[REVIEW] “Permutations of Loss: The Poetics of Tim Tim Cheng” by Sam Cheuk

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Tim Tim Cheng, Tapping at Glass, Verve Poetry Press, 2023. 44 pgs.

History, of course, repeats itself. What was termed โ€œThe Lost Generationโ€ by Gertrude Stein, to describe the unmoored Americans hanging out in Paris finds a certain echo in the reaction of young Hong Kong people (or at least those who had the means) after the passing of the National Security Law in 2020. There are dissimilarities in circumstances though. Those of the Lost Generation hardly felt especially threatened about the sovereignty of their nation. The exodus of Hong Kong youth has more to do with the fear of losing their hometown, or how they would like to remember it, the attendant fear of never being able to return, or not wanting to when the cultural landscape becomes unidentifiable. The directionless, wandering, nostalgic sentiment of something being lost or gone altogether, is central to Tim Tim Chengโ€™s Tapping At Glass.

In November 2019, I spoke to undergraduate students and others inside Polytechnic University of Hong Kong before the policeโ€™s brutal siege.[1] A little context for readers unfamiliar about what happened: early in the week there was a small protest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The student protesters there then went to the aid of students at Polytechnic University upon hearing a bigger police offensive gearing up to contain a potential showdown between students and police. The siege would last twelve days. Students set up fortifications in expectation of a lengthy battle: paving bricks were reshaped into what looked like small temples at the main road entrance into Polytechnic to deter armoured police vans, a stockpile of petrol bombs, bows and arrows. In this war of attrition, the students eventually ran out of material of resistance, food, and were drained of energy from a combination of all the factors mentioned above. Many tried to escape in the last days of the siege; some rappelled from makeshift ropes off a bridge to motorcycles arranged to escort them to safety. But 80 per cent of those who tried were caught and arrested.

When I spoke with Tim Tim Cheng about her memories of witnessing the scenario, she told me the memory still scars her psyche.

What Chengโ€™s debut book reminds me of the most is the spirit of students I spoke with: mainly a playful sarcasm masking an existential sadness. Here is an excerpt from โ€œThe Tattooistโ€:

He used to doodle erections everywhere:
his familyโ€™s house, his schoolโ€™s wall,
his own assignments, my sketchbook
although weโ€™d just met.

This has nothing to do with the protests, but that irreverent humour, I had heard plenty, when chatting to the students at Polytechnic while they were getting ready for a final showdown. The students knew just as well as I did what was coming, but they were braver than me and decided to stay on campus until the bitter end.

While I was trying to preserve the history of 2019 in Postscripts from a City Burning, my book about the protests, simply documenting what I had seen, Cheng is preserving something else: the attitude of a younger generation in their perception and trauma of 2019. I will admit, I am not of her generation, which is more fluent in pop culture within and without Hong Kong, more sexually active, more au fait with drug culture, more politically aware and involved, more pessimistic about Hong Kongโ€™s future. Some of the cultural references were lost on me, but I recognise the wry irreverence for authority, its attempts to dumb down the political situation into a singular narrative as imposed by the CCP, and towards older generations who seemed largely indifferent if not hostile to the younger generationโ€™s reaction.

What I found most impressive about Tapping at Glass was a rebellious taunting and what the reality is like for younger women in Hong Kong versus the more traditional expectations of women of another era, e.g. expectation of marriage, having kids, not speaking up, being obedient, chastity before marriage, and heteronormativity. I donโ€™t know how else to explain it aside from Cheng giving a middle finger to what is expected of the younger generation of women, as if to say โ€œSuck it up, buttercup! We will not be who our mothers were forced to be.โ€ She moves from riotously funny to riotously sad/nostalgic to riotously racy, sometimes within a single poem, line by line. For example, from โ€œFroggos, Froggoneโ€:

Tonight youโ€™re not dried and flat,
blending into the road.
You croak like no oneโ€™s watching,
loud, multipleโ€”

among you, thereโ€™s this ridiculous laughter,
surround sound of abracadabra, abracadabra,
distinct, almost like a mockery
to the itchy fact
that our blood is your foodโ€™s food
by the thick, green soup
of your lotus leaves and children,
some of which will never grow.

The expected consistency in tone, narrative, voice in most western poetry: Cheng defies to blow all of that up, not out of spite for western dicta about how a poem should look, but rather a way to capture Hong Kong vernacular, the way everyday Hong Kong people talk; and in the grander scheme of things, she is trying to preserve a fast disappearing cultural heritage: in the way we talk, how we might express profanity and tenderness in the same sentence, how Cantonese flows and ebbs with English words peppered in between. How coarse comments spoken in bars are actually acts of communicating love. I had a similar impulse myself when writing about Hong Kong, but I did a less impressive job of it than what Cheng has done.

There are two poems in the collection about her grandma, and when I was reading them, the tenderness and heart in the speakerโ€™s voice brought me to tears. Cheng, with her usual sneakiness, jokes around many topics that are clearly important to her, both in the earlier poems in the collection, and then in the grandma poems towards the end.

Lastly, a quick note about the title: Tapping at Glass suggests a certain gentleness, but the front cover shows a shattered glass cup, barely keeping its shape, but not completely broken. The design, by Au Wah Yan, is pretty stunning. My interpretation of this design is that we are almost broken but we are still retaining our shape. Some things can never be taken from us.    

[1] I chickened out, however, before the actual siege, foreseeing what would happen. Not that I could have gone back inside anyhow, since the police had cordoned off access to the universityโ€”I could only watch from a few blocks away.

How to cite: Cheuk, Sam. “Permutations of Loss, The Poetics of Tim Tim Cheng.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Mar. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/03/15/glass.


Sam Cheuk is the author of Love Figures (Insomniac Press, 2011), Deus et Machina (Baseline Press, 2017), and Postscripts from a City Burning (Palimpsest Press, 2021). He holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University and BA in English literature from University of Toronto. He is currently working on the second half of the diptych, tentatively titled Marginalia, which examines the function, execution, and generative potential behind censorship.

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