough, and he wears a fancy garment and head-dress. His elegant wife is quite plainly dressed, though she has a nice cowrie-shell necklace. But in the description Leizu upstages her husband. He was not much more than a clan leader, but she it was who discovered that silk could be derived from silkworms fed on mulberry leaves, and could then be woven into fabric for making clothes and much else.

I have never read a book like this and have no idea how to review it, except to say that I’m glad to have a copy.

Next comes Leo Ou-fan Lee and Esther Yuk-ying Lee’s co-written Ordinary Days: A Memoir in Six Chapters (ed. John Minford). This is a chronicle of the love, in later life, between Professor Leo Lee and his wife Esther. First published in Chinese in 2002, it consists mostly of letters between them, and journal entries. It seems to have been a remarkably harmonious relationship. Even so, its story can be difficult to read. Much of the discourse of lovers consists of each telling the other how wonderful and attractive they are, and even though this exchange is elevated with plentiful references to Chinese literature (the memoir itself is modelled on Shen Fu’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life), it leaves the reader (or, at least, this reader) feeling a bit uncomfortable. The domestic details, the fads of diet and dress, the lovers’ nicknames for each other, things which are the regular currency of love stories in fiction, are a different matter when published in a book co-written by an actual and extant married couple. Readerly approval, or disapproval, of the writing would be bound to sound personal, either over-effusive or churlish. Somewhat fulsome commentaries by their friends John Minford and Pai Hsien-yung contribute to bathing this relationship in a highly romantic light. However, there is a section later in the book which deals with Esther Lee’s struggles with depression. This part, to which both contribute, is a brave and moving piece of writing, and could well be a help and solace to others confronting the same demon.

Lastly, to The Best China (ed. John Minford). This anthology of shorter prose pieces is divided into two unequal parts. The first and shorter is β€œForerunners”, featuring colonial-era voices including sinologists like James Legge and E. J. Eitel, and culminating with Sun Yat-sen’s famous speech to students at Hong Kong University in 1923, naming Hong Kong as his intellectual birthplace. But for me the unexpected gem of this section is an extract from Cecil Clementi’s introduction to his translations of Cantonese Love-Songs, published by Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press in 1904. It is, says the editor, β€œan exquisite and heart-felt poetic evocation of the love-lorn demi-monde of the flower-boats of Canton”. Personally I find Clementi’s translations far too upholstered in the poetical diction of his own Victorian upbringing (β€œAh! Need must ye yourselves awake. / In the world nought is stable”). But his enthusiasm for these love songs shines through his introduction. This was a true orientalist projectβ€”ethnographic, linguistic, literary, and full of zeal to make these songs known beyond the Chinese world. Clementi compiled the book when he was a trainee Hong Kong civil servant, learning Cantonese in Guangzhou. He worked in Hong Kong from 1900 to 1913, and then returned as Governor from 1925 to 1930. Perhaps, even now, there is a poet and translator with a similar love and respect for Cantonese culture, at work in the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region?

The longer section, β€œMore Recent Times”, is not just a collection of Hong Kong prose writings but also something of a sociology of Hong Kong literature, crisscrossed with the networks of friendship, collaboration, criticism, publication, patronage, and translation that held the smallish literary world of Hong Kong togetherβ€”and no doubt, with a younger generation of Hong Kong writers largely unrepresented here, still does. Of the varied contents of this section, to learn more about Hong Kong I would recommend particularly an autobiographical essay written in 1996 by Jimmy Lai (now in prison), a whimsical miniature about identity called β€œThe Drawer” by Xi Xi, and, for its exuberant English, Timothy Mo’s brilliant memoir of a childhood of reading and pugilism, β€œFighting their Writing”. And for personal reasons, I would add β€œMemories of Wong Siu-kit” by David Hawkes.

What in the end does all this amount to? β€œThe character of the Chinese people is so very complicated,” the novelist Louis Cha is quoted in this volume as saying. β€œTen thousand novels would be insufficient to depict it.” I think we need a similar humility when confronting the Hong Kong character, or Hong Kong literature. There probably isn’t a β€œHong Kong character”, and although this series proves there certainly is a Hong Kong literature, it has no single style, or politics, or demeanour. What this admirable series proves is what we all knew already: Hong Kong is distinctive and resourceful. It is not like anywhere else, and it has always found new ways to respond to new conditions. The series looks back on 170 years, and in doing so obliges the reader to look forward, to the Hong Kong writing that will be required to deal with the conditions of today and tomorrow. In thinking of Hong Kong today, the future may be uncertain, but an elegiac tone is not the only option.

John Minford and his team, and the Chinese University Press, have assembled a rich and valuable miscellany. Translators are usually neglected in reviews, but this collection is from beginning to end a triumph of translation. So let’s hear it for Charlotte Chun-Lam Yiu, Wendy Chan, Jasmine Tong Man, David Morgan, Christina Sanderson, Carol Ong, Annie Ren, Diana Yue, Don Cohn, Jon Solomon, Janice Wickeri, Geremie R. BarmΓ©, Douglas Hui, Martha Cheung, Yang Qinghua, and John Minford himself. Apologies if I’ve left anyone out.

(A version of this review appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong vol. 61, 2021.)

How to cite: Kerr, Douglas. β€œWe Shall Have to Learn How to Live with Ghosts: A Review of John Minford’s Hong Kong Literature Series.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 04 Oct. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/10/04/hong-kong-literature/.

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Douglas Kerr is a former Professor of English and Dean of Arts at Hong Kong University, and Cha contributor. He lived in Hong Kong for some thirty-seven years, half of them in the colony and half in the Special Administrative Region. His new book, Oriental Orwell, will be published next year by Oxford University Press. 

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