Hong Kong, 20 Years After the Handover, Part III: Cantonese Love Stories

In the Czech film Kolya, which tells the story of a cantankerous Czech bachelor forced to care for a young Russian child, a curious exchange takes place between adult and child as they observe the Soviet Union’ flag. Neither can speak the other’s language, surviving only on the linguistic overlap between Czech and Russian. But miscomprehension and simmering tensions abound.

The film is set at the tail end of the Cold War, when the Czech Republic was part of the Russian-dominated Eastern Bloc. Czech nationals would have been taught Russian in schools, but in quiet acts of resistance many deliberately flunked those classes, so literacy in Russian among Czechs was low. This is despite the fact that the two languages share the same roots and enjoy similar grammar and vocabulary. In this particular instance, the child sees a Russian flag and says the Russian word for “red” – which does not mean red in Czech, but rather sounds like the Czech word for “beautiful.” The bachelor misunderstands, and responds with a rather disgruntled speech about domineering and propagandising Russians. The child doesn’t understand.

The magic of Kolya, which was released twenty years ago, comes from the way it shows how geopolitics seeps into even the most innocuous of exchanges and relationships. It also evokes how broader geographical, historical and political contexts play out in bizarre and misplaced ways, zooming in on the buffers these contexts can create between people who might otherwise get along fine.

In Dung Kai-cheung’s recently released book Cantonese Love Stories — part of the Penguin Hong Kong Series — a similar scene plays out in a Mandarin class between a Hong Kong student and her mainland Chinese teacher, neither of whom can understand the other particularly well. The student had been asked what her favourite colour is. She replies with “khaki,” the colour of the trousers she is wearing. Her teacher does not understand, mistaking khaki for the colour cream, irritating the girl. A male student steps in to offer up the Mandarin word for khaki, defusing the situation.

A few passages later, both students — the strong Mandarin speaker and the weak one — exchange words as they walk home from class on a rainy day. Their dialogue feels strained, like there’s an invisible divide between them they cannot scale. One wears khaki, the other cream. “Actually, there’s not much difference between cream and khaki,” says the male student. “Sure there is!” protests the girl. When the course ends, so do their encounters.

You could see this as an extended metaphor for the subtle cultural and philosophical differences between China and Hong Kong – and an example of how, as in Kolya, these broad, abstract concepts can lead to a misalignment in human contact. Dung’s book consists of 25 narrative sketches set in 1990s-era Hong Kong. They explore love that doesn’t come to pass, love that could have been but never was, and love that briefly rears its head only to die moments later. Each story is centred around an object to which the main character has a strong and strange attachment. Most of these objects are imported goods and brands, including Adidas, Air Jordan, Hello Kitty, Gucci and Birkenstock. They find themselves woven into the narratives in peculiar ways.

In one story, a stranger fantasises about a woman he sees everyday wearing an Agnès B. tote bag on the MTR. He is particularly enthusiastic about the curve her spine, which he fixates on along with her bag, and wishes to find an excuse to talk to her. In the closing passage, this woman mistakes the man for her old doctor and strikes up a strange, unsolicited conversation, revealing that the curve in her spine is the mark of a congenital disorder. The vignette ends with her walking away, the Agnès B. bag swinging between them both, representing the invisible divide between reality and fantasy.

In another story, a girl meets a boy who wears a Bathing Ape t-shirt, over time coming to associate his qualities with that of an ape. He grows more brutish, while she continues down what seems to be a very particular personal fantasy of being taken from this world by apes from space – a dream of escaping the terrestrial plane that finds expression in her own suicide. In another story, a character enamoured with his cowboy hat falls in love with the idea of being a hero, a fantasy which diverts his attention away from a girl who appears to have genuine affections for him, while making him look foolish when he is set up on a prank.

One of the common themes that runs throughout the stories is how these objects – and the symbols they represent – mean different things to characters who ascribe different meanings to them, and that these divergences in fantasy serves as the root of the wedge between characters. It’s a concept that can be extended to the idea of Hong Kong – a city that is such a patchwork of influences, dreams, stories and histories that it can be hard to find a common and uniting thread that ties its people together.

Each of these stories explores the love of an object that stands between people; it is a comment how it is often easier to love things and the fantasies they represent than it is to love actual people and their unromantic realities. In Dung’s stories, the characters adore or mythologise these imported objects in ways that is not possible to adore and love the real people in their lives, or even their real environment. The characters rarely seem to enjoy themselves in Hong Kong. The theme of escape — be in running away, disappearing or dying — runs through the book.

But the fact that these characters are unhappy cannot be entirely ascribed to their modern, consumerist existence. Dung’s vignettes are an homage to Cantonese Love Songs, transcribed by former Hong Kong governor Cecil Clementi over a century ago. The songs portray the heartbroken and lovelorn and derive their poetic resonance from stories of love lost. Pain and love seem to be closely intertwined in the Cantonese literary canon, which might well explain why so many characters in Cheung’s work seem drawn to people and situations that cause them regret, disconnection and unhappiness. That objects serve to take on metaphorical roles of their own also speaks to an ancient Chinese tradition of symbolising love with actual objects.

As such, these stories are as much about picking apart the mirages of modern society as they are about uprooting deep-seated beliefs. They look for the kernels of truth and commonality in a sea of private, atomised and cacophonous mythologies. The final story in the book is one of the only ones that isn’t named after a object or international brand. Called “Made in Hong Kong,” it depicts a couple trying to watch a Hong Kong film, but being unable to do so because of a fault in their VCR. A few lines before the end, the boy says despondently to the girl, “There’s nothing real in this world.” It appears to be a rare moment of genuine intimacy between lovers.   

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