“Hong Kong is a convergence,” says Dung Kai-cheung, sitting in a small Portuguese restaurant in Sha Tin New Town Plaza. The place is a bit noisy even at 3:30 in the afternoon, and it can be slightly difficult to hear him speak. He has a soft voice, an attentive gaze, and talks carefully, moving his hands only ever so slightly, for emphasis or when he is looking for the most precise word to express his thoughts. And as is his trademark, he wears a straw fedora hat, with an elegant black ribbon, which he doesn’t take off at the table.
Dung is one of Hong Kong’s best-known authors. Reading his work, we know how very observant he is. Objects, used as signifiers for desire or personality, are described with the attentiveness of someone who knows how to look – and also knows what objects can stand in for. The same can be said for the precision with which he describes the subtle changes in emotion that accompany a slightly different way of looking at an interlocutor, or a fleeting pursing of the lips. Sitting with him at a restaurant table means knowing that he is taking stock of the graphics of the menu, of the waiter and the other patrons lingering over their late lunches, but also of the colour of a reporter’s notebook and of her note-taking technique.
For example, when he talks about the many fashionable brands worn by his characters—particularly relevant in works like Cantonese Love Stories, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson—he does so with great precision. The book came out in 2017 when Penguin Books published a series of small volumes to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Cantonese Love Stories was among them, a translation of 25 of the 99 short-stories that appear in Dung’s collection The Catalog: A Record of Dreams of Splendour. (A full translation of the book is forthcoming, in 2022, with Columbia University Press, also translated by McDougall and Hansson.) The brief short stories, originally written in 1998 and 1999, are a couple of thousand words each. They are all based on encounters between people, with mostly young women as their protagonists, and have titles like “Agnes b.,” “Prada,” “Air Jordan” – and also “Aprons,” “Photo Stickers,” and “Pasteis de Nata” (the Portuguese egg tart so beloved in both Hong Kong and Macao).
Objects are one of the great motifs in Dung’s work. Take this short piece as an example of the role objects can play in Dung’s fiction, from the story “Prada”:
Suki remembered very clearly spending three thousand dollars on her Prada briefcase. At noon that day, Nelson had been waiting for her downstairs at her office building, and they went to a nearby cafeteria for a sandwich. Amid the crowd of people having lunch, he suggested they separate. Suki remained unexpectedly calm, holding her sandwich in both hands and taking bites out of it as breadcrumbs scattered over the table. After work the same day, Suki went for a stroll in the same shopping mall the cafeteria was in, circling the mall again and again until almost all the shops had closed. Then, for no particular reason, she bought the Prada briefcase.
As Suki comes to terms with life without Nelson, she also has to start pretending that her bag is, in fact, a knock-off version that she bought in Shenzhen, the mainland border city that was once a popular destination for fake designer products. Her friends, family and acquaintances are starting to judge her too much through the latest object that has entered her life, while she is instead busy in navigating the uncertainties of singledom.
Dung attributes his fascination with objects to his father, who was a skilled metalworker. “He would make sewing machine parts, in the 60s and 70s, when garment manufacturing was so important to the Hong Kong economy,” he says. “I was very impressed by his skill as a young kid, and even if I am not good at handcrafts, I like to observe artisans, and I obviously like to write about objects.”
Born in 1967 in Hong Kong, Dung grew up in Mongkok and studied literature at the University of Hong Kong. He has lived here all his life, and has no plans of leaving Hong Kong – a city which, through his writing, is a poetic mix of materiality and dreams, very concrete yet animated objects that interplay with the personalities of their owners, and a world in which all the different layers of Hong Kong, historical and imaginary, human and architectural, merge into a dreamscape that has endless points of contacts with the city around us. “Objects are not something lifeless, unrelated to human beings. Tools, in particular, are an extension of us,” he says, lifting up the knife and fork with which he is tackling an omelette. “Objects are parts of us. From this follows that they also must have some animated level to them.”
The gesture is a reminder of one of Dung’s latest novels to have appeared in English, The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera, translated by Yau Wai-ping, which came out in 2018. It is a complex yet very readable book. Taking place in the imaginary City of V, it is written in three different registers reflecting where human protagonists from a recent past, a stand-in for the author himself, and imaginary characters endowed with tools as body parts – including a student with pens instead of fingers and a girl who has roller-skates instead of feet. If this reminds you of Tim Burton’s film Edward Scissorshands, it is not a coincidence: in the book itself, the characters, with their lipstick hands and rollerskate feet, go to watch that very movie, and love it.
