Writer and editor Tammy Ho: "Hong Kong is always on my mind, wherever I go."

Mornings were the most peaceful time of day in Hong Kong during my assignment to cover the international writers festival in March. Low pale smog cooled the air and gave the island a calm, quiet mood of thoughtful repose.

One morning I walked from my hotel up high in the Mid Levels district, in a lofty Catholic enclave – a sign in the lobby advised, “Lent is the time of saying no to the spiritual asphyxia of the pollution caused by indifference” – to a grand Edwardian pile, a nearby museum devoted to Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the republic of China, a good and heroic man who desperately wanted to drag China out of feudalism into the civilised world. He formed his revolutionary ideas in Hong Kong in the 1880s.

I had the museum to myself – I often had the feeling I was the only tourist in Hong Kong that week – and as I wandered around that deserted tomb I reflected that even in the late 19th Century, Hong Kong was a centre of intellectual thought. Strange that no one sells Hong Kong for its thinking, its art, its literature; the central narrative is always about money, the amazing post-war economic miracle, the property boom, the evening illuminations of skyscrapers at the water’s edge of Victoria Harbour, the mansions that you can see taking up whole hillsides when you look out from the island’s summit at The Peak.

It’s as though Hong Kong is only ever thought of as a kind of Dubai or Qatar of Asia – wealth, power, lurid architecture. It’s a nonsense. “The idea of Hong Kongers as purely economic actors,” as Louisa Lim writes in her book Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, “has never been true”. She means its wider, intense interest in politics, national identity, personal freedoms – one of the themes of her book is the search for Hong Kongness, the special character of the people of Hong Kong. You can stretch the bow a little bit and see the intellectual salon of Sun Yat-sen and his cohort as an example of Hong Kongness – deep thinking, radical thinking, independent thinking.

But even these categories are a kind of narrowing. What about its writers? “Hong Kong literature is more than just a political voice,” said writer and editor Louise Law, who I met for an interview among the coffee fetishists at Knockbox café in Central. She talked of Hong Kong’s long history of poetry and fiction, tracing its earliest literary magazine to 1907, and the later influence of writers and intellectuals who came to Hong Kong as exiles from China. None of them were writing in English; a vast body of Hong Kong literature in Chinese gradually took shape in the 1930s. The majority of Hong Kong literature remains Chinese people writing in Chinese. I had a look at two public libraries in Hong Kong, one among the beautiful people on Stanley St in Central, on a floor above the offices of the ominous sounding and severely capitalised HAWKER CONTROL TASK FORCE, and another library in working-class Mong Kok in Kowloon, where laundry hung out of countless highrise windows. Both libraries had similar characteristics. English books occupied only a few rows and the selection was quite eccentric – studies of Wordsworth next to the collected works of Dean Koontz, the complete Nabokov next to Reader’s Digest. It was like wandering around a second-hand bookstore.

Seditious postcards, bought in Kowloon

Just as most New Zealand literature is only of interest to New Zealanders, Hong Kong writing exists on a small, insular scale, distanced further by a language barrier. Louise Law brought along a translation of one of the most famous of all Hong Kong novels to our interview, the amazing My City, by the revered Ellen Cheung, who wrote under the pen name of Xi Xi, and who died late last year. It’s quite possibly a masterpiece, a very playful Hong Kong take on magic realism. It’s also one of the few Hong Kong novels to be translated – and one of the few to gain attention outside of Hong Kong, even in Chinese. Cheung became the first Hong Kong writer to win the prestigious Newman Prize for Chinese literature. She was nominated by writer and co-editor of the superb literary journal Cha, Tammy Ho, who said, “Hong Kong literature has for too long been relegated to a secondary position, or even worse — it is as though the city is incapable of producing significant literary works and writers of note.”

I interviewed Ho by email. Like Louise Law, she was keen to emphasise that Hong Kong writing is “more than just a political voice”; but like her, too, she often framed Hong Kong literature in the political context of what it’s like to write in a traumatising regime. In fairness, the questions carried out a lot of the framing. I asked Ho, “Is there a sense of Hong Kong writing working in a system which limits and even prevents freedom of expression?”

She replied, “Freedom to write in Hong Kong is very much constrained now; many writers might shy away from certain sensitive subjects, that is, subjects that might be considered by the authorities to be inappropriate. It is also rather risky to criticise aspects of the government or to criticise officials. Of course, not all writers are interested or invested in touching on politics in their work, but those who do have to be more creative in articulating what they want to say, given the potential repercussions.”

In 2019, she conducted a fascinating interview with Singapore writer Grace Chia, asking her, “If the city could answer your questions, what would you ask it? Also let’s consider the reverse. What would your city ask you?” They were great questions to ask of a writer from an island city in Asia; how would Ho, as a Hong Kong writer, answer them?

