How do you stay connected to Hong Kong when you’ve been away for more than 40 years? Daphne Chan Chung-hing doesn’t seem to have a problem. Though she has been based in Paris since 1973, she still writes literary columns for a number of Chinese-language magazines, including Ming Pao Monthly and the Hong Kong Literature Monthly, under the nom de plume Green Rider (綠騎士), a reference to the 14th century Arthurian poem. In 2012, she published her first book of French poetry, Chants de thé, a collection of works that draw from the contemplative moment offered by a cup of tea.
Chung-hing, as she prefers to be called, was recently in Hong Kong to attend a conference of Chinese-language travel writers, and she used the opportunity to visit her friends, travel to see family in Guangzhou and deliver a reading at Parenthèses, Hong Kong’s venerable French-language bookstore.
It seems only natural to meet her at the Lock Cha Teahouse in Hong Kong Park, where she arrived with her husband, Jacques Gosselin. (“À Jacques, ma tasse de thé,” reads the dedication in her book – “To Jacques, my cup of tea.”) Jacques orders a cup of lapsang souchong; Chung-hing a cup of Fujian green tea. “You have to smell it first,” she says, raising the cup to her nose before taking a sip.
It’s a holiday weekend and the tearoom is full of boisterous friends and family. “I find Hong Kong very dynamic,” says Chung-hing. “It keeps people young. It’s a very good carrefour – how do you say it in English? Meeting point.” She speaks English with a slight French accent and French with a slight Cantonese accent.
Chung-hing grew up in a Hong Kong that was very different to the city she sees today. “It was much more intimate,” she says. Born in 1947, Chung-hing grew up with five siblings in a four-storey building on High Street in Sai Ying Pun. Every morning the calls of hawkers would echo down the street. “They cried out loudly what they were selling,” she says. Her friends all lived on the same street.
Chung-hing describes her family as “very traditional Buddhist,” though perhaps not so traditional as to have qualms about sending their daughter to St. Stephen’s Girls’ College, a prestigious Anglican school on Lyttelton Road. “At school it was Anglican, at home Buddhist. It opens your mind,” she says. Chung-hing liked to draw, so she would carry her sketchbook with her and draw street scenes and portraits of her family. “It all began very naturally.”
When she finished school, Chung-hing decided to study literature at the University of Hong Kong. Her family was happy with the choice. “Literature was something that could lead to a good job at that time,” she says. She is pausing to reflect for a moment. “Maybe not today.”
When Chung-hing graduated in 1969, she found a job as a translator in a factory, and later worked with the Hong Kong Productivity Council, where she translated material from English into Chinese. But she wasn’t happy with working life. She thought back to her days of drawing and decided to save up money to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She moved there in 1973. This time, her family wasn’t happy. “They were quite astonished and disappointed,” she recalls. University of Hong Kong graduates were meant to be successful. “But I just wanted to learn painting.”
She fell in love with Paris almost as soon as she arrived. Her friends introduced her to the art circle. “It was just as Hemingway said – in English it was A Movable Feast, but in French it was translated as Paris est une fête” – Paris is a celebration. When she met Jacques, she decided to stay in Paris. “I met him on the train between London and Paris,” she says, with a soft laugh. “I was going to London to buy Chinese food. There wasn’t much in Paris at the time.” The couple have two adult daughters, one a teacher, the other a musician.
Chung-hing’s writing is rooted in observation. “I’m interested in the people around me,” she says. Her parents often played host to friends and family escaping conflict in China, which left a strong impression on her. “As a young child, their stories impressed me – I felt how life is not always amusing, there is always a dark side of things.” By contrast, her paintings are light and whimsical evocations of nature. “It’s relaxation for me,” she says. “Writing is hard work but painting is easier.”
Writing seems to have become even harder lately: Chung-hing says the literary circle in Hong Kong seems to be growing smaller with every passing year. “It feels like there is less interest now than in the 1970s,” she says. “If you tell someone you are a painter or a poet and they are not in an intellectual circle, people will say, ‘How do you live?’” And yet, “there are still people using their own money to publish literary magazines. It’s remarkable.”
Chung-hing is still following her own passions. A few years ago, she began working on some new poems. “Somehow they came out in French,” she says. That led to Chants de thé, which blends poetry with painting, something she wants to continue into the future. (She also wrote an English version of the collection, Odes to Tea.) In poems whose rhythm evokes the languorous flow of steam from a teapot, she explores the ebb and flow of human connection. In “Le Pu-Er de mon enfance,” she looks back at her childhood and reflects on how her brothers and sisters have dispersed around the globe, like so many migrant Hong Kong families.
But why tea? Chung-hing says she was inspired by a Cambodian friend who told her how the small ritual of preparing tea was a refuge from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. “It’s the peace and simplicity of tea,” she says. “At home, you open the door and there is tea ready. When friends come along, you serve tea. It’s part of our culture. Tea is a way of living.”