The City of V, or City of Victoria, is in reference to the first name of the settlement developed on the north side of Hong Kong Island by the British. It returns in many of Dung’s works, particularly in a quadrilogy of the City of V that includes Atlas, Catalog/Cantonese Love Stories, Visible Cities/Record of Numerous Victories, and Unnatural Recollections/Natural Sciences Annals. All four works feature a title in both English and Chinese, but so far, only two of the books have been translated into English: Cantonese Love Stories and Atlas, The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, whose main character is Hong Kong itself. Written just before the handover and translated in 2012 by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson, it is an imaginary history of Hong Kong recreated through old maps and the city’s topography. It pays an obvious tribute to the work of Italo Calvino and his Invisible Cities (this dialogue with Calvino is further echoed in Visible Cities/Record of Numerous Victories, the third volume of the quadrilogy).
So far, nothing else has been translated, which leaves Dung’s English readers badly served. He is a very prolific writer, with more than 30 books to his name: novels, collections of short stories and essays. But at least English language readers are lucky that the translated works are well representative of Dung’s sensitivity and scope as a writer. Materiality, Hong Kong, history, the way in which the city allows disparate elements to blend into each other, and the dreamy qualities that all this has in Dung’s work are particularly well represented in the small selection available in English.
As the conversation moves from his work to Hong Kong and back again, Dung repeats what he said earlier: “Hong Kong is a convergence.” It’s a theme that is important to him, especially in these particularly volatile years. His writing is also a convergence of all the different influences that have shaped him. Asking him about his influences sees him pay immediate homage to Xi Xi, for her playfulness and the joyous creativity with which she lets all objects become animated at will, and characters that turn into objects if her narratives need them to. “Her idea of using the city, Hong Kong, as the main character, has been very important for me, but also the way in which objects can be used as representation,” he says. Then he acknowledges a strong influence from Leung Ping-kwan, especially in his early days as a writer. “Not just for the style, but especially his themes, and in particular his great concern for Hong Kong culture,” he says. “And Liu Yichang, of course”, he adds, praising how liberating his stylistic freedom has been for so many.
Indeed, given the importance of materiality to his writing, it is interesting that Dung, as well as other prominent Hong Kong writers, should indulge so much in surrealism and dreamscapes. “I think the common ground for many Hong Kong writers is a desire to counterbalance the strong work-oriented attitude in the city, by not reproducing reality through a passive act of description, but an active one, of imagination,” he says. “We act against that, by producing the opposite of reality. But I think younger writers are less interested in that. Realism is making a comeback in Hong Kong literature. I think they find us too playful, too light, given the current changes.”
This once again places Hong Kong literature at the crossroads of many other influences and inspirations. This partially recalls the classical Chinese works of half-realistic and half-fantastic descriptions, like many gazetteers used to do through the imperial era. But the dream-like quality of so much of Dung’s writing—and the imaginary urban landscapes and architectures that merge into more recognizable vistas—form a perfect continuum with the above cited Calvino and also with the work of Jorge Louis Borges. But we can detect many other influences as well, like Umberto Eco, openly referenced in one of Dung’s novels, The Rose of the Name (名字的玫瑰). But there are elements from a myriad other influences, from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi all the way to Marcel Proust and his excruciating sense of nostalgia, and the passion for interpreting dreams of Carl Jung. “Now I am enjoying reading some classics,” says Dung. “I like Goethe very much, and I am trying to read the whole Divine Comedy,” he says, referring to the seminal work by 14th century Italian poet, writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri.
The hybrid nature of Dung’s inspirations is mixed with the fact that he is also well known for mixing standard modern Chinese with Cantonese. “Most of my dialogue is in Cantonese, maybe because this sounds a lot more natural to me,” he says. “The rest of my writing is in standard modern Chinese.” He is adamant this mix is true to Hong Kong’s character. “We cannot go too far into localism and forget everything else that has made Hong Kong – the international influences and the Chinese influences,” he says. “My idea of Hong Kong is not inward-looking, it is outward-stretching. This is why Hong Kong is unique: because it is a combination of all the factors, a city that nearly didn’t exist, and was brought into existence in the middle of the 19th century. Before 1842 there was no such place, even if we are a product of Chinese history and Western history.”
In language, history, or literature, Dung’s cosmography of Hong Kong always returns to its being a convergence – a place of openness and encounters, capable of creating something always new out of its disparate parts.