She said, “If Hong Kong could answer my questions, I would ask how it feels about so many of its people leaving the city, often with profound sadness and apprehension; if it thinks the city is forever changed after the events of recent years; if a day might come when it becomes a city of readers who appreciate the power of words rather than being afraid of using them, and how it envisions its own future.

“If Hong Kong could ask me questions, it might ask why Hong Kong is always on my mind, wherever I go. Everywhere I see traces of Hong Kong: in film, art, news articles, and even when I don’t, I actively seek out images of the city.” Ho is currently in Paris and is set to join a writers’ residency at Iowa in August.

An exodus of writers and intellectuals poured into Hong Kong from China during the 1927-49 Chinese civil war, and in the most severe years of Mao’s rule. That exile is now pointed elsewhere, with writers and intellectuals pouring out of Hong Kong. In January, Hong Kong police charged three Mong Kok booksellers with “conspiracy to do an act or acts with seditious intent” for producing and selling a book about the 2019 protests. The raid also included the confiscation of 43 books.

“There’s a feeling of oppression now in Hong Kong,” said Louise Law. “Some authors choose to go to Taiwan. Some choose to stay. There’s a split, I guess. The ones who stay may use obscure metaphors for states of depression, and frustration. They’re trying to find new ways of getting things done.”

For the most part she meant writers writing in Chinese: “People who use English to write about Hong Kong are separate from those who write about it in Chinese.” The Hong Kong international writers festival in March was acutely aware of the Sinophile/Anglophone divide. Its operations manager Maureen Tai said, “I wanted to cater to the two main language groups: English and Cantonese. For this reason, I felt it was important to feature Hong Kong writers such as Dung Kai Cheung and Wong Yi, local poets such as Yam Gong and Florence Ng, as well as to pay tribute to Xi Xi, one of the most revered writers in Hong Kong who passed away recently.”

I attended a festival event featuring novelist Dung Kai Cheung. Only one of his books has been translated into English, the brilliantly titled A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of; a copy wasn’t available at his event. Louisa Lim writes about another of his novels in her book Indelible City: “Published in Chinese in the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty [1997], Dung’s extraordinary book Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, is part fact, part imagination. As Dung writes, ‘There are enough fictitious Hong Kongs circulating around the world. It doesn’t matter so much how real or false these fictions are but how they are made up.’”

I spoke with the author after his event. He was a very cool-looking fellow who wore a wide-brimmed hat. He picked up on his theme of “fictitious Hong Kongs”, and said, “The way life really is in Hong Kong now is in a fictitious manner.” Hong Kong has always been made up by its masters – Britain and China twist it into whatever shapes that serves their sovereign purpose. “The general mood is the desire to be free, and unique, and have your own destiny … The mood is bad. But I choose to write in an indirect way about it.”

Hong Kong authors Dung Kai Cheung and Wong Yi at the international writers festival in March.

Tammy Ho named Dung as among the most interesting and dynamic contemporary Hong Kong authors, alongside Chinese writers Dorothy Tse and Hon Lai Chu. I asked her whether she could define Hong Kong literature, and she said, “For me, Hong Kong literature is literature that is written by self-identified Hong Kong writers or work that centres on the city.” As Dung said when I interviewed him at the Fringe Club in Lower Albert St, “The idea of a city is always there in our writing. We’re all conscious of how to portray this city … This sense of belonging to the city is very important. It’s where we have our own unique culture, which will last.”

More than just about politics, more than just about money…In 2021, Louise Law was interviewed about Hong Kong writing in the World Without Borders site. She was asked, “If there was one thing you would like people to know about Hong Kong literature, what would it be?” She answered, “I want people to know Hong Kong literature’s ‘rawness.’ It is like a gnawing fox hidden in the woods. It may seem to be in a weak position, but power resides within it. And you must watch out.”

A gnawing fox! I reminded her about that metaphor when we met in Central, and asked if the fox was wild or tame.

“It’s energetic and anxious,” she said. “Hong Kong people are generally very anxious – the pace of living, the speed, the crazy money, the materialistic lives. But I think good writing is going to come out of Hong Kong. It’s not just a city about money. It’s a city with ideals. Right now we are still reflecting on what we are pursuing, and I think that will bring new depth to Hong Kong literature.”

Steve Braunias travelled to Hong Kong with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Today’s report concludes his week-long series on Hong Kong writing, following Monday’s overview of the festival (includes poisonous snakes), Tuesday’s portrait of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, and yesterday’s appreciation of the strange literary genius of Han Suyin.

Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong by Louisa Lim (Text, $37) is available in bookstores nationwide. She will appear the upcoming Auckland Writers Festival in an event chaired by Newsroom supremo Sam Sachdeva. His own book The China Tightrope: Navigating New Zealand’s relationship with a world superpower is published by Allen & Unwin on May 23.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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